Trapped in Cafayate for one Month

Trip Start Aug 26, 2005
Trip End May 26, 2008

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Flag of Argentina  , Salta,
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

In an attempt to hitch South, from Salta to Mendoza, I ended up right back in Cafayate. Its not such a bad thing, and to be honest, it couldn't have worked out any better. I have been filled with Vino, stuffed with Asados and the fiestas have been something else. I'm also working in the Hostel here so I don't pay a cent for any of the above mentioned benefits.

I left the blasting heat of Salta at midday with a Spanish girl called Itsaso. She is actually from the Basque Country and took great offence at being labeled 'Spanish’. The two of us got along well and were keen on trying an alternative means of travel, avoiding the buses at all costs. We intended to hitch South, towards Mendoza and set about asking the locals exactly how to go about it. After being given the most conflicting directions on the best place to wait for a ride, and doing a circuit around town with my 22.4 kg backpack (I know this because we weighed ourselves in a pharmacy before we left) we found a perfect place to wait.

With polished thumbs we stood under the shade of a tree in the hitch hike position and waited. Luck was on our side and within five minutes we were squeezed into a car with a local family heading South, however only 20km South. We needed to go 170km to get to Cafayate.

After a few minutes of driving we found ourselves, once again stranded in a tiny town with arms outstretched and polished thumbs in the air.

Ten minutes passed and not a solitary car came by. We started to loose hope, but then we were presented with French tourists, with a spare backseat. The French are good for something after all. The French couple turned out to be a hell of a laugh and we sang our way the 150 odd kilometres towards Cafayate becoming great friends with the French couple.

We stopped at the amazing Quebradas (canyons) outside Cafayate. Over the years, rivers descending from the Andes have carved deep canyons through the soft sedimentary red rock, creating extraordinary formations. We spent time climbing into the Gargantua Del Diablo (Devil's Throat) where we experienced dizzying sensations due to the illusions of perspective, then checked out the nearby natural Amphitheater, where a local was playing a flute, which sounded absolutely sensational. I bought a CD off him which we played in the car as we continued toward Cafayate. A short ride from the Canyons are the Bodegas de Cafayate. Vineyards, lots of Vineyards, its what Cafayate is famous for and we began what would turn out to be a very drunken afternoon.

The Cafayate area with its hot, dry sunny climate is famous for its "Torrentes" white wine, which we found is best enjoyed chilled and accompanied with goats cheese, while sitting in the shade with a bunch of amigos admiring the surrounding mountains.

The first Bodega we visited was named ´Etchart´, the regions biggest, which was established around 1850 and produces 16 varieties of wine, mostly red. We tasted 6 types and it wasn’t long before we were very drunk and left with a bottle of one of the best reds I have ever tasted, a Malbec.

Next stop on the great French wine tour was ´Finca Las Nubes´ (Farm in the Clouds), a tiny Bodega with 4 types of wine, the best being the Rosado which we found ourselves drinking under a tree and watching the sun set over the mountains. It became cool very quickly but we continued to stay warm with more wine. Falling off our chairs and breaking into song we headed for the next vineyard, only a few k`s away called ´Domingo Brothers´. Here we had yet another tasting of wine and goats cheese and the French decided it was time to go home. We left with a burnout and somehow made it to the hostel alive.

The next day we hired bikes and re-visited the Bodegas. This time armed with bread, ham and goats cheese. We weren’t to be messed with and managed to visit 8 of the 9 Bodegas in Cafayate, absolutely struggling with the bikes in a haze of drunkenness and blistering heat.

After our wine tasting, we returned to the hostel to find they were putting on an Asado. Argentineans love Asados and this one had many kilos of meat and 20 people from 6 different countries. With lots of singing and of course lots of local Vino. A group of local musicians visited and performed a few songs for our select group, one of them being the flute player whose CD I had bought the day before. The action started when myself and another Aussie called Dave from Tassie, decided we could do one better. With me on flute and guitar and Dave on harmonica and the shakers, we performed a piece like no other. Stunning all around us, we busted out three songs and finished with the Aussie anthem to an explosion of applause. Which I must admit was applause of relief rather than appreciation of our musical talent. After the wine and meat had been consumed by a hungry and thirsty group we headed for the plaza.

The plaza of Cafayate is the central meeting point of the town. It is absolutely spectacular with a monument of some old dude in the centre and loads of tall trees and green grass, perfect for chilling out after the hot dry days. When the sun sets, it becomes bearable enough to venture outside and the plaza, normally deserted during the day comes to life. A pack of donkeys kept us entertained as they grazed the fresh green grass and we sat and chatted about life and travel and admired the lovely town of Cafayate.

The next day involved another biking adventure. This time to a tiny village 25km away called San Carlos. Itsaso left before me as I struggled to get out of bed after the late night in the plaza with the donkeys. I caught up and met the struggling Spanish girl layered in sweat pumping her little legs towards San Carlos. We eventually made it and collapsed in a spectacular plaza. After a nap we ate some of the best empanadas I have had so far washed down with a few tasty beers and absolutely struggled to make the 25 km home trip.

After a few days in the ‘los amigos’ Cafayate hostel, I was asked if I wanted to work for them, with my payment being a free bed, and all the food and wine I could drink. I couldn’t believe it and jumped at the opportunity. My job could be one of three each day, and between myself and the two brothers that ran the hostel, we switched between the three tours every day.

Tour 1: Vino y Queso - Wine and Cheese. Each day at 11am, we offered a free tour to 5 vinyards and a goat cheese factory. I piled the average of 10 backpackers into a minivan and drove them around for a few hours. Tasting lots of wine and eating goats cheese.

Tour 2: Los Quebradas – The Canyons. In the afternoon, we offered a $20 tour to the Quebradas. Once again, around 10 people signed up each day and one of us would drive them to the famous formations outside the town and explore the area.

Tour 3: Los Siete Cascadas - The Seven Waterfalls. I would pile the backpackers into a jeep and drive about 5km down a bumpy dirt trail to a river. We would hike upstream , past 7 waterfalls to a big swimming hole at the top and jump off a cliff into a deep pool.

Before I knew it, I was a local in this amazing little town. The days were flying by and I began looking after all the local homeless dogs and made friends with all the locals.

The story of the Silly English Girl (SEG)

It was December 10th and a Silly English Girl (SEG) turned up at the hostel. She asked if it was possible to do an overnight camp in the Canyons.

We said sure and told her to come on down. Only problem is that she didn't speak a word of Spanish. Not a word, and the only guide they had that knew the canyons was one who couldn't speak a word of English. The combination of the two lead to a serious problem. This is where I come in. I was asked to go along to provide terrible translation and give her someone to talk to. Why not? A free trek, free food, brilliant location, a native guide, it could be an adventure, and no doubt the Silly English Girl would prove to be entertaining.

I spent a day helping the hostel prepare the gear and was introduced to the guide who would be taking us into the desert and through the canyons. His name was Gato, a 20 year old local Indian. While he did speak good enough Spanish, it was not his native language. He spoke Quechua. Quechua is the native language of the Inca.

We were ready to go and SEG, Gato and myself were given a lift to an obscure little entrance to the canyons. Gato said this was where we would be starting the hike. It was a hot dry day like usual and we began our hike, marching through the dry desert sand, past the famous red rocks and up, down and around the confusing canyons. We walked for 2 hours before Gato stopped and said ¨Murray, there's a problem¨ I asked what type of problem and he says ¨this is the wrong way, we have to go back¨.

I had to tell the Silly English Girl that we had walked 2 hours in the wrong direction and now have to walk all the way back to the road where we started, then walk along the road for an hour before turning into the Canyons and taking the correct route.

This didn't go down too well. S.E.G kicked up an absolute stink, calling the guide all kinds of names, which I translated with an added spice. Gato responded with just as much abuse, some of the words would have sent the Silly English Girl into spasms so I translated again, and fired the two up, toning down his words and exaggerating hers.

She refused to accept that we had walked two hours in the wrong direction and continued climbing this cliff. With the guide screaming at her from the bottom in Spanish and me having a hilarious time, sitting on a rock, indifferent, trying to translate everything back and forth between the two. S.E.G eventually gave in after around thirty minutes of entertainment for me and she stormed off in a huff, back the way we had come, following her footsteps. Silence finally hit Gato and I for two hours, much to our relief.

Arriving at the road, we turned right along the tarmac and followed it for an hour before finding the right route for the hike and headed back into the canyons, this time on the correct path.

The sun was setting as we arrived at our campsite and the temperature was dropping. We were around 2000m high, so the temperature difference between night and day was exaggerated by the altitude. An almost full moon rose into the sky and gave us light to collect firewood and make a brilliant hot fire.

After the initial problems of the day, S.E.G began to lighten up and the night turned out OK, with a spectacular setting in a canyon, a roaring fire with loads of vino and of course, Argentinean steak. Over the next few hours we all bonded, with me doing all the translating. The light flickered off the canyon walls bringing them to life with amazing dancing colours all over the place.

Gato had more than his ration of wine and became quiet intoxicated. We asked him to share some stories of life in Cafayate. He came up with 3, which all involved him getting drunk and lost and cold and sleeping in caves in the mountains. The stories didn’t leave us with much confidence in his abilities as he was in the exact state right now as he was describing himself as being in his stories.

I translated and added a bit of flare such as ´...and then there was a puma in the cave, so before they could take refuge from the snow outside they had to scare it off´. S.E.G was bedazzled and asked for more. The stories that followed from Gato again involved more vino and him getting lost in the mountains. It was pretty funny and quiet lame but with some added adventure and narration by me, it proved to be a hilarious night as I was chuckling the whole way and, neither party had any idea what the other was saying. I got away with loads of mischief.

After Gato had polished off all of our wine, we retired to bed. With Gato and myself in one tent and S.E.G in her own private one, as was her request. We had been asleep for almost and hour when I was woken from a dream by a horrible scream from S.E.G. Gato and I jumped up, and ran out, expecting to find a puma or some kind of giant mountain animal or something like that in her tent, mauling her arm off. She was bailed up in the corner with her light shining on a huge moth sitting on her shoe. To her credit, it was the biggest moth I have ever seen. However the volume of the scream did in no way warrant the moth. I asked if that was all and she said of course, look at the size of it. I ran for my camera and after a few photos we helped SEG back into bed and took the friendly moth outside to flutter away into the moonlight.

The night was peaceful after that and morning came all too quickly. We started the day with maté, and toast made on the still hot fire and packed up the camp. We hiked for 5 hours through some amazing canyons and along a river. Gato told us stories of Incan gold being lost in the area and the search to find it continues to this day. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, bright red sand, lined by tall canyons, it was a maze in there. If we lost Gato, we would have no chance of ever making it out. Fortunately his stories from the previous night did not come true and while he was obviously hungover from drinking all our wine, he did prove to be a very resourceful guide. Unfortunately it was over all too quick and the road appeared on the horizon. S.E.G asked if we had a mobile phone to call for a lift home. Gato laughed and said of course not. We will be hitching home. She wasn’t overly pleased with this idea but it was either that, or perish in the desert. A ride came along soon enough and we returned to the hostel.

Gato and I were glad to be rid of S.E.G and told the entire hostel of her antics. We were gathered over the fire back at the hostel that night when she turned up with a bottle of wine for each of us and apologized for her silly behavior.

Day of the Virgin

Two days after returning from the Canyons, it was time for another adventure - A huge hike into the mountains for a religious event that happens once a year. The event is called ´dia de la virgin´ - Day of the Virgin. Every year, on the 15th December, a date that also happens to be my birthday, around 200 people hike to a small ´village´ (a collection of 10 or so mud huts) located at an altitude of 3400 metres way up in the Andes.

The town of Cafayate is around 1200 metres above sea level, so the village at 3400 was going to be a huge hike. I joined six locals, including Gato, and at 3pm, they decided they were drunk enough and loaded with enough wine to set off up the hill. Personally, I would have left at 6am, but the locals here don’t really run on logic. They spent the whole day looking for wine to take with us and getting drunk.

After a few hours we had climbed fairly high and had a great view of Cafayate below, but we still had hours of hiking to go. It was getting late and the sun had set. It was getting cold and at around 7pm it started raining, and it didn't stop! We took shelter under a tree and passed around some whiskey to keep warm. Even that didn’t do the trick and we were all absolutely soaked and at that altitude, it was bloody freezing.

I asked if we should go home, and they looked at me like I was crazy. Apparently there would be no turning back. We had to continue, so through the rain, we hiked up and up. It was dark and the path was full of loose rocks. We were getting soaked in cold rain and covered mud as we clambered over rocks and slipped on the muddy path. Then, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, it started to hail. We were very high and there were no trees to shelter from the pelting from above. It stung my arms and bashed my hands that were protecting my head. We trekked for another hour as the hail continued, but when it got too big, we found a boulder and took shelter. The hail was bashing down around us and a it hit the rocks, it was being pulverized and we were getting shot by fragments of ice. The hail lightened up and we continued the trek up the mountain. Then the lightning started. Wow, that was something else. Along the route up the hill I noticed rocks with big craters in the tops. I asked the locals what the story was and they told me that they had been struck by lightning and blasted apart. Great. Just what I wanted to hear. We moved away from the rocks after that as the lightning crashed down around us. I was actually quiet terrified by this as there was nothing to hide under and the lightning was smashing into rocks and trees all around us.

I couldn’t take any more. After the previous day in the desert with the S.E.G, I was exhausted and now it was getting ridiculously late and I was cold and wet and covered in mud, exhausted and had just been attacked by hail and lightning and when I was told that we had another hour or two to go, I started to loose the plot and carry on like S.E.G. ‘Why did we leave at 3pm if we had a 10 hour hike ahead of us?’ I asked. They didn’t take it into consideration. I was absolutely freezing and exhausted and terrified of the lightning and hail. There was no turning back now, as tempting as it was just to go back down and give up, the guys were determined to push on. I called them fools for leaving so late and for spending the afternoon getting drunk and searching for vino. We should have been there by now.

The lightning eased and much to my relief it slowly moved towards the horizon. The rain however kept belting down. Battling through the rain and darkness, and now mud slides, we lost our way several times and had to backtrack. Eventually we came to the peak of one of these rolling hills and saw, on the next hill, candlelight. It was such a relief, and we picked up the pace, through the mud and rain, with squelching boots, soaked to the bone. We made it to the house and, while the others had become completely drunk on their endless supply of red wine, I was sober and absolutely freezing. I collapsed near the doorway and begged for warmth. But the house was made of mud. It had a grass roof which was leaking everywhere. The house was literally being eaten by the rain. There was no way I was going to dry off and warm-up tonight. The clothes in my bag were soaked, I was covered in mud and was shivering uncontrollably. I stripped down and borrowed some clothes from the locals.

While I went through my soaked bag looking for more warmth, I was brought some soup and tea and then given blankets and taken to another mud house about 500m up the other side of the mountain to sleep. I explained that I couldn’t do it anymore, I was over walking. They told me it was dry and a little warmer. Sleep was absolutely impossible through the cold and wetness. The new mud hut was dry enough, but my sleeping bag was soaked and most of my clothes were damp. I was given sheep skins and cow hides to sleep on. I sat up all night, hugging my knees to my chest and rocking, trying to warm up. Somehow the locals seemed to find deep sleep, induced by their wine supply. I couldn’t understand, but then again, they are generations of mountain people. This must be normal to them, but for me, sleeping wet and cold is not an option. It was the longest night of my life and I actually thought I would die of hypothermia. I counted down every minute as I vigorously rubbed myself to try to warm-up. I attempted to run around the room and do pushups but I had no energy left after the huge hike and shivered so hard that my joints began to hurt from the vibrations. I was in this little hut with about 10 locals scattered over the floor, snoring and farting their way through the night.

It turned out that the night wouldn’t last for an eternity and somehow I survived to see the light of day. Much to my relief, the mist cleared and a warm sun hit my blue, goose bump covered skin. It took me most of the day to stop shivering, but my lips remained blue for a long time after that.

Once I had warmed slightly, I was able to see the beauty in where I was. Condors filled the sky and I had a brilliant view back down the mountain from which we had come. I could barely make out the surrounds of the town of Cafayate way below. How I longed to be back in the warmth of the hostel and have a warm shower and put on some dry clothes.

Today was December 15th – My Birthday! What a great start! But there was something more important than me going on. We hiked all the way up here for a reason. It wasn’t just my birthday, but a very serious religious ceremony was about to take place. Over the next few hours, I sat back on a hill overlooking the small mud huts below and counted around 200 people. They had a small church on the summit and some kind of ceremony was taking place. Although I witnessed it, I'm still not sure what happened. I did however get loads of attention, being the only white person some of these mountain people had ever seen. And certainly the only one to have ever witnessed this event. It’s not exactly a touristy thing to do and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

I spoke to as many of these highlanders as I could, but not many speak Spanish, with Quechua being their native tongue. I learned that this is one of the most religious festivals of their year and some had walked for several days to get here. And here I am complaining about a few hours through the rain last night. I felt guilty.

They bring gifts and shrines which are blessed by the priest. After a 2 hour ceremony, where we held hands and crossed our hearts and sang all kinds of songs, we had a procession around the village, walking slowly with hands linked, these 200 people and me, all linked together, singing and walking a complete circle around the village. I didn’t understand any of it, but joined in nonetheless and felt a very spiritual bond forming.

After the circle of trust, it was time for the feast. We descended from the church to the village but within minutes of arriving, the sky clouded over and opened up, dropping massive balls of hail on us - again. People screamed and ran for any kind of cover they could find. There were only a few small huts and the 200 people were fighting for shelter.

I took refuge in one of the mud huts with about 20 people, all crouched over from the low thatch roof and we waited for the hail to stop and the food to come. It was a slaughtered sheep. Poor thing. Complete with organs, even the skull, with eyes still in their sockets. Basically you dip your hand into a bucket, pull out a hunk of meat and have to eat whichever piece you get. There is lots of singing and chanting as each person takes their turn to pull out a hunk of meat. Luckily for me the head was already taken and I was relived to get a decent piece of juicy lamb. I can’t understand why, but the guy next to me was so pleased to pull out some kind of white organ. I couldn't turn away as he bit into this thing and white fatty, jelly stuff poured out. It may have been the intestine but, I guess I will never know, and I don't really want to.

The hail eventually stopped and the skies cleared. We scrambled out the narrow doorway of our crowded hut and were presented with some kind of soup with all sorts of meat floating around. I managed to get it down and keep it down, but was expecting it to come straight out the other end. Somehow I survived and actually really enjoyed this feast.

After lunch, the wine came out and didn't stop till every last drop was gone and everyone was off the foshizzle. Gato was making an absolute fool of himself, trying to climb onto a horse and falling flat on his arse. I have never seen so many drunken cowboys. Actually, when I think about it, I’ve never really seen a single drunken cowboy. But It’s true, they do just sit on their asses and fart. All trying to outdo each other and almost dying of laughter each time one of them manages a rumble. One drunken disgrace of a cowboy who was in a coma for most of the day woke and found a horse and thought it would be a good idea to try to ride it, just like Gato earlier, but this guy was much drunker. After falling off twice he eventually mounted it and promptly passed out on top. Somehow he was balanced perfectly and slept in his alcohol induced coma on top of this horse for the night. It was an amazing spectacle. I seemed to be the only one amazed and took a while bunch of photos of this drunken local passed out on a horse. I kept pointing him out to the others and laughing, but they were too busy trying to win the farting contest to pay any attention to the white boy.

While the drunken mob sang drunken highland cowboy songs I took the time to hike a few hundred meters up the hill to get an awesome view of the village, leaving the farting cowboys behind. I sat on a rock at the top and wrote in my journal and really got quiet overwhelmed by the whole event and location.

I returned to the cowboys and thought I would join in, trying to punch out a fart or two but at the same time, was terrified that the strange stoup I ate earlier would follow through. Worried that the lamb would come straight out, I didn’t try too hard, but stayed around with them until the early hours of the morning. I had another cold uncomfortable sleep and rose with the sun the next day. To my surprise, everyone got up early and after a meager breakfast of stale bread and leftover soup, we said our farewells and set off down the hill, back to Cafayate, luckily we left a little earlier this time and got back while the sun was still up.It’s the random adventures like this one that have made it hard to leave Cafayate.

The final days in Cafayate were filled with Asados and Vino but honestly, it was quiet sad to leave my newly adopted family and the town that I had fallen in love with. The dog called Canella, the great people and the general feeling of welcome ness.  I had even become attached to a baby goat at the cheese factory. Every day, I would head there and look for my little goat, who recognized me and would come running up for a tickle. My time came and reluctantly I caught a bus to Tucuman then quickly headed to Mendoza.
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