Wining in Cafayate

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Argentina  , Northern Argentina,
Monday, May 10, 2010

I've become soft.

While in the Torres del Paine, when hiking eight hours a day, a pre-dawn wake-up call was nothing.  Now, just four short weeks later, I had devolved back into a pampered, privileged, pudgy tourist.   The early wake-up call – plus the extra couple of glasses of malbec at the pena the night before – left me crotchety and tired.  I packed up my stuff, waddled out to breakfast, and waited for our ride for to Cafayate.

Cafayate is the second largest wine growing region in Argentina, located about 3.5 hours south of Salta.  Along the way is the "Quebrada de Cafayate" – a stunning gorge containing multiple geologic formations and some impressive desert scenery.  Rather than take the bus through the Quebrada, we decided to take small tour that would allow us stop along and experience the sights close up.

Our guide picked us up around quarter to eight.  En route we picked up another Argentine couple from outside Buenos Aires, and we were off to Cafayate.

About halfway through the drive to Cafayate, we stopped for coffee and mate.  The Argentine couple, very graciously, offered me some mate.  I tried to explain my hesitancy, but didn’t want to be rude.  I took a sip, smiled, and returned the gourd of steeping green mush to them.  It didn’t taste all that bad (it was cut with mint and lots of sugar), but they started laughing at me nonetheless.

Apparently, it’s customary to finish a cup of mate when it’s handed to you.   So I sucked it down, and then they turned their attention on Monique.  There was nothing she could do.  She didn’t want to be rude either, but just taking a sip – apparently – was out of the question.

Being the good sport that she is, Monique had a cup of mate too and everyone seemed to get a decent laugh out of the situation.  Our new friends put so much sugar in the mate, it barely tasted bitter all.

About 2.5 hours in to our ride, we stopped at our first geological formation.   It was called the “Devil’s Throat.”  It didn’t quite see what was so diabolical about it, but it seemed somewhat cool.  We then hit up a variety of other formations and look out points, some more notable than others. 

The most interesting geological formation in the Quebrada de Cafayate for us, by far, was a naturally formed amphitheatre.  We found it both visually and acoustically impressive.  Adding to the experience, a couple of musicians were playing music and hawking their CDs.  Their music echoed throughout the naturally-formed chamber.  I bought one of their CDs (heavy on the pan flute, unfortunately) and videotaped a few seconds of their music (see the video below).

As the clock approached noon, we neared the end of the Quebrada and snapped a couple of photos of the scenery.  It was nothing short of stunning.  By the this point in the day, the clouds lifted and the sun refracting off the various minerals in the gorge generated a magnificent palate of colors – purples, greens, peaches, oranges, etc.  It was quite a sight, and reminded me of the American Southwest

On our approach to Cafayate, we made one final stop at a goat farm.   Goat cheese is very popular in this part of the country, so we got a tour of the facilities, pet a few goats, and bought some cheese (I liked the smoked goat cheese quite a bit).  Monique especially enjoyed the opportunity to play with and photograph the goats. 

At about 1:30 we pulled into Cafayate, grabbed some lunch, and began our rounds on the local winery circuit. Bodegas (wineries) seem to be around every corner, and many people walk or bicycle ride to multiple wineries in a day to sample free tastings.  As is often the case, however, there was a catch.

Bodegas only offer up their cheapest, most wretched-tasting wine for public consumption.

Monique and I dutifully traipsed around to four or five bodegas to make sure that we had some sort of representative sample.  None of the wines were particularly good, most tasted very acidic, and more than few could be confused with paint thinner.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed the settings in a handful of bodegas.  Nanni (located in town) offered a lovely little tour, most of the wines were drinkable in small doses, and everyone was just beaming about the fact Robert Parker recently rated one of their wines.  We really enjoyed the atmosphere and their enthusiasm. 

We also walked outside of town to Finca de Las Nubes, and soaked in some lovely views of their vineyards and the surrounding countryside.  Granted, the malbec had turpentine-like finish, but the setting was hard to beat.

Despite our poor initial impression, I was not ready to give up on Cafayate’s wine.  Especially when considering that our favorite wine in Argentina – Colomé Estate Malbec – is produced just a few hours away.   So, during our second day in Cafayate, I redoubled my wine-tasting efforts.  We tried flights of reserves and mid-range wines, I stocked upon a number of higher-end bottles – including varietals I’d never tasted before such as Tannat and Bonarda – and sampled just about every single torrontés I could get my hands on.  Still, I couldn’t find anything to get incredibly excited about.

Even the torrontés – the varietal for which this region is famous – came up short.  We liked a handful of torrontés that we tried (our favorite was Tukmu), but none of these torrontés possessed the “mentiroso” quality that we read about and tasted at the Alta Vista bodega in Mendoza. 

Fortunately for us, a bad day of wine tasting is still better than most other days.  The wine was swill, but it didn’t seem to matter.  We managed to have a good time anyway.

In our final day in Cafayate, we managed to put down the wine bottle for a few hours and did a hike into the surrounding countryside.  Owing to wildly inaccurate information in our guidebook, we thought it would be a moderate stroll.  It turned out to be much more strenuous, and involved a guide as well as low-level rock climbing over a handful of frightening ledges.

But the hike itself turned out to be well worth the trouble.  As we ascended into a ravine just outside town, we passed through a variety of terrain – including a riverbed, boulders, and dry scrub.  Along the way we encountered a total of seven waterfalls, and at a few points we witnessed some impressive desert scenery.  Moreover, there was some exhilarating about hiking along in the desert – seemingly far removed from civilization.   

Ultimately, we found ourselves surprised that a hike – and not the wine – turned out to be the highlight of our time in Cafayate. 

Traveling Notes

If looking to take a bus to Cafayate, there are regular buses that run from Salta throughout the day.  You can also arrange tours of the Quebrada from Cafayate, if you don’t mind backtracking a bit.  While we thought our tour was unremarkable in itself, it was quite an experience to walk around the “amphitheatre” and stop at the scenic lookouts – something you can’t do if you take the public bus.

If you do the hike in along the riverbed just beyond Finca del Las Nubes as mentioned in the Lonely Planet, know that guidebook is absolutely useless on this front.   Be prepared to get pay for a guide at the beginning of the trail.  Also, know that if you want to see all seven waterfalls, you need to ask about it in advance, hire one of the grown men as a guide.  There are a number of younger children who will guide you along – for less money – but they will not get you to all seven falls.   An old, seasoned guide is necessary to help you through the more technical parts of the trail (e.g., traversing small crevasses).  

As an aside, don’t always believe what you read in the guidebooks.

Finally, when we were in town, we found that few places offered flights on wines.  The restaurant called “Colorado” offered flights, which was a nice way for us to try an array of wines without buying too many full bottles.
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