Giena doesnt do the NW justice when she describes it -- it's far more spectacular then she says! And thanks to Giena for all her wonderful tips and patience in answering all my questions. We were lucky to literally run into her at Hotel Killa and shes as nice in person as she is on this forum.
We spent 9 days in November in the NW. Below is Part 1 of our trip report as seen thru the eyes of my travelin' companion...
We began and ended our trip to the Northwest in Salta. Salta, known as "la linda" (the beautiful), is an attractive colonial city with a beautiful lavender-hued cathedral on the central plaza, the architecturally exuberant Iglesia San Francisco on a nearby side street, and a number of interesting-sounding museums. (One of the museums, the mirrored-glass Museo de Anthropologia y Arqueologia, is immediately adjacent to the cathedral and offers some great photographic possibilities.) Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited in time - the equivalent of one day at the beginning and one day at the end of our trip - and never explored the city in depth. On arrival (via a two-hour late morning LAN flight from Buenos Aires' Jorge Newberry Airport), we dropped off our bags at the Carpe Diem Bed & Breakfast, ate a late lunch of wine and empanadas at Doña Salta, then checked out the jaw dropping Iglesia San Francisco, explored the beautiful central plaza, peeked into the cathedral and eventually wandered north to Calle Balcarce and its restaurants and clubs. On first impression, perhaps due to the busy, pedestrian-only streets south of the plaza, Salta came across as crowded; when we arrived at the Balcarce area later in the afternoon, but way too early for any Argentine evening activity, we felt almost like we had escaped teeming hordes. We lingered in the Café del Tiempo for hours, first having wine, later empanadas, finally salads. Coincidentally, or perhaps because the Argentine Northwest is a small world, we saw a flyer at Café del Tiempo for the place (Miraluna in Cachi) we had reservations at the very next night - and it turned out that our waiter was friends with the Miraluna manager. Small world. We eventually wandered back to Carpe Diem well after dark, passing by noisy, rhythmic demonstrators outside the regional legislature on the Plaza Güemes. The Carpe Diem room was hot and we were reluctant to open the only window as it opened onto an interior hallway. We tried cranking up the overhead fan, which resulted in noisy and disturbing wobble of the entire fan and motor, which happened to be located immediately above our bed. We decided to put the fan on low and bask in the midnight heat.
Shortly after we finished our breakfast of Teutonic pastries the next morning, the rental company representative dropped off our rental car at the hotel. It was Volkswagen Gol (as in the soccer score), serviceable but somewhat the worse for wear for having already bounced 30,000+ kilometers over the rutted ripios of the Argentine Northwest. (I liked to think of it as having been acclimated to the rugged terrain.) We dumped our suitcases in the back, slid a recently-acquired Buenos Aires space tango CD into the player, cranked the stereo and hit the road. Sort of. It was only two rights and a left - and half an hour in the impassably crowded traffic - before we finally left Salta behind us, heading south on Rte 68. Thirty or so kilometers later, a right onto Rte 33 put us on the road to the Parque Nacional Las Cardones, Cachi and the Calchaquies Valley.
The first ten or fifteen kilometers of Rte 33 are a smooth paved road that goes through green farmlands. It then rises to exit the Lerma Valley. The greenery disappears - as does the pavement. We are now on the infamous Northwest ripio - rough roads that double as stream beds when the snow in the Andean foothills melts. The car veered and shook; we slowed to a crawl. One particularly rough bump stopped the CD player. Another one shortly thereafter re-started it. We then discovered that we were unable to eject the CD. We were to spend the next eight days intermittently listening to the space tango CD or Argentine radio, which featured either rock nacional or international latin music. We never heard any tango on Argentine radio and very little Andean folklore music. We were destined to live with the CD - of which we quickly tired - or cumbia and Cuban music, hitting the 'seek' button as stations invariably faded or a dj played meringue or salsa. After an hour's driving we were in high desert, a vast empty landscape studded with cardon cacti. Cardones look somewhat like saguaros, except more- and no downward turning - arms; they resembled a candelabra rather than the characteristic saguaro Gumby-look. We were to remain in this cactus-dominated landscape for the better part of three hours, driving through a number of wildlife crossings. During this time we saw no wildlife and only one other car – stopped near a chapel at the high pass just at eh Parque Nacional de Cardones. The driver and a companion were taking photos of each other, the chapel and cactus-studded landscape. There are two roads nearby that take one further into the park, one (as I understand it) leading to a natural amphitheater. Both roads were closed and chained off. Somewhere near the chapel is a millstone that earlier travelers on the way to the Calchaquies valley had abandoned a century or more before. I was puzzled. It was left very near the highest point between the two valleys. The hard work had been behind them; they could have pretty much rolled it downhill from there. Perhaps they had gotten the word that the Calchaquies river is a mere trickle most of the year and had abandoned it as useless.
After over three jarring hours on provincial route 33, we arrived at Route 40 and the small village of Payogasta. We turned left onto the paved road towards Cachi. Cachi is a very nice, very small town with a beautiful park-like plaza, a small museum, a handful of artesania shops and an attractive church. After an espresso at a café near the plaza we walked up the block and back, checking out the artesania shops indicated by the red and black Salta-style ponchos invariably hanging outside. We then explored the church (the Iglesia San José) – everything inside, from the ceiling beams to the altar, seemed to be constructed of cardon wood. Then we checked out the Museum (the Museo Arquelogico Pio Pablo Diaz), which contained artifacts from Incan and pre-Incan times. Having missed every museum in Salta, I would have felt culturally deficit had we not. We were the only people there and had a one-on-two guided tour of the four or so rooms from the resident guard/cashier/docent, Carlos. We goood-naturedly managed to assemble a coherent conversation from the shards of his broken English and my own fractured Spanish. I actually came to understand something of the history of the native peoples of the Calchaquies valley.
By the time our tour was over we were starving. The café on the plaza did not serve food. We drove up to the Hosteria Cachi to check out the resident restaurant, arriving shortly after two large busses of elderly French tourists. We felt like the youngest people in the place as we managed to grab an isolated table and ordered garlic soup and what was to become our Northwest staple, empanadas, from one of the three harried wait staff present. The creamy soup was bland to the point of tastelessness and neither of us finished it. The empanadas, as usual, were quite good. While we were finishing our meal, we watched in amazement as the French tour group insisted on, and then paid, individual checks. There were over forty of them! As an aside, I think this meal was one of the few times that we ordered anything in the Northwest that wasn’t a regional specialty. After this we largely lived on humitas, tamales, empanadas and the occasional salad and regretted it when we tried non-regional dishes. (There was one regional specilaty we didn’t try, locro, a stew-like dish of – I believe - beef,corn and potatoes. For me, the concept brought back childhood memories of Boy Scout camping trips and charred cans of Dinty Moore bubbling on campfire embers.)
After our very late lunch, we left for our lodging at the Miraluna. We must have driven around the dozen square blocks that comprise Cachi five times before we finally caught sight of a Miraluna sign, and found – and then lost and re-found –the way to Miraluna. Miraluna is seven kilometers out of Cachi on a road so rutted, rocky and pitted it made Route 33 look like an autopista. Miraluna is set in a newly-planted vinyard with sweeping vistas of the verdant Calchaquies valley. We were greeted and shown to our room by Lorenzo, who either manages or owns the farm (I’m not sure which). There are about six rooms set in stand-along or duplex houses in the middle of the vineyard. Our room was beautifully done, with king-size bed, a sitting room and a kitchen, all nicely furnished with local crafts and furniture. After Lorenzo left, we sat outside and watched as clouds from the east arrived and seemed to pile up at the Andes, creating what appeared to be a vast dark rain clouds. Dark as it was, it didn’t rain. I understand that some parts of Calchaquies valley never see rain and stay green solely through snowmelt. Seeking shelter from the imaginary rain, we sprawled out in our room and read the copious material we’d photo-copied from books and magazines and brought with us. Rather than endure the fourteen kilometer torture of driving to Cachi and returning, we opted to skip dinner altogether, eating a few leftover crackers from the LAN flight chased by bottled water. We went to bed early.
The next morning we were up early. Lorenzo brought by a loaf of home-made bread. We packed and were headed south on the road (Rte 40) to Cafayate before 9:00, munching the delicious bread as drove. The five hour drive to Cafayate was one of the highlights of our trip. The unpaved route follows the Calchaquies river, here a broad dry stream bed with occasional pools of water that I ironically took to calling the”‘broad majestic Calchaquies” until my wife eventually told me stop. At this, the northern end of the drive, many of the farmhoues are made entirely of adobe – real mud brick adobe, not Santa Fe style “faux”dobe. We constantly ran across half-ruined adobe farmhouses with five or more adobe Grecian-style columns appended to the front – an architectural feature I’d never run across before and photographed repeatedly. The road meandered close to the Calchaquies sometimes and we found ourselves in thickets of a bamboo-like grass, unable to see around the next turn. Then it would veer away from the river and go up to the barren foothills and a landscape of rock and dust. Despite the current near-empty state of the Calchaquies, it obviously floods periodically. There were extensive barriers constructed on and near the banks to contain and direct the river. Perhaps two slow moving hours of Cachi, we left the road briefly to take the “camino de artesanos” to the town of Seclantis. Weavers along the side of this road display their wares outside their homes and you can stop and watch the crafts people at work. The weavings here are very Spanish-influenced and very different from the Andean-style weavings we saw elsewhere. We bought a table runner here, the only crafts purchase we made this trip. Seclantis itself is a small town, prosperous enough to have its main street paved for its entire four block length. It was so nice driving on this brief patch of paved road after two hours on route 40 that I was tempted to turn around and redrive it just for to enjoy that brief sense of smooth-riding comfort.
A while after rejoining Route 40 from Seclantis, we came on a car – one of the few we’d seen- by the side of the road with a fellow standing next to it, waving his arms. We stopped. The guy was French. He hadn't seen the kilometer signs (i.e., kilometers from Mendoza) by the side of the road for a while – were we on the road to Molinos? We’d stopped for directions barely a kilometer back; yes, we were on the right road. The French guy and his companion were to become a constant for the rest of the trip. We subsequently were to see them in every town we went to except Salta.
our next stop was Molinos. (Perhaps this was where the abandoned millstone had been destined.) Molinos has a beautiful adobe church (the Iglesia de San Pedro de Nolasco) painted a pale yellow with green trim. Across the street was a nice hotel (Hostal Provincial de Molinos) that had been converted from an old hacienda and was arranged around an interior courtyard. The French guy showed up just asI was entering the hotel grounds. Leaving town a bit later, we saw signs for what must be the world’s most remote Chinese restaurant.
South of Molinos, we entered the Quebrada de las Flechas, an area where former sediment-formed stone had been thrust upward and tilted in various directions. The road narrowed here as it threaded its way through the shattered and magnificent landscape. We stopped several times for photos, but found ourselves growing impatient. We had been on the road for over three hours and were only halfway to Cafayate. We tried to pick up our pace with bone-jarring results. It was with some relief an hour or two later when we unexpectedly encountered paved road about twenty kilometers north of Cafayate. The valley broadened as we drove past rolling vineyards and directly into town. Route 40 forms the east side of Cafayate’s central plaza and a tourist kiosk sits prominently on the northeast corner. We stopped and asked for directions to the Hotel Killa, where we would be spending the next three nights. To be continued..