Cafayate is a marvelous town - attractive, set in a wide spot of the Calchaquies Valley amid a gorgeous landscape of vineyards and low hills before a background of high mountains. It’s large enough so that all possibilities are not exhausted in a day or two, yet small enough so that it didn’t have the overwhelming city feeling of Salta. We could have spent a week or more there, particularly as we had a feeling of having been constantly in motion ever since we arrived in Argentina – two rushed days in Buenos Aires, then one quick day each in Salta and Cachi. We were ready to settle in. And Cafayate and the Hotel Killa were the perfect place to settle in – although we only had four days. This hotel was to be our favorite of the trip.
Hotel Killa is located on Calle Colon, one block off Cafayate’s large central plaza. It has friendly owners who speak excellent English, and who were patient enough to tolerate and respond to my somewhat less than excellent Spanish. There are about 15 rooms ranging in size from standard to ‘superior suites.’ We sprang for a superior suite (“Chuscha,” room 11), which was spacious and possessed a king-size bed – a requirement for us as I am over 6 feet tall. While I cannot speak for the other rooms, the common areas and our room were all furnished in local Northwest crafts and art. (Imagine “Santa Fe style” but with more authenticity and functionality, and less of that irritating precious quality.) My only complaint – and this isn’t much of a complaint – was that the painting over the bed was so large and low-hung that I would occasionally hit the bottom of the frame and knock it crooked when I sat up in bed.
As we had arrived mid-afternoon without having eaten anything other than the bread from Miraluna, we immediately dropped off our luggage and, on the advice of the owners, went out for empanadas at Baco, which was to become our restaurant of choice in Cafayate. We sat outside (on Avenida Güemes – Route 40), ordered the usual – two of each kind of empanada and some local wine – and watched the world go by. Later, we wandered around the spacious plaza and explored the local cathedral (somewhat new and uninteresting). On the Southwest corner of the plaza was one of the nicer artesania shops I’d seen, displaying well-executed Andean-style weaving. Nearby was a music store, selling both CDs and Andean musical instruments. Although open, I didn’t go in and merely made a mental note to revisit it when I had more time; unfortunately I never saw it open again during our stay.
We started the next day by climbing Cerro Chico, an appropriately-named small hill on the edge of town not too far from our hotel. Small it may have been – it looked like a mere outcropping compared to the massive mountains behind it -- but the climb to the top was steep, rocky and poorly-marked. We were also a little winded although we were only about 6,000 feet above sea level. Plus, while it was only 10 am or so, the temperature was already starting to soar. The view at the top of Cerro Chico was incredible, encompassing the whole of the city and the Calchaquies valley beyond with the mountain range on the far side of the valley only faintly visible. After climbing down, we drove to some local wineries. One in particular is highly recommended - Finca de Nubes. We didn’t see any clouds, but we did try some delicious local wine, and bought a rosé (of malbec) for consumption later that day and a reserva we brought back to the US. We spent the rest of the day exploring the town, kicking back at the hotel and drinking rosé. After due consideration of menus posted outside other restaurants, both lunch and dinner were at Baco.
On our third day, on the recommendation of the Killa owners, we drove to the Museo Pachamama in Amaicra in Tucuman province, a little less than an hour south of Cafayate. Museo Pachamama is not to be missed – it was one of the highlights of the trip and one of the most spectacular human constructions I have ever seen in my life. “Pachamama” is from the Quechua and can be translated as either “mother earth” or “universal mother.” Pachamama was/is a deity of pre-Conquest Andean peoples. In her – and their - homage, artist Hector Cruz has constructed an immense series of courtyards, buildings and sculptures. The sheer scale is overpowering. Coupled with the construction technique – labor-intensive mosaics of local stones in a muted palette of white, black and red – the overall effect is jaw-dropping, nothing short of stunning. The nearest comparison would be Parque Güell in Barcelona, had it been built on a grander scale using stone rather than ceramics and been a marriage of Gaudi’s mosaic techniques, Georgia O’Keeffe’s color sense and Andean iconography. One of the Museo Pachamam buildings has an exhibit on local geology, delineating the geologic history of the Calchaquies valley in both English and Spanish. A second building holds some of Cruz’ paintings - large, colorful, influenced by indigenous themes and quite good. Yet another building is a large gift shop, with artesania as well as some beautiful tapestries bearing the “Cruz” name that I suspect were woven to his specifications. Admission to the whole complex – it must span four or more acres – is about U$1. For reasons that elude me, the Museo Pachamama was not mentioned in any of our guidebooks and warranted only abbreviated mentions on the travel boards. Indeed, there is nothing beyond the briefest mention on the Internet in English. Some longer Spanish entries, as well as photographs, can be found. Unmentioned or not, it’s worth a very long detour.
On the drive back from Pachamama, we passed a road to the Indian ruins at Quilmes. Not wanting to face another 7 kilometers or so on rutted, unpaved roads, we passed the exit by. Later reading indicated that the ruins are quite extensive and would have warranted a visit. (Lazy souls that we are, we also never visited either of the Cafayate archeological museums; we told ourselves that we had to leave something for next time.) Immediately south of Cafayate on our return, we stopped at the Etchart tasting room. Among the wines we tried was Cafayate “Cosecha Tardia,” a sweet late harvest torrontes. Torrontes can be a deceptive wine. It has a sweet nose (not unlike Muscat) but an unexpectedly dry taste. I like torrontes – it’s the ideal wine for poaching pears – but my wife does not share my fondness. However, both of us loved this dessert version of this wine - and it was a real bargain at less than U$5. We liked it so much that we brought the bottle home, swaddled in dirty clothing in the middle of a tightly packed suitcase that survived the brutal vicissitudes of being checked baggage on our United international flight. (By the way, we loved the fact that one can still carry on wine on domestic flights in Argentina – the airport folks even suggested how best to pack it for carry on.)
That night we had an early dinner at – where else? – Baco. This time I tried pizza. Not bad, but the empanadas were better. The other spot we frequented was Miranda’s for their delicious ice cream. We preferred the regular flavors to their famed wine ones.
Later, while wandering the plaza, we ran into the two French guys that had stopped us several days earlier on the road to Molinos. They were staying just outside of town at the pricey Patios de Cafayate Hotel and Spa. They’d had a flat on the road after leaving Molinos and had had to pay someone to repair their tire (apparently, their spare had either been missing or flat). We’d been worried about flat tires on the isolated stretches of the rocky ripios and had checked to ensure that we had a working spare when we picked up our rental car in Salta. If only we’d checked out the CD player…
The next morning we walked out of town to the “Quesos de Cafayate” goat cheese farm. It’s only about a mile out of town on Calle Cordoba, but the mounting heat had us removing layers of clothing as we walked. Usually, we’re not fans of goat cheese; my wife, in particular, doesn’t care for it. However, these cheeses weren’t particularly goat-y, so we picked up some cheese and a tub of dulce de leche and stumbled back to town in the morning heat. At our request, hotel Killa had done us the favor of scheduling a very expensive lunch – about $50 apiece – with the owners of the Yacochuya Winery just north of town.
On the way, we stopped and checked out the gated and secluded Patios de Cafayate Hotel and Spa. It’s a beautiful series of patios and lush grounds, furnished in a very nice Northwestern-themed fashion. Unfortunately, when we left, we found ourselves trapped – prisoners of high-end luxury - behind the gate. The person who’d let us in was nowhere around. Off to lunch, I suppose. We ended up calling the Patios de Cafayate from the guard booth in order to exit for our lunch date.
We headed north on route 40 and made the left on the rutted dirt road to take us up to the San Pedro de Yacochuya Winery. It’s in the foothills above the valley; the dirt road led past neat rows of grapevines to beautiful landscaped terraces planted with lavender. We parked our car by a barn-shaped building beyond the sales outlet, below a series of terraces that led up to a largish house. The views across the valley are spectacular. We started with a tour of the wine-making process. We’ve been on other winery tours before and have come to believe that they are all variations on a theme. Besides, we’ve always been more interested in wine consumption than wine production! We tried to appear attentive as we were shown tanks and barrels. Then it was on to the tasting. There were three or four four wines being tasted. I remember a torrontes, a red that was labeled San Pedro de Yacochuya, and, the star of the show, a superb reserva-type malbec simply called Yacochuya (vintage 2003). All were good, but the Yacochuya was exceptional, one of the best red wines I’d ever had, and certainly the best Argentine wine I’d ever had. (I cannot remember the fourth wine, if any, that we tasted – an indication of how the afternoon was to progress.)
After the tasting we were asked to select a vintage to accompany lunch. We of course chose the Yacochuya 2003. We were then led up the hill to the house. Our initial assumption had been that we would be part of a group; by now, we’d figured out that we would be the only people participating. I felt ambivalent about the idea of a one-on-one with the owners. Our hostess, an older woman attired in country-chic clothing (Cardon?), greeted us outside and waved for us to sit with her at a table on the patio facing the lavender terraces, the tidy rows of vines and the valley beyond. We began with a bottle of torrontes; she offered us a platter of sausages, pecans – apparently a recently-discovered new favorite – plump vineyard-made raisons and some of the same cheese we’d seen that morning at Quesos de Cafayate. (The combination of nut, raison and cheese was wonderful.) She spoke in English of the history of the vineyard. Apparently much of the family vineyard had been sold off to the Pernod-Ricard group several years earlier. The remaining old growth vines had been retained to produce high-quality vintages. We nodded. She talked about the US. She loved New York. She was going to Chicago shortly. Would it be safe to wear fur? – There were people there who didn’t like fur. We said of course it was safe to wear fur.
Talk continued in this vein for a while. As we worked our way through the torrontes, my wife and I became more talkative. I switched at times to Spanish. Our hostess introduced her daughter and, later, three of her seventeen or so grandchildren. I told a joke in Spanish about the difficulties of Argentine pronunciations for novice Spanish speakers. (The punchline: “¿Ques es pollo? Pollo es la novia del gallo.” The humor hinges on the fact that both the word “pollo” and the putatively explanatory “gallo” would be equally unintelligible to anyone unfamiliar with Argentine Spanish.) She actually thought it funny - or did a good job of giving that impression. We moved inside and were seated at a large table in front of an enormous glass-faced case of various stuffed fowl engaging in still-life (so to speak) activities. The dining room walls had a number of twentieth century paintings, most of them quite good. She left us to eat. The meal was more plentiful than memorable. The first course was hard-boiled eggs with jam on top –not like anything either of us had had before. I think the second course involved lamb in a kind of stew. We finished off the second bottle – the Yacochuya 2003 - over the course of the meal and were starting to feel a little pie-eyed. Our hostess returned as we were being served dessert and coffee. She explained the taxidermic tableau, identifying the various birds (including, yes, both a pollo and a gallo). We inquired about the paintings. She was quite proud of them and took us around the dining room and into a neighboring room, giving us a history of each painting and stories of the relationship between the family and the painter. I’m afraid I didn’t retain much other than that all the painters were Argentine. After payment for lunch and the purchase of a second bottle of the Yagochuya 2003 destined for the USA, we all air-kissed our goodbyes and carefully walked down to our car. We napped after our return to Killa and skipped dinner that evening. All things considered, I think I would have preferred to skip the expensive and lubricated lunch as well as the conversations with our hostess and instead invested the money thereby saved in two or three more bottles of that fabulous wine.
The next day was to be the longest drive of our trip. We were going to Tilcara, up in Jujuy province north of both Salta and San Salvador de Jujuy. We were both a little sad to be leaving Cafayate behind…to be continued