Around Salta: Cachi & Cafayate

Moving on from urban Corrientes in northeastern Argentina, I arrived in Salta where I would spend several days. It is an attractive colonial city with plenty of old buildings, good food and a lively atmosphere. As part of the former Inca empire, the area has a distinctly more indigenous feel from other parts of Argentina that I visited.

At the hostel I made friends with two Brazilian ladies, Anelise and Ana, and we decided to rent a car together for a couple of days to see Cachi and Cafayate. These are a pair of pretty rural towns to the south that can be easily visited from Salta, and thanks to the interesting routes one takes to get to these settlements, make for a worthwhile excursion. I was excited to be driving for the first time in South America, though as the girls didn’t feel confident taking the wheel on Argentinian roads, the onus was on me for the entire 500km!

On the road. We drove along national routes 30 (to Cachi), 40 (to Cafayate) and 68 (back to Salta)
Some rather nice dahlias seen at a rest stop on the way
Entering Los Cardones national park, we begin to note the cacti adorning the hillsides
We look back along the winding road after a steep ascent into the mountains

The Los Cardones National Park that we drove through on the way to Cachi was the most impressive part of the journey for me. The mountainous desert landscapes were littered with such large numbers of Cardon Grande Cacti I couldn’t believe it. I think I’d only really appreciated similar plants in conservatories and glasshouses in Europe beforehand, so it was impressive to see them proliferating in their natural environment.

Cardon Grande cacti – also known as the Argentine Saguaro – were everywhere

I got told off by a rather surly tour guide at one of the viewpoints for stepping outside the designated walking area – apparently this can interfere with the reproduction of the cacti, due to the way they scatter their seeds on the ground. To be fair on me, there were no signs or other warnings posted to this effect.

Just the three of us (four if you count the cactus)

We were running well behind schedule by the time we arrived in Cachi, so we had a late lunch at 5pm at the first restaurant we found, followed by a stroll to the main square for a quick coffee/ice cream and back to the car for the journey on to Cafayate. The road from here onwards was unpaved and very twisty and bumpy, so care and concentration was needed, especially after nightfall. Local radio and music stored on our smartphones played through the car’s hi-fi kept us motivated, and after what seemed like an eternity we finally hit smooth asphalt road on the approach to Cafayate. We parked the car just as it started to pour with rain, and we hastily searched for two of the most important things in the world after a long journey: lodgings and a place to eat supper.

If the town of Cafayate had something to offer culturally or otherwise, I’m afraid to say we didn’t have a chance to find out what it was. Anelise had a 4pm bus to catch leaving from Salta, so we had to hit the road right after breakfast. This may sound hasty for a return journey of only 200km on a properly paved road, but the reality was that we were going to be driving through Quebrada de las Conchas. Here, we would encounter a myriad of impressive natural rock formations that would urge us to stop and explore.

The sign says: Hydraulic action has eroded the red sandstone layers of this canyon, inviting you to see the interior with its endless number of magical geological formations. Ideal for short hikes.
Me amongst the cacti in Quebrada de la Conchas
I thought these stuffed cacti at a roadside gift shop were very cute, and am planning to have a go at making some of my own when I get back to London. Note the price tags: $65 refers to Argentine pesos (around £3.50); I didn’t previously know that the $ sign was used to denote other currencies than US dollars.
La Ventana (the window) seen in Quebrada de las Conchas
El Anfiteatro (the amphitheatre) in Quebrada de las Conchas, our final viewpoint

The last part of our drive was somewhat rushed and after all that non-stop driving I did get a bit stressed, especially as we re-entered Salta with its congested roads and carefree Argentine drivers. But we made it on time, and once Ana and I had dropped Anelise off at the bus station, and subsequently left the car at the rental agency, I set about having a decent siesta at the hostel! A little more breathing space in terms of time would have been great, but having said that we packed a lot in and saw some wonderful areas of natural beauty, so really we couldn’t have asked for much more.

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Exploring a swamp

In northeast Argentina lies Iberá Provincial Nature Reserve. It is a large wetlands, remote and difficult to access, with enormous biodiversity. Think caimans, capybaras, deer and a dazzling array of wild bird species, all living in harmony in their natural habitat. After getting caught up in the beaten tourist trail that is Iguazú, I was keen to have a deeper and more personal experience with nature. Iberá was, for this reason and many others, an attractive prospect.

The wetlands are accessed from the small community of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. To get there, I had to get a bus south from Corrientes to Mercedes, and then take a privately run minibus early the next morning to the reserve itself. The latter journey is slow, as the road is unpaved and in particular difficult to pass after rain without a 4×4.

The rickety old bridge that grants access to Carlos Pellegrini

I arrived, along with a few other tourists, at around midday; the heat and humidity was searing. I found a simple lodging at a place called Hospedaje los Amigos, which to put it politely was not a well-loved place. Behind the shower curtain in my bathroom were hundreds of mosquitos taking their siesta, the net on the window having had a large hole ripped in it. The place overall was fairly unsavoury and unsanitary. I am not too picky regarding accommodation but I do prefer a reasonably clean and cared for environment; basic on the other hand is no problem.

Enormous toads came out in the lodging’s garden during a spell of rain, which unlike the mosquitoes in my bathroom I thought were very cool indeed

 

Here you get an idea of their size

 

Fortunately the other guests staying there were nice. I met two German ladies in their twenties (who may or may not have been in a couple), an older man from Argentina and an American chap called Gregory. We got to know each other over lunch and decided we would go down together to the campsite, where the boats launch from in the evening, for a tour of the swamp.

The boat tour itself was fantastic and the punter got us up close to several caimans, as well as groups of capybaras that were swimming about. I am particularly keen on this large rodent, perhaps for its exotic nature or perhaps simply for its cuteness. Gregory had a DSLR camera similar to mine but kitted out with an enormous telephoto lens. This allowed him to get some excellent close-ups of the various avian fauna and I do slightly regret only having brought a wide angle lens (but I will make sure to borrow my Dad’s zoom lens next time!). Greg is a man who has travelled extensively in his twenties and thirties, with many fascinating stories to tell, and has learned exactly what he most enjoys as a traveler. As such, while Iberá was just one of many stopping off points for me, visiting it was the sole purpose of his trip.

A heron is just about to fly off as we drift past it. The punters switch off the outboard motor near the fauna which I thought was a nice touch as it allows you to better appreciate the surroundings.
A family of seemingly laid back capybaras amongst the foliage
A different capybara swimming around the swamp in evening light
A caiman; we saw several and were told that they open their mouths to cool down when they are too hot. I was pleased to get this very nice shot of him (or her)…

Our boat. I don’t think anyone noticed me take this photo!
We set foot briefly on a floating island. Notice the dragonflies in the air behind me; they were in abundance.

The next morning, the two of us went for a walk outside of town to reach a few of the short trails that the wetlands offer in addition to the boat launches. The first was a raised wooden walkway that takes you some way into the swamp area. It was not the sights, but the sounds which most impressed me here. The harmonious combination of insect, amphibian and bird noises was out of this world: it was music to the ears and wonderfully enchanting.

Click here to hear the sounds of the swamp

The other two treks we made were in the jungle. Here, one is supposed to be able to encounter Howler monkeys, which are billed as being the world’s loudest land animal. After a little observation we did find one high up in a tree, but unfortunately for us it remained motionless and silent. So we did not see very much in the way of wildlife here, although the sounds were once again impressive. Gregory rightly mentioned that you have to spend a lot of time in nature to properly observe your animals of interest – the more time you dedicate, the better your chances – precisely why he had chosen to stay in the reserve for several days.

A large moth or butterfly seen on the trek through the jungle

Although I myself only spent a day there, the wetlands offered exactly the brief respite I needed from the air-headed tourist haven I had just come from. It was an enriching experience and I hope to someday visit another swamp!

Iguazú Falls

Here are my selected photographs from the Iguazú Falls, which I visited at the beginning of January. As mentioned in my previous article, the falls straddle the Brazilian-Argentine border and are accessed by tourists from national parks on either side of the river Iguazu, each offering a different perspective. The Argentine side is far more impressive and extensive, however; I’ve only selected two photos from the Brazilian side.

An full report of the falls is not really necessary, as the experience was mainly an aural and visual one. There were far too many self-obsessed selfie stick touting tourists for my liking though. Does one really have to have 500 photos of themselves in front of every single waterfall? A couple a day is enough for me, but it is a symptom of the whims of our generation, I suppose.

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The Brazilian side gives an excellent overview of the falls
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Yours truly #1
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Subsequent photos are from the Argentine side. This is the lower circuit walkway

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Now we’re on the upper circuit walkway

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I like how the colour and composition turned out here
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Hungry coatis hunting food – they look cute but can turn aggressive
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Capuchin monkeys
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Spotted hiding in the trees!
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This is the amazing, awe-inspiring Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). I visited it last of all.
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Garganta del Diablo
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Yours truly #2