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.