Salta (2 nights) – Cachi (1 night) – Cafayete (2 nights) – Salta
We travelled for 11.5 hours by an Andesmar day bus from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina. In addition to a smooth and relatively quick border crossing this was another comfortable journey with our ‘semi cama’ (half bed) seats.
Salta is located in North West Argentina, is the 8th largest city of Argentina and has a population of approximately 475,000.
We spent two nights in Salta before collecting our rental car from Alamo and setting off towards Cachi.
During our time in Salta we took the cable car to the top of the Cerro San Bernardo where we had fabulous views across Salta. We were surprised at the size of the city spread out in the valley. Some people choose to walk up the 1,070 steps to the top but on this occasion we took the easy option (photo below).
Salta had a friendly vibe with some great Argentinian restaurants. When we arrived we had dinner in Dona Salta where the waiters were dressed in traditional dress… probably a bit touristy but it was fun. And the beers were huge and came in 1 litre size bottles!
While we only had a short visit to Salta we both preferred it considerably to San Pedro de Atacama. It was refreshing to transfer to a lower altitude for the first time in about 3 weeks. The weather was warm and sunny, if a little hazy. But there were trees and greenery, the air and the streets were clean and without the dust of San Pedro.
Salta to Cachi
Route: scenic route along RN 33 which takes you through the Cuesta del Obispo (Bishop’s Slope) route to the ‘Los Cardones’ national park. Most of the road is laid with tarmac although there is a 23 km section of gravel/sand in the middle.
Total distance: 162 km
Total time taken (including stops): 6 hours
Having left Salta at around 9:30 am we stopped for a coffee break in Chicano about 50 km south of Salta. As well as the coffee we brought some tasty bread rolls for lunch and drinks from a great little bakery on the central square. (It’s important to have enough snacks and water for the journey as much of it is remote).
We drove through rugged and spectacular scenery as we passed through mountains of the Calchaquí Valley before reaching the national park. This valley has stunning mountain views.
There were many twists and turns although the road was mostly wide enough for two cars to pass easily so it wasn’t particularly dangerous.
There were tiny hamlets and the odd shop along the way. There was also many viewing spots where it was possible to pull off the road and take photos.
Once we had crossed the mountains and were about 50% of the way through the national park the road became very straight as it passed through the desert.
The national park is famous for its many cactuses. Midway along the straight stretch of the Parque National los Cordons you get to a ‘cactus information point’. This is a small area of cactuses which are labelled enabling you to find out more about them.
We arrived in Cachi at around 3:30 pm and once we had checked in to our hotel we set off by foot to explore the town. Cachi is a small town with an elevation of 2280 meters. Cachi is located in the Chalchqui Valley and is surrounded by tall imposing snow capped mountains. There is a pretty square, a few low key hotels and hostels and a number of bars and restaurants.
According to Wikipedia, the Bodegas Colomé, the World’s highest vineyard is located in Cachi.
Many of the restaurants in Argentina don’t seem to open until 8 pm however we were fortunate to find a wine bar on the square (Olivers) where we brought a bottle of local white wine, a couple of cheese empanadas and shared a pizza for the equivalent of £15. Empanadas are a popular snack found in Latin America… they are like small versions of the Cornish pasties we have in the UK and, like a pasty, often contain either cheese or meat.
Cachi to Cafayete
Route: scenic route along RN 40 which is almost all sand and gravel until you get to smooth tarmac for the last 28 km as you approach Cafayete
Total distance: 157 km
Total time taken (including stops): 6 hours
We stopped for a break and a coffee in Molinos a small town around 50 or so km south of Cachi. By chance we came across the Hacienda Hotel which has a pleasant courtyard perfect for a coffee (photo above).
Route 40 takes you through more dramatic landscape… much of the road is gravel and sand (as above) and is very dusty! So it takes a long time… And it is probably worth paying the extra £11 (approx) per day for fully comp car cover to cover you for any stone chips from the occasional passing vehicle!
We drove through some impressive scenery such as the sandstone rock formations as above. The scenery seemed to get better as we continued our drive towards Cafayete. The tiny hamlets and villages are incredibly remote particularly with the slow-going gravel road connecting them to larger towns such as Cafayete and Cachi. (Although Cachi itself is a small and remote town).
This section of RN 40 is a designated national park at a place called ‘Angastaco’ where we found ourselves driving through moon-like landscapes. We drove through the Quebrada de Las Flechas (“Gorge of Arrows”) rock formation just outside Angastaco.
After bumping along the gravel track for most of the day it was a relief to get back to the tarmac section of the road before we reached Cafayete!
According to Lonely Planet Cafayete is Argentina’s “second centre for quality wine production”. It is also famous for the craggy and beautiful red rocks of the ‘Quebrada de Cafayate’ which we drove through on the way back to Salta.
We had two nights in Cafayete and decided to have a leisurely day for our ‘middle’ day. This also happened to coincide with our wedding anniversary! What better way to celebrate than with a tasty lunch and a winery tour!
Of several vineyards and wineries around Cafayete we chose to visit Piattelli (as above). Piattelli is only 6 km from Cafayete and as well as its production of local wines is well known for its courtyard restaurant and wonderful food.
We booked lunch for 1:30 pm to be followed at 3 pm by a wine tour and tasting session! The restaurant was busy and we do recommend booking in advance as the reserved tables had the covered courtyard location. People who dropped in without booking had to sit inside…
Following a delicious lunch made with fresh organic ingredients (including herbs grown in the garden) and a short break we met our guide ready for the wine tour.
We began outside in the vineyard where the guide explained that there is only one annual harvest in late January and February. He also explained that the owner of Piattelli has another winery in Mendoza which is about 1000 km south of Cafayete. Both wineries use the same grapes to produce the same wines, however as Mendoza has an elevation of 900 meters above sea level, compared with Cafayete’s 1800 m, the wines taste quite different.
We made our way back inside and the guide talked us through the processes involved using the massive wine vats… We then moved on to view the oak barrels which are imported from either California or France, each has a lifespan of 10 years. Once the barrels have ‘expired’ they are given away or sold locally. We noticed several ‘barrel’ tables around the cafe’s and hotels of Cafayete!
The Piattelli estate produces 4 different varieties of wine; three reds and one white. We were able to taste all of them and in addition we tasted the Mendoza Malbec and the Mendoza Cabenet Sauvignon so we could taste the difference between the two wines produced at different altitudes.
A visit to Piattelli is highly recommended if you are in Cafayete, especially if you also treat yourself to lunch in the wonderful courtyard restaurant. The food is excellent and good value at under £10 each for a main meal. The cost of the wine tour which includes the tasting was only 100 Argentine pesos each (£5.30).
Cafayete to Salta
Route: scenic route RN 68, all of which is a decent tarmac road!
Total distance: 190 km
Total time taken (including stops): 4 – 5 hours
The final stretch of our little road trip was to drive from Cafayete and back to Salta.
We knew the route back through the Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas (roughly translated as ‘Shell Gorge’) was going to be spectacular and we knew there would be specific rock formations and signposted places to stop so we allowed plenty of time.
The route was indeed superb! We felt like we were driving through the bottom of the Grand Canyon as the red rocks of the Quebrada towered above us!
You can park your car and explore some of the stunning rock formations. ‘El Obelisco’ above is signposted and located just off Route 68. Others including the ‘Devils Throat’ are less obvious (to us anyway) and you need to locate them and walk to them. If you have time there are several trekking and bike trails around too.
One advantage of having a rental car is that you can stop where you like and take in these magnificent views. The road is quiet and sometimes you don’t see another car for 5 minutes which makes it easy to just pull over and take some photos.
The canyon stretch which started about 20 km outside of Cafayete and continued for around 50 km was incredible. We didn’t stop at all of the famous rock formations partly because we had seen a few and partly because we actually missed some! This is one of the drawbacks of not knowing enough Spanish to be able to translate the signs and also not preparing enough so we knew where they were and where to look for them! However, the overall experience of driving through the canyon was the real wow factor…
The scenery became less interesting after the canyon and for the last 100 km or so towards Salta. After stopping for a drink in El Carril we got back to Salta at 13:30, took the rental car back to Alamo and had lunch in the historic centre of Salta.
Next up: making our way to Salta bus terminal to catch our 17 hour overnight bus to Mendoza…
This awesome road trip has given us a wonderful introduction to Argentina. The scenery was stunning, the local people are helpful and friendly and the wine as you would imagine is first class!