A little later than we had planned and $100 short from the first bus ticket that we happened to miss, we arrived in Salta at 7am, nothing short of delirious after the 18 hour drive from Mendoza. The city of Salta has only become a tourist destination in the past few years but everywhere around you one can witness the area embracing the tourism industry and trying to snag a piece of the action. We were greeted in the terminal by a number of hostel owners trying to promote their services but ended up taking a liking to a young guy who made a great sale for Hostal Exxess which he had only recently opened. Within minutes we were at the hostel and unconscious for the next few hours.Almost fully recovered from our travel time and with a lot of research ahead of us, we set out for a wander around the city centre. We had ended up in Salta due to a number of recommendations from fellow travellers and it was our plan to rent a car and take a three day road trip into wine country.
With a whole afternoon to spare we actually had the time to do our homework, which meant we managed to find the cheapest rental car in all of Salta (short of simply making an offer to some random local with a jalopy). From agency to agency we went until finally we found our match - a VW Gol for just under $50 a day! By that time it was mid-afternoon and we were in dire need of a solid meal so we took the advice of our guidebook and headed to a parrillada (Argentine steakhouse) called Viejo Jacks. We opted out of the BBQ for 2 which served up some kidney and intestine and opted for a big fat steak instead. It turned out to be the best steak we had in all of Argentina, cooked perfectly and with no extra seasoning but what happened to be on the grill, we ate and felt like kings. We had a day to organize ourselves and relax as there wasn`t much we could do in preparation for our road trip. We took in the one sight-seeing activity Salta claims to offer and rode a gondola to the top of a big hill. It turned out to be slightly anti-climactic as the view of Salta is not all that spectacular, and so as quickly as we had taken our obligatory tourist photos we were headed back down again. We wandered to the main market and did a little shopping, the most eventful (and embarrassing) part being when I flashed Pat and the store clerk as the bikini top I was trying on went flying off. We wandered past our first movie theatre in ages and noticed that Love in the Time of Cholera was playing that night. Pat is a movie fanatic and we both had recently read the book (as it was one we brought along on our trip) so we opted for a long-awaited movie night and thoroughly enjoyed an evening at the cinema.
The day had come. The VW Gol was waiting. We were ready for the adventure ahead. We packed up our stuff and took off for the car rental agency to retrieve our new toy. We went to the grocery store to purchase some provisions like bread, snacks, water, etc., filled up the little beast with Super, and popped in what appeared to be a sweet mixed CD that we had just purchased from some street vendor. Off we were, Pat driving and me navigating. Spirits were high and we were just getting into our new music when we discovered something very disheartening. Our awesome CD of 100 random songs from the Venga Boys to Ashlee Simpson to Bob Sinclair turned out to be nothing more than a poor compilation of about 16 seconds of every song. We would be grooving to a song and all of a sudden it skipped right on to the next, needless to say we listened to the CD once through and donated it to the Gol at the end of the trip. We soon realized that while music was definitely a bonus, it would not be a necessity because the further we drove the more amazing the scenery was and the more preoccupied we became with taking it all in.Map in one hand and camera in the other I was quite entertained. The first day of driving would be done on a paved highway, which we definitely didn`t appreciate as much as we should have until the next two days came and went. We drove through the Quebrada de Cafayate, which was incredibly lush and green and made all the more beautiful in contrast to the deep red of the earth that lay far as the eye could see. The valley is known for various rock formations which have been created and carved over thousands of years by the elements. We passed first by the Garganta del Diablo (Devil`s Throat) where we parked the car and climbed up into the tremendous space the constitutes this natural wonder. Words do not really suffice to describe most of these sights, but there are plenty of pictures which might help to put it more in perspective. Next we stopped at the ginormous Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre) where an old gentleman kindly played is flute for us to demonstrate just how amazing the sound was carried in the space. It was at this time that Pat and I started to realize just how fortunate we were to be making this trip. Without a car it is very difficult to see most of what we saw that day, and without a vehicle it would be nearly impossible to travel the route we took the following two days. There were fewer and fewer tourists as we drove (those that we did encounter were mainly just from Argentina) and it was really nice to finally be doing something that was a little more out of the way and off the tourist track. We stopped to take a few pictures at a huge stone formation shaped like a toad and more at the phallus-looking Obelisco.
It was nearing late afternoon when we emerged from the Quebrada de Cafayate into the vast valley beyond that immediately reminded Pat of the OkanaganValley at home. The quiet town of Cafayate lies nestled in a valley of the same name and is well-known for its vineyards. We headed straight for tourist information upon arrival in order to get a map of the bodegas and vineyards in the area. Most of them have specific hours for tours and tastings so we set out to make the most of our shortage of time (planning only to hit the free ones of course!). We took a dirt road a kilometre out of town to our first vineyard called Felix Lavaque. It was a rather large company that produced a lot of wine for export to a lot of countries (including Canada!). We took our tour in Spanish with a couple girls from Buenos Aires and then headed to the tasting room (clearly our favourite part) to do a little sampling. This area of Argentina makes a particular white wine that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. They are famous their Tannat which is a deliciously sweet white wine that immediately grew on Pat and I (even though we are both far more partial to the red varieties). It was here that we bought our first bottle of Tannat and for an unbeatable price of something like $4. Wine is generally known to be quite inexpensive in Argentina but it becomes even cheaper when you buy directly from the winery itself - the same bottle of wine sold in a store in Canada would cost about $20! With little time to spare we made our way to the second wine tour which was surprisingly disappointing due to the poor service, lack of information, and uneventful wine. Not to be disheartened we moved on rather quickly without making a purchase and headed to a little boutique winery that produces purely organic vinos (the only one in the region). It was here that we found a nice bottle of Malbec (probably our favourite variety of red wine and also particular to Argentina). We were on a roll by this point and realized there was one more winery just across the road that was still open to visitors. We wandered across and took a seat at the fancy bar (clearly feeling out of place in our travelling scrubs) while we waited for the current tour to wrap up. With a little bit of luck we managed to skip the tour entirely and still enjoy the tasting, rounding off our afternoon and our collection with a very nice cabernet sauvignon.
Our afternoon of wine tours was spectacular (and cheap!) and as it drew to an end we went in search of Hostel Rusty K which had been recommended to us by the same couple who had told us about the area itself. After checking in and cleaning up we were just a little tipsy and a lot hungry. To remedy this problem we headed to a small grocery store down the street to buy some veggies and other things to make dinner. Our glorious homemade pasta was matched only by our incredible $5 bottle of Malbec… a perfect day which was soon to be followed by another.Hitting the sack early the night before we were able to rise and shine at a reasonable hour leaving us in great shape to hit as many free wineries as we could before skipping town! We headed a few kilometres out of town again and by about 10:30 we were getting the grand tour of the Echart winery.It was another very large scale operation but also the oldest in the entire region. It was here that I found the loveliest smelling Malbec in all the world, needless to say there was no question of whether of not we were going to buy it (it would later be difficult to convince me to even open it since I felt it was most worthy of a very special occasion!). We made it to one more winery on the edge of town just in time for a tour (hooray!). The tasting at this particular winery was disappointing due to the fact that we only sampled their most common varieties and not a drop of the ones they are actually known for. They had particularly dry vinos and since none of them struck our fancy we headed back to town, making a quick detour to a little goat farm at the end of one of the town streets to buy a wheel of garlic oregano goat cheese for our afternoon picnic. We had heard of a place in town that prided itself on the creation of wine flavoured ice cream - clearly that was our next destination.After getting a little bit of history from a very nice older gentleman regarding the ice cream (I know what you`re all thinking, but it did not contain any alcohol!) we opted for a scoop of each flavour - one cabernet sauvignon and of course their local specialty, one of tannat. The ice cream was absolutely wonderful and so refreshing it is almost shocking that something of the like has not found its way to Canada (or at least not to the best of our knowledge).We decided it was time to make our way in the direction of the days final destination, but seeing as how there was one more winery that was kinda sorta on the way out of town, we decided to make one last stop.It was a 6km drive out of town and up the side of the valley to arrive at the most beautiful vineyard in the region. The homes and buildings themselves were classic and everything had particular aged elegance to it.There was hardly a soul to be seen and we soon found out why.There would actually be no tasting at this particular winery because everything was done solely by reservation due to the fact that the tasting is actually done over a luncheon in the owners' home.We hid our disappointment and graciously accepted the personal tour a young woman offered to us.It turned out that this vineyard contained the oldest vines in the region and was actually the parent winery of the one we had visited that very morning (Echart).The owner had decided to separate the operation under two different labels, this one being the more expensive and renowned of the two (due to the fact that its vines were simply that much older and at the highest altitude in the area).We had already purchased four bottles of wine at this point but they had all been relatively cheap, so Pat wanted to blindly buy one of their more expensive bottles (hence higher quality) which was a blend of all of their different grapes. We walked away with a classy $15 bottle of wine (one that would be sold in Canada for a mere $100) and called our winery adventures to an end with a total of 5 bottles in hand (well 4… we drank one already J).
It was mid-afternoon when we finally got on the road, headed north as the crow flies towards Cachi where we would spend our second night. The map indicated that pavement would last for about half and hour and later regress into something resembling a secondary highway. We had been warned by our rental agency that our second and third days of travel should under no circumstances be driven faster than 40km/hr and it wouldn`t take long for us to realize why.The road soon turned into something that resembles gravel but with giant boulders and our speed was reduced to a very relaxing 35km/hr. We decided it time to enjoy our luncheon and pulled the car over in the plaza of the last real town we would see for hours. It was here that we feasted on a giant fresh baguette with which we made tomato, cucumber, avocado, and garlic-oregano goat cheese sandwiches.We also thought it fitting to accompany the most delicious picnic ever with a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, making it quite literally the perfect meal.Fed and watered we left the curious stares of the locals behind and blazed our own trail down Ruta 40 (the very same ¨highway¨ down which Che Guevara made his epic journey).It became very apparent very quickly that we were headed straight for the middle of nowhere. Probably one of the most entertaining observations throughout the whole trip was the plethora of road signs signalling caution due to the fact that some type of wildlife or another might be crossing. Sheep, llamas, dogs, cows, and donkeys were only a few of the many things we encountered.Like the day before, the drive was more and more breathtaking around every corner. We found ourselves in a very dessert like landscape - hot, dry, and dusty. We took full advantage of the fact that we saw no more than 8 vehicles in 5 hours and stopped every few kilometres to get out and investigate something or take random photos. We saw the fattest donkey in the entire universe just tethered to the ground in the middle of a gorge in literally the middle of nowhere with nothing to be seen for miles. We were curious about the hills that were often covered entirely in something red so finally I went to scope it out, discovering that the locals were simply drying a variety of chillies in the sun on the hillsides. Our 35km/hr pace, the sporadic folklore music on the only semi-clear radio station, and the sheer pleasure with our good fortune to be living such lives inspired us to celebrate with the rest of the wine from our picnic.The landscape was surreal, the weather was perfect, and the villages of no more than 3 adobe huts that we passed through left us in awe. Our first amazing day on the road had somehow managed to be surpassed by the second.
Cachi is described with only a few sentences in our guidebook as being the most aesthetically pleasing towns in the region. It blatantly claims that there is virtually nothing to do, but that that is half of its charm. We arrived shortly before dark and drove the dusty streets lined with curious school children, trying to find the town square where we might find a bed for the night. Eventually settled into our hostel decided to make a quick supper with our little camp stove, heating up the leftover pasta we had from the night before. Not fully satisfied we decided to go for a wander and take a look at the town of Cachi. The main attraction seemed to be in the main plaza where every single resident seemed to be hanging out.Religious banter from an evening service was being blared through a speaker attached to the church and a giant projection screen was being set up in the main square which would later feature a strange Irish film about the salvation of Christ. Needless to say, Pat and I felt like we finally found the place where we belonged - ummm, no. Rather, we decided to take the spectacle in and have an intense discussion about the validity of religion itself over a couple pints of the local brew and a pancake. Our evening in Cachi drew to a close and without any other options we headed back to the hostel to hit the hay.
Seeing as how we had taking in most of what Cachi had to offer the evening previous, we woke up, had breakfast, and got on the road again. It was our final day of driving that would eventually land us back in Salta where we had started. Due to a lack of anything resembling directional signage, we first ended up leaving town via the airport runway. When the pavement came to a very sudden end and there was no road (dirt, gravel, or otherwise) that carried on from there, we clued in and realized that we may have been misled.Headed back into town we eventually were straightened around and pointed in the right direction.The map indicated pavement for maybe the first 40 minutes of the drive and Pat took full advantage of this in order to make up for time that we knew we were going to lose in the miles that lay ahead. Once again, the landscape would prove mind-boggling and so completely different from anything we had driven through in the two days previous.We found ourselves in the middle nothing, one long highway stretching out as far and straight as the eye could see and miles of flatness adorned with millions of cacti taking every shape and size.We carried on and the highway finally turned into the dreaded gravel that we had been waiting for. The road started to climb and without more than a few minutes warning the skies went from clear and sunny to dark, dreary, and drizzly.The potholes became larger, the fog moved to within meters of the front of the car, and all of a sudden there were DANGER signs every half a kilometre or so.The road was becoming narrower and I was definitely growing more nervous by the minute (although Pat did an amazing job of navigating the Gol through the stickiest of situations).An approaching vehicle flashed his lights and rolled down the window signalling us to stop, after a brief exchange we were informed that a few kilometres further along the valley there had been an avalanche and the entire road would be blocked for quite some time until they managed to clear it.That was super news, considering this was the only road back to Salta and we really had no choice but to arrive there that evening.Figuring there was really no other option for us but to wait it out, we thanked the man and carried on our way slowly but surely.Every corner was a cliff-hanger as the muddy one-lane road made a very steep switchback down the side of the mountain. Finally we came around a corner and could see the hazard lights of a number of other vehicles patiently waiting along the side of the road. We pulled up next in line and got out of the car to scope out the situation. It had rained all night and the road was inches thick with mud, but we wandered down to the scene of the crime to get the scoop.One little backhoe was already at work clearing the fallen rock and debris that was piled metres high on the road above the cliff, and you could see in the distance another machine making its way up the mountain.Cars and people were lined up on both sides taking in the spectacle and having a good-hearted giggle at the hilarity of the whole situation. It would be a couple hours until the road was cleared enough to pass through so we went back to the car, retrieved a loaf of bread and half a bottle of wine, and perched ourselves on the side of the cliff to enjoy the moment.
Faster than anticipated the road was open and soon traffic was moving.My nerves were definitely relieved to see that we weren`t the only tiny vehicle travelling in such conditions without the luxury of 4WD, until we rounded a corner only to come up once again behind a stalled line of traffic with their hazards on.Looking ahead we could see that the road was flooded by a couple feet of water that was rushing down the mountainside and over a steep cliff on the other side - just splendid.To make matters better and to ease my mind there also happened to be a car no bigger than ours stuck right smack in the middle.People were knee-deep in freezing water pushing from the back while a jeep pulled with a towrope from the front.Eventually the car emerged on the other side and vehicles started filing through one by one.Thankfully it turned out the driver of the first car that was stuck was just an idiot, because if you drove straight through with good sense and a firm foot on the gas it wasn`t nearly as scary or dangerous as we had first perceived.Apart from a few more flooded stretches (where the water went half-way up my door!) and numerous hair-pin turns, the rest of the journey down the side of the mountain and into the valley below was quite calm.The scenery was once again breath-taking and the numerous animal crossing signs in all of the small villages were more than enough to keep me entertained and shutter-happy.The road eventually merged into the main highway that would lead us back to the city and our road trip was nearing an end. We made a pit-stop in a small town to use a washroom and took a drive down the dusty streets, by far the most strangest and most eventful moment being when we passed a very old indigenous woman walking down the road in her birthday suit.
Arriving back in Salta we had a couple of hours to kill before we had to return the car, so we went to pick up bus tickets for that night at 12:30am that would take us to the border crossing of Argentina and Bolivia.We then decided to wander around the markets again and left the car in a secured parking lot. Just our luck as we wandered down the same street as the movie theatre we noticed that they were debuting the movie Vantage Point in 15 minutes - we were clearly meant to see another film, and once again we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves (minus the all-American patriotic ending, but what can you expect really… other than that it was a fantastic movie!).We emerged from the theatre just in time to return the car to the agency (and get our credit card deposit back in full - *sigh of relief*).We killed a couple of hours with a cheap meal, internet, and some phone calls home and then boarded the bus which would mark the beginning of a new phase in our adventure. Bring on Bolivia!