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Trip Report The Fascinating NW of ARG-PT1

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as seen thru the eyes of my travelin' companion...

We began and ended our trip to the Northwest in Salta. Salta, known as "la linda" (the beautiful), is an attractive colonial city with a beautiful lavender-hued cathedral on the central plaza, the architecturally exuberant Iglesia San Francisco on a nearby side street, and a number of interesting-sounding museums. (One of the museums, the mirrored-glass Museo de Anthropologia y Arqueologia, is immediately adjacent to the cathedral and offers some great photographic possibilities.)

Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited in time - the equivalent of one day at the beginning and one day at the end of our trip - and never explored the city in depth. On arrival (via a two-hour late morning LAN flight from Buenos Aires' Jorge Newberry Airport), we dropped off our bags at the Carpe Diem Bed & Breakfast, ate a late lunch of wine and empanadas at Doña Salta, then checked out the jaw dropping Iglesia San Francisco, explored the beautiful central plaza, peeked into the cathedral and eventually wandered north to Calle Balcarce and its restaurants and clubs. On first impression, perhaps due to the busy, pedestrian-only streets south of the plaza, Salta came across as crowded; when we arrived at the Balcarce area later in the afternoon, but way too early for any Argentine evening activity, we felt almost like we had escaped teeming hordes. We lingered in the Café del Tiempo for hours, first having wine, later empanadas, finally salads. Coincidentally, or perhaps because the Argentine Northwest is a small world, we saw a flyer at Café del Tiempo for the place (Miraluna in Cachi) we had reservations at the very next night - and it turned out that our waiter was friends with the Miraluna manager. Small world.

We eventually wandered back to Carpe Diem well after dark, passing by noisy, rhythmic demonstrators outside the regional legislature on the Plaza Güemes. The Carpe Diem room was hot and we were reluctant to open the only window as it opened onto an interior hallway. We tried cranking up the overhead fan, which resulted in noisy and disturbing wobble of the entire fan and motor, which happened to be located immediately above our bed. We decided to put the fan on low and bask in the midnight heat.

Shortly after we finished our breakfast of Teutonic pastries the next morning, the rental company representative dropped off our rental car at the hotel. It was Volkswagen Gol (as in the soccer score), serviceable but somewhat the worse for wear for having already bounced 30,000+ kilometers over the rutted ripios of the Argentine Northwest. (I liked to think of it as having been acclimated to the rugged terrain.) We dumped our suitcases in the back, slid a recently-acquired Buenos Aires space tango CD into the player, cranked the stereo and hit the road. Sort of. It was only two rights and a left - and half an hour in the impassably crowded traffic - before we finally left Salta behind us, heading south on Rte 68. Thirty or so kilometers later, a right onto Rte 33 put us on the road to the Parque Nacional Las Cardones, Cachi and the Calchaquies Valley.

The first ten or fifteen kilometers of Rte 33 are a smooth paved road that goes through green farmlands. It then rises to exit the Lerma Valley. The greenery disappears - as does the pavement. We are now on the infamous Northwest ripio - rough roads that double as stream beds when the snow in the Andean foothills melts. The car veered and shook; we slowed to a crawl. One particularly rough bump stopped the CD player. Another one shortly thereafter re-started it. We then discovered that we were unable to eject the CD. We were to spend the next eight days intermittently listening to the space tango CD or Argentine radio, which featured either rock nacional or international latin music. We never heard any tango on Argentine radio and very little Andean folklore music. We were destined to live with the CD - of which we quickly tired - or cumbia and Cuban music, hitting the 'seek' button as stations invariably faded or a dj played meringue or salsa.

After an hour's driving we were in high desert, a vast empty landscape studded with cardon cacti. Cardones look somewhat like saguaros, except more- and no downward turning - arms; they resembled a candelabra rather than the characteristic saguaro Gumby-look. We were to remain in this cactus-dominated landscape for the better part of three hours, driving through a number of wildlife crossings. During this time we saw no wildlife and only one other car ' stopped near a chapel at the high pass just at eh Parque Nacional de Cardones. The driver and a companion were taking photos of each other, the chapel and cactus-studded landscape. There are two roads nearby that take one further into the park, one (as I understand it) leading to a natural amphitheater. Both roads were closed and chained off. Somewhere near the chapel is a millstone that earlier travelers on the way to the Calchaquies valley had abandoned a century or more before. I was puzzled. It was left very near the highest point between the two valleys. The hard work had been behind them; they could have pretty much rolled it downhill from there . Perhaps they had gotten the word that the Calchaquies river is a mere trickle most of the year and had abandoned it as useless.

After over three jarring hours on provincial route 33, we arrived at Route 40 and the small village of Payogasta. We turned left onto the paved road towards Cachi. Cachi is a very nice, very small town with a beautiful park-like plaza, a small museum, a handful of artesania shops and an attractive church. After an espresso at a café near the plaza we walked up the block and back, checking out the artesania shops indicated by the red and black Salta-style ponchos invariably hanging outside. We then explored the church (the Iglesia San José) ' everything inside, from the ceiling beams to the altar, seemed to be constructed of cardon wood. Then we checked out the Museum (the Museo Arquelogico Pio Pablo Diaz), which contained artifacts from Incan and pre-Incan times. Having missed every museum in Salta, I would have felt culturally deficit had we not. We were the only people there and had a one-on-two guided tour of the four or so rooms from the resident guard/cashier/docent, Carlos. We goood-naturedly managed to assemble a coherent conversation from the shards of his broken English and my own fractured Spanish. I actually came to understand something of the history of the native peoples of the Calchaquies valley.

By the time our tour was over we were starving. The café on the plaza did not serve food. We drove up to the Hosteria Cachi to check out the resident restaurant, arriving shortly after two large busses of elderly French tourists. We felt like the youngest people in the place as we managed to grab an isolated table and ordered garlic soup and what was to become our Northwest staple, empanadas, from one of the three harried wait staff present. The creamy soup was bland to the point of tastelessness and neither of us finished it. The empanadas, as usual, were quite good.

While we were finishing our meal, we watched in amazement as the French tour group insisted on, and then paid, individual checks. There were over forty of them! As an aside, I think this meal was one of the few times that we ordered anything in the Northwest that wasn't a regional specialty. After this we largely lived on humitas, tamales, empanadas and the occasional salad and regretted it when we tried non-regional dishes. (There was one regional specilaty we didn't try, locro, a stew-like dish of ' I believe - beef,corn and potatoes. For me, the concept brought back childhood memories of Boy Scout camping trips and charred cans of Dinty Moore bubbling on campfire embers.)

After our very late lunch, we left for our lodging at the Miraluna. We must have driven around the dozen square blocks that comprise Cachi five times before we finally caught sight of a Miraluna sign, and found ' and then lost and re-found 'the way to Miraluna. Miraluna is seven kilometers out of Cachi on a road so rutted, rocky and pitted it made Route 33 look like an autopista. Miraluna is set in a newly-planted vinyard with sweeping vistas of the verdant Calchaquies valley. We were greeted and shown to our room by Lorenzo, who either manages or owns the farm (I'm not sure which). There are about six rooms set in stand-along or duplex houses in the middle of the vineyard. Our room was beautifully done, with king-size bed, a sitting room and a kitchen, all nicely furnished with local crafts and furniture. After Lorenzo left, we sat outside and watched as clouds from the east arrived and seemed to pile up at the Andes, creating what appeared to be a vast dark rain clouds. Dark as it was, it didn't rain. I understand that some parts of Calchaquies valley never see rain and stay green solely through snowmelt. Seeking shelter from the imaginary rain, we sprawled out in our room and read the copious material we'd photo-copied from books and magazines and brought with us. Rather than endure the fourteen kilometer torture of driving to Cachi and returning, we opted to skip dinner altogether, eating a few leftover crackers from the LAN flight chased by bottled water. We went to bed early.

The next morning we were up early. Lorenzo brought by a loaf of home-made bread. We packed and were headed south on the road (Rte 40) to Cafayate before 9:00, munching the delicious bread as drove. The five hour drive to Cafayate was one of the highlights of our trip. The unpaved route follows the Calchaquies river, here a broad dry stream bed with occasional pools of water that I ironically took to calling the''broad majestic Calchaquies' until my wife eventually told me stop. At this, the northern end of the drive, many of the farmhoues are made entirely of adobe ' real mud brick adobe, not Santa Fe style 'faux'dobe. We constantly ran across half-ruined adobe farmhouses with five or more adobe Grecian-style columns appended to the front ' an architectural feature I'd never run across before and photographed repeatedly. The road meandered close to the Calchaquies sometimes and we found ourselves in thickets of a bamboo-like grass, unable to see around the next turn. Then it would veer away from the river and go up to the barren foothills and a landscape of rock and dust. Despite the current near-empty state of the Calchaquies, it obviously floods periodically. There were extensive barriers constructed on and near the banks to contain and direct the river. Perhaps two slow moving hours of Cachi, we left the road briefly to take the 'camino de artesanos' to the town of Seclantis.

Weavers along the side of this road display their wares outside their homes and you can stop and watch the crafts people at work. The weavings here are very Spanish-influenced and very different from the Andean-style weavings we saw elsewhere. We bought a table runner here, the only crafts purchase we made this trip. Seclantis itself is a small town, prosperous enough to have its main street paved for its entire four block length. It was so nice driving on this brief patch of paved road after two hours on route 40 that I was tempted to turn around and redrive it just for to enjoy that brief sense of smooth-riding comfort.

A while after rejoining Route 40 from Seclantis, we came on a car ' one of the few we'd seen- by the side of the road with a fellow standing next to it, waving his arms. We stopped. The guy was French. He hadn't seen the kilometer signs (i.e., kilometers from Mendoza) by the side of the road for a while ' were we on the road to Molinos? We'd stopped for directions barely a kilometer back; yes, we were on the right road. The French guy and his companion were to become a constant for the rest of the trip. We subsequently were to see them in every town we went to except Salta.

Our next stop was Molinos. (Perhaps this was where the abandoned millstone had been destined.) Molinos has a beautiful adobe church (the Iglesia de San Pedro de Nolasco) painted a pale yellow with green trim. Across the street was a nice hotel (Hostal Provincial de Molinos) that had been converted from an old hacienda and was arranged around an interior courtyard. The French guy showed up just asI was entering the hotel grounds. Leaving town a bit later, we saw signs for what must be the world's most remote Chinese restaurant.

South of Molinos, we entered the Quebrada de las Flechas, an area where former sediment-formed stone had been thrust upward and tilted in various directions. The road narrowed here as it threaded its way through the shattered and magnificent landscape. We stopped several times for photos, but found ourselves growing impatient. We had been on the road for over three hours and were only halfway to Cafayate. We tried to pick up our pace with bone-jarring results. It was with some relief an hour or two later when we unexpectedly encountered paved road about twenty kilometers north of Cafayate. The valley broadened as we drove past rolling vineyards and directly into town. Route 40 forms the east side of Cafayate's central plaza and a tourist kiosk sits prominently on the northeast corner. We stopped and asked for directions to the Hotel Killa, where we would be spending the next three nights. To be continued

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    Of course, we are interested, yestravel, but, for some reason or other, I did not see it when you first posted it.

    Keep them coming and be sure to keep them as entertaining as the first chapter!

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    yestravel - just found this via your other post, great report and nice to get a different perspective on virtually the same trip we did in November. When was your trip? Maybe we passed on the road?

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    AV - Thanks -- i was amazed u hadn't commented since u seem to follow all the Argentina posts. we'll get cracking on the next leg of the trip and try to keep it entertaining for u. Hope your knee is doing better by now.

    crellston -- We were in the NW from 17-26 Nov. Absolutely loved it. When were u there? Assume u posted a TR on your trip to the NW? I will need to hunt it down and read it. Like u said, it's always so interesting to read different views on similiar excursions.

    I have been following your month in BA -- enviously I might add!

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    This is wonderful!!
    I think I will print it out, my husband and I can keep it and refer to it when we start our planning for Adventures out on the Roads .. aka...Argentine Road Trips con Perro.

    Muchas gracias, yestravel ~

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    Thanks --
    Scarlett, one of these days I imagine you'll drag yourself away from the excitment of BA and take a few days for some country livin'. The NW is a must see...sort of like the US SW on steroids.

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    WOW! Nw is becoming very popular...
    It is great to know that the ones who came to this little corner of the world really enjoyed their time here. Not many people complained or regreted and that s good.
    Thanls yestravel, scarlett, avrooster for being interested in reading other people´s experiences.

    Flintstones

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    yestravel - we where there 5/10 November so a couple of weeks befor you. I agree with you that it is must see and IMHO I can't imagine why anyone would visit Argentina without visiting this area. I cant seem to find my trip report but here is a link to our blog and the firt entry about the trip:

    http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/candcthai/1/1225896060/tpod.html?tweb_UID=candcthai

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    crellston - -found your trip report -- sure wish it had been written b4 we left for Argentina. U got to a couple places we didn't and saw some things we missed so your TR would have been helpful to us. Oh well next time... We took the same road u took from Salta to Jujuy and kept thinking that we were on the wrong road also! Coming back from the North we took a highway that was far less scenic so we were glad we had ended up on the route u took from Salta north.
    And definitely different strokes for different folks. We enjoyed exploring Tilcara, the ruins, the museum, the hair raising junket up to the Devil's Gorge and some music at night. Do agree about the market in the square. I kept wishing it wasn't there! We also enjoyed Cafayate as a nice place to just kick back a bit and relax.
    Can't wait to kick back and read your blog!

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    Author: yestravel
    Date: 12/30/2008, 09:36 am
    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





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    Author: MarnieWDC
    Date: 12/30/2008, 12:36 pm
    This is the most interesting and appealing Trip Report I have read. I am now seriously considering adding this NW trip to our BsAs stay sooner rather than 'next time.' You have included art with a comparison of Parque Güell in Barcelona as a comparison of “Pachamama to Gaudi as a marriage of Gaudi’s mosaic techniques - intriguing. Your history, geography, food and wine descriptions are elegant and yet so personal and amusing. BRAVO!



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    Author: yestravel
    Date: 12/31/2008, 10:24 am
    What a nice compliment -- thank u!



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    What follows is the 3rd and Final Installment to our trip to the NW of Argentina - Tilcara-Puramaraca & Salt Flats & Salta.

    We exited Cafayate to the north on Route 40 and turned right onto the smoothly-paved Route 68. Within a few miles, Route 68 begins to pass through the Quebrada de Cafayate, some of the most spectacular scenery we had yet encountered on the trip. The road was lined on either side with immense uplifted sandstone. Sometimes it towered several hundred feet above the road, tilted by ancient tectonic processes and then carved by water. The general impression of the landscape was not unlike the red rock country near Moab, Utah, but steeper and taller. We stopped at a number of sights on the way: El Sapo (a toad-shaped rock), the Anfiteatro, and Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s throat). The Anfiteatro was perhaps the most spectacular, an immense hollowed-out area that had formed a natural amphitheater. And this theater had entertainment…a guitarist, a flautist and a drummer playing Andean melodies...and selling a CD recorded live at the Anfiteatro. I couldn’t resist.

    Further down the road, we ran across my personal favorite of the Quebrada de Cafayate…a homemade roadside shrine delineated by tires half buried in the dirt. I thought of the French guys and their tire troubles.
    After passing the Quebrada de Cafayate we were back in the green Lerma Valley south of Salta. Once we arrived at Salta we made the mistake of following the signs to San Salvador de Jujuy via Route 9. Route 9 is green, narrow, sinuous and beautiful, in many ways a delightful drive. Unfortunately, it is also the wrong road. As we were later to find out, the quicker route is east to General Güemes, then north towards Perico and San Pedro, then west towards Jujuy. We probably lost an hour or more, but we enjoyed ourselves in the process. We only glimpsed San Salvador de Jujuy from a distance and saw a skyline of high-rises; it appeared to be much more modernized than Salta. Once past Jujuy, there is no alternative to Route 9, which widens and more or less parallels the Rio Grande in the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Traffic, heavy around Salta and Jujuy, thinned out. The Quebrada de Humahuaca was a narrow valley, lined on either side by high mountains. It was beautiful – almost all of the Northwest is beautiful - but by now we had been driving for five -six hours and were in no mood to enjoy scenery. We only wanted to get to Tilcara.

    And get there we finally did. Tilcara is an attractive, albeit dusty, town on the east side of the valley. The main street is lined with restaurants and shops. The plaza was filled with an artesania market, with craftspeople selling brightly-colored Andean-themed woven items that seemed to be more appropriate to Bolivia than Argentina. The architecture has a colonial feel; there are a number of modern hotels that are built in that style. Outside the main street, almost the entire town is unpaved. Our hotel, Rincon de Fuego, was in a converted old building with some new additions to the back. Although the lobby seemed gloomy at first sight, the rest of the hotel is filled with natural light. Our room was large. The floor was covered in Andean weavings and we had a comfortable king-size bed - particularly welcome after the exhausting drive.

    We walked around town, getting an understanding of the layout and stopping for a snack of empanadas and a couple of glasses of malbec at A La Payla on the main plaza. (There’s a second, smaller plaza opposite the church.) Later that evening, we sought out the Restaurant Yacón, based on a recommendation from Angie/Giena / Flintsontes whom we’d met in Cafayate. Although we arrived well before dinner time by Argentine standards – we were the only people in the place - I was beat. The combination of the long drive and the previous day’s excess at Yagochuya had worn me out. Given that we were early and little else was available, we ordered pasta for dinner. It was mediocre by Buenos Aires standards. I didn’t even finish my meal and we headed back to our room to crash. (Note: I understand that Yacón is a very good restaurant; the fault lay with me, not them.)

    We spent the next two days exploring the town and the area. We drove further north on Route 9 to visit the truly cheesy Tropic of Capricorn monument – a miss-shaped and oddly-slanted concrete plinth by the side of the highway attended by vendors and their incurious llamas. We visited Tilcara’s two museums. The Museo Jose Antonio Terry is an entertaining museum of largely gaucho-themed art that varied between the excellent and the over-ripe. The Museo Arqueológico de Eduardo Casanova was an interesting regional archeological museum. The admission to the archeological museum is also good for admission to both the Pulcara, the restored ruins of pre-Incan fortress above Tilcara, and the botanical gardens adjacent to Pulcara. Pulcara is an interesting but perhaps over-restored collection of stone houses and walls crowned by a memorial pyramid to Dr Casanova. The botanical collection is comprised solely of cacti and seemed a bit redundant after climbing the cacti-studded hill to Pulcara. (It was late November, spring in the Northwest and I’d never seen nor photographed as many cactus flowers in my life.) We also visited the local Garganta del Diablo – in northwestern Argentina, the devil has many throats. This one was even more impressive than the one in the Quebrada de Cafayate, a narrow, deep and decidedly unfriendly-looking ravine. We’d driven there – the footpath was steep, forbidding and, above all, hot. The view across the valley was fantastic. The hills opposite were striated in red, yellow and grey…Georgia O’Keeffe colors.

    During this time, we turned Restaurant A la Payla into empanada central. We ate lunch there twice and dinner once. Next door was a peña, where we were heard a great deal of conversation and some occasional embedded live charango music on a Saturday night, performed by a loquacious guitarist and a seemingly mute accompanist. I eyed and fingered crafts repeatedly at the plaza market, but refrained from purchasing anything. We came to love Tilcara, dust and all.

    But it was time to leave. Our next destination was Purmamarca, a mere 20 kilometers or so south on Route 9. On our way there we stopped to check out Maimara and its colorful above-ground cemetery. We also stopped at La Posta, site of an old colonial church. Even with these stops we arrived at Purmamarca in mid-morning. It’s another old colonial town, somewhat smaller than Tilcara. It sits amid cacti and some of the most spectacularly colored hills of the Quebrada de Humahuaca…jumbled layers of yellow, pink, red, grey-green, orange, grey, and black. In tribute to the colorful backdrop, a hill behind the town is called Cerro de Siete Colores, Hill of the Seven Colors. Purmamarca has a nice colonial church and a central plaza filled with vendors selling the highest-quality artesania that we saw on the trip. The houses were largely of adobe and seemed to blend into the surrounding hills. We briefly glimpsed the two French guys, disappearing around a corner. Unlike Tilcara, Purmamarca is a tourist destination on the Salta circuit. Busses would arrive and park on the street behind the old church and disgorge hordes of day-trippers who moved first to the church and then to the market, filming with video cams the entire while.

    Our hotel was Hosteria de Amanta; although attractive, it was ridiculous in terms of entry. The door was kept locked. No one was stationed in the lobby. You picked up phone outside by the door and rang to request entry. Then you waited while some poor lady walked from the nether regions of the hotel to open the door. There was a delightful restaurant next door, Los Mortaryos (“the Mortars”). Los Mortaryos is a stylish upscale place that seems to have been airlifted in directly from Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires. Even the music – a kind of tango/lounge hybrid – had a Buenos Aires urban vibe. We abandoned our all-empanada diet for salads and fusion cuisine. The food was fabulous. We ate there twice – the second time partially by candlelight after the power failed, restarted, and failed again before restarting for good. It didn’t affect the quality of our food at all. We highly recommend this restaurant.

    In order to escape Purmamarca’s wandering groups of tourists, we embarked on an excursion to Salinas Grandes, the salt flats west of Purmamarca on Route 52. This drive made the old cliché about the journey being greater than the arrival ring true for once. Route 52 was a beautiful steep road that looped higher and higher into the mountains via a countless series of switchbacks. We must have gone through a dozen different ecosystems on the road up. The Cacti species first changed, then thinned, then disappeared. We saw some vicuñas in a small green valley. The eventual pass we arrived at was 4,150 meters (about 13,600 feet by my calculations) above sea level. Then we started a smaller series of switchbacks going down. The salt flats soon came into view on the horizon: an immense featureless expanse of white. Our car came through like a champ, neither overheating nor having issues with the thinner air. We arrived on a plain and still had to drive a good dozen kilometers to arrive at the salt flats. When we arrived, there was nothing…a salt gathering operation, some salt-carvings for sale, a one peso restroom and the shortest Argentine flag I’d ever seen, so worn away from wind and salt that only about three inches of ragged light blue and white cloth remained on the pole. Basically the salt flat was disappointing and dull and hot. At least we had the spectacular ride back to Purmamarca to look forward to.

    That night, after our dinner at Los Mortaryos, and a final stroll around the plaza, we found that our room was insufferably hot even with the one window open. There was no air-conditioning and, since only one window, no cross ventilation. Fortunately, we had the last room at the end of the hall and were able to prop the door open without losing our privacy. We did so. The room cooled quickly and we finally closed the door and slept. Considering the recurring annoyance of getting past the front door and the absence of any cooling mechanism, we would recommend that anyone visiting Purmamarca stay at a different hotel. There are a number in and around the town that looked like plausible candidates.

    The next morning we did the Cerro de Siete Colores hike. The trail is accessible from either end of town and loops behind the hill. The trail is easy and the scenery fantastic - there really are seven colors. . I must have shot two dozen photos of various rock formations and color combinations.

    We were now coming to the end of the Northwestern portion of our Argentina trip. It was with a certain sadness that we loaded up the car and started south on Route 9 through the beautiful walled valley. We made good time, again passing San Salvador de Jujuy in the distance. This time we took the route to Salta via General Güemes and were in Salta by early afternoon. We’d changed hotels and were now at the Hotel Almeria, near the center part of town. The Hotel Almeria is an efficient business hotel, totally without ambiance, the kind of place that brings out your inner Rotarian. But it did have efficient air conditioning. We had lunch at El Solar del Convento, the only true parilla we visited on our entire trip. Empanadas and steak and wine; can’t go wrong with that combo. After our late lunch we returned the car to the rental agency, to the same fellow who’d dropped it off at Carpe Diem a week earlier. I complained about the CD player. He indicated that he would get the CD for me. I watched in amazement as he laboriously prised it out with the metal cap of a ballpoint pen and proudly presented it to me. It was now so scratched it looked like it had been lying in the street for a week. I bit my tongue. (Incredibly, when I got it home it was actually playable.)

    One of us took a nap, while the other got a massage for about $30USD, what a deal! Afterwards we wandered the plaza until nightfall and then started our slow migration north to Calle Balcarce. Tonight, even though it was a Tuesday, we were determined to hear some of the live folkloric music for which Salta was famous. Near Balcarce we checked out the Hotel Legado Mitico hotel. Fabulous décor, just a beautiful place. Each room is named after a figure in Argentine history. We regretted not staying there and would strongly recommend it, particularly given its closer proximity to Balcarce where the Salta nightlife is. Given that Balcarce is a fair distance from the colonial sights on the plaza, Legado Mitico’s location between the two makes sense – you can walk to the plaza in the day, go to Balcarce at night and not have to return fourteen or sixteen blocks at night to get back to your room.

    We’d been given the names of two places on Balcarce that would likely have live folkloric music that night: Viejo Estacion and El Andien de las Andes. (The rest of the places on Calle Balcarce were either closed, played only recorded music, had other types of live music or were not having live music that night.) We chose Viejo Estacion and "stationed" ourselves a table outside that allowed us to view the stage from stage right. The food was good – salads, empanadas, wine. The music started at 10:30 and was good – a gaucho style quartet of four singers/guitarists. We stretched out under the streetlights and stars as they sang and danced until after midnight. We didn’t want to leave.

    The next morning after a nice breakfast at the hotel -- one of its redeeming features--we took off for the airport and were back in BA by mid afternoon.

    As I'm sure you can tell by reading this long trip report, we absolutely fell in love with the NW and highly recommend a visit to this spectacular region...definitely not to be missed. Thanks to all who provided us with information and especially to Flintstones/Giena who's patience in answering all the questions asked on the travel boards is amazing.

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    Yestravel, you did it again.

    Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to write these 3 posts - each one better than the last. Really interesting, educational and oh so inviting. You are a Renaissance traveler with multiple references to art, culture, history etc. and the all that food and mucic and fun stuff too!

    Which guide books did youall find most useful in exploring the NW?

    So, welcome home - looking forward to your next travels.

    Gracias, ~MarnieWDC

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    fabulous report. We enjoyed our stay in Purmamarca at the Manantial del SIlencio. We arrived in the afternoon and left in the morning, so we didn't see the tourist crowds.

    That hike behind the town through the hills is unbelievable. Did you end up in the cemetery and the church?

    I found the cemeteries in that region fascinating, too.

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    I enjoyed your report too, brought back many fond memories of the area....

    Hi skatedancer, can't wait for your report, we have 12 more weeks to go before we get back to AR, am now counting the days.....

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    MWDC -- thank u! A whirlwind 72 Hours in New Orleans will be easy, but 3 weeks in Italy, i dont know...however your comment about Renaissance traveler may do the trick!
    For our first trip we used Footprints and Fodors. This time we used the travel boards extensively esp for the NW portion of our trip. In BA, we bought a copy of the magazine "Time Out" and thought that a great resource for our time in BA.

    skatedancer -- thanks! El Manantial del Silencio was lovely, but no room at the Inn for us...they were all booked up. We did enjoy drinks in the bar which was very elegant. We wondered about the views from the room, could u see the hills of 7 colors? Am blanking on the church and cemetery there, but agree, they were fascinating everywhere we checked them out.

    owlwoman, reading TRs are sure nice ways to remember previous trips, glad u enjoyed ours. Where r u going on your next trip to Arg?

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    We're going to BA, Chalten/Calafate then Villa Angostura for a little R&R before heading back to BA. We're very excited and counting the days. We were in AR in 2005/2006, then Costa Rica 2007/2008, now heading back to AR (do you see a theme here?)

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