Road Trip!

Despite promises of better weather in the forecast, a strong chill hung over Salta on Monday morning. The previous day the town was engulfed in a festival, so the corresponding long weekend kept most of the shops closed as Stefje, Manon, and I set off to explore the town. Capitalizing on the weather situation, we opted to check out some of the indoor sights and headed for two of the town’s most beautiful churches. Of course on the way over I got interviewed by a local news station about tourism in Salta, so I'm expecting a call from an Argentinian modeling agency any minute now. 

While the entire town shut down for a long afternoon siesta, we tried to assimilate into the local scene a little more tucking in to a decadent lunch at one of the long-standing local parilladas (steak restaurants). Over thick cuts of red meat and bottles of afternoon wine, friends and family from all over town enjoyed a long lunch. 

It was almost 3:30PM by the time we left and turned back to the hostel for a short nap of our own. In the evening we had reserved a rental car, but unfortunately the previous owners were late in returning it, so we ended up making the most of our additional night in Salta. After fruitlessly searching on Sunday for a bar or restaurant that might have some NFL games, Stefje and I randomly picked a restaurant on the plaza for dinner; lo and behold, they had ESPN! Through six weeks of the season I hadn’t watched a single down, but I finally got to enjoy my first taste of NFL action since watching the Super Bowl at 6AM on a beach in Indonesia. 

With three days in the city passed in grey squalor, Tuesday morning showed us a new side to Salta. The cold front and cloud cover that had lingered over the town all weekend finally dissipated, giving way to some rejuvenating sunshine. It was also our first time seeing the city on a work day. The streets were packed to the gills with pedestrians and all the shops finally opened up for business. Unfortunately we couldn’t linger long to take in the scene, as we had a rental car reservation and it was time to start our ROAD TRIP! 

At the office we were introduced to our mode of transportation for the next four days: a beat up tiny little Ford Ka. Sporting a cracked windshield, a body littered with scratches, and boasting over 200,000 kilometers, our whip had clearly seen better days, but it was the cheapest option in town so we quickly piled in and got moving. 

Just half an hour outside of Salta the urban sprawl of the province’s capital city halted, giving way to the natural wonders of Argentina’s spectacular Northwest. We headed at first due East, heading through the scenery of Parque Nacional Los Cordones, where spectacular rock formations and vivid colors awaited our view. 

Along the way tiny towns were marked on the map, but most turned out to be nothing more than a smattering of tiny homes, usually less than a dozen. A few miles further the paved road gave way to a bumpy gravel route. Flanked on either side by mountains, we passed through the Cuesta del Obispo. Cacti the size of giants, stretching 12 to 15 meters into the sky, formed an eery natural forest in the otherwise dry and barren valley floor. 

Surrounded by nothing but pure nature, it’s understandable why the locals call the little pueblo of Cachi “the city.” A quaint little place popular among tourists as a stopover point for lunch or a night’s rest, Cachi was eerily quiet, with all the people and surroundings moving slower than molasses. After a quick lunch and a beer we moved on, anxious to tackle the five hours of unpaved roads ahead of us before sun down. 

First we progressed through the Ruta de Las Artesanias, a haven for arts and crafts traders from all over Chile and Argentina. In fact, every small town or tourist sight we passed through on the road trip always boasted two things: artesanias and wine! Afterwards we were greeted by the Quebrada de Las Flechas, a dizzying display of rock towers standing like sentinels, proud and strong after millions of years of geological formation. The thin road wove back and forth through tiny passageways with the Quebrada on either side, making for what we unanimously agreed was the most gorgeous driving experience of our lives. Luckily we hit the main part just as the late afternoon sun was reflecting off the rocks, providing some beautiful colors. But that was where our good fortune would end…. 

As the sun dipped below the horizon and the desert air quickly cooled, the road turned into a series of tiny ridges, bumping the car constantly. Manon suddenly had trouble steering on the rough pathway, so she pulled over to see what the problem was: of course we had a flat tire. Our right rear wheel was completely punctured in multiple places, rending it useless. I hopped out to get the repair kit and we were still trying to pry open the rusty wrench when Stefje flagged down the only other car on the road, an 18 wheeler. The driver was well-equipped to handle the situation and become our savior in the miles from civilization. With hands weathered by years of work and a surprising amount of power packed into his compact frame, he went to work. 

First, he opened the wrench through the sophisticated process of banging it with tremendous force against a rock. Then he got to work trying to remove the wheel bolts, but it quickly became apparent that they were completely rusted on. Over the next 30 minutes he tried all sorts of creative approaches, covering the bolts in oil and using every single tool in his bag to try and loosen them up. After much consternation and a considerable amount of brute force, he was able to loosen three of the four, but the last one was a nasty little bugger. We tried stomping down with all our body weight on the wrench but the opening was too loose and just slid off the bolt. Again he came up with a creative solution, resorting to banging the ends of our wrench with a huge rock to try and tighten the grip. But it was all to no avail, and for a while it seemed like we might end up sleeping in the desert. 

Just as I thought he was about to give up hope, another car pulled up with a significantly stronger wrench. In one fell swoop they dislodged the pesky bolt and then we could move on with removing the flat and putting the spare on. Over an hour later we were gratefully on our way, but not before profusely thanking the locals for their time and effort. Their selflessness to help three tourists, stranded and clueless, is not something I’ll soon forget. 

At 10:30PM we pulled into Cafayate in the pitch black night and found a simple campground to pitch our tent and rest our weary heads, but mother nature sent a howling wind through the night at hurricane force, chilling us to the core and threatening to pick the tent straight up out of its moorings. On Wednesday we set off to explore Cafayate, one of the most popular destinations in the Salta province. Surrounding a spacious main plaza were all the trappings a tourist could wish for: hand-made jewelry, ice cream parlors, boutique hotels, and plenty of restaurants. Yet the real attraction in Cafayate is the wine; behind Mendoza it’s the second largest wine producing region in Argentina and more than a dozen wineries are within striking distance. We walked to one on the edge of town for a late morning tasting. 

Set around a lovely outdoor patio laced with vines and decorated by wine barrels, Bodega Nanni has been operating in Cafayate since 1897. We were led on a tour through the facilities were they turn grapes into delicious alcohol, then offered a taste of four of their different varieties. My favorite was the torrontes, a fruity red that blends perfectly with a choice cut of Argentinian red meat. The entire process was decidedly a classy affair and despite the lack of showers in my life, I tried to put my best foot forward by unfurling my only extremely wrinkled collared shirt from the back of the car.

We looked around at a bunch of restaurants before finally finding the town’s cheapest restaurant, a popular lunch spot for locals serving up heaping portions of cheap food. In the afternoon we planned to head off immediately to our next destination, but then car disaster #2 struck: the engine wouldn’t start. By gently nursing the key through the ignition and giving it a hearty push, we were able to get it started, only to have it die right in the middle of the plaza. 

The town’s only mechanic was obviously in the middle of his long afternoon nap, but offered to come help us in 20 minutes and towed the beat up car to the garage. The problem was a clogged filter, which he worked on the for the next hour while the girls found some more wine and I took a nap of my own in the plaza. Meanwhile another massive wind storm came blowing through town, depositing sand everywhere and knocking the power out. Thankfully this didn’t prevent the mechanic from working and he was able to fix us up. So although we were mentally braced to spend another night in the tiny pueblo, at 5:30PM we were racing against the setting sun to Tafi del Valle, the next stop on our excursion. 

Framed by impressive mountains to the South and within sight of a beautiful lake to the East, Tafi del Valle is a spread out community of 3500 inhabitants living in one of the most tranquil spots in Argentina. The people were a mix of extremely wealthy and impoverished: for the first time we were exposed to some of the countries affluence, including gorgeous new houses built with astonishing views of the valley. We pulled in after dark and found a nice campground just a few blocks from the plaza, this time with walls to protect us from the gusting wind. 

On Thursday we all agreed that we had spent too much time sitting in a car and not enough exploring the beautiful countryside on foot, so we set off on a hike to a nearby mountain vista outside of town. As we walked out of the only grocery store in town with provisions a dog sniffed us and started following along. He seemed to tell all his friends to tag along, because just a few blocks later we had a pack of six in tow.

Feeling like pied pipers, we followed our merry band of friends out of town and up the hill, as somehow they seemed to know exactly where we were going. The climb was strenuous yet short; at the top we were rewarded with spectacular panoramic view of the sprawling village, the mountain range behind it, and the lake offset to the right.  

Back in town we grabbed a quick lunch and then prayed the car would start. It did, and we were on the road again. We sped back to Cafayate, whizzing past vineyards and fertile farm land. Yet this time we took a different road back towards Salta and here the trip voluntarily ground to a halt.

Just a few kilometers into the journey we came upon the Quebrada de Las Conchas, a valley world-renowned for its spectacular views. Over eons and eons, a gushing monstrosity of a river and this area’s forceful wind have eroded a wide canyon and carved away at its sandstone rock. What remains is a weird and wondrous landscape of magical rocky landscape. For the next two hours I stared slack-jawed at the glory of some of mother nature’s greatest artwork, muttering “wow” under my breath every time we rounded another corner.

The main road runs parallel to the river that did most of the rock carving, so we were able to drive directly every single one of the main attractions, including this series of natural castles stationed directly in front of our view. 

One of the highlights was a pair of huge crevasses carved out of the rock by an ancient waterfall long since run dry. The amphitheater, the first of the two, was a perfectly circular cavern of vertical rock walls on three side, giving it the feeling and acoustics of a monstrously tall baseball stadium. Inspired by the sounds of our voices cascading directly upwards and in honor of October’s MLB playoffs, I took the opportunity to belt out the American national anthem, ending it with a hearty “PLAY BALL!” 

The second crevasse, named “The Devil’s Throat,” was less easily accessible and required scaling some steep rock faces, but was much more beautiful. Straight ahead we could see the outcropping where a waterfall once cascaded, depositing massive rocks and carving away at the walls on either side of us. 

The light shines best off the rocks in the late afternoon and right as we stepped out of The Devil's Throat the sun disappeared behind the towering Western mountains, timing our driving that day perfectly.

As dusk fell we drove another hour to the next town, a tiny collection of houses named La Viña sporting just one guesthouse and a free municipal campgrounds where we posted up to spend the night. 

It was another freezing night outdoors, but Friday dawned bright and beautiful, with a clear blue sky overhead and plenty of sunshine to defrost us. We sped out of La Viña and headed out for the last leg of our loop back towards Salta, but not before first stopping at Cabra Corral lake. Like a propeller engine spreading in three directions, the lake expands over a wealth of land from its epicenter, where tours and extreme sports are offered. Along the shoreline were a few spots of prime real estate, occupied by new houses with beautiful views of the smooth waters. The placid lake had a calming feeling and we enjoyed spectacularly sunny views in every direction as the car wound through the curvy road. 

In the afternoon we made our way back to Salta uneventfully, gratefully depositing our weary bodies in real beds that night for the first time since our departure. 

Saturday was one of the most interesting days of my entire trip. With the price of a bus to our next destination of Cordoba a daunting $60 US, Stefje and I packed up our bags and walked to the edge of town to try and hitch a ride. For an hour and a half we waited with thumbs extended without receiving so much as a whiff of help from the hundreds of cars speeding by. Just as we were starting to lose faith, another backpacker walked by and explained in rapid Spanish that we might have more luck catching a bus to the nearby town of Guemes and trying at the highway intersection there, as it's more of a direct route. 

We hauled over to the bus station and purchased a ticket, but the next bus wasn't leaving for more than two hours, so we returned to the same spot and tried our luck. Just five minutes later a sedan stopped and we asked for a ride to the town about an hour away. 

"Where's your final destination?" he asked. "I'm headed down to Cordoba." 

"Nosotros Tambien!" (Us too!) We practically shouted, jumping at the possibility of a direct ride. Together the three of us ended up riding the entire 900 Kilometers over the next 12 hours, as our driver Sebastian turned out to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever encountered. Along the way he enhanced the experience by explaining facets of each province or town we passed through, pointing out the crops grown and telling stories about the history of Argentina.

Although we felt stupid for having burned money on bus tickets, I also know that if we hadn't purchased them Sebastian never would have showed up. That's just the way the universe works.  

Just after 1AM on Sunday morning we arrived in Cordoba, a city of 1.4 million people and a huge mental shock after half a dozen hours barely seeing any signs of civilization. The city was in full nightlife swing and although we were disastrously tired, I could do nothing but marvel at our good fortune.