After a few days in Salta running errands—Bolivian visa? Check! (Well, sort of.); stock up on English language books to read? Eh, check. I guess. (Damn you, new Murakami opus only available in Spanish!); recover from smelliest bus ride yet? Thank-goodness-check!—Mark and I were more than ready to hit the road and head out on our own. Not that Salta isn’t a great town, but if there’s one thing we’re realizing on this here trip, it’s that we are craving nature pretty much all the time. Peace and quiet goes a long way after 11 years living in a Very Large Apple.
From the moment we picked up the car and drove out of the city, everything seemed to click into place. Call me corny. Call me trite. But there really is something about being behind the wheel . . . er, passenger seat . . . in a foreign place, discovering new scenery, letting your thoughts meander where they want to go or just looking out the window. Stopping where and when you want to. Going whatever speed you’re inclined to go. Munching on some weird snack you picked up for the ride. Add the fact that this route turned out to be, hands down, one of the best journeys there is scenery-wise and you’ve got the perfect recipe for bliss.
How to describe the sights? Like with Chilean Patagonia, it’s hard to find words that pinpoint just how jaw-droppingly exquisite the loop from Salta south through Cachi and Molinos to the wine-growing town of Cafayate, then north again through Colonel Moldes, back to Salta is. Even the photos can’t really do the drive justice. But I’ll give it a go and then you can use your imaginations. Eh?
On the first day, we drove south on Route 40 to Cachi. As the outskirts of Salta began to slip away and even the outskirts of the outskirts lost their influence, we began to drive through fields of tobacco. Rows and rows of tobacco. Little farms scattered throughout, and the roads were peppered with tractors, horse-drawn carriages, trucks carrying loads of various stages of tobacco, etc.
Pretty soon, the tobacco pastures gave way to hills which then gave way to rolling mountains, which then surprised both of us by becoming jagged cliff-like giants covered with what looked like moss. Rich greens contrasted by dark grays, especially in the sunlight. Yes, there were sheep. Yes, there were whinnying horses. If Latin-American Heidi was there, singing from atop one of the spongy peaks, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
A few hours into the drive, the colors and physical landscape began to shift, and by the time we rolled into Cachi, we were looking at mountains that looked like what you might find in Arizona or Utah. Deep crimsons, browns and oranges, but still speckled with trees.
While Cachi is a quaint little tourist town filled with artisanal shops (ice cream, cheese, ponchos) and tour outfitters, we decided to push our luck and press on to Molinos before stopping to camp for the night. Looking back on it, I’m glad we did. While Molinos apparently had “a lot less going on” than Cachi (according to some overly zealous rental car agent we were flytrapped into speaking to in Salta), we found it to be pleasantly exactly-right. No zip lines. No fancy-pants restaurants. In fact, not too many places open. But the dusty enclave had a really nice vibe to it: that of humble people going about their business, living their lives.
Night # 1, we camped in a municipal campground with this guy who liked to bite fingers:
The next morning, we high-tailed it through more beautiful scenery until we got to Cafayate, where we spent a day-and-a-half doing all sorts of fun (and yummy!) stomach-oriented activities. We toured the Jose L. Mounier/Finca Las Nubes winery and bought a bottle of mighty tasty Torrontes. We also toured the Cabras de Cafayate goat farm where they make—you guessed it—goat cheese. And we followed the advice of two friends we met in Salta and ate at the House of Empanadas twice (Thanks for the tip Tony and Natalie!). A dozen literally godlike veggie empanadas plus a jug of Torrentes for just 45 pesos. Now that’s what I call a deal.
Night #2, we camped in another municipal campground with this guy who really, really liked goat cheese:
The next morning, we begrudgingly headed back to Salta in order to hopefully pick up Mark’s Bolivian visa by 6 p.m. But not before driving through even more kick-me-in-the-arse!-again!-again! sights. Think Monument Valley + Zion + Bryce all rolled into one, followed by a picnic lunch next to “the second-largest manmade lake in the world” (Um. Yeah. Again with pesky rental agent.), where we saw our future home:
Needless to say, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that I feel fully and completely refreshed. What’s more, it’s pretty humbling to be able to drop into various towns, if only to catch a glimpse of how very different it is to live elsewhere. I’m verging on the corny (again), but before I sign off to make dinner, I will urge anyone looking for an awe-inspiring road trip to seriously consider booking a flight to Argentina and taking this drive. You won’t be disappointed.