A Llama Friend and a Harrowing Mountainside Ride

15 Dec

Salta is a congested small city in northern Argentina that is worth visiting only as a place with accommodation at which to sleep after spending the day in the surrounding countryside. The city itself is grimy, unfriendly, and frankly, a bit ugly outside of its main historical plaza. Most of its downtown is blocks and blocks of what look like flat-roofed strip malls.

One of the only nice parts of Salta, it's main plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio

It is also a terrible place for pedestrians. The sidewalks are narrow, muddy, uneven, and full of puddles. Cars drive like they are all in one big game of Grand Theft Auto. Crossing the street is a treacherous endeavor that is bound to put even the most enthusiastic and upbeat traveler in a sour mood.

I arrived in Salta at 6:30am after almost two days of bus riding. Needless to say, I was quite exhausted. When I finally got a room at my hostel, I conked out for the next four hours.

The Cathedral of Salta right outside the Plaza 9 de Julio

Bleary-eyed, I dragged myself out of bed to explore the surrounding city blocks before night set in. As I was standing on a corner contemplating how I was going to undertake a safe crossing of an intersection at which there were no traffic signals and drivers from both directions were zooming through seemingly uncaring whether they rammed into another car, let alone a pedestrian, a charming guy lured me into his tour shop. I was having so much fun talking to him in the mixed Spanish and English of a two year old (since neither of us knew the other’s respective language) that somehow he convinced me to book two days’ worth of tours in the countryside outside of Salta.

The ghost town of Alemania

I regretted my decision the next morning when my alarm went off at 6am. Somehow I managed to dress, clean, and feed myself before my tour van showed up.

The day’s tour would take us to Cafayate. Most of the attractions would be along the desert highway on the way to and from the small wine town.

Climbing the Garganta del Diablo

We first sped past Alemanía, a ghost town that used to be a bustling stop for the steam engine train, until the steam engine was replaced by the electric, the town’s train station couldn’t support the new trains, and everyone moved away. I got a good look at the town as it whizzed by through my window, but it would have been cool to stop and hang out there for a while. There is something about ghost towns that is very intriguing. It seems so weird that a place that was once full of life can disappear into nothing.

The entrance to the Anfiteatro, a natural amphitheater in the rocks

Alas, this is the extreme downside of tours. We always end up spending too much time at the places I’m not as into and not nearly enough time at the exciting places!

The tour van drove on, and I watched the landscape change from green mountains carpeted with trees to orange desert sprouting sharp rocks forming imaginative shapes.

The Titanic sinking in the desert

We hopped out of the van at Garganta del Diablo, a gorge in the shape of the devil’s throat between two jagged orange cliffs with a steep rocky slope that was fun to climb on for the short time we were allotted there. (Stupid tour constraints ruining my fun.)

Next we stopped at the Anfiteatro, a roofless cave forming a natural amphitheater in the middle of the rocks that produced acoustics that would make Carnegie Hall envious, as proven by two guys who were singing and playing guitar in the middle.

We continued driving through rock country, passing a frog, a priest, identical hand twins, and even the Titanic, until we reached Cafayate.

The vineyard at the Bodega Hermanos Domingo

Bodega after vineyard after bodega after neat rows of grape vines greet visitors to Cafayate. Known for its wine, Cafayate’s main attractions are its wineries. I was excited to tour Bodega Domingo Hermanos, mostly so I could taste the wine. The tour was in Spanish, so I didn’t totally know what was going on. (I really need to learn some Spanish.)

After a too-long walk around the fermentation tanks, the grape presser, and the barrels, we finally got to taste the white Torrontés and the red Tannat. My wine palate isn’t very sophisticated, but these grape varietals that I was previously unfamiliar with were quite agreeable to me.

Me and my new llama friend

Pleasantly imbibed, we piled back into the van for the long drive back to Salta.

There was still more fun to be had. On the way home, we pulled into a llama farm, and I made friends with a goofy, furry white one who loved posing for pictures with me.

It was early to bed for me that night, because I had to rest up for the next day’s tour to Cachi.

The journey to Cachi the next morning was a fist-clenching nail biter of a van ride. The road started innocently enough through brown farmland. Then suddenly we were in a jungle. How strange to be under a canopy of thick greenery in an area that gets little rainfall. Our guide, Pierre from France, explained that the jungle trees quench their thirst from moisture in the air.

The road that curves up and around the steep mountainsides, scary but with stunning views

The jungle disappeared and we were driving up and around a gorge in the mountains. Here, the narrow road clings to the side of the mountains for miles and miles, the barrier-free side sharply dropping off while the road twists around and up and down past periodic signs warning of rocks and other debris falling onto the road from the side of the mountain above. Indeed, there were pieces of the mountainside all along the road that had apparently fallen from way up above at some point.

A green, red, and blue mountain

The mountainsides are a kaleidoscopic mix of seaweed green, oxidized iron red, and even some magnesium blue and white.

I spent the first part of the drive praying with all my might that we wouldn’t be struck by rocks from one side of the road and/or go careening off the other side into the ravine below. Pierre insisted chewing on some coca leaves would help, but I didn’t notice a difference.

What did help was the dramatically stunning scenery that eventually distracted me from the scariness of the ride.

The perfectly straight Incan Road

The van wound its way up the side of the mountain until we reached the highest point at 4500 meters, marked by a small church. We continued over the mountain to a plateau and onto a long, perfectly straight road. Apparently this road was paved over an old Incan road that is so straight, it deviates only 4 centimeters on each side.

I felt much safer on this meticulously created Incan road.

The plateau is home to Los Cordones National Park, a forest of cactuses called cordones. We explored the flat land of cacti in different stages of life, some looming tall over the rest, some just beginning to sprout out of the bush they form from.

Me hugging a cactus

Just a few minutes past the cactus forest is Cachi, where we lunched and relaxed for a bit. My lunch of empanadas, pimientos rellenos, and home brewed wine served in a soda bottle was fantastic and filling – but not so filling that I couldn’t be persuaded to get a dulce de leche ice cream cone for dessert.

We wandered around Cachi for a bit post-lunch, down the cobblestone streets bordered by Spanish colonial style flat-roofed houses and shops to the main plaza connecting the town church and an archeological museum.

I braced myself for the heart-pounding ride back up and over the mountain to Salta. A thick afternoon fog was rolling in and hid the top of the mountain, right where we’d be driving, which only added to my apprehensiveness. It also didn’t help that Pierre was telling me scary stories about other cars falling off the edge. I think he was just trying to freak me out. (And it worked!)

Heading back home through the cloudy mountain

We miraculously made it back over the plateau, up, over, and down the mountain, around the gorge, and through the jungle without ending up at the bottom of the ravine. But the freakiness wasn’t quite over.

We arrived at a road with a slight incline. Our driver turned the engine off. The van sat still for a second and then started slowly rolling UP the road. We were on the “inexplicables” road, a place where compasses spin crazily, crop circles pop up overnight, UFOs are periodically sighted, and apparently cars move themselves.

Of course, I know there is a logical explanation for all of this. But it was fun to get caught up in the locals’ urban legends.

Tomorrow I’m hopping on another overnight bus that will take me south to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina.

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