As Mike and I were digging into the fourth course of our wine pairing lunch in Cafayate’s elegant Piattelli Winery our heads were swimming (and not only from the good wine). Just two hours ago, we had been driving along a gravel road through a tortured landscape of razor-edged hills. That morning, we’d woken up in Molinos, a tiny, sun-baked adobe village. The day before, we had started our 3-day road trip in sophisticated Salta, traveled through farmland that morphed into jungle that gave way to high desert. Our loop through Valles Calchaquíes, in northwestern Argentina, was less than 500 km (310 miles) and packed with so much variety it felt surreal. Cheers!
500 km over three days…piece of cake, right? It’s certainly doable, but with curvy mountain passes and long stretches of gravel, distances are deceiving. I feel we shortchanged this wonderful region a bit, and poor old Mike, the driver, wasn’t able to imbibe to the same extent as yours truly (our loop was part of the Ruta del Vino). Three days is a lovely teaser, but if you’re contemplating a visit, I’d recommend five days for a Valles Calchaquíes road trip.
The flexibility of having our own car was nice, and while this trip requires good driving skills we didn’t find it overly challenging or dangerous. For those who prefer to leave the driving to others, there are tours of varying duration available from Salta. For excellent quality, customized private tours, check out Poncho Tours. We used them for part 2 of our road trip—the Quebrada de Humahuaca (next blog post).
Day 1: Salta to Molinos (152 km/94 miles)
Route 33: paved/gravel, Route 42: all gravel
Our journey starts in Salta where we pick up our Ford Ecosport. Salta is a charming city at the foothills of the Andes with an all around nice vibe. It’s filled with exquisite Colonial-style buildings, imposing churches, interesting museums and great restaurants. If you do this road trip, make sure to include at least a full day in Salta.
We feel quite proud of ourselves (and relieved) after navigating our way out of Salta with its intersections that don’t have lights or stops signs.
By the time we get to El Carril, the turnoff onto Route 33, nondescript farmland changes to lush jungle. The transformation is quite remarkable, but before I’m able to take it all in (and take photos) the landscape quickly changes again and dries out.
We go up, up, up on a twisty section of Route 33 called Cuesta del Obispo. The stretch is only about 20 km long but we climb more than 2000 m (6562 ft), reaching maximum elevation at Piedra del Molino (3348 m/10,984 ft). The views down to the valley and the road we had just traveled are amazing. There’s a tiny chapel there where we chat with a Swiss guy who is doing this journey on bike. We’re in awe.
Our trip continues through Parque Nacional los Cardones. We haven’t seen another car for ages. It’s a stark place and I love it— the giant cacti, pink-hued hills and mighty Andes in the distance.
We opt to take Route 42 to Molinos and bypass the town of Cachi (a small regret). The road gets rougher and we’re having second thoughts, but the Ecosport gets us to Molinos without a hitch. After six rumbly hours on the road (including stops, short walks), we’re thrilled to overnight in the very atmospheric Hacienda de Molinos.
Mike is knackered from the drive. He grabs a beer and settles in for a pre-dinner nap in our giant four-poster bed fit for a Spanish royalty. The hacienda dates back to the 18th century and was home to the last governor of Salta, appointed by the King of Spain. I go out to explore Molinos (it doesn’t take long). It’s tidy and pretty with white-washed houses and cobbled streets—it’s impossible not to feel relaxed.
Travel tip: Spend two nights in Molinos (or one night in Cachi and one night in Molinos) to visit Cachi and the remote Colomé Winery without feeling rushed. We heard rave reviews about Colomé (the highest elevation vineyard in the world) and its James Turrell Art Museum. Colomé also has accommodations.
Day 2: Molinos to Cafayate (113 km/70 miles)
Route 40: mainly gravel until just before Cafayate
Day 2 of our road trip was one of my favourite days of our entire time in Argentina.
We start out earlyish with the goal of getting to Cafayate in time for lunch. Most of the way is on gravel, and it’s slow going. But that’s OK because the scenery, especially in the Quebrada de las Flechas (Canyon of the Arrows) is mind-blowing. The road is carved through a minefield of spiky sharp rocks that shoot skyward. At a pull-out we climb a short slope to get a bird’s eye view of the crazy landscape.
It takes us about three hours to get to Cafayate, a city that is the heart of Argentina’s second most important wine region (after Mendoza). It’s a beautiful place with massive vineyards backed by high mountains.There are dozens of wineries that offer tours and tastings for visitors. The region holds the honour of having the largest concentration of high altitude vineyards in the world, which range 1700-3100 m (5577-10,170 ft).
Like Mendoza, Cafayate produces exceptional Malbecs. My favourite though was a white, made from a regional varietal called Torrontés—so yummy. We liked the one from Colomé vineyard the best, and it’s widely available.
Piattelli Winery is set high on a hill overlooking sprawling vineyards and the town of Cafayate. Fragrant lavender, ornamental grasses, and elegant palms grace the manicured gardens surrounding the stunning Mediterranean-style estate. There’s a restaurant with a gorgeous patio that’s beckoning us to have lunch.
We splurge on a 5 course tasting menu that includes a glass of wine with each course, plus a sparkling wine welcome drink. The food is wonderful and the wine even better.
What a marvellous indulgence in our busy, over-planned lives to have a luxurious lunch that goes on and on, where one can get completely lost in the moment. We savour every sip and morsel, and our glorious surroundings. We miss the last wine tour of the afternoon—we don’t care (we couldn’t possibly concentrate or sample more wine).
Thankfully our hotel is only 3 km down the hill. As soon as we check in, we park ourselves on the comfy poolside loungers. The late-afternoon sun caresses our backs and we drift off. Does it get any better!
Travel Tip: Spend at least two nights in Cafayate. This provides time to visit more wineries and/or take a leisurely late afternoon stroll in the Quebrada de Cafayate (more on this in day 3).
Day 3: Cafayate to Salta (186 km/116 miles)
Route 68: all paved
Surprisingly, we’re in fine form the next morning. We decide to wander around Cafayate and pop into a few wineries before driving back to Salta. We stumble upon the very cute Bodega Nanni and take a short tour that’s only in Spanish. My Duolingo lessons don’t quite cut it and we’re grateful to a young lady who translates for us. We try to visit a few other wineries but it’s Saturday and some are closed, others have reduced visiting hours. We return to Bodega Nanni for a lovely light lunch (sadly no wine for the driver).
Our journey back to Salta is all on paved, well-maintained route 68 that travels through the scenic Quebrada de Cafayate (also called Quebrada de las Conchas). The multi-hued sandstone landscape is grand. It reminds us of the US Southwest. The trip can be done in less than three hours, but four to five is more realistic if you want to enjoy the numerous viewpoints and short walks right off the highway.
I’m constantly asking Mike to pull over. There are so many cool rock formations—El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), El Sapo (The Toad). My favourites stops are Los Colorados and La Yesera, which both have a myriad of little unmarked paths leading around the red rocks and sandy washes. We only have time for short walks but I could easily spend an entire day exploring.
We arrive back in Salta in time for a late dinner. It has been a whirlwind three days. Unlike well-known Patagonia and Iguazú Falls, which had been high on my bucket list for years, I’d never heard of Salta or the Valles Calchaquíes before researching for this trip. It was an exciting new discovery and I was totally seduced by the charms of this region.
Next post: North West Argentina road trip part 2—Quebrada de Humahuaca including Purmamarca, Tilcara, Humahuaca and more.