So Tom and I left Iguazu Falls on Saturday, flew to Buenos Aires and then flew back north to Salta. Originally we had a one hour non-stop flight from Salta, but thanks to Aerolíneas Argentinas, which cancelled the non-stop flight a number of months ago, we were forced to spend the better part of Saturday travelling to Salta.
Now Salta is in the northwest portion of Argentina. We were going to spend Saturday night in Salta and then meet our guide/driver Alejandro at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday for our six day trip around northern Argentina first travelling south of Salta visiting the Calchaquí Valleys and its Gorges and then north of Salta via the Quebrada del Toro to the desert plateau of the Puna and Salinas Grandes and then on to the Province of Jujuy, the Humahuaha Gorge and the Eastern Andean Range. Most of the trip would be spent travelling through the Andean highlands so it was back to thin air and coca leaves.
On Saturday night, Tom and I wandered around the old town area of Salta and visited the main Cathedral while Saturday night mass was in session. Then we stumbled upon a night market so we wandered around the market making a couple purchases before heading to dinner and then back to our incredible boutique hotel (the Legado Mitico), which was an old colonial house that had been converted into a hotel. They even served us Malbec wine as a welcome. I’ll take that every day of the week.
Anyway, on Sunday morning, Alejandro arrived bright and early and we set off under somewhat grey skies. However, as we drove north to higher elevation (Salta is in a valley at 1,152 metres or 3780 feet), the clouds began to lift and the sun made its appearance.
Now the drive initially took us past farmlands (northwest Argentina is semi-tropical and supplies all of the produce to Argentina) and then through the Yungas forest. At one point, Alejandro pulled over to make some maté for us (more about that in a minute) while Tom and I hiked across the old bridge that used to be used by the vehicles but is now only for foot traffic.
So about that maté. Maté is an incredibly strong caffeine infused national drink of Argentina and is prepared by steeping dried Yerba maté leaves in hot water in a hollowed out gourd. A metal straw is placed in the gourd and the drink is shared between people. Now I had tried maté in Santiago, Chile and almost gagged on the stuff, so I wasn’t too excited about trying it again. However, Alejandro assured me that he adds a bit of sugar to his maté and it makes all the difference.
Anyway, we met back up with Alejandro after the walk across the bridge and were just in time to see him making the drink. Tom was first up and took a sip and liked it and then it was my turn. And I have to say, the sugar made all the difference in the world. The drink will not be replacing my beloved tea any time soon, but the maté with sugar wasn’t that bad.
So with all of us now a bit buzzed up on caffeine, we continued the drive through the Cuesta del Obispo, which is the zigzag road and mountainous slope we were following to the summit before heading down the other side mountain to the valley below.
About and hour and half into the drive, we left the forest and most of the vegetation behind and began to hit the high desert Andes. As we climbed higher, we passed sorrel cactus all over the hillsides and red clay mountains. In fact, as Tom noted, the scenery looked a bit like Tucson, AZ.
Our next stop was to take pictures of the San Francisco de Escopie gorge. The mountain colours were gorgeous with red clay mountains dotted with green scrubby grasses, the odd little bush and stubby looking leafless trees.
We then continued the trek upwards and by now both Tom and I were chewing on coca leaves to avoid altitude sickness. We were well over 3,000 metres (approaching 10,000 feet). At one point we pulled over again to take picture of the valley below as we were now above some of the clouds. And what a gorgeous view as the clouds seemed to envelope the valley.
At just before 11:30 a.m. we reached the Piedra del Molina summit in the Cuesta del Obispo. The summit was at 3,457 metres (11,342 feet) and marked the entrance to the National Park Los Cardones. In addition, the summit had a little chapel of sorts, which was interesting for the fact that while the chapel was dedicated to Saint Rafael, the locals would leave cigarettes, water and coca leaves for Pachamama. (Pachamama is Mother Earth and is the pagan god Andean people traditionally worship.). As Tom pointed out, people were simply hedging their bets.
The other interesting thing about the summit is that there was a large granite stone at the site used to grind grains. The legend has it that some traveller left the stone there in frustration and hence the pass name … Piedra del Molina, which means stone mill.
Anyway, we continued on stopping to take a short hike to take some pictures of the beautiful scenery. As we continued on, Alejandro asked us if we would like to take another short hike. Sure. So Alejandro took a detour off the main road and we began a bumpy ride toward what turned out to be some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen.
Now from the main road there is very little to give away what lies up and over a few small hills and around a couple of bends. But, oh my God. This scenery was spectacular. The iron deposits in the surrounding mountains created beautiful red and green colours and then you mix in limestone rocks and a backdrop of clouds and snow capped mountains and it was sheer perfection.
We ended up stopping the truck three times to get out and take short little hikes. I kept saying over and over again, I could not believe it. The views were as if someone had taken a paintbrush and created this amazing picture. Simply stunning.
So after the glorious detour, we continued on making a quick stop at a beautiful viewpoint where the locals were selling herbs. The area is teeming with little farms where locals grow their herbs and so they have made it a business to sell packages of the herbs to tourists. (Nicely done.). I ended up buying the herbs to make chimichurri sauce. Yay. It had been on my list to buy.
So once the pictures were taken and purchases were made, it was on to lunch. Now initially we were going to have lunch in Cachi, a little town know for its church and museum, but also known as the primary tourist stop for lunch for the day trippers (folks who drive from Salta to Cachi and back in one day). Ugh. Alejandro, however, gave us a second option. There was apparently a small local restaurant a few km outside of Cachi and he recommended we have lunch there. Done.
And the decision was perfect. We ended up having home made empanadas, quinoa salad (with lots of cucumbers, tomatoes and celery thrown in), tamales and then a main course. Tom had lamb stew and I had goat cooked in an adobe oven. The meal (including the goat) was fantastic.
After lunch we continued to Cachi. As we drove towards Cachi, mini-bus after mini-bus passed us on the road as the day trippers were heading back to Salta. In the mean time, we reached Cachi and had it virtually all to ourselves. We walked around the main square, visited the cathedral, took in a little local craft market, shopped in a couple artisanal shops and then visited the wonderful little museum.
Now the museum was full of lovely artifacts, including petroglyphs, old pottery and jewelry. Unfortunately, the museum only had descriptions in Spanish so we were unable to figure out exactly what period the artifacts came from, but the museum apparently housed archeological finds dating back 10,000 years (the petroglyphs) with the majority of the artifacts from the period 800 BC to 1600 AD.
After the museum visit, we stopped for some helado (ice cream) and then met back up with Alejandro. We then had another decision to make. Did we want to take a slightly longer route so that we could stop at some artesian shops or did we want to continue on our route. We opted for the aretesian shops.
And the route was really interesting. First, we began to see vineyards. The northern regions in Salta province are beginning to make a name for themselves in the wine business. And while there is a long way to go to match the more well known Mendoza region, the word is that the Salta region is the next great wine growing area of Argentina.
Second, we began to pass little villages (and I mean really little) as well as small farms. At one point, we even passed Alejadro’s family home built by his grandfather and while no one lives there now, the home is still owned by his family.
We eventually stopped along the side of the road at one of the many artesian shops that dotted the road. Alejandro then introduced us to Mr. Guzman, the gentleman who wove blankets, and ponchos and shawls. Now I wasn’t really sure if I was going to buy anything, but his craftsmanship was something else. In fact, his family are well known weavers in Argentina with his grandfather having been given the honour to weave and present a blanket to Pope John Paul II.
Anyway, Mr. Guzman showed us a number of his pieces including a vicuna shawl. Now vicuna is the rarest wool (I had seen vicunas in Peru and Bolivia and they are much, much smaller than llamas and almost deerlike.). Because vicuna wool is so rare, the wool is VERY expensive. And of course, after looking at a number of pieces, I kept coming back to the vicuna shawl. I really wanted something for my office in the winter time when I absolutely freeze my butt off. (Why are office buildings so damn cold?) The vicuna wool is super warm and super soft. So … vicuna shawl it would be. Tom ended up buying a table runner and with that we called it good.
We then continued on to Seclantas where we made a brief stop to see the little square and to visit the Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Carmen de Seclantas (the Seclantas Cathedral). Now the cathedral was completed in 1835 and was simply lovely. Unfortunately, we were unable to go inside since it was closed, but there was apparently an amazing colourful alter. In fact, the cathedral is a national historical monument in Argentina.
So unable to enter the cathedral, Tom and I began our walk back to the truck. We ended up walking past some folks baking bread in an outdoor oven. We later learned that the oven was on the site of a boarding school and the folks were making bread for the children.
By now it was approaching 5:00 p.m. It had been a very long day, but fortunately we only had a few kilometers to go to reach the town of Molinos where we would be spending the night at the Hacienda de Molinos. Now the hacienda has its own cool story. The hacienda dates back to the 18th century and was home to the last governor of Salta appointed by the King of Spain. The King of Spain had bequeathed the property to the governor and the governor then built the hacienda. So it turned out that Tom and I were staying in another amazing hotel for the night. Tomorrow we head to Cafayate and wine country.