Today we left Molinos at 9:30 a.m. heading to Cafayete (wine country), which was a a distance of approximately 150 km. Our route was a short one today (hence the late start) with the drive taking us through Quebrada de las Flechas, a gorge located on National Route 40 (sort of like our Route 66) extending for 20 km inside the Calchaquíes Valley from Angastaco to the Calchaquí River. The gorge is protected in Argentina under the name Monumento Natural Angastaco.
The drive initially took us through a lot of moonscape-like land before we saw a small river that provided the irrigation necessary for the first of many bodegas (vineyards) we would pass. And in many spots, the gravel road was only wide enough for one car to pass as the road seemed to twist and turn every couple minutes.
As drove along the road, we passed trees full of birds and at one point, we saw two parrots in a tree. This was actually an accidental view because we had pulled over to take pictures of some of the unusual sandstone formations. Anyway, the parrots cooperated and we were able to capture some pretty nice pictures.
It wasn’t long before we were pulling over again to take a look at the lovely Bodega El Cece, which is a new winery located on Route 40. The location could not have been more lovely with the mountains framing huge fields of vineyards and a beautiful winery building.
However, this was only the beginning of lovely scenery. We soon reached the start the Monumento Natural Angastaco marking the start of the protected area, and all I can say is oh my goodness. The rock formations were other worldly. The landscape In the area was at one time entirely under water but as the waters subsided these incredible rock formations were left. Over the centuries, wind and rain further added to the amazing rock formations that date back between 15 and 20 million years.
As we drove along route 40, the rock formations protruded at varying angles and at times looked like they could be middle eastern sandstone castles. In fact some of the formation reminded me of being in Petra, Jordan. And the colours of the formations ran the gamut from grey, to light beige to sandstone to red.
Some rock formations were full of holes and others were just ragged, pointy hills gracing the skyline. And the weather could not have been more perfect with crystal clear blue skies enhancing the amazing colours of the rocks.
And apparently the colours of the rock formations change throughout the day a as the sun moves. In fact, as Alejandro continued to drive I noticed changes in the colours when the angle of the sun moved from behind us to beside us depending upon the direction of the road.
We stopped frequently to not only take pictures, but to simply gape at the amazing scenery. At one point, Alejandro pulled over to the side of the road and we went for a hike up one of the sandy paths that appear all over the area. The hike was only about 5 minutes to the top of some rock formations, but once there, I did not want to leave. In fact, the three of us took a seat on one of the rock formations and stayed there for about a half hour talking about a myriad of things all the while, taking pictures and admiring the scenery. As I told Tom, when I am back in my office and stressed out, I will think back to this perfect zen moment when the only sounds we could hear were birds in the distance. It was wonderful.
We continued on through the gorge eventually (and sadly) reaching the end of the gorge where the gravel road became a paved two lane road. We made a quick stop in the little town of San Carlos, which was at one time the capital (only for a few months) of the Salta province before the capital was moved to Salta because the weather in San Carlos was considered too extreme (very hot in the summer and windy and a cold at night in the winter).
We walked through the town square, which was bordered by the standard Roman Catholic Church and then began the final drive to Cafayete.
Now Cafayete is the center of the Northern Argentine wine growing region and as we approached the town, we passed more and more vineyards and bodegas. We eventually reached the little town of 20,000 people with its primary industries being tourism and wineries. We stopped for lunch in a fabulous little restaurant and because the weather was so warm, we were able to sit outside.
After lunch, Alejandro took us to a winery for a wine tasting. Bodega El Porvenir de Cafayete has been in operation for decades, but lost some luster before reemerging in 1999 when a family from Salta purchased the winery. The winery had four vineyard estates producing grapes that are processed at the winery in Cafayete as well as other locations.
Pedro (or Peter) was our tour guide and provided us with a history of the winery, including the old building in which the headquarters is now located. We were introduced to the wine process, including the separation of the grapes for red and white wines, the wine making, the aging and the bottling. Pedro showed us the huge vats in which the wines are aged as well as the oak barrels (mostly French with a few American and Eastern European barrels), which are used for more select wines. We also were able to see the storage area where the winery keeps many old bottles of wine. (There were a few Malbecs and Cabs I would have loved to put my hands on.)
Once the winery tour was over, we had a wine tasting where Pedro provided us with tastings of six different bottles of wine. Most of the wines we tasted were very young wines and needed to age, but Tom and I both agreed that the Malbec was the star of the show.
After the wine tasting, Alejandro took us to our hotel for the night, the lovely Viñas de Cafayate-Wine Resort located about 3 km outside of Cafayete. The hotel was once a private home and is set around a central square, with the rooms running along the sides of the square. Tom and I were given rooms with a view to the vineyards and the Quebrada De Cafayate. Fabulous.
After a relaxing for a couple of hours, Alejandro came to pick us up at 7:00 p.m. for a trip to Quebrada de las Conchas, a gorge where we were going to see the sunset. Now I was not optimistic at this point about seeing a sunset because some clouds had rolled in and, as usual in this part of the Andes, the winds had also picked up. However, we figured we would give it a try since there was blue sky over part of the western sky. And as it turned out, the decision to go was a good one.
The trip to the gorge took about 15 minutes from our hotel and when we arrived at the top of a small hill, the winds were not as bad as they first seemed. Unfortunately, the views of a sunset did not look promising, but oh how that would change.
As we stood there and watched the sun set over the mountains, the clouds began to take on a pinky hue. Then in a very short period of time, the sky turned to fire. I don’t think I have ever seen a sunset quite like this one. It literally looked like someone had lit a match to the clouds. There was orange and pink and grey and blue all mixed in to make one incredible, glorious sunset over the mountains.
The longer we watched the sky, the more impressed we were. In fact, Alejandro even got into the act taking pictures with me and Tom. And given that Alejandro has probably seen more than his fare share of sunsets in the 10 plus years he has been guiding in this area, that is saying a lot.
By just after 8:00 p.m., the pinks and oranges had faded and we called it a night. It had been a fabulous day, capped off by one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. Tomorrow, we do it all again heading back to Salta to begin our tour of the northern region.