Today was going to be exercise day as Alejandro was taking Tom and I on a two hour hike at the Quilmes Ruins. The ruins are located about 45 minutes south of Cafayete, were once occupied by the Quilmes people, extend some 30 hectares and date to 850 AD. Alejandro advised us that the about 5,000 people occupied the area at one time.
Now the Quilmes people were an indigenous tribe who fought back the Inca invasion in the 15th century and later resisted the Spanish. The Quilmes people were eventually conquered by the Spanish when the Spanish cut off the water supply to the settlement. In 1667, the Spanish marched the last 2,000 Quilmes survivors to land 20 km south of Buenos Aires. This 1,500 km journey resulted in the death of hundreds leaving only 300 survivors. The original settlement was eventually abandoned and the survivors settled in what is now the city of Quilmes, 17 km south of Buenos Aires.
So we set off from our hotel at 8:30 a.m. with the drive taking us past vineyard after vineyard. Eventually we left the Salta province behind and entered Tucumán province where the ruins were located. We then took a dirt road that brought us to the entrance of the ruins. Now for some reason, I thought we would wander around ruins for a couple hours, but nooooooo. We were going to hike up a mountain which is part of the Calchaquí mountain range and provides the backdrop to the ruins. And yes, we were at an altitude of 2,000 metres (6,562 feet). Ugh.
Anyway, we set out weaving around the stone ruins that once made up the homes of the Quilmes people. (The only remains for the homes and buildings were stone walls since they used grasses and hides for roofing and those are long since gone.). We stopped a couple times in the ruins to see mortars used to grind corn as well as to look at a little lizard hanging out near the base of one of the homes.
Then it was time to start the hike up the hillside. The hike took us up a series of switchbacks which were initially fairly easy to navigate. However, as we climbed higher, the path we were hiking became VERY rocky and narrow requiring us to carefully step on stone steps and angled rocks. Periodically we would stop so that I could catch my breath.
And the hike was made even more challenging by the sun beating directly down on us. It was a really hot morning without an ounce of wind. Just our luck. But fortunately, one of our stops allowed us to spot a condor gliding in the skies above us. Alejandro said this was the first condor he had seen at the site in 18 years of guiding so we were being rewarded for our perseverance in taking on the mountain.
At one point, we reached a lookout point that was used by the Quilmes people to spot invaders. The lookout really provided an amazing view to the valley below and would certainly have given the Quilmes a leg up on invaders. (I guess that is why they were able to hold off the Spanish for almost 130 years.)
Anyway, we continued onwards in what I can only describe as a never ending hike up. And Alejandro was the classic guide. Continuing to encourage us (me) and tell us (me) that it was only a short distance until the path leveled off. Uh yea right.
When we took another water, aka breathing, break, we spotted the condor again. Now the skies were so blue this morning that the condor blended into the sky and made it very difficult for us to snap a picture as it flew overhead. However, after a few tries, I was able to capture the magnificent bird as it circled overhead and around us.
By now I was exhausted and ready to find that elusive top of the trail. And just when I thought I could not go any further, Alejandro pointed ahead and said that we were almost at the top. So I was thrilled when we finally made it to the crest of the path. Tom and I took a breather, snapped some pictures and admired the magnificent views to the ruins and valley below.
Now stupid me. I had taken my medications (anti-rejection for kidney transplant and other pills) right before we left. One of my medications is a blood pressure medication to combat the increase in blood pressure from the anti-rejection meds. However, the hike was pushing my blood pressure lower,and that coupled with the meds and hot weather was actually making me lightheaded. Not a good combination when you are several hundred meters up on the side of a mountain. Fortunately, I kept drinking water and pushing on.
The trip down the mountain was not that bad although there were some very narrow, rocky points on the path which were hard on our knees. Nevertheless, by 11:15 we were back down the mountain, and I was at the store buying a bag of salty chips to raise my blood pressure. (And yes, it worked.)
So with the ruins conquered, we drove back to Cafayete. As we drove, Tom asked Alejandro to stop at a vineyard (any vineyard) along the way to take a picture of a vineyard with sorrel cactus in between the vines. Sorrel cactus are protected in Northern Argentina and as a result, the vineyards are planted around the cactus leading to incredibly interesting sights. So it wasn’t long before we spotted a vineyard with a number of sorrels in the middle of the planted vines. We pulled over and took a couple pictures and then continued on to Cafayete.
We made a quick stop in Cafayete to visit the Bodgega El Porvenir de Cafayete winery to pick up a couple bottles of Torronetes wine (a white blend we had tasted the day before) to drink on our tour in the north starting tomorrow.
After the quick stop, we began our drive back north to Salta. Our trip was going to be about 3 hours and would take us through the Quebrada de las Conchese. Now this gorge was where we had captured the amazing sunset pictures the previous night, and the gorge also did not disappoint in the daylight.
The drive was like watching a canvas that continually changed colour. Quite frankly, the trip rivaled the Quebrada de las Flechas we had driven through on our trip south the day before. The colours of the mountains ran the gamut of greys and whites to pinks, red and greens with incredible varying rock formations. To say the at the views were stunning was a gross understatement. And, unfortunately, poor Alejandro kept having to slow down as Tom and I could not get enough of the scenery. We snapped picture after picture of jagged bluffs of varying colours set against the bright blue skies.
At one point, we stopped at a magnificent viewpoint, Mirador Tres Cruces, where Tom and I hopped out of the truck and walked up the sandy staircase to capture gorgeous views of the valley and river snaking through the area. Now the hike up and the resulting views turned out to be absolutely fantastic. We could see the entire valley, and the river and greenery surrounding the river contrasted magnificently with the limestone rock formations throughout the valley.
Now, before walking up to the viewpoint, I had switched from my hiking boots to my sandals, and I do not recommend taking the hike up in sandals. On the way down, I almost slipped twice as the sandy terrain which did not blend well with my rubber soled sandals. Fortunately, there were railings I was hanging onto as I made my way back down.
After the stop and short hike at Mirador Tres Cruces, we continued on towards Salta making one more stop in the gorge at a sight known as the Amphitheater. Now apparently the huge crevasse that made up the Amphitheater was at one time a waterfall. However, the waters had long departed the area leaving this mammoth crevasse which you could walk through and stare up to the tops of the rocks.
Tom and I hopped out of the truck and wandered through the Amphitheater. And I have to say, the walk reminded me at bit of the Siq in Petra, Jordan, which is the narrow gorge that contains a small sliver of an opening between the red sandstone walls allowing you a first peak at the world famous Treasury.
Anyway, we walked to the end of the fabulous Amphitheater and then doubled back and stopped at some of the little stands set up by locals selling their wares. As we took a look, Alejandro found us and handed both Tom and me what turned out to be a fabulous hand made ham and cheese tortillas. Apparently there was a lady at the entrance who was making the tortillas and as it was well after 1:00 p.m. and we were still about an hour and a half away for our lunch destination, Alejandro thought we should have something to tide us over. Good call. The tortilla was awesome.
After the visit and shopping trip, we continued on through the Quebrada de las Conchese, eventually reaching the end of the fabulous gorge. The area opened up into a massive farming valley, which took us through a myriad of little farming villages. At just after 2:30, we pulled into the little town of El Carril where we stopped at El Papabuelo where we were going to have a late lunch.
Now to date, we have repeatedly gone with the “local” option for lunch as opposed to the tourist option, and Alejandro had been singing the praises of this restaurant, which is renowned for its empanadas. And all I can say is people listen to your guide. This place was as local as they come and the empanadas (cheese and meat) were simply fabulous.
We sat in the little shaded courtyard away from the blazing 36 Celsius heat (about 96 Fahrenheit) and enjoyed some beverages and some of the tastiest empanadas I have ever had (although the fabulous empanadas I had in Easter Island still top the list).
After the wonderful lunch, we continued on to Salta and arrived at our lovely little hotel, Finca Valentina, on the outskirts of Salta where we would spend the night. (We were staying at the hotel owned by our tour company, Socampa, as opposed to our hotel in Salta proper, which we will return to for Friday and Saturday night).
And the gorgeous little hotel could not have been more lovely. An old converted farm house with an amazing garden area, pool and fabulous rooms. By nightfall, Tom and I were sitting on the second floor deck off my room, enjoying the wine we had purchased in Cafayete and watching the sun set. There were a myriad of clouds around and we did not think we would see much, but after the sun set, the clouds lit up with the most gorgeous pinky colours. Another amazing sunset in an incredible part of Argentina. Tomorrow we will explore more of the area as we head to north to the Andean highlands.