Northwest Argentina: quebradas, cacti and Cafayate

We spent five weeks in Argentina on our first trip in 2005 but didn’t manage to make it to the northwest. So we decided to spend some time in this corner of the country this time around.

This was an area we knew little about; our main Argentinian memories were bustling Buenos Aires and pretty Patagonia. Moreover, the Andean feel of the area was something that we didn’t realise existed outside of northern Chile, Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador. 

Our coach from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile dropped us in the village of Purmamarca in the late evening where we managed to accidentally miss the last bus to Tilcara, our planned home for the night. Fortunately, a (relatively) cheap taxi helped correct our mistake and we finally got to bed nearly 16 hours after we left Chile. 

Tilcara was our base for exploration of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a dramatic valley of tortured rockscapes punctuated by indigenous villages running alongside a virtually dry riverbed.

It was a lively town full of Argentinians on their winter holidays surrounded by deep brown crevassed hills on all sides. We cacti spotted, walked to a viewpoint, saw some ruins and most importantly indulged in an ‘asado’ or two. Asado (barbecue) is the Argentinians’ favourite way of cooking and generally consists of masses of different cuts of beef cooked over a grill fuelled by charcoal. It puts a typical British BBQ of burnt sausages and dry burgers to shame.

We stumbled across a simple open air place where we gorged on amazing vacio (flank) and succulent costillas (ribs), alongside salsa criolla (spicy tomato) and chimichurri, washed down with local red wine. It was delicious (and sadly no beef since has tasted as good). The Food section of the blog has been duly updated.

The next day we headed to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flats (left over from a dried out lake). The journey was spectacular as the road wound up the mountain in multiple switchbacks, but this was easily surpassed by the blinding white landscape once we reached our destination. Becki was so impressed she shrunk down small enough so she was able to walk on top of a phone and water bottle…

We spent a couple of days in Salta (the state capital), visiting the pretty square and grand (if not a little gaudy) buildings before another beautiful journey to Cafayate, four hours further south. The town is also situated close to a spectacular rocky valley – the Quebrada de Cafayate – and is Argentina’s second largest wine producing region (after Mendoza province), specialising in Torrontes. 

We took a tour of the quebrada with a local guide who initially claimed not to speak English. However, he must have taken pity on our lack of Spanish comprehension; after 20 minutes he started conversing in a very fluent version of our mother tongue and asking us questions about our life back home… He drove us through the valley stopping off to point out strange natural rock formations (a toad, a Catholic monk, a steam train) and leading us on short walks across the ‘moonscapes’ and into the spectacular amphitheatre and devils throat. The tour ended as we headed back to town with a beautiful sunset highlighting the multiple colours of the the rocks.

We didn’t make it to a winery (we are visiting Mendoza in a few weeks) but in our spare time we did manage to sample the local tipple alongside some of the town’s famous empanadas (mini Cornish pasties with various fillings served with spicy salsa). 

Baked empanadas, Argentina

Next stop: Colonia Del Sacramento, Uruguay (after a long journey via Tucuman and Buenos Aires)

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