The Calchaqui Valley is situated high in the mountains of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina. A river cuts across this long and arid valley that is defined by its stunning variety of landscapes: lush oases, strange and colorful rock formations, snowy peaks and vast plains dotted by sand and flowering cacti.
The best way to see the Calchaqui Valley is by renting a car and exploring it on your own. The starting point for this road trip is Salta, a busting city of 650,000 inhabitants and the capital of Salta province. From Salta, drive to Cachi, a tiny mountain village with cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings in the shadow of a snow-covered mountain, the Nevado de Cachi. The final stop is Cafayate, a larger town encircled by vineyards and red rock mountains, which is an ideal place to rest for a day or two before returning to Salta.
Car rental tip: Rent your car from Federico Ochoa at Marina Semisa Rent A Car near Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta. I had read horror stories before my trip from travelers who rented cars from other local car rental agencies, but Federico came highly recommended to us by our hotel and was indeed extremely reliable and professional.
Day One: Salta to Cachi
Distance: 98 miles on both paved and unpaved roads, allow up to six hours including stops for lunch and photos
From Salta, drive south along Route 68 for about 45 minutes and stop for lunch at the wonderfully rustic El Papabuelo in El Carril, a small roadside eatery specializing in empanadas made in a traditional wood-burning oven, as well as other regional favorites like corn-based humitas and tamales.
From El Carril, turn west onto Route 33 and brace yourself for one of the most bizarre and spectacular drives of your life. Past the grand estancias and tobacco fields of Chicoana, you will enter the Quebrada de Escoipe, a verdant ravine bordered by steep and winding cliffs with rock faces shaped like Venetian masks that will startle you unexpectedly at every turn. From there, the road begins to ascend the famed Cuesta del Obispo. The green vegetation slowly fades and gives way to arid rocks and parched mountains dotted with flowering cacti, known as candelabra for being shaped like antique candlestick holders with multiple arms. After reaching the summit, Piedra de Molino at an elevation of 3348 meters (10,984 feet), you will descend onto a wide-open plain crowded with even more cacti, the heart of Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a park with informative signs and well-marked trails for seeing the cacti.
Your final stop for the day is Cachi, a village high in the mountains with cobblestone streets and white colonial buildings with green doors. You will want to stop in Cachi for a walk around the village with your camera, before heading to your hotel, Finca La Paya (see previous entry), a nineteenth century farmhouse situated in a river valley about fifteen minutes south of Cachi with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
Day Two: Cachi to Cafayate
Distance: 102 miles on an unpaved road, allow eight hours including stops for shopping, lunch and photos
From Finca La Paya, drive south along Route 40. Take a detour between El Colte and Seclantes to visit the Camino de Artesanos, a country road that runs parallel to Route 40. This road is home to Argentina’s finest poncho makers. Here you can watch the artisans at work and buy ponchos and other textiles. The road ends in Seclantes, a lovely village with colonial architecture and lush vegetation, an oasis in the desert that is the Calchaqui Valley.
Stop for lunch at Hacienda De Molinos, the beautifully preserved home of the last governor of Salta Province under Spanish rule. Dine under the shade of an enormous leafy pepper tree in the main courtyard of the hacienda and then take a stroll through the surrounding village of Molinos, another colonial gem along Route 40.
South of Molinos virtually all traces of vegetation and water disappear. The road turns to sand and curves through a narrow maze of jagged rocks piercing upward like arrows, the aptly named Quebrada de las Flechas. Be warned that the landscape here is so bizarre that you will want to stop every few minutes to take photos.
Finally, you will reach the red rock mountains and vineyards of your destination, Cafayate. Here there are many fantastic places to stay, including the ultra luxurious Patios de Cafayate and more affordable but highly recommended Casa de la Bodega.
Day Three: Cafayate
Take a break from the long days of driving and indulge in the vineyards, spas and incredible landscapes of Cafayate. There are many fashionable and costly vineyards to choose from including Esteco of Cafayate, but those seeking a less pretentious experience will prefer San Pedro de Yacochuya or Bodega Nanni. Spas can be found at the high-end hotels, including Patios de Cafayate.
At sunset, take a drive with your camera through the terracotta colored rocks of Quebrada de las Conchas, the third in a series of stunning ravines you will have encountered by now in the Calchaqui Valley. Those staying at Casa de la Bodega can hike to the Quebrada from their hotel.
Day Four: Cafayate to Salta
Distance: 115 miles on a good paved road, allow four hours including stops for lunch and photos
Return to Salta along Route 68, a good paved road, which will get you back to Salta in less than three hours if you make no stops. The main attraction along this road is Quebrada de las Conchas, which I recommend those interested in photography visit separately the day before so that you can enjoy the intense colors of the rocks at sunset.
Just past the town of Alemania, stop for lunch at La Posta de las Cabras, a dairy farm with a delightful restaurant specializing in homemade goat cheese, sumptuous olives, salads and desserts.
End your trip in Salta. For hotel recommendations in Salta, see previous entry.