Cafayate – you may never want to leave…

20 Jul

Warning – If you love warm, sunny climates, access to excellent wineries, and beautiful countryside to explore, you may find it difficult to leave this place! Located in the Calchaqui Valley in the North of Argentina, Cayfayate is fast becoming a ‘must’ on the traveller itinerary and from the moment we arrived we knew we were going to love it here.

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This steadily growing town located at 1,700 metres, has in the region of 12,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by intensely coloured mountains and dramatic gorges. Despite the town’s increasing size it still feels very rustic with tumbledown farm houses, green vines growing everywhere and farmyard animals wandering freely in the fields and occasionally in the streets. As is common across Latin America, the town is arranged around a central plaza with a colourful painted church, a local market selling fruit, dairy and meat produce, and numerous family run cafes and restaurants.

Day 1:

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The town and the surrounding area is the centre of Northern Argentina’s wine growing industry and several old and well established wineries can be found in the centre of town or just a few kilometres on the outskirts. Tours and tastings are offered for free or for just a few pesos so we took a day to explore several of them at our leisure.

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We also enjoyed a more unusual visit to a local farm 2km East of the town that produces delicious ‘Quesos de Cabra’ – or goats cheese to you and I.

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The goats lead a fantastic life at the farm being fed organic food such as grape skins and even listening to a spot of classical music to keep them calm whilst they’re being milked.

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The tour ended with a tasting of around ten tasty cheeses and there was an opportunity to make a purchase and take some away to enjoy with a nice glass of wine.

Day 2:

We learnt that just 6km from town it was possible to go trekking beside the Colorado river through dramatic gorges, so we hired bikes for the day and set off. What hadn’t been divulged to us was that just a few minutes out-of-town, the paved road turned into a bumpy, gravel track, which, unfortunately for us, was all uphill. Needless to say we huffed and puffed all the way there in the mid-morning sun and felt really quite tired even before we started the walk into the gorge but we were rewarded with some great views.

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We registered our names at the entrance and received directions on how to find 4 waterfalls during the 4 hour round trip, each with increasing size and visual impact. We would certainly try to make it all the way to the end of the gorge to see the biggest and most spectacular of the falls.

We followed the river upstream and it was necessary to cross the water on slippery rocks on more occasions than we could count.

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The path was splendidly quiet with just a couple of other tourists making the same pilgrimage as us. Some of the other people we met along the way hadn’t fared as well as we had with the river crossings and some had wet shoes and trousers.

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We turned down the offer of a guide at the entrance of the canyon and we were slightly concerned that we may have difficulties finding our way, however, to our huge surprise, we were joined on the route by several dogs who bounded over rocks with us and frequently stopped to show us the way. Four different dogs each seemed to own a section of the walk and they acted like a tag team passing the tourists to and from one another and then running back to see who else they could assist. On a couple of occasions Dan and I would stumble up the wrong path and the dog accompanying us at the time would hang back looking in a different direction, almost like they were signalling for us to take a different path, the correct one! Some of the route was steep and across large, slippery boulders but the dogs matched our climbing paw for stride. Quite stupidly, we hadn’t realised the walk in the canyon would be 4 hours long and we’d only brough a snack of two croissants with us but despite our increasing hunger, we always dipped into our bag and broke a corner of the pastry off for the departing dog until only crumbs were left. The dogs wagged their tails and lowered their heads in appreciation and we knew we’d given our ‘guides’ the best tip possible.

The canyon was bathed in golden sunlight and phallic cacti lined the route. Exotic looking butterflies fluttered delicately around the cacti’s sharp spines and cleverly avoided being speared.

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The constant noise of the running river and its rapids offered us a steady walking pace. Bubbles floated to the surface of the crystal clear water which was driven downstream by melting ice in the high mountains feeding into the canyon.

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We discovered the first small waterfall just under half way into the canyon and the second, which was slightly bigger, shortly afterwards.

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The third waterfall was very dramatic and forcefully spilled 20 metres over a sheer precipice straight down into a deep pool. The water made a thunderous sound as we leant precariously close to the edge to obtain a photograph.

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The final waterfall was at the very end of the canyon as we’d been told. The canyon walls no longer curved deeper into the mountains but instead encircled the falls. The clearing was shady and green moss clung to rock walls.

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We were offered a welcome respite from the heat of the day as a fine mist filled the air as the waterfall hit rocks in a wide pool below which was the colour of jade. Occasionally the water from the wide falls caught slithers of sunlight on the way down and created mini rainbows in the air which was a spectacular sight.

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After a short rest we re-traced our steps back out of the canyon. By this stage our legs were a little wobbly by we spurred ourselves on with the promise of fizzy drinks and chocolate from the cafe at the canyon entrance. We felt revived as we mounted our bikes, safe in the knowledge that we could free-wheel all the way back to Cafayate admiring the town views and smelling the vines as we passed along the way.

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Day 3:

Stretching from Cayfayate about 70km North along the road to Salta, the ‘Quebrada de las Conchas’ is a series of dramatic and multi-coloured rock formations which are best explored with a car or if you’re feeling particularly energetic by taking the public bus one way and biking back.

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We joined a couple from Spain, who were also staying in our hostel, to tour the area in one day. We were picked up in the morning by our driver and guide in his old Ford Cortina (which we’d seen all over Argentina, many in mint condition, but unfortunately, not this one!)

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‘Los Castillos’ looked like an ancient fortress or a sacred temple carved right into the rock. We could hardly believe that this structure had been naturally formed in the sandstone by wind and rain erosion as it looked like hundreds of builders and craftsmen had worked tirelessly to create, what we recognised as, curved walls, intricate pillars and ornate windows.

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A river too deep to simply wade across, ran in front of the length of the site offering it complete protection and adding to its mysticism. We could see winding passages passing deep inside the rock and we could only wonder what secrets might lie beyond our sight.

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In a relatively flat and sandy spot the last thing we imagined to find was ‘El Oblisco’. This gigantic round rock really stood out as there were no cliffs nearby from which it could have fallen and no other large rocks around from which it could have been carved.

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We thought that perhaps one of the Gods had lost a marble or a giant had been trying out a new catapult!

Not at all surprisingly, three large white crosses marked the ‘Tres Cruces’ site. A 5 minute hike from the road up a steep incline led to a view good enough to take our breath away (or was that the climb?)

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In the distance to our right we could see the tips of snowy mountains near to the border with Chile and all around us distinctive rock formations glowed yellows, reds and greens in the sunshine. A glistening river cut its way through the valley and birds surfed in front of us on the thermals.

As we walked into ‘El Anfiteatro’ we looked up and around at the high sandstone walls with a small circular opening in the roof exposing the brilliant blue sky. Several months before this space had been packed out for an operatic concert and listening to the acoustics as our voices echoed around the chamber it was easy to see why musicians would adore this spot.

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A man of Indian origin with pan pipes stood at the entrance of the amphitheatre and in our minds we were secretly willing him not to start playing having childhood memories of market day in our home town and groups of pan pipe players lining the pavement outside Woolworths.

However, we very quickly took back these thoughts when the music filled the air and bounced delicately off the walls. We were transported to the high Andean mountains where villagers tended to their crops and llamas roamed free.

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The final sandstone structure we visited, had been hollowed out by rain water and we climbed inside across big rocks and into a passage way leading upwards. ‘Garganta del Diablo’ literally translates as the Devil’s throat and we had a strange feeling as we climbed into the mouth of the Beast.

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Many of the rocks inside had been washed smooth with rain water which made for slippery climbing. The rock around us glowed rich, blood-red and dwarfed those who stood next to it.

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We encouraged the girl in our group, who had been humming quietly to herself, to sing more loudly and she obliged, sending the sweet notes of a Spanish song to the heavens. We found it quite ironic to find the voice of an angel inside the Devil.

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Of course we did eventually manage to leave Cafayate, but it was with some reluctance. From time to time (usually when we’re stuck on a long distance bus), we close our eyes and let our thoughts transport us back to Cayfayate where we are surrounded by stunning scenery, sipping freshly produced wine and eating delicious cheese – hard life huh?

3 Responses to “Cafayate – you may never want to leave…”

  1. superhorsefeathers July 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Great post guys! Brought back a lot of great memories. Miss you both-hope you made it safely into Peru.

    • latinchattin July 27, 2013 at 1:24 am #

      Thanks Jo! Happy memories hey! Miss you guys too – we hope we can all meet up again. We made it safely to Peru and really enjoying it. You guys are going to love the food here – although we saw guinea pig served up at the table next to us this evening which was a bit of a shocker! x

      • superhorsefeathers July 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

        Yay! We are hoping to make it there before you leave! I seriously can’t wait for the food and come on, ya gotta try the guinea pig (cuy)-tastes just like chicken, no?! ; )

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