Friday, November 19, 2010

Road Trip Part Dos - South Siiiiiide (the Valles Calchaquíes)

Special thanks to Mags for inspiring the title of this post.

I.  Leaving Salta (aka, thrown into the fire)

When our last post left off, Dave had (somewhat) successfully managed to pull out of the parking garage without doing any lasting damage to the car.  Now he was ready for his first real challenge - Salta traffic.  This was no ordinary stop and go city traffic, though.  Because the Salta city streets throw up a trifecta of stumbling blocks even for the most experienced stick shift driver:

1. No formal lanes,
2. Maniacal drivers (of cars, buses, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, bikes, even carts and horses and/or donkeys), and most surprisingly,
3. No stop signs, stop lights, or rules whatsoever in intersections.

In practice, this means weaving your way through swarms of unpredictable motor vehicles as pedestrians blithely cross the street mid-block.  Upon approaching an intersection, a driver has two choices: (1) come to a stop and look both ways for oncoming traffic or (2) say a prayer and blow right through.  A driver who chooses the seemingly safer option (1) could never write this post, because the perpendicular-driving cars will smell your fear and you will literally never make it through the intersection.  This is not a wave-you-through type of culture.  This is a the-entire-city-shuts-down-for-a-five-hour-siesta-but-I-nonetheless-need-to-get-where-I-am-going-as-fast-as-humanely-possible culture.  Option (2) is equally unappealing as we were in the smallest car on the road (and in this game, size matters).  Thus, we fully support the shield (The Shield! Our new favorite TV show) method of intersection crossing whereby the prudent driver lines himself up next to the bus (or taxi, or if you're desperate, motor scooter) in front of him and sails through intersections in the protected shadow of the more ambitious (or experienced) Salta driver.

Dave ended up really taking to this style of driving.  By the end of our time in Salta, let's just say that new drivers were shielding themselves in Dave's wake.

(Our chant whenever we successfully crossed an intersection or passed another car)

II.  Salta to Cachi (with some near death experiences, we learn that it's best to be in a low gear when attempting to scale a steep, unpaved mountain pass) 

Finally out of the city (with NO stalls!), the first part of our drive was flat and pretty featureless as we passed through some small "suburban" towns.  We thought, hey, this is pretty easy.  We saw some mountains in the distance and wondered whether we were going to have to cross them.

Not a guardrail in sight

Yes.  We would have to cross them.  And it was an unpaved crossing.  An unpaved, windy crossing.  An unpaved, windy, and guardrail-less, thousands of feet drop off the edge of the road mountain crossing.

The driving was hard but the views were spectacular.

Our narrow (two-way) road.  Most drop offs were much higher than this.

Also a two-way bridge.
 Finally we were done with the switchbacks and we emerged to a laser-straight, paved (!) road on the altaplana (high plains).

Front view.

Rear view.
We took some time out to get to know the local flora.

Hauza Gol.

When we finally arrived in Cachi it was the middle of the afternoon... which meant the entire town was shut down for siesta, except for one mediocre ice cream place.  Dave whined for the next two days about how I "didn't let him" get artisanal ice cream and instead "forced him" to eat the crappy stuff.

I didn't think it was so bad.
If there's a lodging deal out there, chances are good that I will find it.  Which is how we ended up at Sala de Payogasta for a bargain $60 nights, staring out our window, from the bed, at this view.  Could've stayed here all week.

III.  Cachi to Cafayate:  Trippy light installations, tasty wine, and crazy rocks

After a delicious breakfast spread, we hit the road towards Cafayate.  The scenery alternated between lush vineyards and crazy rock formations.

We saw a lot of this sign.
Yep, that was our road. 
We decided to break for lunch and a wine tasting at Bodega Colome, about 20 kilometers of windy, unpaved, and slow-going road (what else is new) to the west of Molinos.

The (very varied) roads to Colome
We managed to stumble in right around the same time they were starting a museum tour, and after some initial hesitation (ughhhhhh, museum) we decided to join in.  Best decision ever!  The James Turrell Museum is awesome!  We weren't allowed to take pictures, but click here for some from the internet that attempt (but fail) to show what it's like to walk through his amazing light installations.

When we finally left Colome we were racing the sun so we headed without delay to Cafayate.  There, we stayed at a hotel that had probably seen its prime in 1971.

The lobby.  Whatever, it was $22 a night and our bathroom was clean.
IV.  Vino Me!

We spent the next day touring the Cafayate wine region, starting with a guided tour (in Spanish) of some archaeological site that we drove up to sort of by accident, which turned into a rock scramble for which I was not properly dressed.

We are not sure if this was actually an ancient cave drawing of a llama, or if our guide (who lived next to the ruins) had drawn it the day before

It was a tight squeeze, but Dave made it into the cave/house entrance.  Peeps used to live in there!

Dress and flip flops not ideal for a rock scramble.  But it was just like Mohonk!

Our guide.  We picked him up (or I guess he picked us up) on our way up to the ruins.

We had a lovely lunch at Bodega Finca las Nubes (loosely translated to Wine Farm in the Clouds).

Bread, wine, cheese, empanadas, grilled veggies... can you say dream meal?

They don't call it Finca Las Nubes for nothin'
I also had a brief driving lesson.  I did great and I owe it all to one lesson from my very patient father back in 1997.  Thanks dad!

Kilometers Driven
Dave: 1483
Jesse:  62

One of our tastings happily coincided with a private tasting given by the winery owner to a bunch of developers who were building a resort on some of his land.  Wine upgrade!

I tried to network but they were more interested in drinking.
Also, surprise!  I bought Dave a winery for his 30th birthday.

He only answers to Don David now.
V.  Quebrada de Cafayate - the turtle, the devil's throat, the empanadas that got away

On the fourth day of the South Siiiiide loop it was time to head back to Salta, via a gloriously paved road.   This route, called the Quebrada de Cafayate, is known for its spectacular scenery (rightfully) and not-tobe-missed rock formations (uh, actually really missible).  Every few kilometers or so we would pass a small sign alerting us to such formation as "the window" or "the turtle" - the types of rocks that you squint at and say, "well, I guess it could maybe a turtle."

"The obelisk".  Exciting!
"The ampitheater" and "the babushka"

"The devil's throat"

Dave's favorite part of the South Siiiide road trip - when we stopped at a shack in the middle of nowhere and he ordered an empanada.  A single empanada (we learned later that they are generally ordered by the half dozen).  The lady clearly thought he was crazy and for the rest of the ride he lamented not having bought more.

Empanada shoppe.

He was especially sad when we stopped for lunch at a big lake near Salta and he ordered chicken with garlic and instead got fish with garlic.

The lake.  They tried to sell us a bungy jump nearby, but given that the bungy platform was mounted on a truck (ie., with wheels) parked haphazardly on a bridge, we declined.

I'm not sure if you can tell by his face (Dave being a master at feigning delight in food and all), but he is not happy with his meal.

 Finally back in Salta, we splurged on a night at the Sheraton (only 3000 points!) and celebrated our survival of the South Siiiiide at Don Julios.

Dave hanging with his new friends (aged 8 and 11) in the hot tub.
It's a good thing he's not sporting his mustache yet (stay tuned!) or their mother would surely have been concerned.

Oops.  Accidentally ordered for 4-6 people.  That right there is what they call a "steak for one" and a "1/2 chicken"


  1. how cool! i cant imagine navigating those mts on unpaved rds. you are brave. which was worse, driving thru the city or or the switch-backs. thank goodness for empanadas.

  2. wow, i'm so impressed with both of your driving skills. next thing i know, you'll be mastering the scooter.

    love the pics of you guys with the cactus and the one where jesse's in plaid!

  3. Ate some empanadas, chorizo and bistec with Sam and Scott last night in your honor (delicious). Miss you!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Ted- the city was worse for Dave, but I was way more scared on the mountains. Dave started calling me nerevous nelly.

    Sam- next up is stick on the wrong side of the road in cape town! Eeeee (can't wait!)

    T-- yum! Where? We had empanadas for lunch today, we bought them from two 14 year old boys hawking them at a fair. Delicious.


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