Hugo (pronounced Oo-go), our guide and driver in Argentina, lets out an expletive and hits the steering wheel with his hand. “I don’t “****ing” believe it! He’s not reacting to our support of vegetarianism (in a country of meat-eaters this is almost sacrilege); nor because his football team Boca Juniors (Maradona’s alma mater) has lost to River Plate, the rival team from Buenos Aires. In fact, it’s nothing to do with Argentina at all. Hugo is upset by the fact that Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe didn’t make the Australian 2012 Olympic team.
“But that guy’s a champion!” Hugo exclaims, when I break the news. (For the record: Sports mad Hugo is more Argentinian than the tango).
Mourning for Thorpie, Hugo loses concentration; our car starts to veer across the dirt road. Anticipating disaster, I grip the seat. Hugo distractedly rights the vehicle. I breathe out slowly with relief.
Salta and Tucuman
We a group of four – are journeying between the cities of Salta and Tucuman in Argentina’s northwest.
The route heads through the Calchaquies Valleys, which runs alongside the stunning Cordillera Occidental, part of the Andes mountain range, and comprise several interlinking quebradas (gorges).
It’s the last place on earth that would prompt you to think of Thorpie. This is lofty desert country; there are no swimming pools here, save the odd river bed with a trickle of water.
Here and there, cactus plants shoot up like giant green fingers in a giant sandpit. A massive rockscape frames the panorama.
We’ve started our trip in the city of Salta. The highlight here is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology which displays the mummified remains of the “Llullaillaco children”, named after the volcano on which their perfectly preserved bodies were discovered in 1999, having rested there for five centuries. It’s fascinating.
That evening we hit Salta’s popular live-music bar, Peña La Casona del Molino where, entranced by the jamming folkloric musicians, we enjoy a few glasses of wine.
The next morning, our driver-guide Noe (Hugo comes later) jokes that we are suffering from the “Casona effect”. He’s right.
The drive from Salta through the fertile Lerma Valley is a hung-over blur. When we enter the Cafayate Gorge (also known as Quebrada de las Conchas) everyone bucks up, revived by a coca tea and the scenery.
Here, the rock formations are sharp and wonderfully dramatic. Their layers of reds, browns, greys and yellows are like a perfect soil profile-in-a-bottle.
We snap away at the Devil’s Throat, a striking vertical canyon that was formed by a waterfall in glacial times. Further on is the Ampitheatre, a natural rock that resembles a giant, roofless cave.
Here, two buskers play the quena (flute) and sicos (pan pipes), making the most of the formation’s acoustics, said to rival those of Buenos Aires famous Colon Theatre.
It’s beautiful and strangely moving.
We continue the journey. The arid, dusty landscape morphs into vineyards; we are in wine territory. By now, the group is back in form, so it’s more drinking.
Our wine tasting session is at the pretty “La Casa de La Bodega”, a small, family-run, boutique winery that produces Torrontés, a white wine for which the region is best known.
More viticultural-based activities await us at Cafayate, a small village and gateway to this wine growing region. Not much is happening – it’s siesta time.
The well-preserved plaza and the pretty, tree-lined streets are deserted. Even the tourist-oriented ‘vinoteca’ shops are closed. By now, rain and cool temperatures have kicked in.
It’s a different story at our hotel, a stunning 12-roomed estancia, “Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort”; we are welcomed warmly by the owners, Alejandra and Pablo. Alejandra declares: “You are lucky. Most people don’t see Cafayate when it’s raining.” (The town boasts a sunny 340 days a year).
Nevertheless, we head out to photograph the surrounding vineyards. The leaves’ colours pinks, oranges and yellows seem to turn in front of our eyes as though on a natural time lapse.
A sunny experience awaits us the next morning when Hugo, our friendly, new driver-cum-guide, greets us beaming. We race out of the wine region ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ style; a ball of dust trails behind the car.
Once again, a hilly desertscape replaces the vines. The mountains are massive and rippled, like one spectacularly long, petrified strip of crushed velvet. Two hours later, we pull into Quilmes Ruins.
They sprawl up the mountains like a smaller, arid version of Macchu Pichu. Our softly spoken guide, Nicolas, is from the local Diaguita community, the site’s custodians.
Nicolas leads us slowly up the mountain, around thick stone walls. It’s difficult to fathom Quilmes’ haunting history: it was the largest pre-Columbian settlement in Argentina and once home to the Quilmes Indians who had been dominated by Inca tribes in the 1400s. In 1667, the invading Spanish colonists marched its residents over 1,200 kilometres to Buenos Aires.
Only a few hundred people survived. It’s sobering stuff.
We’re deep in thought when we hit the road again. This time we’re heading to loftier heights – over a mountain pass.
It’s the archetypal Wild West: dry river beds, abandoned animal shelters and cacti. As we lurch our way up ‘Infiernillo Pass’ (3040m) we joke that this is gaucho (cowboy) country.
On cue, a stampede of wild ponies gallops past the car, leaving a dust cloud in its wake. Following behind, struts a herd of startled-looking llamas. And, as though a director has just yelled “action!”, two gauchos – the herders – mounted on steeds, appear over the horizon.
We are gobsmacked. “You wait,” Hugo grins, “there are more surprises”. Indeed, as we descend from the mountain, the landscape changes magically.
We enter a fertile and alpine-like wonderland. Our accommodation is outside the village of Tafí del Valle at the luxurious “Estancia Las Carreras”, a stunning 230-year old mansion, originally built by the Jesuits. It doubles as a working farm and even boasts its own Manchego cheese factory.
We sample the farm produce that evening in the estancia’s cosy dining room over one of the trip’s best meals: beef medallions, llama empanadas (pasty-shaped pies) and lokro, a hearty stew and local specialty.
The next day we rise early; it’s our final morning. As though Hugo has pressed the “keep-the-surprises-coming button”, it starts to snow. We race outside and shriek with delight.
Then it’s time to go. I feel like Hugo on hearing the news of Thorpie’s ‘demise’ – I don’t want to leave Argentina, and our newfound friends.
I am optimistic, however. Unlike Ian Thorpe (perhaps), I know I’ll return. I just refrain from saying ‘come back’. In case it upsets Hugo. Especially when he’s at the wheel.
Kate Armstrong was a guest of Destino Argentina.
Aerolineas Argentinas has flights to Buenos Aires.
Salta’s lovely boutique option is Legado Mítico. Rooms start at $270 a night.
Just outside the village of Tafí del Valle, Estancia Las Carreras has luxury accommodation for $140 a night.
Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort in Cafayate has rooms from $150 a night.
See and Do
Peña La Casona del Molino in Salta has nightly jam sessions from 9pm.
Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM) Museum, admission $9.
Quilmes Ruins, near Amaicha del Valle, admission $10