I stood on one side of a (small) river that was rushing across the road that took us on an Argentina road trip to Cachi in the Andes of Northwestern Argentina. “It doesn’t seem that deep, Jay.” I leaned down to check the clearance on our tiny Suzuki rental that was outfitted with a car seat. “No problem!”
We totally know where we are going.
We were driving a loop from Salta to Cachi to Cafayate and back to Salta. We’d only been in this rental car about 30 minutes when the way forward started to look like what we called “four-wheeling” where I grew up in Montana—but this Suzuki was most definitely not four wheel drive. Six year-old Beija was cheering in the back seat as I guided Jay through the shallowest areas, “Stay on the right until you get to that boulder in the middle, then angle up toward that tree.” Like I said, no problem. Note: At the end of this post I share directions, rental info, etc.
As we wound up and up and up we were rewarded for persevering. The views were unbelievable and kept changing. There were only a few more river crossings. We spent a long time (about 4700 feet in altitude) climbing and twisting, checking out the small outposts and well-cared-for cemeteries.
It is hard to imagine a more serpentine road.
The vegetation was green and the soil red and black, creating a beautiful contrast. We transitioned to a wide, flat plain with an arrow-straight road.
After all the dizzying curves, it was satisfying to hit this plateau. The flat part was paved, the curvy part was not.
Wild burros and a vicuña monitored our progress.
“Stop!” I commanded at the sight of a fuzzy thing in the road. Jay and Beija were a little startled because although making suggestions is not out of character for me, it was quite a bit louder than usual. The tiny Suzuki jerked to a stop and I drew their attention to a big, hairy tarantula in the road. Jay leapt out with his camera. He paused for a moment, wrestling with his tendency toward arachnophobia and his desire for a great photo. The photo won out. Jay lay down in the middle of the road to get the best angle on the hirsute beast while Beija and I imagined a scenario where the tarantula decided to make Jay his dinner.
Our friend Harry. He even has a shadow.
Back in the car and safe from being a spider’s dinner, we moved into a section of the landscape filled with cardon grande cactus, the Argentine saguaro.
I love the shape of saguaro cacti. It feels like a bunch of prickly friends waving from the hills.
We followed the Río Calchaquí south to Cachi at about 8300 feet above sea level. As we arrived the sun was setting and the town was starting to come alive. Dogs moving from the sidewalks to their posts in the middle of the street, men starting chess games in the square, a funeral letting out from the church. We watched the day fade over a glass of Torrontes at an outdoor café, our hearts full and minds peaceful—or maybe it was the altitude.
Buenos tardes, Cachi.
We had this place, these roads, all to ourselves as we set out again toward Cafayate the next morning. We saw very few Argentine travelers and only one other tourist on the whole circuit. The experience of seeing a place for what it really is, its essence, is deeply moving if you let it move you. We spend our whole lives performing and being performed for. You can feel when it gets real.
We passed so many houses made from mud bricks that were islands in a sea of red chili peppers drying in the sun.
On the way to Cafayate we stopped now and again to buy a random item at a local shop. We didn’t really need anything, but enjoyed saying hello to the kids out front, stretching our legs, and contributing some small amount to the local economy.
Does this road go to the Emerald City? Where are the flying monkeys?
The landscape was otherworldly. Built through sedimentation and erosion, it created sharp fins on either side of the road and the mountains in the distance looked full of jagged edges. The topography was so extreme that it kept the six-year-old happily engaged for several hours.
More saguaro friends in the high desert.
We arrived in Cafayate feeling great, if a little dusty. It was such a pleasure to do a little laundry, take a quick dip in the pool, and enjoy our wine while we felt smug about our successful Argentina road trip with a kindergartener. We go into more detail about how to put together a kid-focused itinerary here.
Torrontes at El Terruño on the square in Cafayate. Beija bought this sweater at an artisan school and wore it every day for the rest of our trip.
Route: Route 68 out of Salta, turn on Route 33 at El Carril, left on Route 40 at Payagosta to Cachi. Route 40 all the way to Cafayate and Route 68 back to Salta.
Car rental: Hertz
Hotel: Hotel Tampu (budget option)
Café: Oliver Café
Museum: Museo Arqueológico Pío Pablo Diaz
Gallery: Centro de Artesanias