The Valles Calchaquíes are a series of beautiful highland valleys that enjoy over three hundred days of sunshine a year, a dry climate and much cooler summers than the lowland plains around Salta. The fertile land, irrigated with canals and ditches that capture the plentiful snowmelt from the high mountains to the west, is mostly given over to vineyards – among the world’s highest – that produce the characteristic Torrontés grape. The valleys are named after the Río Calchaquí, which has its source in the Nevado de Acay (at over 5000m) near San Antonio de los Cobres, and joins the Río de las Conchas, near Salta’s border with Tucumán.
Organized tours from Salta squeeze a visit into one day, stopping at the valleys’ main settlement, the airy village of Cafayate, for lunch. However, by far the most rewarding way to see the Valles Calchaquíes is under your own steam, by climbing the amazing Cuesta del Obispo, through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a protected forest of gigantic cardón cacti, to the picturesque village of Cachi; then follow the valley south through some memorable scenery via Molinos and San Carlos, on to Cafayate, where plentiful accommodation facilitates a stopover. The scenic road back down to Salta through the Quebrada de Cafayate, or Cuesta de las Conchas, snakes past some incredible rock formations, optimally seen in the late afternoon or early evening light. All along the valleys, you’ll see typical casas de galería: long, single-storey houses, some with a colonnade of rounded arches, others decorated with pointed ogival arches or straight pillars.Read More
The Cuesta del Obispo
The Cuesta del Obispo
To get to the northern Calchaquí settlement of Cachi, 170km southwest of Salta, you go along the partly sealed RP-33, a scenic road that squeezes through the dank Quebrada de Escoipe, before climbing the dramatic mountain road known as the Cuesta del Obispo, 20km of hairpin bends, offering views of the rippling Sierra del Obispo. These beautiful mountains, blanketed in olive-green vegetation and heavily eroded by countless brooks, are at their best in the morning light; in summer, cloud and rain descends in the afternoon and evening storms can make the road impassable.
At the tiny village of Payogasta, where the RP-33 joins the RN-40, you have a choice of roads. You can either head north to explore the furthest reaches of the Valles Calchaquíes, with dramatic high mountains on either side and beguiling desert-like scenery accompanying you all along the rough track to La Poma, 40km north; or, especially if time is short or night is drawing in, you can head straight south for CACHI. This picturesque village, 2280m above sea level, is overshadowed by the permanently snowcapped Nevado del Cachi (6380m), whose peak looms only 15km to the west. Cachi is a pleasant place to wander, investigating the various local crafts, including ponchos and ceramics, or climbing to the cemetery for wonderful mountain views and a panorama of the pea-green valley, every arable patch of which is filled with vines, maize and capsicum plantations.
From Cachi to Cafayate
From Cachi to Cafayate
The mostly unsealed RN-40 from Cachi to Cafayate takes you along some stupendous corniche roads that wind alongside the Río Calchaquí itself, offering views on either side of sheer mountainsides and snowcapped peaks. It’s only 180km from one town to the other, but allow plenty of time as the narrow track slows your progress and you’ll want to stop to admire the views, take photographs and visit the picturesque valley settlements en route, oases of greenery in an otherwise stark landscape. The last stretch of the road to Cafayate threads its way through extensive vineyards, affording views of the staggeringly high mountains – many of them over 4000m – to the west and east.
Quebrada de Cafayate
Quebrada de Cafayate
The RN-68 forks off the RN-40 only 2km north of Cafayate, north of the Río Chuschas, before heading across fertile land, some of it given over to vineyards. It soon begins its winding descent, following the Río de las Conchas through the QUEBRADA DE CAFAYATE north to the Valle de Lerma and onwards to Salta. The gorge is seen at its best on the way down, in the mellow late afternoon or early evening light; organized tours aim to take you down this way and you should follow suit if travelling under your own steam. Leave plenty of time, as once in the gorge you’ll be tempted to make several stops, to admire the views and take pictures.
At the northernmost part of the gorge you enter an invariably windy stretch, where you’re better off inside your vehicle unless you want to be sandblasted. One positive result of frequent sandstorms, though, is the formation of wonderful sand dunes, Los Médanos, like gigantic piles of sawdust by the road. This is where the canyon proper begins, and the road snakes its way down alongside the riverbed. The majestic Sierras de Carahuasi – the northernmost range of the Cumbres Calchaquíes – loom behind as a magnificent backdrop, while in the foreground rock formations have been eroded and blasted by wind and rain to form buttresses, known as Los Castillos, or “the castles”, and a huge monolith dubbed El Obelisco. The reds, ochres and pinks of the sandstone make it all look staggeringly beautiful.
Just past the Obelisco, La Yesera, or “chalk quarry”, is actually a strange group of eerily grey and yellow rocks exposed by millions of years of erosion, while a monk-like figure, skulking in the cliff-side, has earned the name El Fraile.
Just off the road, about 50km from Cafayate, two semicircular ravines carved in the mountainside are called La Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and El Anfiteatro, while the animal-like figure nearby is El Sapo (Toad).
Still passing through delightful scenery, you leave the stupendous canyon, spiked with cacti, behind you to enter the forested valley bottom. Halfway between Cafayate and Salta, a convenient stopoff is provided by the excellent Posta de Las Cabras, where in addition to the goat’s cheese suggested by its name, you can sample all kinds of local delicacies, buy fine crafts, or just have a cup of coffee.
From La Viña, 100km northeast of Cafayate and just south of Embalse Cabra Corral, the enormous reservoir serving Salta, it’s another 90km or so to the city, along the relatively busy RN-68.