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.