It is a splendid sunny winter morning when we set off from Salta. After doing some shopping at the junction of El Carril, we turn west, and drive straight into the Quebrada del Escoipe, the first of several gorges we will drive through these days. At first, we drive in a shady valley, but as we climb higher, the trees disappear and we start seeing our first candelabra cacti and views of barren, red mountains above us. The wide ripio, or gravel, road snakes through the valley that gets always narrower, and what follows is a long ascent on an almost empty white ribbon laid like a snake on grey mountains with a green finish on top. We stop frequently, taking in the views that get better and better the higher we get. We pass a viewpoint where a lama roams among small souvenir stalls, and shortly after that, turn left, and drive into the Valle Encantado. A narrow unsealed road through wild scenery and views over the mountains: a great place for a picnic in this desolate landscape where the wind makes a special sound as soon as it touches the solid rocks.
Back on the main road, we make a short stop at Piedra del Molino, at 3348 metres the highest point of the Cuesta del Obispo - this road was once used by then bishop of Tucumán in 1622, and he had to spend the night here. Heading further west, the road stays at high altitude, and soon reaches a plain where the road no longer curves: instead, we see a long, straight line of asphalt ahead of us. We have reached the Recta del Tin-Tin, cutting through a plain pampa where we spot hundreds of candelabra cacti. We are now in the Parque Nacional de los Cardones, protecting the mighty cacti that can grow up to 10 metres high. There are several places to stop and walk at the base of these immense natural formations with good explanations, so we learn a little more about the amazing life of a cardón, or candelabra cactus, able to survive the harsh, dry, high-altitude conditions here. The cacti are protected, and the park is an attempt to preserve them for the future. From here, it is a pleasant drive down to Cachi; on the way, we give an older souvenir-seller a ride to Payogasta. We drive through Cachi, to Cachi Adentro and beyond, into a quiet valley with the Nevado del Cachi in the background: at more than 6300 metres, it has snow on top. We explore the cemetery, right on top of a hill overlooking Cachi, before walking the streets with white adobe houses in this pre-Incan settlement. When the sun sets, the streets get an orange glow before submitting to the night that falls inevitably.
The next morning, we are out early: our first stop is the colonial village of Molinos. At first, it does not look anything special, but when we hit the main 17th century church we start walking around, and like it more every minute. The white adobe houses, the cobble stone streets, the green doors at the corners of houses, the lanterns, the old physically challenged man who makes his slow way to church on a bike with crutches: Molinos definitely has a charm worth stopping for. Driving further south, just after the tiny village of Angastaco, we stop the car when we see rugged mountains hanging partly over the gravel road. We are at the beginning of the Quebrada de las Flechas, and it turns out to be probably the most spectacular stretch of road in this part of Salta province. The ripio road snakes through impossible rock formations, and we get off several times to get views, climb a little higher, and wonder how this landscape ever came into being. Pointy rocks lie slopingly or vertically in the dry landscape; and we now see why this is called the Gorge of Arrows. We pass the river Calchaquí and see a herd of wild donkeys on our way to San Carlos; after the otherworldly landscapes of the Quebrada de las Flechas, it feels like we are returning to our own planet before we hit the colonial town of San Carlos where a coffee and ice cream at the main square feel like a deserved treat after the great drive through the Valles Calchaquíes, before we continue to Cafayate.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Valles Calchaquies (Argentina). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Valles Calchaquies.
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