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Argentina: Valles Calchaquies

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Valles Calchaquies | Argentina | Americas

[Visited: June 2015]

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.

Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Candelabra cacti in a high-altitude plain in the Parque Nacional los Cardones

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.

Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Rock formations and ripio road at the Quebrada de las Flechas

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.

Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): The Cuesta del Obispo is a scenic road up the mountains
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Green two-side corner door in Molinos with sleeping dog
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Quebrada de las Flechas with ripio road running through its rock formations
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Candelabra cacti at the Recta del Tin-Tin with snow-capped mountains in the background
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): The barren landscape of the Quebrada de las Flechas
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Looking out over the mountains and the Valle Encantado
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Quiet valley west of Cachi with the Nevado del Cachi mountain
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Rocks overhanging the road at the beginning of the Quebrada de las Flechas
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): The landscape at the Quebrada de las Flechas consists of rugged mountains
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): The start of the Quebrada de las Flechas is at the Corte el Cañón
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Molinos has some attractive buildings; one of them is this colonial church
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): Adobe buildings in the village of Molinos
Picture of Valles Calchaquies (Argentina): The cemetery of Cachi lies on top of a hill with views in all directions

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