Cafayate: The Back Country

Salta, while linda, is also still a city, and as I learned from our friendly historian it is important to change your perspective to seek new definitions. There are so many forms of beauty, the cosmopolitan, the urban, the historical, the academic, and you find different types of beauty in all of these contexts. In our travels, we have seen much of the structured, human-created types of beauty, but what we had not yet experienced was rural beauty. In this vein, a daytrip was in order. Our slightly limited time schedule lead us to choose Cafayate, a small town about 180 km south of Salta.

We dragged ourselves out of bed at an ungodly hour to catch (just barely, because D forgot his camera in the apartment) the 7:00 bus to Cafayate. The bus transverses a local commuter and tourist route, highway 68, which is famous for its scenery. As we passed out of the mountain valley of Salta Capital, the first golden rays of morning gilded the lush surrounding land. We whizzed by horse farms, sprawling plots of unknown green leafy produce, and the occasional wild area. Gradually, the valley sucked the water out of the land; as we climbed higher the abundant trees and bushes disappeared, replaced by steep ochre slopes.

I struggled to stay awake through the Quebrada de Cafayate, a prehistoric valley created when the Andes pushed a prehistoric sea out of the middle of South America. Even though we returned later that afternoon with a guide, I’m glad that I got to see the hillsides lit up in the early morning.

Half dead by the time our bus pulled in, we found that the town was dead too. A smattering of tourists strolled through the tree-lined central plaza, and we soon discovered that there wasn’t much more to the town of Cafayate than that. An overly enthusiastic tour organizer accosted us not two blocks from the bus station, and at that point I wasn’t in the mood to think coherently nor make decisions. We ate a tranquil breakfast of local bread and goat cheese in the shade, and then made plans. To my dismay, the very same obnoxious tourism agent was the only one recommended at all by either of our guides, and the office actually looked reputable. We booked spots on the one tour of the day and then walked down the approximately nine square blocks that comprise the town.

The one “not to be missed” spot in the guidebook was an intriguing icecream store. Cafayate has a burgeoning (or perhaps just struggling) wine culture, and one special store makes granitas from Cafayate’s two wines. Excellent, a great way to pass the noon hour. We grabbed a table in the shade and I began to savor my truly delicious cabernet sauvignon granita. Since it was a slow day, the owner came outside and sat with us. “How cute!” I thought, we’re having a provincial experience; chatting with the purveyor of these fine comestibles on a dusty street in windswept Cafayate, Argentina. The conversation was fairly mundane to begin with, and Dave got to practice his Spanish a little with someone other than me.

Then, in a less than congenial turn, he told us “You know there are bad people out in the world. There is a lot of evil going on.” Umm, sure? Nod and smile, nod and smile. Actually, it was pretty difficult for me to get in touch with the evils of the world on a sunny afteroon in a quaint sleepy town. Not wanting to be rude, since we were eating his icecream and sitting in his café, we put up with another twenty minutes of less ambiguously directed malice: according to him, unemployment didn’t exist, only lazy (aka poor/indigenous) people; the Muslim/Arab community is the embodiment of evil on earth (he wasn’t clear on a distinction); Jews are bad too, for uncertain reasons; Hitler and the Japanese Kamakazi bombers inspired the modern proliferation of jihads; and the world in general is going to hell. Well, that was uplifting. So much for my endearing icecream maker.

We fled the scene as soon as another customer came into the store, waving frantically and sending hasty “Ciao’s” in farewell as we escaped. I guess you can find bigots all over the world.

Lunch around the deserted central plaza was much more pleasant: a perfect Argentine light meal. My first real lomito, the mother of all steak sandwiches, was fantastic. A medium flank steak cooked on a grill with all the fixings: cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, a fried egg, mustard, and aioli. Whew. It proved to be excellent fuel for our afternoon hike out into the country along highway 68.

We piled into a van with 14 other nature-loving tourists (4 more people were shoved in the tour guide’s brother’s car that drove along behind) to a series of puntos de interés (points of interest) along the road that would eventually take us back to Salta, clean showers, and a comfortable bed. Apparently, it was “no problem” catching the bus midway, we’d have “plenty of time” to see the last landmark, and everything would be fine. That was before five of us credulous tourists were sprinting down a rocky gully out of the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) after the last bus of the evening, which was slowly moving down the road without us. But I get ahead of myself.

An incredibly energetic but oblivious guide lead us through beautiful country full of geological wonders, while warning us in very rapid Spanish not to touch the dangerous shoe-puncturing cacti or we would be sick for 28 days in a hospital, if we weren’t already dead. 15 seconds after this warning, a small middle-aged French woman tromped on one with her army-surplus boots. Clearly, she missed that. I appreciated the knowledge and exuberance of our guide, but doubted his sincerity. One man, a fellow Argentine, mentioned that he was trying to start a cactus garden at home, and the guide immediately offered to dig up some specimens and mail them to him. Generous, yet strange. Our group was a little large to really appreciate the scenery; there were constantly people’s heads, feet, or arms in my scenic pictures, but I got over it.

We sloshed barefoot through mudflats to see a swallow rookery in red cliffs, walked on the ancient seafloor through crumbling sandstone valleys, crunched crystallized plaster in our fingers, and watched the clouds turn the mountainsides from dusty brown to blood-red, dark olive to vivid green, dull sand to bright gold. The mineral-rich area was filled with copper, iron, and sulfur ores, which gives the land dramatic swaths of color. At times the land on the horizon was flat as a board, stacks of earth that lay still for millenia; in other places, the layer cake of rocks and minerals twisted like bunched fabric or jutted up from the ground in jagged angles. We zipped from site to site in our van and auxilary car, piling in and out like clowns in a circus with the guide all the while enthusiastically yelling “¡Vamos, señores turistas nacionales e internacionales!”

I knew that there was a schedule to the tour, as we were planning on meeting a bus at the end, but I had no idea how closely it was being followed. As a French couple (who could speak Spanish, as opposed to the crazy small lady) lingered over a vendor of hippie necklaces at “El Anfiteatro,” (The Amphitheater) an echoing canyon, our guide’s mood altered slightly from manically excited to slightly worried. I dug my watch out of my pack and saw that we had about 20 minutes until the bus was supposed to be at our next geological site, the Garganta del Diablo. We scrambled up a rock face, saw the Devil’s throat, although I’m still not sure why it’s called that—we didn’t exactly have time to wait around for our guide’s commentary—and sprinted the last 200 meters down to the road to catch the last bus back to Salta as the sun sank over the mountains.

Five of us tourists joined the young mothers with babies, tired farmers and construction workers, grandmothers, and other local travellers on the colectivo, the municipal bus which runs from Cafayate to Salta and points between. I think everyone on the bus had a long day, regardless of their daily activities; everyone was ready to sleep. We grabbed some hot and juicy empanadas at the bus rest stop, gobbled them down and nodded off to the swaying of the bus winding its way back around the mountainsides back to Salta.

I was pretty pleased with our first outing into the country. It was not exactly what I had expected, but the day gave us a glimpse into rural culture on several levels. The transplant icecream maker turned out to be more back-country than the indigenous people living from the earth. Our first organized tour was pleasant, and went relatively smoothly; the change of scenery was excellent, exactly what we wanted. We saw strange and beautiful things out in the country. On a tactile level, felt good to walk about on the earth again, instead of on bricks, asphalt, or concrete.

The hot shower and comfortable beds in seemingly cosmopolitan Salta comforted our tired bodies at the end of the three hour bus ride and the long climb up the hill to our apartment, an apt reward for a dusty day among rocks and cacti. It was a short jaunt, and good warm-up for what would come next in our journey as we continued on northwards, further from the glittering city lights of Buenos Aires and the bustling streets of Salta into our first new country: Bolivia.

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