A shack in the ghost-town of Alemanía, the last stop on the now defunct Belgrano railway line ending in the northwest Salta province. The riverbank here, on the Rio de las Conchas, is perfect for a picnic while on the Vuelta a los Valles Calchaquíes tour through the province.
Lunar landscapes, big skies, proud cacti, enchanting wine vineyards, kaleidoscopic color palettes: La Vuelta a los Valles Calchaquíes is a drive through Salta that highlights the beauty of this northern Argentine province.
The province’s capital city of Salta offers a comfortable point of embarkation to the quaint provincial pueblos, Cafayate and Cachi. Visit both towns on a two or three day trip via the poetic, yet unballyhooed circuit, ‘The Return to the Vales.’
Renting a car is the most advantageous method of travel, providing the freedom to stop and capture photos, pick up hitchhikers, hike the terrain, or simply stop and gawk at breathtaking landscapes as frequently as you wish. Alternately, there are tour buses that embark regularly from Salta. For more adventurous budget travelers, hitchhiking is relatively easy on this route. Route 68 headed to Cafayate is also a popular road for biking, but be sure to bring plenty of water and venture out early, as it can be a brutal dessert experience for the unprepared.
Starting your Salta Roadtrip
Head south from Salta to Cafayate on Ruta 68 towards Valles Calchaquíe. Located in the center of the Calchaquies Valley, Cafayate is a little less than 190 kilometers from Salta, about three and a half hours by car. The first part of the circuit is a rather easy drive; a straight shot down a well-maintained two-lane road.
At first you’re greeted with a pleasant, bucolic landscape, but the truly extraordinary scenery begins as you enter into the Quebrada de Cafayate (also known as the Quebrada de Las Conchas.) The ‘Sea Shell Gorge’ begins at the railway ghost town of Alemanía where you can stop to explore the old railroad depot and cross the train trestle to take a dip in the river.
Twenty minutes down the road you’ll come upon an aptly named red rock formation, Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). You can make like a mountain goat and scurry up the Devil’s Throat, but beware that getting up is much easier than getting down. A couple of kilometers further is El Anfiteatro, a natural amphitheater that will delight musicians with its wonderful red rock acoustics. In the summer you may stumble across a concert here. As you continue down the road you’ll come across a slew of capricious rock formations including El Sapo (The Frog), El Fraile (The Friar) and El Obeslico (The Obelisk).
Arriving in Cafayate
Once you reach Cafayate, where most taking this drive stay overnight, drop in the tourist office located in the central Plaza San Martin (Guemes and San Martin) for maps, brochures, information on activities and tours. Be sure to pick up for a map of the local bodegas (wineries).
If you’re arriving here on a Friday or Saturday night reservations are recommended. Options range from to a low-cost dorm bed in a hostel to a range of moderately-priced hotels to the luxury hotel-spa, Patios de Cafayate.
Activities in Cafayate
In spite of a growing tourism, Cafayate has retained its small-town soul. Wander a few blocks away from the main plaza and you’ll find yourself deep inside a vibrant neighborhood of locals, unconcerned with the presence of outsiders. Here, children play soccer in the streets, mothers hang clothes outside to dry, and sleepy dogs lay wherever they may.
Be sure to take a step inside Nuestra Señora del Rosario, an impressive cathedral in the main plaza.
Any given dusty lane will lead you to a vineyard open for tours and wine sampling. Cafayate’s dry climate, high altitude 1,660 meters above sea level, hot days and cool nights makes it a prime location for wine production.
Cafayate is famous for its Torrontés grape, used to create the dry, fruity white wine of the same name. This particular provincial wine has increasingly received international praise, earning it the notable title, ‘The white wine of Argentina.’ For more information on Cafayate’s wine history and culture, visit the Museo de Vitivinicultura (Güemes Sur and Colon, admission AR-$).
The trip to Río Colorado, five kilometers outside of town, is nice if you’re looking for some outdoors activity. Hike upstream for about one and a half hours to a waterfall with a pleasant area for a swim. Taxis are available from Cafayate to the trail entrance. It can be difficult to find taxis for the ride back to Cafayate. Try arranging a pickup time with your driver, or bring water for the 5km walk back. Biking is an easy option when the weather is nice; find bike rentals around the plaza. For those who don’t want to bother with a trail map and compass, there are plenty of guides available in town for reasonable prices.
Just an hour trip south from Cafayate by car, lies Quilmes, a fascinating pre-Inca, indigenous ruins resting in a lonely dessert. Pay a small fee to visit the relics of the once-thriving city.
La Vuelta de Los Valles: Day Two
On day two of your drive you’ll take Ruta 40 out of town towards Cachi. Ruta 40 winds seductively through Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrow Gorge), offering some of the most stunning, arid visuals on the planet. Be attentive while driving Route 40 — at times it is a precarious, narrow gravel road,
The small mountainous pre-colonial town of Cachi lies 165 kilometers north of Cafayate (about five and a half hours by car).
Once you arrive in Cachi, rest up and try some northern Argentine favorites like empanadas, locro or tamales. The town has quite a few shops selling typical northern Argentine arts and crafts. Most everything you need, including the Cachi Tourist Office, is centered around the main plaza. Visit the Church of San Jose and the small but interesting archeology museum.
With a spectacular panoramic view of the town and the Nevado de Cachi mountain range, Cachi’s picturesque hilltop cemetery is a must-see attraction in the 5,000-person town.
If you have time to stretch your trip out you can stay in Cachi overnight. Before heading out of town, pick up some local mountain herbs and spices for sale in the plaza.
The trip back to Salta from Cachi via Route 40 is a strikingly beautiful ride (160 kilometers, about three hours) through the Quebrada de Escoipe and Cuesta del Obispo. Visual delights await you the final hours of the trip, with an ever-changing landscape that sometimes appears to pertain to another planet.
— by Avery White
La Vuelta de Los Valles three-day round-up:
Day 1: Salta to Cafayate: 180km. Good road conditions. 3.5 hours (through Quebrada de Cafayate)
Day 2: Cafayate to Cachi: 165km. Rough road conditions 5.5 hours. (through Quebrada de las Flechas)
Day 3*: Cachi to Salta: 160km. The first 1/3 of the route is unpaved followed by paved roads. Some parts of this route wind around steep mountain terrain. 3-4 hours (through the Quebrada de Escoipe and Cuesta del Obispo)
* For a two-day trip Cafayate to Salta can be done in one long day.
• It is important to note if driving that there are not many gas stations in between Salta and Cafayate, and no gas stations between Cafayate and Cachi. There are several gas stations in Cafayate and Cachi. It’s best to fill up the tank before leaving Salta.
• There is a tourist office located near the main plaza in Salta that can offer advice on your trip
• Compare prices for car rental and get 15% off on our Car Rental Page
The Argentine ghost town of Alemanía, a stop on the La Vuelta a Los Valles drive through Salta, is a not-to-be-missed spot for adventurers.
Alemanía is the starting point for the Quebrada de las Conchas (The Shells Gorge), the 60-kilometer stretch of multicolored rock formation between here and Cafayate.
A depot of Argentina’s once-expansive railway system, the town is said to have been coined ‘Alemania’ (without an accent) in 1617 by local indigenous tribes. Most locals now say the town was named in honor of German workers who worked on the railway lines through here (‘Alemania’ means Germany in Spanish, but the explanation doesn’t account for the accent later added on the ‘i’).
Alemanía was the last stop on the Belgrano railway line from Salta, which was supposed to be continued onward to Cafayate. Between 1916 and 1920 the town held a few hundred residents, attracted by the abundance of work brought by the expansion of the railway lines.
The town’s folklore likens it like the wild west — a refuge of debauchery, where people came to earn lots of money and party for days at a time, enjoying the local Torrontés wine. The railroad work was put on hold during World War I and was never completed.
The railway line was closed for good in 1971 and today only eight families reside in the immediate area. The old train depot has been converted into an art gallery with some unique arts and handicrafts on sale. The few die-hard descendants of the railroad workers who remain here have their land titles and not much else. They live without modern conveniences such as electricity or telephones, and are so eager for visitors that they will likely treat you like long-lost friend. Ask for a ghost story and explore the turn of the 20th century buildings and railway wagons.
The most action that Alemanía sees these days is as the setting for film sets such as 2010’s remake of the horror movie, ‘And Soon the Darkness’:
You can camp in Alemanía, or just take a dip in the Río de La Conchas, (Conchas River), but you’ll have to carefully cross the old train trestle to reach the accessible side of the riverbank.
The residents will provide you with fresh water, just throw them a few pesos as thanks — you’ll see that they have no source of income here aside from the few pottery, wood carvings and wool products they produce and sell.
If you’re camping you can hike the surrounding hills and visit the Alemanía waterfall three hours away, ask locals for directions.
Alemanía – 99 km south from Salta on Route 68, at kilometer 107. You’ll pass by here if on the popular La Vuelta a las Valles scenic drive.
Camping is your only option in Alemanía. Bring all your own supplies — the closest place to buy food is a few kilometers up the road. Also secure your food well as there is lots of wildlife in the area. Be sure to meticulously clean up your campsite, pack out all your refuse, and be generous with the locals, who share their territory free of charge.
The artisans in Alemanía make some very interesting art, wood, pottery and wool items that you won’t find elsewhere. Since there’s no radio, TV or even many neighbors to hang out with here, the residents dedicate a lot of time to their crafts, which are very reasonably priced.
Any dusty road in Salta’s small wine town of Cafayate will take you to a bodega (winery) open to the public for tours and wine sampling. Cafayate’s dry climate, high altitude, hot days and cool nights makes it a prime location for wine production.
Cafayate is most famous for its Torrontés grape, used to create an aromatic, dry, fruity white wine that may even win over those who normally prefer reds. Torrontés Riojano variety wine has received a great deal of global praise, earning it the notable title of, ‘the white wine of Argentina.’
Thanks in large part to French wine-maker, Michel Rolland, in recent years the area has been getting more attention for its red wines as well. Principal among the red wines from this region are Malbec, of course, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The blends with Cabernet Sauvignon give more depth to Malbec, adding hints of plum and blackcurrant, and are typically aged in oak barrels.
There are a handful of bodegas to choose from, many in relatively close proximity to Cafayate’s main plaza. Ambitious wine connoisseurs could certainly visit all of them in one day, but should plan on a brutal hangover the next morning.
Popular Bodegas in Cafayate
Bodega El Esteco is a high-end vineyard founded in 1892 by two French brothers. El Esteco has a variety of tour options from one-hour to six-hour tours. El Esteco also has a luxury hotel and spa set in a grand colonial building for those who feel like splurging. Tours daily,English tours are available upon request.
Patio de Cafayate/ Bodega El Esteco
Route 40 at Route 68
Tel : (03868) 421-283
Cell: (03868) 15 566-019
Bodega Las Nubes is a lovely choice for a vineyard tour. A tour is free with the purchase of a bottle of wine. This small organic vineyard is located about five kilometers from the town center, but Las Nubes’ exceptional scenery makes this a worthwhile stop. Sometimes a charming lunch service is available upon advanced email requests.
Finca Las Nubes
El Divisadero (at the foot of El Cajón)
Tel: (03868) 422-129
Bodega Nanni is a popular organically certified and sustainable vineyard that offers wine tours. The family has been producing wine for 110 years. They also have a lovely Tannat for the red wine lovers. The on-site restaurant gets good reviews.
Tel: (03868) 421-527
Vasijas Secreta, Cafayate’s oldest vineyard, is set in a colonial-style property and offers free one-hour tours and wine tasting. There is also an interesting museum displaying old-fashioned wine making equipment and old black and white photos.
Ruta 40 -CP 4427
Tel: (03868) 421-850
Bodega La Rosa is another popular winery founded in 1892, most famous internationally for its ‘Michael Torino’ Torrontés. It offers free tours in Spanish from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. , Monday through Friday.
Michel Torino/Bodega La Rosa
Route 40 at Route 68/ 3km outside Cafayate (4427)
Cafayate’s Wine Museum
Not a winery but a must-visit for any wine-maker, sommelier or regular wino. The Cafayate Wine Museum/Museo de la Vid y el Vino is is a museum solely dedicated to grape growing and wine production. A place for great panoramic views and a place to learn more about Cafayate’s wine-making history and culture.
Museo de Vitivinicultura
Güemes Sur at Colon
Tel: (03868) 421-125
• Hours: Tue-Sun: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Check out the hotels in Cafayate.
No address, ask locals for directions
-A good spot a top a hill with plots for camping for about 20 pesos. One kilometer south of the plaza.
(Reservations through the tourist office)
Plaza 9 de Julio. Güemes/no address
Reservations for cheap dorm rooms in the municipal hostel can be made at the tourist office located in the main plaza. A ‘nothing fancy’ bed will set you back about AR$20.
Cabana Al Fuerte
Fuerte Alto, Cachi, Argentina
A privately owned property with two basic, but nice chalets. Close to the Pio Pablo Diaz Archeology Museum and a good value .
Route 40/ kilometer 1,237
With comfortable rooms, lovely hilltop views and a pool to cool off from the desert heat, Hostería Cachi is a good mid-range choice.
Hotel Boutique El Cortijo
Av Automovil Club Argentino, Escalchi
Tel: (03868) 491-034
Small, authentic and quiet 15-room boutique hotel in a renovated colonial style farmhouse, attended by the cordial owner, María Luisa. Although it closes during some times of the year, it is highly rated. Pleasant, basic room costs around US$70 per night.
La Merced del Alto
Fuerte Alto (4417)
Tel: (03868) 490-030
A monastery-like four-star hotel two kilometers outside the city center at the foot of the Nevado de Cachi mountain range. Enjoy beautiful views and a peaceful atmosphere. The hotel includes a wine cellar with tastings available, a spa with a jacuzzi and a restaurant serving delicious Andean cuisine. A favorite among visitors who stay in the area.
Check all Hotels in Cachi on Hotels Combined.