In Argentina for domestic flights there are two different prices for airline tickets, the price for residents and the price for foreigners (I’ll let you guess which one costs double the other). Technically I can legally get the local price with my resident visa needed for studying abroad but Dalton, my boyfriend and northern Argentina travel partner, definitely did not qualify. At the LAN office in the city I was able to pay in pesos (score!) and gave a guilty “yes” when asked if we both had visas… Luckily they never asked to see them. The next key part of this plan is getting through the airport, we checked in online and carried on all of our bags making it so we never had to show documentation to receive the tickets (from others I have heard this is the key).
We arrived to the airport and I started sweating a bit when approaching the security line, but viola! we got through no problem. After showing our passports we were sitting on the plane, grinning, we made it!
Touchdown in Salta, Argentina
I had expected Salta to look a lot like San Pedro de Atacama, it is nothing like the barren desert in Northern Chile. Touching down I couldn’t help but be amazed by the big tree covered mountains, green grassy fields, and small rivers. We walked out of the airport in the bright sunshine and walked to the main road in search for the colectivo 8A that I had read would take us into the town center. Not finding a bus stop we just started walking down the highway towards the signs that read Salta, after about 10 minutes we started to debate if we should hitchhike as we had zero clue how far we had to go. Finally in the distance a bus appears, a big 8A on the front, unsure if it would even stop as we were nowhere near anything that resembled a bus stop we put our hands out to flag it down and it stopped! As big clunky Americans we boarded the bus, paid a lady to use her bus card, and were off towards (we hoped) to Salta. After a 30 minute ride of continuously questioning we were in Salta/where we were in Salta we started to recognize some streets and jumped off when we got somewhere close to where we thought our hostel was.
Hike up Cerro San Bernardo
About an hour later we had dropped our belongings at Hostel Coloria, made reservations for a rental car later in the week to do the Quebrada de Humahuaca, and map in hand headed to Cerro San Bernardo to get a little exercise and a good mirador of the city. The windy stone path was lined with 13 different depictions of the journey of Jesus to the cross and throughly winded we made it to the top after about 40 minutes. We were able to watch the aftermaths of the sunset, the sky darkening and the lighting of the city.
Dinner in Salta, Argentina
That evening we dined at a regional food restaurant near the central plaza. We enjoyed the SPICY salsa with the bread, locro (a regional warm hearty stew), and Dalton got an enormous perfectly cooked steak. Slightly touristy, but a fun tasty restaurant.
Onwards to the Wine Country of Cafayate, Argentina
The next morning, after a poor nights sleep due to the paper thin walls and hot stuffy room at Coloria, we did a quick (exhausting) run up Cerro San Bernado for a magnificent morning view and headed to the bus terminal to go the small southern town of Cafayate.
The second half of the 4 hour bus trip went through the Quebrada de las Conchas; crazy colored mountains, impossible rock structures, and beautiful rivers. Definitely kept our eyes occupied as we munched on empanadas we had bought from a roadside vendor at one of the stops.
Lodging in Cafayate, Argentina – Backpackers Hostel
We decided to wing it and choose a hostel once we arrive to Cafayate, hopefully find a good deal and not be roped into a certain number of nights anywhere. A few people were waiting as unloaded from the bus, giving us flyers and information about their hostels. We ended up choosing Cafayate Backpackers Hostel, $90 pesos a night for a private room with breakfast and every night there was a Parrilla homemade dinner for $60 pesos all you can eat…. We almost felt bad staying there, it definitely felt like it should be costing more than about 8$ a night.
Exploring Wineries in the Town of Cafayate
Cafayate is known for its wine! Which is really weird since it’s super high altitude, mostly cactus and trees, and somewhat deserty, but hey I guess the grapes like it! Torrontes is the main star, a white grape that is the only grape actually “born” in Argentina (the rest were brought over from Europe).
Bodega El Transito
Just in the town there are a bunch of tasting rooms, all ranging from about 80$AR (6$US) to free. Our first afternoon we just wandered around the tiny quaint town going from tasting room to tasting room enjoying delicious wines. First stop was quick at Bodega El Transito.
One of our favorites was Bodega Nanni, they had delicious wines, all costing about 60$AR (less than 5$US) a bottle. The tasting room associate explained that they used egg whites to clarify the wines, never heard of that one before!
Bodega Domingo Hermanos
At our third stop, Domingo Hermanos, we did a tasting with a couple that had been sitting near us on the bus. After a quick laugh on how small this town truly was we got to talking and immediately hit it off. Our interest was really peaked when we learned James was from Scotland, where we might be potentially moving at the beginning of next year. As a group we did another tasting and parted ways after exchanging numbers and inviting them to the fajita dinner at our hostel that evening. Giddy from making new friends, being slightly drunk off wine, and accompanied by the thrill of exploring and being in a cute tiny South American town, we wandered the square and eventually headed back to the hostel to wait for dinner.
Dinner at Backpacker’s Hostel
Emma, one of the main workers/owners of the hostel, gave us fresh made lemon pie as we relaxed (and were only paying $9 a night….). Fajitas were incredible!! Chicken, beef, and cheese with delicious grilled veggies rolled in warm crispy tortillas.. My stomach is aching now just thinking about them! After stuffing ourselves, drinking a bottle of delicious Nanni wine, and making more friends in our hostel we all but rolled to our room and enjoyed a quiet night of sleep
Bike + Hike the Tres Cascadas (Waterfalls)
The next morning we decided to bike and hike the Tres Cascadas, a couple kilometers outside of town. We rented some cheap bikes that probably were close to their final days from the hostel, picked up some empanadas in town, and started our adventure. The dirt road was enough uphill to be exhausting, full of rocks and bumps, but the sunshine and promise of waterfalls kept us going.
Getting Lost to Get Started
Everything was going well, we kept passing the landmarks we needed to according to our hand drawn map, and we were to leave our bikes at a campsite and start hiking. We saw a sign for a “tourism campsite” and turned off. About 40 minutes later of biking uphill we decided that maybe we had made a wrong turn. We went back to the main road, which took about half the time and my body got properly shaken and rattled from the rocks, and realized the correct campsite was only about 200 more meters up the road.
We parked our bikes, refused a bunch of local guides, and headed to the trailhead. We signed into the log and a woman explained to us to be cautious, parts of the trail are difficult, and always continue to the right. Taking her directions seriously before seeing any signs marking the waterfalls we came upon a staircase, on the right, leading to a well formed path that curiously went away from the riverbed. Thinking it was a hike that must loop back around the mountain to reach the waterfalls we eagerly followed and a big stick at the end of the man made path labeled “Karen” erased all my doubts we weren’t on the trail.
About 45 minutes later we were sweaty, scratched, poked, and had climbed about every square foot of that mountain side unable to find a path. We were finally forced to stop looking when a man called out to us because we happened to be in his backyard. When we told him we were trying to go to the waterfalls he looked at us in disbelief, the river is on the other side of the mountain, and when we told him we were Americans he actually laughed a little bit, as if it all made sense now. “Hire a guide, hire me, I’ll take you to the waterfall.” Holding onto our pride and stubbornness we decided to try again solo and I think I saw an eye roll and definitely saw him shaking his head as we walked away. We retraced our steps to the stairs and behold, not even 100 meters away from where we turned on the staircase, in plain view was the trailhead! Oh boy I felt stupid haha.
Back on the Trail up Tres Cascadas
The hike was beautiful. It followed a river in an enormous canyon with giant cacti and big boulders you had to jump to and from.
Only problem I was exhausted! But I hadn’t spent the morning mountain biking uphill and 2 hours of lost wandering to not see the damn waterfalls. An hour into the declared three hour hike, we stumbled upon the first waterfall. It was small, but pretty and tranquil.
We ate our empanadas and then scrambled up a rock to reach the second fall. The third and final was right after the second and took a little bit more climbing and maneuvering to reach, you could understand why a guide might be useful, but we didn’t think it was really necessary. After admiring the falls and relaxing a bit we decided to head on back as there were a couple wineries along the way we wanted to stop at.
Bodega Fina de las Nubes
Finca de Las Nubes was a beautiful winery with an incredible view that we rode bikes into on the way down. We did a tasting while relaxing and staring down into the valley, a wonderful stop on our way back to town.
Authentic Argentine Steak Dinner at Parillada Shula Cata
That evening we met our Canadian/Scottish friends at a parrilla restaurant that their hotel had recommended, Parillada Shula Cata.
When we got there I knew we had struck pure gold; huge parrilla grill against the wall, everyone eating off of wooden cutting boards, minimum decoration, jug wine served out of pitchers. We each picked out the meat we wanted from the grill and dug in with bread, fries, and spicy salsa. IT WAS SO GOOD. Such a fun evening getting to know knew people, sharing stories, eating amazing asado, and enjoying a true authentic Argentine dinner.
Visiting Wineries by Horseback
One of the boxes on our bucketlist for this trip was a horseback ride with asado. After asking Emma if this was a possibility we were presented with two incredibly expensive horseback ride/asado tours or a more reasonably priced tour with a tasting of wine and cheese instead of asado. After much debate (and partially thinks to the incredible asado the night before) we decided to let go of our dreams of riding horses followed by absurd amounts of delicious grilled meat and went with the wine and cheese horse tour.
The funniest, most ridiculous Winery Tour on Horseback
That morning a van picked us up to take us to the ranch. I could barely contain my laughter when we showed up a dirt field in the back of mans house on the outskirts of Cafayate with two of the skinniest horses tied to pole. My confusion as to why only two horses were saddled and ready to ride was quickly cleared up when a man, who didn’t even introduce himself, started following us on a red motorcycle.
Welcome to South America! Without signing waivers, giving us any explanation on horses, or telling us where we were going, we were on our way on the little dirt road up towards the mountains.
Dalton and I kept bursting into laughter at the absurdity of this situation, surely Emma had to have just called a friend with some horses to take some gringos on a ride. Up and up we went, trotting and walking, until we reached the gates for Bodega Piattelli. Holy cannoli, it was like a big fat sparkly diamond sitting in the middle nowhere.
On our skinny horses we trotted on the cobblestone through the enormous gates, closely followed by our motorcycle riding guide. We continued up the long windy road until we reached the most expansive, beautiful, impressive building I have seen in South America (again just picture us on our skinny horses, with motorcycle guide).
Leaving our horses with Eduardo (I had finally asked his name) we walked in and were able to join the tasting of another group. Their wine was phenomenal!
Two of the wines had scored over 95 points of 100 rated by Wine Spectator. At the end we got a quick private tour of the facility, they had a “gravity based” process where the processing of the grapes was on the top floor, fermentation on the middle floor, and aging in the bottom floor. The owner is an American (lightbulb!) from Minnesota and it felt like every coroner we turned we were impressed by something else.
The Climb to Yacochuya
Back on our horses we headed back down the road (they galloped!) and back up the main road to the next winery. The road was pretty steep and we both felt bad for our horses as they climbed in the heat. We figured we probably had taken a bit to long at the first winery because our “guide” kept the pace somewhat quick. It was at this point I realized we were headed to Yacochuya, a small area about 8 km uphill from Cafayate that I had given up hope on seeing thanks to not enough time.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya
My excitement was visible as we arrived to the bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya, the one I had been the most excited to see. The bodega was small and quaint compared to the last, but the view was incredible. We did a tasting of the bottom line and second line wine, both very good, but as always with high expectations they were not quite reached. Still absolutely nothing to complain about, it was a magnificent place.
Impromptu post-Horseback ride Asado
Stealing a couple crackers for our horses we saddled back up, Eduardo informing us that they had drank “un monton” of water from the little lake nearby. He asked us if we had wanted an asado today, I replied yes, unsure if he was going to do one on his own for us or not. Our horses re-energized we headed back down, my legs pretty tired by the end thanks to the constant trotting.
Back in the dirt patch, there was a plastic table with two chairs set up under a tree with a bottle of wine.
Smiling we sat down and noticed in front of us another man was cooking meat on a little grate on the ground, we were getting asado after all!
This will be one of my favorite memories of my time in South America, sitting at that plastic table with Dalton, drinking delicious red wine from Bodega Amalaya, eating a tasty asado with a lemon, tomato, onion salad after the most absurd but wonderful afternoon of riding skinny horses to wineries.
4-Wheeling all the Way Home
But wait, it gets better.
After we finished eating we asked when the van would be coming back to pick us up. “No van,” they said while pointing to a 4-wheeler with two helmets. To top everything off we followed their motorcycle on our manual 4-wheeler (thank god Dalton knew how to drive it) back to the hostel.
Bodega El Esteco
For the second half of the afternoon we rented bikes to do a bit more wine tasting and exploring. First was a tasting at El Esteco, Dalton like their Syrah best, where we may have taken lemons from their tree and climbed to the top of a tower for an amazing view.
Goat Cheese at La Cabra
We finished off the day by going to the goat cheese place down the road from our hostel. Cheese tastings are a fantastic thing… We went back to rest at the hostel with small block of delicious pepper cheese.
We may or may not have napped until dinner at the hostel, tonight it was grilled veggies, asado chicken, and rice. The flavors were incredible, again we ate until we couldn’t eat anymore and rolled to bed. A happy tradition we had formed in Cafayate.
Our Final Day – Exploring Town + Quebrada de las Conchas
We awoke slightly bittersweet on Friday, our last day in Cafayate, but fun car renting adventures laid ahead to the North. We had been convinced by Emma to do the tour of Quebrada de las Conchas through the hostel before heading back to Salta. Originally we hadn’t planned on it because we would be driving through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to the north of Salta and figured we might be seeing a lot of the same types of things. However after a couple days of not so subtle hints and the major contributing factor that the tour went towards Salta and we could get a cheaper and shorter bus trip back afterwards finally convinced us to say yes.
The tour wasn’t until 2 pm, so we spent the morning packing up and wandering around town picking up last minute gifts and souvenirs. After booking another night at (sigh) Coloria Hostel (this time we purchased two twin beds since it was half the price of a double in a private room (double SIGH)) we enjoyed lounging around the center square until our tour was off.
Tour of Quebrada de las Conchas
The tour followed the highway backs towards Salta, stopping and hiking back into 6 different canyons until reaching the furthest spectacular, La Garganta del Diablo (a very uncreative name I was learning by the numbers of devil throats I have visited during my time here). Our group was a mix of us, Argentines, and a couple of French girls, lead by our ironic guide with his mean dog companion.
Each stop was interesting and unique in it’s own way. From spectacular views, to crazy rock formations, to incredible colored hills and feeding a llama, Dalton and I had blast running around like little kids (to the annoyance of the somewhat stuck up Argentines) and enjoying the bizarre scenery.
Attempting to Hitchhike back to Salta
We found out towards the end of the tour that the French girls would be catching the bus with us back to Salta. It was growing darker and the bus still had a bit of time to depart from Cafayate (picking us up along the way). Dalton and I decided to be true travelers and see if we could potentially hitchhike back to Salta, but 30 minutes and 15 unyielding cars later, it looked like the bus was going to be our main option. We couldn’t help but laugh at our situation; standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere in Northern Argentina in the pitch black of night eating our delicious cheese we had purchased from the goat cheese place in Cafayate.
One of the French girls came and approached us asking if we would like to split a liter of beer that this tiny kiosko (pretty sure it was just a window into a guys house) was selling. Giving up our rugged hitchhiking dreams we obliged and enjoyed a crisp beer while introducing ourselves to the French girls. Both had just finished up a study abroad in Cordoba, Argentina and were finishing their time by traveling. Claiming their english use to be better than their spanish (they sounded pretty much fluent in spanish…) we had a funny time talking in a mix of broken spanish, english and french; Dalton getting to show off his French he had learned from his brothers college french classes (j’ador la bom bom – I love candy).
Every truck that whizzed around the corner we tried waving down, terrified we were going to miss the bus, dying in laughter after every one thinking about how we must look to these truck drivers. Finally the bus rounded the corner and we jumped up and down celebrating in the headlights.
Three hours later Dalton and I unpiled off the bus and walked to Coloria. After checking in, we crawled up to our dorm (ugh) and laid together on a top twin bunk watching Modern Family. We may have stayed like that for the whole uncomfortable night.
To read about the next part of our adventure – a Road Trip up the Quebrada de Humahuaca click here!