By Alison Lapshinoff
The map may have dubbed it a highway, but our small rental car was shrouded in a cloud of dust as it bumped along one of northwestern Argentina’s most scenic back routes. As the landscape morphed from lush, verdant forest into barren rock formations of deep reds and cool blues, Route 33 steadily deteriorated from patchy asphalt to bumpy gravel, quietly raising the question: Was our Peugeot up to the task of reaching the remote and historic town of Cachi at all?
The northwestern corner of Argentina is a step back to colonial times, when natives farmed the fertile land by hand and the mighty Incan empire was marching its way southward from Peru, conquering much of the Andean mountain range, including parts of present day Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and northern Argentina. Before the capital of Buenos Aires became the bustling, port city of modern times, this was the country’s most populous region, its colonial history evident today in the form of substantial Native South American, or Quechua, communities dotted throughout the area.
The alarmingly bumpy highway from the northern capital of Salta to the remote outpost of Cachi covers 157 winding kilometres and climbs from 1,214 metres to 2,280 metres above sea level. Comfortably nestled in the dusty landscape were colourfully decorated cemeteries, their festive tombs seeming to celebrate death, in stark contrast to the typical somber gravestones of North America. Throughout, stately cacti stood like sentinels, gravely watching over the dead.
As the elevation climbed, precipitous cliffs fell from the edge of the narrow road and a thick, disorienting fog enveloped what would have surely been a stunning view. Gingerly, we directed our vehicle through the unknown mountains, anxiously awaiting what lay on the other side.
At Piedra Del Molino, the highest point at 3,348 metres above sea level, the temperature was frigid and the wind stiff, in acute contrast to the humidity of the lowlands.
As swiftly as we had entered the fog-enshrouded mountains, we shot out of them, finding ourselves in the cactus-studded lunar landscape of Parque Nacional Los Cardones, where dignified Cardon Cacti guarded the landscape, commanding the respect of passers-by with their imposing height and impressive girth. So abundant are these cacti that their wood is commonly used for the construction of rafters, doors, window frames and the like in the northwest.
It was much to our surprise when the gravel ended and we shot onto a smooth highway, pin straight and immaculately maintained, cutting through the desert like a knife and pointing to the remote outpost of Cachi.
Home to almost 2,000 people, Cachi is a fertile oasis sleeping on the banks of the Calchaqui River. The town dates from 1673. Prior to the Incan invasion, and subsequent Spanish conquest, the Diaguitas — sedentary farmers and expert potters — called the Calchaqui Valley home. The name itself means “salt” in the Quechua tongue, and legend has it that the Incan conquerors mistook the snowcapped mountains that flank the town for salt mines.
The Calchaqui Valley is known for its striking natural landscapes, cultural and historical importance and fascinating architecture. Even modest adobe structures may be adorned with stately columns and sweeping archways. Throughout the valley, ancient towns like Cachi quietly bake in the hot sun as they have for centuries, sturdy mud homes devoid of windowpanes alternately absorbing heat by day and radiating it by night.
Here, the only feature that may drag one back to the present is the satellite dish, a common new feature of these simple dwellings, reminding us just how far the tentacles of modernization can reach.
From the shaded central plaza of Cachi, winding dirt and cobblestone streets climb the hillsides and whitewashed adobe buildings capped with mud and cane roofs are frozen in time. The blinding façade of the Iglesia San Jose Church, with its oversized bell and unique ceiling of tightly woven wood from the Cardon Cactus, overlooks a scene of tranquil contentment.
On dramatically elevated sidewalks, tourists lunch outside simple cafes while small children frolic in the street and locals snooze in the shade of the plaza. Life continues as it has for centuries; the tourist dollar a relatively new feature that has not yet brought about dramatic change.
After a pleasant stay at an expensive and surprisingly modern hotel, adorned with cool tile floors, graceful archways and immaculately landscaped grounds, we pointed our Peugeot toward Cafayate and another long, dusty drive that promised all kinds of assaults on our small car.
Cafayate, being a wine region, promised tourists, tastings and more unparalleled scenery of a different sort, but it still lay more than 100 kilometres away, at the end of a bumpy, winding road passing through nameless towns where a derelict car and a few clothes hanging to dry in the baking sun were the only signs of life around squat, mud houses.
Staying just ahead of the massive cloud of dust billowing at our rear, we eagerly drank in the desert scenery, while thirstily anticipating what lay at the day’s end.