The small, colonial town of Cafayate, comfortably situated at the southern border of Argentina’s Salta province, lies at a crossroad between the historically rich northwest and the viticulturally rich provinces to the south.
An enticing combination for the tourist, Cafayate welcomes many, some coming to rent a bicycle and stop in for a drop at the local wineries, others to explore the unearthly formations of the nearby Quebrada de Cafayate, and more still to soak in the history of the immaculately preserved native ruin of Quilmes.
After two days of bumping along the hot and dusty back route connecting the northern capital of Salta with the remote and timeless town of Cachi, passing through sleeping settlements that bake quietly in the scorching sun, Cafayate was a welcomed oasis. Plaza-side patios that spilled onto wide avenues flanked with flowering trees and unique guesthouses adorned with grapevines that shaded tiled courtyards were delightfully pleasing to the senses. Here, at the end of the long dirt road, feeling refreshed and renewed, one could relax, shake the dust off and enjoy a drop of local wine before taking in the many sights that surround the town.
Just north of Cafayate, an unremarkable landscape undergoes an abrupt metamorphosis, gently rolling hills giving way to dramatic canyons of deep red sandstone. This is the Quebrada (canyon) de Cafayate, where the Rio (river) de las Conchas once descended from the Andes, carving deep canyons through this arid zone. Unearthly formations of gargantuan proportion have been dubbed Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre) and El Sapo (The Toad), many of these evocative names fitting the awe-inspiring forms. These fantastic canyons have not been granted park status, and thus their towering walls are often a graffiti artist’s palette. Just outside the grand entrances, buskers hawk their wares and musicians strum tunes that fill the deep chasms with haunting music. Busloads of tourists are deposited at regular intervals at the many sites in the canyon, and staying one step ahead of the masses is the key to enjoying the scenery in relative solitude.
Having explored the area’s geological history, a different sort of archival record lay at the nearby native ruin of Quilmes, dating from 1000 AD. Occupying some 30 hectares on the slope of the Alto Del Rey Hill, this stepped citadel was thought to house over 5,000 people in its heyday. The defensive position of this impressive urban fortress is evident to even a casual observer, as trails climb the hillsides that flank the city’s nucleus to viewpoints affording vistas of the entire valley. From these lofty heights, the Quilmes Indians were able to stave off attackers by throwing arrows and stones, deterring invasions before the aggressors even entered the settlement.
It was in this manner that the Quilmes fended off Incan invasions from about 1480 onwards. However, their rudimentary weapons were no match for the Spaniards, who deported the last inhabitants to Buenos Aires in 1667. It was a forced march through scorching country that claimed the lives of many. Those who survived were relocated to an industrial suburb known for its beer factory, whose popular beverage bears the name “Quilmes”, the unfortunate legacy of these displaced people.
The ruins themselves are extensive and immaculately preserved. For a nominal fee, one can spend the entire day wandering throughout the dense maze of thick, rock causeways, which form the outlines of ancient buildings. You can also climb the hillsides to fortified viewpoints where the city’s defenders once scanned the expansive valley below for invading armies. Rudimentary kitchens are evident in the form of mortars ground right into the stone by pestles that are today, nowhere to be found. And peppered throughout the ruin are stands of the majestic Cardon Cactus, regally watching over the ancient city.
The short journey back to Cafayate brings one back to the present, rows of gnarled grapevines blanketing the gently undulating land and modern wineries inviting the tourist to come in for a sample taste. In town, on the many patios that flank the shaded plaza, tourists enjoy frothy mugs of Quilmes beneath large umbrellas, and outside their businesses, locals try to entice passers-by into renting a bicycle or a room in their guesthouse.
Despite the changes brought about by the tourist peso, much of Argentina’s northwest remains frozen in time, a reminder of days gone by, when homes were built of mud, armies fought with arrows and a beer called Quilmes had not yet been thought of.
Between its cultural history, fascinating geography and alluring wineries, this captivating region of Argentina’s Salta province beckons many. And despite the visitors and the vineyards, the northwest corner of this diverse country manages to retain its timeless charm.