Calchaquies Valley – North-West Argentina – April 2017
During the last ten days I travelled along the Calchaquies Valley which is located west of Salta. I had the privilege to be accompanied by Clara Davalos who originates from one of the “grand old families” of the region. Together we travelled to places where she spent her childhood. The journey gave me the opportunity to visit some of the large estancias (farms) in that area which consist of several ten-thousands of hectares. While the sheer size might be impressive the actual value of the land largely depends on the availability of water. As a consequence of the 2001/2 economic crisis some Argentinean owners were forced to sell their farms to Europeans or US-Americans.
Let me take the opportunity to thank everybody for the generous hospitality received during this trip.
Pampa Grande – located 60 km south/east of the road Salta/Cafayate - is an estancia of approx. 30,000 hectares with currently 5,000 pieces of cattle and 160 horses - certainly a great place for horseback riding.
Cafayate is Argentina’s second centre for wine production. Ernesto, a reknown medical doctor from Salta, is training Peruvian horses, a breed famous “for its smooth ride. It is distinguished by a natural, four-beat, lateral gait called the paso llano” (Wikipedia). Never had such smooth rides as here.
The road from Cafayate to Molinos (mills) leads through the Quebrada de Fleches (The Arrow Canyon) with scenic rock formations. Onions, paprika and wine are key products grown in the valley. Humita, a dish made out of corn (mais), cheese and spices is a traditional food in rural Argentina. South of Molinos is the estancia Banda Grande which is blessed to have sufficient water. Jan, who originates from the European nobility, has reorganized the farm some ten years ago and was kind enough to allow us to visit his estancia.
In the church of Molinos (mills) lays the mummified body of Clara’s grand-grand-grandfather who was the last Spanish governor of Salta before Argentina’s independence. He also led the foundation for the extensive property the family ownes.
Colomè is a famous winery close to Molinos bought by Swiss Donald Hess. Surprisingly – in the middle of nowhere – there is a an art gallery for Swiss artist James Turrell ( see his pictures via http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=james+turrell+museum&qpvt=james+turrell+museum&qpvt=james+turrell+museum&qpvt=james+turrell+museum&FORM=IGRE
Tacuil, another large estancia, reportedly is the highest winery in the world. Wine is harvested here at an altitude of 2,597m. The owner Raul is convinced that the altitude makes the wine more compact, stronger and concentrated. For this reason he is adamantly against ripping wine in oak barrels. The green wooden box with the stone in the middle is a traditional water purifier.
When you hike one hour uphill from where the road ends you reach a remote house of an indigenous single-mother with her daughter and grand-children. The lady showed us the place where according to the oral narrative the indigenous population of the village had its last stand before being enslaved or killed by the Spanish conquerors. The place still is full of broken pottery.
One hour’s drive away is the estancia Huafin. Elizabeth and Bill (who works as a financial adviser) have bought the farm some 10 years ago and refurbished the farmhouse using local materials. They generously invited us to stay overnight. They raise cattle and grow wine at an altitude of more than 2,500 m.
The town of Cachi is a centre of tourism. Besides a picturesque and well preserved town centre it can offer a number of curiosities:
- On World Animal Day the municipality organised a competition of the best disguised dog. Enjoy the pictures of dogs doing the cat-walk.
- The valley has a record-high number of alleged UFO observations. For this reason a Swiss citizen built a large wind rose (compass card) made out of stones in order to invite extra-terrestrials to get in contact with him.
- Finally a man who is suffering because his wife has left him attached a board over the entrance of his house stating: “Por tu culpa soy borracho” – “It is your fault that I am drunk”.
Believe it or not: At 3,000 of altitude and in the middle of this semi-desert one can find a place for serious canyoning and caving. Close to a small town called El Poma there is the Puente del Diabolo (The Bridge of the Devil) where the river Calchaquies vanishes in a steep canyon and then for a distance of 110 m flows in a narrow tunnel below the rocks. Cacharias, a local guide, led me through the canyon and to the under-the -surface section of the river. Due to the above-average water level we could only make the first 80 m of the tunnel. Trust me, it is safer than it looks like.
The Ruta 40 which starts in Patagonia leads from El Poma over the Abra del Acay Pass (4,995m of altitude / 4601 km north from the start of the road) to San Antonio de los Cobres. As you will see we were not the only ones to cross the pass. Sarah and Freddy even made it by bike (and the help of a bit of coca) to San Antonio de los Cobres.