Saturday, January 14, 2012

Desert Roads, Take Me Home

Part V of VI
El Transito winery
If I were to return to Argentina’s wine region and only visit one place, or advise anyone on a trip to this part of the country, it would be to go to Cafayate.  I would then stay awhile.

Cafayate is a quiet town located in the southern part of the Salta province.  Many tourists stop here for the afternoon on day trips from the city of Salta or just passing through.  The thing about Cafayate is that it is located in the stunningly beautiful Calchaquines Valley, surrounded by gently majestic sandy-brown and cobalt-hued mountains, clear skies (it is sunny 340 days a year), and the contagious ease of small town life.

We were fortunate enough to ride in the front of the bus on the 3 hour ride through the Quebrada Canyon from Salta to Cafayate.  Normally we all passed bus time reading or napping, but the closer we got to our destination, the more magnificent the scenery; it seemed rude to concentrate on anything else!

Through the Quebrada: Rob & Kristin take it all in

The Grape is Made of Wine

Another plus of visiting Cafayate if you want to learn about wine and wine production is that there are not only a large handful of vineyards within town limits – Mendoza’s were all a bikeable distance into the countryside – or right outside, but it is also home to the notable El Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Wine and Vine Museum).

"A man from the vineyards spoke, in agony... Before dying
he revealed his secret: The grape is made of wine.
And I thought, 'If the grape is made of wine, perhaps we
are the words that tell what we are.'"
~Eduardo Galeano

While I was mostly in awe over the intensity, attention to detail, and rigorous schedule a grape farmer must possess, I also walked away with a few other “did you knows?” including:
  • The first vineyards in Chile and Argentina were started by Jesuit priests as a way to have a supply of wine for church services’ communions.
  • Wine should be stored on its side so that the cork is in contact with both the wine itself and the air outside the bottle.  Its chemistry.
  • Speaking of corks, the longer it is, the better quality the wine is (usually).
  • Of the world’s productive wine-producing regions, Argentina has all of those located at the highest elevations.  (Malbec and Cabernet grape varieties, among other lesser known ones like Torrantes and Bonarda,  have become famous here because they grow best in such conditions.)
  • The larger the vessel, the longer the wine will maintain its intended flavor.  So, therefore, mini-bar bottles of wine are risky.

Desert Fruits
If Argentina as a whole is famous for steak, Cafayate and the surrounding region are famous for their tasty empanadas.  We had read this somewhere prior to our visit so we saved extra room each day to sample as many kinds as we could.  My favorite, though I can happily claim that I never had a bad one, was filled with goat meat, cheese, and spinach.  I may have had three.

ice cream!
Rob and I also discovered a quaint little bakery down the road from our hostel that specialized in an Argentine favorite, the alfajor (say: al-fah-hor).  These exist in Colombia but consist of two wafer-thin crust-like cookies separated by a layer of dulce de leche (like arequipe or caramel) and are generally the size of a checker piece.  The Argentine variety is like a mini cake, with a generous layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between thick and generally spongy cookies, all covered in chocolate.  (Think of a Hostess brand Zebra Cake and imagine it five thousand times better.)  By the end of our short stay in Cafayate, the proprietor of the bakery knew us on site.

Beautiful Disaster
Our second day in Cafayate ended with the words “I may have done some foolish things today.”  While we all committed to renting bicycles for the day, my four travel companions decided to backtrack to the road through the Quebrada we came in on the day before and visit some of the spectacular canyon formations.  They hopped on a tour bus leaving town and were dropped off about 50 km later to begin the rolling journey back.

I, on the other hand, opted to visit an ancient archeological site known as Quilmes, named for the indigenous people who resided there back around the time the Incas were conquering South America.  The Quilmes are the only known population to have not been conquered, while remaining within Inca territory; the Incas just never found them!
The open road: so little traffic on the road I had plenty of time to set
up this self timed shot.  A blessing here, a curse later...

The lady at our hostel told me the ride would be “around 50 km round trip” and “very flat.”  After confirming this understanding with her again, and having the hostel janitor nodding in agreement behind her, I headed out with my two bottles of water, confident in the day ahead!  57 km later I arrived at Quilmes, convinced that this was not a matter of “lost in translation,” but sabotage.)

The site was what you would expect from an archeological site in the desert this old.  Hip-high walls of tightly packed rocks climbing a mild slope for a clear vantage point of the valley nicely summarizes the layout of what remains. 

My legs were already a little weak as I left the ruins at Quilmes; 57 km is a long way to bike after not having ridden since last summer.  About 20 km later, sun beating down, I realized this needed to end.  There are essentially two blink-and-you-miss-them towns along the way, open roads with few passing vehicles, and lots of hot, dry, sunny desert.  I stocked up on water at the first of the two towns and pushed on, literally. 

After about an hour of walking my bike up rises and coasting down declines, waving at passing vehicles (only non-cars since I had a bike), and thinking about how badly burned my exposed leg would be later, a nice farmer and his wife pulled their pick-up over on the side of the road and offered me a ride. 
What successful hitch-hiking looks like.

A little over six hours later I stumbled back into our hostel only to find the rest of my cohorts had also recently returned.  It turned out we had some similar experiences: Kelsi’s chain broke 2km into their day and she had to hail a passing La Posada tour van; Rob got behind Kristin and Narissa when his bike malfunctioned and ended up walking 25km.  Rob and I both learned that single male gringos with bikes on  the side of the road make people more inclined to wave but not stop.

Despite all this, pretty bad burn on my left leg and backs of my hands included, Cafayate won all of us over!


kelsi said...

love this one! bad biking experience and all, this WAS a incredibly beautiful place.

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