Wine, Goat Cheese, Mountains and Diego - Cafayate, My Kind of Place

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June 27th 2011
Published: July 31st 2011
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Salta to Cafayate

Oh Cafayate.... I am writing this a month after I was there and yet the memories of the place and how superb it was are still ripe and fresh.

Cafayate is a three hour journey south through an Andean basin south of Salta. It is the smaller of Argentina's two main wine regions. The mountains scenery got harsher as we travelled, the mountains sharper and the volume of their colours increasing. It was an incredible bus journey and could probably be sold (and probably is) as a tour. We arrived in Cafayate and found Mark and Sarah in a hostel just off the central plaza.

We caught up briefly and heard what Mark and Sarah had been up to the past couple of days before heading to our first vineyard. After the heavy night previously, this felt slightly ambitious to me. Before I go on, it's probably best for me to describe Cafayate a little.

It is a small town at the base of the Andes, which receives almost no rain throughout the year. Due to it's altitude, it is a hot town, although nicely cool at night and as such is a good environments for vineyards and wineries. There are two main wine areas that I know of in Argentina, the other is Mendoza. The biggest difference between the two is the size of the towns and the volume of output. Mendoza is huge and has a large number of huge wineries, mass producing for domestic and international markets. To visit the wineries, you are gererally required to pay for a tour to get around. Cafayate however, is as mentioned before, a small town with much less wineries which produce far smaller volumes of wines. A lot of the wineries in Cafayate produce boutique wines and a small amount of which are exported internationally. All in all, Cafayate sounded much more managable and much easier to get around.

Thanks to the towns small size, we only had to walk for about a kilometer before reaching Bodega El Esteco. As we walked down the long entrance path, the vines were an Autumn brown colour and of course, completely stripped of grapes. It was, as it always is in Cafayate, a beautiful sunny day under a clear blue sky. The winery building itself looked almost identical to those I have seen in Australia, an attractive, wide white building, made in a very European style.

Before getting to sample the goods, we took the bodega tour which was mostly in Spanish. Up to this point, every single winery I have visited, or worked on has had its tour led by a beautiful, intelligent female. This seeming stereotype continued at El Esteco. Unlike almost every single South American I have spoken to, she actually slowed down a little which made understanding the tour relatively successful, a nice surprise. Sarah took Spanish at A-Level and filled in gaps as needed. We saw the tankers, the oak casks and the bottling areas amongst others. It was interesting and good for learning some Spanish, but we were all really looking forward to trying our the wine at the end.

Bodega El Esteco did not let us down. My personal favourite and possible my favourite from all of the subsequent tours was a Torront├ęs called Elementos, which was very clean, lacked an acid after kick and was wonderfully fruity. We tried four wines in total and brought a Malbec before heading up to the viewpoint and then back into town.

Next we went to Bodega Nani. We were running behind, but caught up with the tour group in the boutique winery, led a beautiful bohemian dressed Argentinian lady, complete with a gorgeous accent. She switched languages to English when we joined the tour, English has never sounded better. Following the tour we paid a few pesos each to sample some of the very good wines, we purchased a Torrontes and left wondering whether she might like us more if we had purchased more, would it have given any of us a chance??? Sarah included.

We walked back in the direction of the hostel and met a random dog en-route. In developing countries, this is nothing new, dogs are pretty much everywhere and as such, it takes something particular for you to really pay attention. This dog was carrying a rock in its mouth. Whilst walking back we bumped into some of tourists who had met our new friend the day before and been informed by a hobo, that his name was Diego. Very random, somewhat oddly suiting. When we got back, we made a decision to cook for ourselves, the hostel actually had a pretty decent kitchen for a change, so we headed out to the mercado and butchers to see what we could find.

That evening we settled in for a planned relatively quiet night with some good food, we got the former, but not the latter as the pictures included in the blog will prove. We ended up with chorizo, bread, cheese, salad and wine, along with a hunk of unidentifiable miscellaneous meats held together by something indescribable. The chorizo turned out to be so loaded with grease that the sausages would have been put to better use as something to be rubbed along a bicycle chain to prevent it from rusting. The miscellaneous meat chunk was our starter and I think the photo can do better justice than words can. The bread, wine and goats cheese were great at least!

The next day we rented mountain bikes and chucked them onto a bus heading back in the direction of Salta and hopped off 50km later. Here we were back the the riverside, surrounded by the lower Andes and next to the first tourist stop on a journey back to town, El Garganchua. This was a huge entrance made from red and purple rocks, like walking through a canyon to a huge slope which eventually curved around into the distance. We were not told how this rock formation was created, but I made an assumption that it was due to the Andres rising and from waterfalls and rivers that have since dried up. After our first section of the bikes, we came to a similar rock formation called 'The Ampitheatre'. This confirmed the former water-way theory. Another walk-way into what appeared to be a canyon from nowhere, the surface deeper at the bottom on a drop, indicating where the water must have once hit, and a semi-cilindrical shape for the top have of the fall, like a funnel where the water must have passed before reaching the steeper drop.

Walking back out of vertical walls to the road felt like I was being shot by daylight, suddenly back in the heat after being hidden under shadow, greeted by the grey of the asfault, the purples, reds and greens of the valley and the blues of the river and skies. The layers of colours in the mountains is incredible, the clouds overhanging them as if they too, could not cope to stay up high in the heat. We cycled on, along this meandering road, following the river line, stopping reguarly as ever inch of the journey was a photo opportunity. Along the way were some designated viewpoints, a rock shaped like a frog and we found a large jawbone that provided some amusement too.

We hadn't really brought much food with us, although we had a reasonable supply of water. We all thought we had seen plenty of empanada, bread and cheese stands along the our bus trips into Cafayate, but sadly this appeared to have been some kind of illusion. The first person who we encountered had a simple stand selling random rocks shaped into llamas and the like, not overly interesting, and also a pair of llamas, an adult and a child who we were able to have our photo taken in front of for a donation. It was considered, but we thought she might take offence if we had asked to take a bite out of either of them. They were cute and another welcome photo op. Further down this dry valley we passed a section of the road that had been completely destroyed, hard to imagine in the UK, but the road was gone, swallowed up into the river during the last wet season. A dirt track had been shaped to link the two sections. There was a house here, unfortunately for the residents, their service stop position has unfortunately been in the spot where the road was no more, suffice to say, they did not have and of the bread and cheese that was advertised, they did sell more tourist tat, but nothing of use to us.

We continued on, passing a obelisk rock, shaped by the wind, some more great viewpoints and a rock that had been weathered into the shape of a window as we evetually left the deep valley and moved into a much flatter environment. At this point Mark was struggling a bit with his bike which was having numerous chain problems and we were all getting hungry under the sun. The last ten kilometres back to town are blurred, the views had become much less dramatic, although we did find a comical cow corpse. That sounds wrong in retrospect, so I will blame the sun and hunger for our amusement at the time. Sarah was extremely tired, but kept ploughing forward at a constant pace. My bike developed a slow puncture and so I tried to force as much of my weight onto my back wheel as possible, although eventually I would have to stop twice to pump more air in.

Finally we reached El Esteco again and ate cheap chocolate at a service station before making it back into town, tired but in good spirits. Our reward for this effort, and as a stop gap before a proper meal we got off the bikes at an ice cream parlour. I believe it is something very novel to Cafayate, but there are two ice cream parlours that make wine ice creams. After much effort put in to attract attention from a kitchen in order to get service, we ate this magical ice cream. I had a double cone, one scoop red and one white. It was creamy and delicious.

We went back to the market to find something to eat, got terrified by a bizarre dog who kept charging and rearing up on it's hind legs and flicking it's feet at us, somewhat like a horse dog when it's angry, except the dog could move at the same time. Me and Ciaran laughed at Mark as he was carrying the meat at the time. We named this dog appropriately, Crazy Legs.

We had a couple more bottles of wine between us in the evening and ate pasta with a better quality sausage before bed. We were exhausted. Before doing so, there was some extensive rock throwing games with Diego, who had reappeared out of nowhere.

Third day we headed out of town several kilometres to a vineyard that had kindly changed its name without changing the signposts. It took a long time in the heat, with little water to find. Fortunately, it was at the base of the mountains, had good wine which was free, along with the tour. The view of the vineyard under the mountains was quite spectacular.

We had been told by Sarah and Mark that a small restaurant in town was particularly fantastic, but its limited opening hours meant that we had failed to eat at the Casa de Empanadas during our previous two days in town. We rushed back from the bodega, covered the several kilometres in good time, and picking up Diego on the way for some more rock related entertainment. We attempted to get him to play with sticks, but almost every time we threw a stick for him, he would run up to it and pick up a rock instead. On the few occasions that he did pick up a stick, he seemed slightly confused above the width that it took up in the world, compared to his rocks, and so the stick would hit people on the legs as he ran past. I like to think that he knew this was happening and it gave us the reason he wanted to give us, to carry on throwing rocks instead.

The Casa de Empanadas was just on the central plaza and was as it's name suggested. Ciaran and I ordered one of every single different type on the menu, I think there was 12 each in total. Diego joined us under the table. He was a rare dog and didn't ask for scraps, although of course he got some anyway. Feeling stuffed and needing a drink we heading to another bodega, Domingo, one with a much higher production volume than the others. Diego of course joined us here too. The wine was ok, the tour slightly less so, pretty much what was expected. Sadly just before the tour I had to get rid of Diego because there were numerous guard dogs, but we found him outside the gate waiting for us as we left, carrying a gallon bottle of Torrontes, which cost about three pound.

Armed with this, we ate and drank considerably for the evening and played a few random drinking games. I kept popping back ourdoors drunkenly to see if my dog was still waiting for me. He always was, rock in mouth. You can probably tell by now, I liked Diego, he was a cool dog.

The following day we decided to grab some supplies and head out and up the Rio Colorado in search of some waterfalls. Much like the mountain biking, this sort of activity is perfect in my opinion, relatively untouched area, some danger, no guide and no other people. We got some supplies from the mercado, Diego with us having slept outside the hostel, and heading several kilometres out of down, past the bodega we visited the previous day. We found a small store and followed the directions of the man inside. Unfortunately there were several dogs around which started causing problems. Not for us, we were fine, but of course, Diego had decided to join us on this walk having jogged through streams en-route and his presence, as impartial as he is to other animals, caused these others to become agitated. We walked off route and over rocks and kept going until we found the river and started the hike proper. Sadly a short while in, a local began to throw rocks at our dog and so he ran off, tail between his legs.

We stopped for lunch next to a large rock along the riverside and observed the surroundings. We were in a valley, dry except for the rivers edge, surrounded by huge cacti. I assume this area was named after its State-side counterpart. We climbed up and over hundreds of boulders, dodged cacti and crossed the river more times than I can remember on our accent to the sun, all the while carrying a sligh expectation to see Wile E. Coyote setting an ACME weight to squash the Roadrunner. Eventually the shadow began to grow in the valley and against a natural instinct to persist until we had completed our goal, we turned round and headed back to town. Regardless, of what I would consider a failure, it had been a great day so far, the hike had been fantastic and frankly, I would imagine that there was barely any water passing over any of the expecting falls considering the time of year and what was present in the river itself. Rain only falls approximately 10 days of the year in Cafayate, helping to contribute to the low humidity which allows the grapes to grow so well. A consequence of this and the dry landscape is also why El Gargantchua exists and why the landscape is riddled with empty riverbeds. As we left the river area, we bumped into a couple of Irish girls who were having a walkabout. The two girls had a third companion with them, they had Diego, who rejoined us immediately.

We returned to town and purchased another gallon of wine, along with a couple of better smaller bottles and settled in for the evening with an Australian couple we had met the previous evening. Alcohol was flowing and it wasn't long before the drinking games started. Having played cards initially, we moved onto the box game. You take a cereal box and in turn have to pick it up using your teeth, without touching the floor with your body, other than your feet. After everyone has done it, a strip is removed from the box to make it smaller and smaller until it is just a flat sheet of cardboard. Denis, the Aussie guy got frustrated with not being able to make it and detrousered, to what they had named his 'poo pants'. Brown, hideous woollen leggings that he had brought to survive the cold in Bolivia. They did help, but he was still quickly out. Next up was Ciaran's game, Table Climbing.

Here we took a square table and in turn everyone had to lie flat on the top and attempt to fall forward, underneath the table, without touching the floor and climbing up the other side. Only one person made it, the table rolled onto Ciaran once and everyone got very bruised legs.

At some point we smuggled Diego into the hostel finally and at another point Denis and Mark left and returned with another gallon of wine. Between the six of us, we drank over 10 litres during the evening, At some point we were joined by an American female stereotype and a few other guys and managed to form a 10 man pyramid. We were very pleased with ourselves, but had kind of hoped in a way that it had failed and this American girl would have been crushed to death in the process.

Harsh perhaps, but it was quite incredible just how quickly she pissed everyone off. Telling other travellers how 'You must be having the time of your life right now, you must literally be on the moon'. being a complete fucking idiot, she was apparently not able to observe through her feeble patronisations that she was also backpacking and therefore should be experiencing the same. Perhaps travelling with herself had spoilt her fun, 'I travelled Asiiiiiiiaaaa for 300 days and visited 150 cities'. If that one was true, then her being a complete idiot would be compounded. Why would anyone in the world want to do that? It is probably more retarded than a girl I met in Cambodia who was doing a round the world trip in 6 weeks and had got so fed up of moving constantly, she went home two weeks early. This American annoyed everyone to the extent that, over a month later, she is still regarded as the height of craptitude. Another series of comments she made particularly annoyed Sarah. The American ass was talking to an Indian and asked him whether he worked in a call centre, in all honesty and straight face, assuming that was all that was possible. He responded in an American Indian accent and pointed out that he had been travelling for 5 years and ran a hedge fund in New York. She couldn't understand. This narrow-minded and lack of geographical and common sense is why I generally avoid American's. I have meant some great people as well, but this is the bottom of the human pile. I have never met anyone, from anywhere, who was more repugnant.

Anyway, the night continued and got considerably hazy, at some point some Brazilian's joined us in the hostel and there was some dancing. I don't think Diego was involved, but frankly it's all hazy and I was woken up the next morning by Sarah sitting on me. We were due to leave Cafayate on this day to head up and into Bolivia, but before we did we managed to climb a small hill in front of the town with great views. There was another viewpoint higher up, but it was going to be impossible in our respective conditions to make it. Slowly we made our way to the bus station with Diego, through the rock a few more times, fed him the remainder of a bag of dog biscuits I had brought and slept into the journey back up to Salta having waved goodbye to my dog, as he walked around the corner and back towards town.

I have never owned a dog and neither have most of my friends but, if I could have one, it would be one like Diego - he rocked.

PS - As usual, there are more photos below.

Additional photos below
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