Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sightseeing in and around Cafayate -- Winetastings, Quebrada de Cafayate, and the Quilmes ruins

Flowers in the dining area at Hostel Ruta 40

Oddly enough for a hostel, Hostel Ruta 40's breakfast did not begin until after 8 AM; the breakfast itself was pretty minimal, consisting of coffee, tea and juice to drink, and to eat a choice of cornflakes or white or whole wheat biscuits with butter and jam; and they were having trouble with their coffee machine.  Admittedly, the whole wheat biscuits were tasty.  The hostel offers to arrange tours, but although their web site has an English-language version, neither of the daytime staff had even a rudimentary English speaking ability (unlike Pia, whose English was fine and who was anxious for the opportunity to speak with guests in English and thus be more helpful).  So I did not feel comfortable making arrangements at the hostel; the tourist information kiosk in the main square identified two travel agencies on the plaza where we might make further inquiries.  We found the Puna Turismo agency very helpful and ended up relying on them throughout our stay in Cafayate.

Cafayate is a pleasant town with an attractive main plaza - many restaurants and cafes featuring outdoor seating, vendors of artesania, the town hall and Cathedral are arrayed around the plaza.

Cafayate's plaza
Cafayate's cathedral, seen from the plaza
Cafayate's plaza, with tourist information kiosk in foreground and Cathedral behind
Perhaps it is because the town is so close to Bolivia, but the population of Cafayate (and Salta as well) is much more diverse than what we encountered in Buenos Aires.

We had hoped to do a tour of the Quebrada in the morning, because the morning sky was a gorgeous blue with only a few puffy clouds while the forecast on called for thunderstorms.  The agent at Puna assured us that we should trust what we could see in the sky rather than the weather forecast (in fact, was consistently wrong while we were in Cafayate), and that in any event the right time to tour the Quebrada was in the afternoon, when the sun was in the best location to cast light on the formations we would most want to see.

We spent the morning instead touring a couple of wineries, beginning with Las Nubes, the maker of the wine we had had for dinner the night before.  Las Nubes, more formally named the Bodega Jose Mournier, is 5 km west of town, so at Puna's suggestion we took a taxi out there (roughly $6), intending to walk back.  The winery is in a gorgeous location, at the foot of jagged mountains through which the Rio Colorado flows (itself a tourist destination).
Finca Las Nubes outside Cafayate
For about $3.50 each, we took a tour that culminated in wine tasting.  We saw and heard about the vines, the processing machinery, and the kegs in which the wine is fermented until it is ready for bottling.  One interesting feature about which we learned is that rose bushes are planted at the end of each row of vines, because roses easily show fungus infestations, and if the roses are infested, the operators know that they have to deal with fungus in that particular row of vines.

Roses at the end of each row of grape vines at Finca Las Nubes outside Cafayate

We were also told about the single day each fall when the grapes at that bodega are harvested -- friends, members of the community and even tourists are invited to participate in the fun.  We were urged to check the bodega's web site for picking days in future years.    We enjoyed the tasting of three wines, a torrontes, a rosada, and a malbec.  I have always looked down my nose at rose wines, but I really liked this one.

After touring the winery, I was anxious for a chance to hike for a while up  the Rio Colorado, which has a trail that leads to a modest waterfall.  Nancy was not at all enthusiastic, but agreed to walk until noonish.  In the end, although we reached the river and started out, we could not find the trail (a paid guide had offered his services; those planning this hike might seriously consider engaging such services).  We noticed a couple of locals struggling to bring a couple of boxes that looked like they might contain solar panels up the side of the stream, getting their feet wet along the way, and we were not at all up for that possibility, having brought  no dry socks and, after all, being due back in Cafayate for a 2:30 tour, so we turned around early and walked the four miles back into town.
Rio Colorado a few miles west of Cafayate

At the edge of town, we stopped at the Domingo Hermanos wine bodega.  We were too late for the last tour of the morning, but in time for the tasting.  This tasting consisted of only two wine, a torrontes and  malbec, but the malbec was the best of all the wines I had tasted so far.

For lunch, we stopped at El Rancho, a Lonely Planet recommendation on the plaza.  I was anxious to try the locro, having been impressed by what I had eaten at Cumaná back in Buenos Aires.  I was disappointed; this locro consisted only of corn and bits of ham along with lots of liquid, with none of the beans and sausage that had made the locro at Cumaná so much more hearty.  I don't know which was more authentic, of course (note -- the recipes I have consulted since coming home suggest that it was Cumaná that is the more authentic, which would mean that El Rancho was just being cheap on ingredients; so my own locro now follows the Cumaná model).  After lunch, I stopped off for an ice cream at the Il Cavallino heladeria on the corner of the plaza.  The guidebooks all tout the wine-flavored ice cream that can be bought in Cafayate, but I do not recommend it.  The sharpness that is at the edge of a wine flavor was accentuated in the ice cream, which had none of the sweetness and indeed creaminess that I like in an ice cream (back in Port Washington to visit my father, the night I am finishing this blog post, we had a blackberry/cabernet sorbet at Louie's that worked very well by combining wine with a sweet flavor).

We met the van at Puna at 2:30; it made a few other stops in town, picking up other riders, and by the time we headed for the Quebrada every seat was taken.  There was so much to see, and so many good photos, that I'll be devoting a separate blog post to this visit.  Marcelo, our guide, took as to several places that we could have found ourselves had we had our own car, but he took us back into the rocks some of the signed place, indicating the right places to put our feet to make it up some of the harder rock walls; and he took as to other places not marked by signs as well as he discussed both the geology and the flora of the place.    It had not occurred to me to ask whether our Quebrada guide would speak any English (Marcelo did not); but between us Nancy and I could figure out some of what he was saying, and some of the other passengers (especially a young Bolognese and a woman from Austria) gave us short summaries of what was being said.

The trip culminated in a visit to the Amphitheatre and the Garguantua del Diablo.  The Anfiteatro not only provides a nice echo but also naturally fine acoustics for musical performances which, I gather are held there occasionally.  I was impressed that one young Argentine had had the foresight to bring along his guitar, which he unpacked and played nicely.

Entering the anfiteatro in Quebrada de Cafayate
Inside the anfiteatro

Then onto the Gargantua, where we climbed a long way into the rocks

Marcelo shows the right footholds to scale the first rockface inside the Gargantua del Diablo
The crew head further into Gargantua del Diablo

Some folks went a bit higher than I myself dared.

Everybody was taking photos of everyone.

As we prepared to leave, it became apparent that some of those who had come with us from Cafayate were getting off with their luggage -- including the young man with the guitar and his girlfriend, and two young women from Barcelona.   What, leave them off in the middle of nowhere?   Apparently, their plan was to take the Flechabus on to Salta that evening (when we took the bus back to Salta, it stopped at the Gargantua, apparently to drop off some tourists who were planning to look around and then catch another bus later in the day) And a fellow who had started walking about with us up the rocks loaded his bicycle onto the bus and rode with us back into Cafayate.

We got back into Cafayate somewhat before 7.  We rested for a while at  our hotel, then headed out for dinner.  We decided to eat at the Rough-Guide-recommended Carreta de Don Olegario.  I had a very nice roasted goat

Roasted Goat at Carreta de Don Olegario
 but Nancy was not happy with what had been billed as grilled meat with grilled vegetables.  The meat was underdone, and both meat and vegetable seemed to her as if they had been boiled in the gooey sauce in which they were served.

When we got back to the hotel, Nancy went off to sleep while I went down to work on this blog post although, I confess, I ended up not being very productive as I chatted with Pia and Tom, a Belgian guest who recounted a nasty experience getting his car stuck in the mud as he tried to follow a crossroad that looked good on the map but, apparently, ran into a river instead.  He had called Pia back at the hostel, and she called the police for him; he described how nice their uniforms looked when they first arrived, before helping him to get his car out of the mud.  In retrospect, I confess I wonder whether my reason for coming down to work on the computer was the chatting and not the blogging.

I had thought that we might spend a relaxing day visiting wineries on Saturday, our last day in Cafayate, but Nancy had a really nasty night, being sick and hardly sleeping.  I was inclined to think food poisoning from Don Olegario the night before, but Nancy felt it was too much wine consumption, and so she cut way down on wine at lunch and dinner for the rest of the trip, and vetoed going to any more wine bodegas for tastings.  She managed to get to sleep and I left to go wandering around the town, looking at local crafts and checking out the possibility of a tour to Quilmes.  The nicest things would, of course,  have been too big or too bulky or too fragile to have carried back in our luggage, but after Nancy was feeling better, we visited some of the artesans and picked up some nice small baskets.

By noon, Nancy was feeling well enough to try to eat so we went to lunch, choosing another place on the square, Peña Parrilada de la Plaza.  I had an excellent churrasco de lomo, quite possibly the tastiest piece of plain grilled meat that I had had so far in Argentina.  We also noticed that some women sitting next to us had  a grillful of lamb meat that smelled awfully good. 

By the end of lunch, Nancy was feeling even better, so we decided to head down to the Quilmes ruins.  At Puna's suggestion we hired a taxi to take us down and wait to bring us back.  The ruins were located about a 45 minute drive south, taking us further into the Calchaqui Valley.  As we approached the ruins, we could see the structures rising up into a valley between two arms of the mountain, an awesome sight.  (The light was not good for my photo of the ruins from the bottom; better shots can be found here.)

There was very modest admission fee -- barely more than $2 -- which both got us into the site and a guided tour by a surviving member of the Quilmes people who have control over the site; we also got a pamphlet that gave the Quilmes side about a struggle between the government, the Quilmes, and a concessionnaire who paid the government  (at a very modest level, according to the leaflet) for the right to run a hotel and restaurant near the site but whose efforts have been stymied by the Quilmes.  Again the tour was entirely in Spanish but we were able to pick up on some of what the guide said; and some of the other folks translated morsels of what was being said.

The Quilmes were a people that had occupied this site for hundreds of years before the coming of the Inka; in fact, the stone structures we saw were populated by barely 2000 of the total of 5000 who lives in the area.  The structures were at the same time the walls for houses and work buildings and the walls of the pukara, or fortress, that was used to resist incursions from the Inka and later the Spanish.

Walls of dwellings that were at the same time fortress walls in Quilmes

This building would have housed multiple families, perhaps 15 people
The woody insides of cactus plants were used for the roofs of the Quilmes' buildings

 The Quilmes were never conquered by the Inka, but Spain's superior technology ultimately vanquished them, after which the entire population were subjected to a forced march to Buenos Aires, from which most perished; maybe 300 people escaped into the hills and disappeared

A communal mortaring building in the Quilmes ruins
The apacheta in the Quilmes ruins, a pile of stones left cumulatively by members of the community as an offering to the pachamama

Near the top of the group of buildings were a group of sacred rocks

Sacred rocks on the right hand side
but high above this valley, on the ridges to both right and left, were a series of fortifications behind which the Quilmes people retreated when threatened by the invading Inka and Spaniards.  We were able to visit the fortifications on the right-hand ridges:

Fortifications above the Quilmes ruins
we could see a pathway leading up the left-hand ridges to the fortifications high above on that side.

Trail cuts cross middle of photo toward Quilmes fortifications at the top
We took the cab back to Cafayate, and while Nancy took a nap I wandered through some more craft sales areas, and also ran into Wolfram and Anne, whom we had met in Iguazu and who had just driven into Cafayate.  I gave them some recommendations about dining and sightseeing possibilities for the very short time they were ready to devote to Cafayate.

As we left the hostel for dinner, some of the guests were cooking up a delicious dinner.  Smelled good, and this is certainly an advantage of staying in a hostel; one can save money on meals.  And I love to cook, but when I am traveling I prefer not to spend my time that way; indeed, by sampling the cuisine from local restaurants; sometimes it gives me ideas to add to my repertoire back home.

This place down the street from our hostel makes its own very delicious alfajores.   I picked up a couple of boxes....

CALCHAQUITOS Alfajores Artesanales

I had assumed that we might go back to El Terruño, because we had liked our dinner so much the first night, but we were so impressed by the meat at lunch at Peña Parillada de la Plaza so we went back there for dinner.  

The cathedral next door was bathed in light -- very nice.

The Cathedral of Cafayate at night

We had the grilled lamb that we had seen at lunch -- and it was delicious.  
Grilled lamb at Pena Parillada de la Plaza in Cafayate
I also ordered a bottle of a local microbrew that I had seen available elsewhere, called Burra Negra -- Nancy tried the rubia version of the same brand.  Both were excellent, but especially the negra.  

La Burra Negra and Rubia at Pena Parillada de la Plaza in Cafayate

As we neared the end of our meal, a guitarist began to play and sing; we lingered over our meal and our beer while he completed a set.  As soon as he was done, another musician took his place, and we listened to several numbers before heading back for a good night's sleep.

We awakened early the next day  to a drizzly morning.  Because our bus back to Salta was leaving too early to get breakfast at the hostel,  we wheeled our bags over to the plaza for breakfast.  As we were finishing, the sun came out briefly, showing us a rainbow and casting the cathedral across the square in a nice light.  We were happy to read this as an auspicious sign for our coming day.  On the way to the bus station, we caught this nice street art on the wall of a local school.

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