Is Cafayate the most underrated town in Argentina?

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When I think of our time in Cafayate, I’ll always remember the shine of the afternoon sun bouncing off her smooth black hair as we sped down the perfectly paved path. She thundered along, right in between our two bicycles, as though in a race for a first place finish. I have never seen a dog so happy…

The three of us were a united front, speeding through the vineyards, no traffic and only a few local pedestrians on the path that runs several kilometers along several vineyards just outside of town.  Cafayate with Scruffy

Despite being one of the most gorgeous destinations in all of Argentina, we spent all afternoon riding, running and touring through rows and rows of plump grapes with almost no other tourists in sight. Very few had even mentioned Cafayate on our tour through the country but everyone told us about the more famous Mendoza wine country – and maybe it’s better that way!El Cafayate ArgentinaAs usual, we had collected the stray after she attached herself to Dani in town the day before. Her giant smile, a big limp and obvious hip issues endeared her to us right away, and when she snuck in the restaurant to sit under our table and didn’t beg for food at all, we became immediate friends, no strings attached.

Scruffy and us in CafayateThat next morning we shared our breakfast of coffee and medialunas with her on the town square and then rented bikes from a nearby hostel. Based on that terrible limp, we just assumed she wouldn’t be able to keep up and tried to make clear she should stay behind and let us tour the vineyards without her.

Not without our stray

That morning, over and over we repeated that we would see her later, wondering if we really would. And away we pedaled…

We cycled through the dusty town of Cafayate, a romantic town with picturesque colonial buildings centered around one main plaza. It feels exactly how I would imagine a sleepy old Spanish colony to look. Throughout our stay, we spent part of each day writing and eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and ice cream right on or around this central park all four days we were in town. Up here in the northern part of Argentina, you feel the difference, and the distance, to Buenos Aires.

cafayate streetMen stuff inconveniently large wads of coca leaves in their cheeks, so much so that I thought our bus driver had a deformity in his cheek until I saw the piles of leaves chewed up and spit out at the bus station. Dani and I powered through piles quinoa empanadas, much more common in northern Chile, Bolivia and Peru than the blue cheese empanadas in the country’s practically European capital.

Here, roads are wide, life moves slow, people wave and say hello.El Cafayate Argentina

We definitely had locals staring at us as our black stray began to follow us down the road, her distinct limp disappearing as she galloped and then sprinted in between the bikes. Ten minutes later we were outside of the town limits, and she stayed with us the whole day. We spent the day together visiting various vineyards, parking our rental bikes out front, sneaking our stray dog in and sampling various red and white Argentine wines.

Cafayate vineyard la bandaCafayate is wine country but in a much more laid back way than Napa Valley, California or even its fellow Argentine brother, Mendoza – the largest wine producing area in Latin America.

cafayate vineyardEventually we headed back in the late afternoon where Dani stopped in at the Heladeria Miranda to try the famous Malbec wine ice cream (definitely only hype – it did not taste good). A much tastier stop was at the alfajores shop on Avenide Guelmes (just a few steps from the south side of the main square) for some freshly baked alfajores instead.

cafayate alfajoresThe next morning, we booked two spots on the afternoon tour of the Quebrada de las Conchas, the red dirt and layered mountain landscape that is similar to the Grand Canyon or Sedona in the southwestern U.S., which we had already driven through on our way in from Salta. We worried how our stray would react to us getting on a bus without her, but she seemed to understand the deal, and laid in the shade by the door of the restaurant where we first met.
quebrada de cafayateThe day was spent climbing into and around rock formations and gorges created by wind and the Rio de las Conchas river for the next four hours, taking short hikes to some spectacular configurations and patterns.

Quebrada de las conchas in ArgentinaThe best time to see the gorge is in the burning glow right before sunset, so we would recommend doing an afternoon tour. First you visit Los Castillos, which is a massive wall perfectly whittled down into three majestic castles and a giant monolith called El Obelisco.
Argentina Quebrada de las conchasYou’ll see a boulder on the side of the road called El Sapo, the toad, and we stopped at a roadside art stand, only to find the llamas and their matted dreadlocks the most interesting part.

Argentina Quebrada de CafayateThe highlight of this day tour from town is the all-natural rock amphitheater with incredible acoustics that even puts Red Rocks, Colorado to shame. A young guy on our tour brought his guitar specifically to play here, but instead he and the rest of us stopped in our tracks, mesmerized, when a man started singing a desperately beautiful love song. The sounds gently swirled around the inside of the natural amphitheater.

quebrada de cafayate argentinaAs for Cafayate itself, there is a sense that this is a showcase city. Hotels, restaurants and enotecas take up real estate along the tree-lined streets, with locals living in run-down homes on the outskirts of town that few people ever visit.

bodega la banda cafayateOne of the days, Dani went to buy bus tickets and I ran errands in preparation for our bus trip back through Salta and up further north just shy of the Bolivian border. The largest pharmacy in town was jammed with locals, more than we had seen anywhere but the central square for the Saturday morning market. It made me wonder where they all live; their dusty, worn clothes and scraped shoes indicated perhaps that they lived further out of town in some of the villages just beyond the green valley oasis toward the foothills of the incredibly dry mountains surrounding Cafayate, perhaps.

cafayate dirt roadsLeaving Cafayte, it was hard not to see how the scenery looks almost like Napa Valley dropped into the floor Grand Canyon. Deep reds and bright greens fill the valley in such a unique way, it would be a shame to miss this on a trip to the north west of Argentina. Just two hours from Salta – the biggest city in northwestern Argentina – Cafayate can be included in a week-long tour of the region along with Salta and  a road trip north through the Quebrada de Humuhuaca, the salt flats and the indigenous town of Humahuaca.

Argentina El Cafayate

We can’t promise you’ll make a furry friend while in town, but if you see our lovely on your visit, please take her with you on a trip through the vineyards – she seemed to have the time of her life!

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    1. Thanks, Flora! Definitely don’t miss Cafayate – you can combine it with a visit to the Quebrada de Humahuaca (amazing scenery and indigenous villages) and the Argentine salt flat (less known than the big ones over the border in Bolivia) 🙂

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