Road Tripping in Argentina's High-Altitude Wine Country

Credit: Photograph by Mark Johanson

What if you could visit the Grand Canyon and Napa Valley within the course of one perfect day? That, in essence, is what's on offer along the Calchaquí Valley Circuit, a loop through northwest Argentina where the nation bumps up against Bolivia and Chile. The Calchaquí Valley Circuit skirts over the oxygen-thinning pre-Andes, dips down into a trio of geologically bizarre gorges and puts you right up next to the highest altitude vineyards in the world. This easy 325-mile ring follows three main arteries, Provincial Route 33 and National Routes 40 and 68, and starts were it ends, in Argentina's folklórica (folk music) capital of Salta. Here's your three-day road trip.

Day One: Start the day with a walk past the crumbling colonial architecture of Salta's historic center at Plaza 9 de Julio before driving south out of town. Head west at Route 33 where you'll dip into Escoipe Gorge and then zigzag up Bishop's Slope to an overlook boasting a lone chapel in honor of Archangel Raphael, patron saint of all travelers. Sample local goat cheese, cayote jam and llama sausage at the thatched tourist stall and then continue over the rust-red pre-Andes range into Los Cardones National Park. Stretch the legs on a quick side-of-the-road hike through this high-altitude plain of cartoon-like cacti, before continuing onward to the adobe houses and cobbled streets of Cachi, a tiny town that time forgot. Grab dinner at La Merced del Alto, an alfalfa farm turned estancia, and retire to one of the boutique hotel's 14 rooms for the night.


Day Two: The Gorge of Arrows, a highlight of the annual Dakar Rally, bares a striking resemblance to the Badlands of the Dakotas or Turkey's Cappadocia. You too can race through this wind-eroded sandstone ravine along National Route 40 en route to the vineyards of Cafayate, Argentina's second wine center. Mendoza may be the big bold land of Malbec, but Cafayate is dominated by the more demure Torrontes, a white wine grape that grows exceptionally well in the cold and windswept Calchaquí Valley. Swirl a glass or two at Bodega Domingo Molina, grab a juicy steak at the breezy hilltop restaurant of Piattelli Vineyards, and book a room for the night at Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel.

Day Three: The return trip to Salta begins in the fossil-rich Shell Gorge, the remnants of an ancient lakebed that boasts not only multicolored mountainscapes (thanks to the oxidation of minerals) but also a menagerie of otherworldly rock formations. The Amphitheater and Devil's Throat both take on blanket-like folds and rainbow-like swirls and are the best of the gnarled geological treasures to stop and see along National Route 68. The final leg of the journey skirts past green fields of tobacco, a ghost town called Alemania and an artificial lake known as Cabra Corral, a popular weekend retreat for Salta's elite. End your trip back in Salta at a local peña like Casona del Molino, where wine, empanadas and barbecued meats are in great supply as are folk singers, who daily put on shows.