We visited warm, sunny Cafayate for three lovely days. It was a nice change after the dreary weather in Salta. This town is the epicenter of Salta Province's wine area and is located 200 km south the big city. (See our Global Spirits page for a full, lenghty review on the wine and wine tasting experiences.)
Cafayate is the perfect small up-and-coming wine region. The weather is fantastic, the cuisine is authentic, and it is one of the few wine regions accessible without a car. All the bodegas (cellar doors) are located in the center of town or within walking distance of town.
We stayed at a pretty decent hotel, Los Toneles, half a block from the town square. The room was acceptable, but the setting was the star. The hotel had a large front lawn adorned with flowers and littered with benches. The rooftop had lounge chairs and hammocks. With the good weather in Cafayate, it made for great lunching and hanging out.
The regional cuisine of Cafayate is similar to that of the rest of northern Argentina. We had plenty of empanadas, a hearty beef stew called locro, and another delicious type of stew called carbonada, made with squash, meat and cheese. Steak is plentiful, as are lomito beef sandwiches - fully loaded with fried egg, cheese, and ham.
At the artisan market located across from the main plaza, Lindsay found a guy who makes honey, sauces, and pickled vegetables. We bought a jar of olive tapanade and one of pickled white beans with carrots, onions and spices. The pickled beans were addictive. We put them on bread for lunch and snacks the next two days and seriously considered buying a couple jars to send home.
On our winery trek, we visited the Cabras de Cafayate, a locally-renowned goat farm. Their cheese is different from the soft, sharp goat cheese we're used to. It is firmer and less gamey, but still quite tasty. They produce several varieties like garlic or oregano cheese, and we later found it available in other parts of Argentina.
Cafayate's natural scenery is stunning. For right or wrong, we were mostly there for relaxation and winery hopping. But you could fill many days with outdoor excursions to nearby locations. The setting is very much like southwestern Bolivia or northeastern Chile, where all three of these countries converge in the Andes. Mountains painted in a dozen colors, 10-foot-tall cacti, and otherworldly glacier-carved rock formations are omnipresent. Since we had seen many of these natural wonders in Bolivia, we didn't mind skipping them or admiring them from a distance this go-around.
We had a great outdoor experience walking the rocky road to Finca Las Nubes an hour and a quarter (4 km) outside of town. This vineyard has to be the most stunning we've ever seen. It is set right between the mountains and offers views across the valley. Its name, the Estate of the Clouds, is fitting. Along the road there, you can take a detour to find some supposedly impressive cascadas (waterfalls). Coincidentally, we ran into British Gabe and Canadien Simon along the road, who were heading to the falls. We met them at our hostel in Arequipa, Peru and had an entertaining dinner with them. (Simon still smokes because he believes positive thinking and karma can prevent lung cancer.) So unexpected to randomly run into these guys a month later!
Once back in town we headed to the "original" wine ice cream shop, Helados Miranda. The owner is a sweet, talkative lady and she let us try both flavors of Cabernet and Torrontes ice cream. As expected, they taste exactly like wine, but not so much like cream. It's like frozen wine, period. Brian ended up getting the Torrontes and Lindsay got plain chocolate, which was terrible. Helados Miranda is a local "institution" with rankings on many travel websites, but I'd skip it next time and go somewhere else.
At the Domingo Hermanos winery we made buddies with an English/Irish couple, who were already drunk at 3:00 for sure. They invited us to join them afterward for beers, but first we needed to check on how to buy our bus tickets to Tucuman, the midpoint between Cafayate and Mendoza.
We agreed to meet them at a place on the square and headed to Flecha's office (the bus company) for info. Flecha doesn't drive south, so we were pointed to another company around the corner and of course, they were closed. Hours 10-12 and 7-9... typical Argentina. But at least we knew the times, so we headed back and met Keith and Rachel at a bar on the main plaza. They had also met up with a few others from their hostel. We spent several hours relaxing on the square and chatting with the group about the most ridiculous topics, including international foodservice job-hopping, drugs, and music festivals. We've concluded all Brits love mind-altering experiences and heavy drugs.
This was about the time we both realized we are not the stereotypical world travelers - no drugs, and not seeking strange experiences. We don't fit in with many of the bohemian, drifting travelers we meet, and we don't want to.
We caught our bus to Tucuman at 2 pm and sat in the very last seat of a fairly very empty bus. This bus ride was Lindsay's favorite. We drove through vineyards and lush horse country, and then finally through the mountains up and down hairpin turns, with a new picture of beauty with each turn.
We stopped at a quaint, wealthy town called Tafi de Valle, which was incredibly modern. It was horse country, and horses and donkeys wandered the streets freely. The most surprising thing was how big the houses were. Huge, American-style homes!
We arrived in Tucuman at 7:30 pm (a bit early for once!) and after sticker shock and a bit of debate, bought full cama tickets via AndesMar to Mendoza - another 13 hour bus ride which cost us over $100 each. We had some time to kill while waiting for the bus to leave, so we entered the bus station, which was more like a mall, and grabbed a Budweiser at the food court.
AndesMar is actually the same company as Flecha Bus, which confused us after buying our tickets. The bus was nicer than any we had ridden before, with fold-flat leather seats and movies on-demand in English. The stewardess even greeted us with champagne as we were seated. We each watched a movie before settling into a restless and hot sleep because the air conditioning shut off in the middle of the night. For such a luxury bus and good start to the journey, the experience was miserable. Overnight bus travel is just the pits, and it's impossible to get a good night's sleep.
Once we arrived in Mendoza sweaty and exhausted, we both started giving serious consideration to flying from Mendoza to Buenos Aires. (Which we later decided to do. Totally worth it!)