On a thrilling road trip through Argentina’s mountainous northwest—beginning and ending in the colonial city of Salta—Karen Catchpole discovers sloping vineyards, elegant haciendas, and one of the world’s most remote museums.
By Karen Catchpole | October 18, 2020
Since 2006, I've been on an epic road trip across the Americas. After years of living in New York City, I was curious to see how my experience fit into the wider world—so I set off on a journey that I initially thought would last 36 months. More than a decade later, I’ve stopped keeping track. I’ve driven through the surreal landscapes of Canada’s Yukon Territory, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flat. When I made it to Argentina, instead of heading straight for the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires, I embarked on a four-day drive around the (mostly unpaved) province of Salta—a region that has lured many wine-loving Californians like me with its varied, otherworldly scenery and high-altitude grapes. It turned out to be one of my most memorable adventures yet.
Day 1: Salta to Cafayate
In the city of Salta, the provincial capital, grand Neoclassical buildings surround a lively main square studded with jacaranda trees. Eager to get on the road, I spent the night outside the city at the Finca Valentina Casa de Campo (finca-valentina.com.ar; doubles from $140), a rustic 10-room hotel done out in gaucho-inspired décor like cowhide rugs and handwoven tapestries. After a breakfast of coffee and a flaky medialuna, Argentina’s smaller and sweeter take on the croissant, I hit the asphalt, heading south on Ruta 68.
The highway snakes through some of Salta’s most arresting landscapes, and after two hours of driving, I entered one of its most scenic stretches: the Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells) nature reserve. The area is named for its striated rock formations that rise out of the earth like broken seashells, their stripes of colorful sediment glimmering in the sun.
The eroded sandstone peaks of the Quebrada de las Flechas canyon rise up behind Ruta 40, in Argentina’s Salta province. | Credit: Javier Pierini
I pulled over to stretch my legs and watch as Andean condors soared above the imposing mesas, a dusty scene evocative of the American Southwest. The gorge offers a handful of detour-worthy sites, including a cluster of castle-like rock formations known as Los Castillos and a natural amphitheater where musicians are known to stage impromptu concerts. But the summer heat was blistering, so after wandering through the sinewy (and blissfully shaded) passageway of the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) canyon, I beelined for my truck.
As I drove farther south, the ocher-colored jumble gave way to verdant pastures and vineyards heavy with grapes. Eventually I reached Cafayate, Salta’s most famous wine town, which sits in a valley that produces Tannat, Torrontés, and other varieties at 5,500 feet.
For more than 40 years, Roberto Romero and his family have been turning out fresh, delicate wines at El Porvenir winery. In 2016, the family opened the five-room Casa de Bodega (doubles from $130), a hotel inside an old Spanish-colonial home with terra-cotta floors and high, wood-beamed ceilings. On the hotel’s back patio, which doubles as an informal dining area, I had a delicious late lunch of asado, a traditional Argentinean barbecue of sweetbreads, sausages, and tender cuts of beef. But I was careful not to overindulge: Salteños claim to have invented the empanada, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.So, a few hours later, I headed to Casa de las Empanadas (24 Calle Mitre; 54-3868-42-1887; entrées $3–$8), a casual joint known for its pillowy, crescent-shaped pastries. Mine came out piping hot and golden brown, stuffed with a luscious, jammy filling of beef, sweet pepper, and onion. Flaky and succulent, they were far more delicious than versions I’d tried in other parts of South America.
The lobby of Casa de Bodega, a family-run hotel in Cafayate. | Credit: Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Day 2: Cafayate Wine Country
The valley surrounding Cafayate is sprinkled with more than 30 wineries. But I only had one afternoon in the area, so I decided to focus on just two—starting with the region’s largest. Founded by French brothers David and Salvador Michel, El Esteco Winery is notable not only for its output (7 million bottles per year, under seven different labels) but for its beauty: at the center of the rambling property is a brilliant white colonial-style building that pops against the mountain-ringed landscape.
During a tour, my guide explained the rigors of wine making in the region, which is known for its rocky soil, intense sunlight, and very little precipitation. It made me appreciate the estate’s voluptuous reds all the more, and I vowed to seek out the dark and tannic Don David Reserve Tannat that I tried in the tasting room the next time I was in a wine store.
Exploring the grounds of Bodega Colomé on horseback. | Credit: Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Then it was on to the family-run Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya. Though small compared with El Esteco, this hillside winery changed the course of Argentina’s viticulture in 1988 when the property’s owner, Arnaldo Etchart, a Cafayate native and a sixth-generation vintner, partnered with legendary French enologist (and now co-owner) Michel Rolland to produce the first barrel-fermented wine in Argentina. Today, the 40-acre estate is responsible for some of the most aromatic whites in the region, including its San Pedro de Yacochuya Torrontés, which combines crisp citrus with intense minerality.
Back at Casa de Bodega, I finished the day with a private tasting of Bodega El Porvenir’s wines on the breezy back patio. The 2015 Laborum Cabernet Sauvignon balances dark fruit with spice, and I savored its velvety finish as the late afternoon sun dappled through the vines.
Day 3: Cafayate to Bodega Colomé
The next morning, I picked up Ruta 40, which stretches down the western length of Argentina, forming one of the longest highways in the world. The 70-mile section between Cafayate and the tiny colonial town of Molinos is unpaved, and a dust trail followed me into the Quebrada de las Flechas, or Gorge of Arrows, a landscape of spiky sandstone pinnacles.
About four hours later, I reached Molinos, where I stopped for lunch at the Hacienda de Molinos Hotel (entrées $2–$9). The 18th-century inn served as the home of the last governor of Salta, and the ground-floor restaurant still incorporates centuries-old cooking techniques, such as the use of a mud oven for empanadas and breads.
From left: Harvest time at the Bodega Colomé vineyard; empanadas and a glass of local Malbec at the Hacienda de Molinos Hotel.
Credit: From left: Javier Pierini; Mark Luscombe-Whyte
From Molinos, the narrow, winding dirt road to Bodega Colomé (doubles from $124) is just 12 miles long, but it took me about an hour to coax my 4 x 4 through an obstacle course of potholes, white-knuckling the steering wheel all the way. My tension melted the moment I passed through the wrought-iron gates and laid eyes on miles of trellised vines.
I’d been told that the road to Bodega Colomé was worth braving not just for its wines (some of them made from grapes planted in 1831) or its charming boutique hotel, but for the property’s other attraction: the world’s only museum dedicated to the American artist James Turrell, a pioneer of the Light and Space movement. In the early aughts, Bodega Colomé’s owner, the Swiss magnate and art collector Donald Hess, invited the artist to Salta and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on a site-specific project there. Turrell agreed, and in 2009, the museum—built to the artist’s specifications and housing five decades of his work—opened to the public.
But first, the wine. At the property’s bi-level restaurant, I met Colomé’s French winemaker, Thibaut Delmotte, who poured Malbec and Torrontés while he described the challenges of making wine in Salta. He told me that, despite his experience in Bordeaux, he had felt unprepared when he accepted the job in 2005—with the wrong approach, he explained, high-elevation grapes can over-ripen, leading to wines that are syrupy sweet and overly alcoholic. But the Colomé Torrontés I tasted was bright and perfectly balanced, with firm acidity and honeyed tones of cantaloupe and peach.
Unseen Blue at the James Turrell Museum, at Bodega Colomé. | Credit: Florian Holzherr / Courtesy of Grupo Colomé
Feeling a little buzzed, I embarked on a two-hour guided tour of Turrell’s nine walk-in installations, which he calls Skyspaces, rooms of various sizes awash in vivid colors that left me in a daze. Among the works on display are Spread, an immense, sense-distorting chamber that’s bathed in blue, and Unseen Blue, an open-roofed atrium featuring the world’s largest Skyspace. I stretched out on a mat on the cool, black-granite floor, stared up through the cutout in the ceiling, and immediately lost all track of time.
The next morning, I would hit the road early and drive through the town of Cachi and Los Cardones National Park back to the city of Salta, five hours away. But for now, I was content to be still and look out through the square aperture to a vast, cloudless sky.
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