When my friends in Salta, Argentina said that they were taking me to Cafayate for the weekend, they mentioned that the drive was ‘quite nice’, but I had no idea that it would be the main event. That’s not to say that Cafayate is not a charming town – it is – but it’s the journey there that I remember the most.
The road linking Salta with Cafayate is a tiny part of the National Route 40 – itself a part of the Pan-American Highway, which stretches from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America, with only a small break in Panama. For this reason alone, driving on this road is exciting – it’s full of the promise of adventure, the knowledge that you could drive along this road in either direction for a very, very long way. But that’s not all; this particular section is flanked by the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the Rio Grande.
The Quebrada is a mountain range, something that’s hardly uncommon in this part of the world, but, due to some geological quirk that even the former Geography teacher I was travelling with couldn’t explain, the mountains sport a dazzling array of colours. They are even known as ‘The Mountains of Seven Colours’. I was expecting to see a few subtle shades, but they are really, truly eyepopping colours – green, red and purple, among others. I asked to stop excitedly on several occasions, just to get out and take another picture of them. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
But the best was yet to come. Further along the route, the mountain landscape became even more surreal and brilliant – thanks to some pretty nifty erosion that seemed more like the hand of God, the mountains had been worked into all kinds of shapes and structures, offering a natural art gallery of sorts. We first came to the ‘amphitheatre’, a concave wall of rock which did actually provide great acoustics, as demonstrated by the folk band performing within it. We were joined by a group of nuns on a day trip who emerged from a small white van – how they all fit inside it was something of a mystery.
Once we had appreciated the music for a while and watched the nuns piling back into their tiny van, we set off again, but we had hardly gone far before we passed the next exhibition piece – A ‘castle’ naturally sculpted from the rock. They came thick and fast then; a ‘priest’, ‘windows’, an ‘African Village’. Amazingly, each one looked exactly like its description. Maybe it’s just how us humans transfer meanings onto things, but we didn’t even have to cross our eyes to try and see the different things, the rocks were just formed that way.
The river, meanwhile, seemed pretty tranquil and non-threatening, but as we drove, my friends related tales of its power during the rainy season, when they had driven through a foot of water and damaged the car, as well as being pretty scared. That explained the missing rear number plate. Several times, we were diverted onto a temporary unpaved road and it was all too clear to see where the river had simply torn the main road away. It was an odd experience to see a road running into mid air. At one point, there was a small shop, still open, on the original roadside, just short of where the river now ran, having destroyed the road. It was a humbling reminder of nature’s fierce power.
It wasn’t much further to Cafayate, where we spent the afternoon sitting in the sun, sharing a bottle of local Malbec. I felt a surge of happiness, but also the familiar prickle of anticipation and possibility and I knew another travel ambition had just been created. I know with an almost fatalistic certainty that some day I will have to drive the Pan-American Highway. One little taste of it has me hooked.