Patagonia might be on your bucket list, but Northwest Argentina holds plenty of natural wonders far from the tourist track
Story and Photos By Graeme Green
The condors were optimistic. Cycling through the red rock canyon of Quebrada de las Conchas, I noticed three of the big, black shapes circling overhead. But they were getting ahead of themselves if they thought I was dinner-in-waiting. It’s true I might have looked fatigued, sun baked, wind pummeled, and sandblasted, but I wasn’t close to death or roadkill status just yet. In fact, riding through dramatic landscapes like this canyon only made me feel more alive.
Salta, in northwest Argentina, is an incredibly underrated region of South America. In terms of landscape and culture it feels more like northern Chile (it’s not far from the Atacama Desert), Bolivia, or Peru than the rest of Argentina, with deserts and canyons, scrubby Puna grasslands, Andean mountains, tropical rainforests, gaucho (cowboy) culture, and ancient Inca sites, along with massive cacti and black-faced llamas lining the roads. It’s also one of the country’s — and South America’s — most respected wine regions. But for all that, it remains little known and far less visited than the likes of Patagonia, Atacama, or Lake Titicaca. That deserves to change, not least among cyclists, as these ever-shifting landscapes make for some colorful, challenging, and fun riding.
It was quite a first day’s ride. From Salta, the capital city of the province that shares its name, we were dropped off at Posta de las Cabras goat farm, close to Talapampa, and started pedaling into Quebrada de las Conchas National Park. “Shell Gorge” is so-named on account of shells and fossils found here dating back 220 million years ago when this area would have been under the ocean. Giant walls of sandstone jut out of the ground at angles and other parts looking like they’re falling in on themselves, all the result of tectonic plates clashing and pushing upwards. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” asked Gaby Cano, an ultra-knowledgeable local guide who’s riding with me on my six-day journey across the region. “It’s the geological formations that make this place so interesting. You can see the strata at 45-degree angles, which is due to the collision of plates that brought up the Andes. The different rocks in this area can go as far as 430 million years ago.”
We stopped to check out some of the formations in the roadside cliffs, including the Amphitheater and the Devil’s Throat, before making our way farther through the canyon. A red fox scurried across the road as we rode in the hot afternoon sun, following the course of the Rio de las Conchas.
The wind picked up through the afternoon. Out of nowhere, a massive storm of dust and sand hit the road so strong that even when I stopped the bike and planted my feet firmly on the ground it was hard to stay upright. I braced myself, lost inside the storm until it passed.
After 80 kilometers of riding, it was a pleasure to roll into the plaza of Cafayate. Though nowhere near as famous or as big a wine producer as Mendoza, in thesouth, Cafayate and the surrounding Calchaquí Valley have a reputation for some of the country’s best wines. “Torrontés is very famous,” Andreas Hoy, the manager of one of the area’s oldest bodegas, El Esteco, told me as we settled in for a tasting. “It’s what Cafayate’s known for, although we also make a lot of Malbec now. The altitude and climate of the Calchaqui Valley is very good for wine. There’s a big temperature drop between day and night, which gives more aroma and a more concentrated grape.”
We worked our way through several glasses: a crisp Torrontés, a punchy Malbec, an oaky Cabernet Sauvignon, and a tannin-heavy Tannat. “I was a teetotaller before I moved to Cafayate,” laughed Andreas. It’s hard to imagine living an alcohol-free life in this town.
We rode out early from Cafayate the next day, the sun still low, light bouncing off lines of watered vines that surround the town. Men working in the vineyards waved as we passed. Where there weren’t vines there were tall cacti, as we rode 13 kilometers to the village of Tolombón and beyond. “I do this drive all the time, but it’s such a different perspective on a bike,” Gaby told me. “You really get to see the land up close. And you smell things, feel things. You feel close to the landscape — not isolated in a car or a van.”
We crossed from Salta into Tucumán state. If you want open road, they’re right here — long straights cutting into the desert. Fifty kilometers later, we rode into the archaeological site of Quilmes, exploring the giant cacti and reconstructed stone walls of the ancient town as the afternoon’s dust storm gathered. “It’s a pre-Inca site,” Gaby said. “Quilmes was the last region in the Colchaquí Valley to hold out against the Spanish. The people here were very tough, well organized.”
I spent an afternoon out of the hot, windy desert next to the swimming pool of Hotel Patios de Cafayate, an old-fashioned colonial hacienda in Cafayate, before getting back in the saddle early the next day. With afternoons hot and reliably windy, it made sense to make the most of the mornings. We pedaled 35 kilometers through green wine country and old colonial towns, the landscape a world apart from the copper-colored desert that dominated the past two days. Noisy, green burrowing parrots squawked at us from their perches on power lines, tree branches, and cactus tops as we wheeled by.
Riding on from the town of San Carlos, it felt like someone flicked a switch and turned on a mighty headwind, which made the going tough. “You see the metal road signs ahead, bent and twisted,” Gaby pointed. “That’s how bad the wind can get.”
“You might feel the effects of less oxygen today,” Gaby warned, as we set out the next morning after a night in the tiny settlement of Payogasta. The laid-back riding of the last few days masked the fact that we were at high altitude. I felt the sluggishness in my legs as we started out from 2,300 meters, the gradual slopes soon turning into 25 long, slow kilometers of climbing.
At the top, the road leveled out to a plateau across Los Cardones National Park, 62,000 hectares filled with cacti, guanacos, and an archeological site with pre-Inca and Inca ceramics, shells, and other artifacts from trading caravans that moved across this region.
We climbed slowly through golden grasslands to the highest point of the day, 3,457-meter Piedra del Molino, marked by a stone milling wheel, San Rafael chapel, and a cross. Andean Condors flew across the valley in front of us.
It was a fast downhill ride from the high pass, with a winding road and tight switchbacks. We dropped quickly from cool high altitude mountains into warm red rock canyons and cacti, the environment shifting again into rainforest with fragrant tree blossoms before leveling out to a long, flat stretch of tobacco farmland.
Diversity is one of the main reasons to ride in Salta. We passed a frothing, spitting pool that reeked of sulphur as we rode out the next day from La Caldera, close to Salta city, steadily rising up into tropical rainforest known as the Yungas.
The road swooped and snaked, short climbs rewarded with long sections gliding downhill through green tunnels of leafy trees and overhanging vines. We came out into villages where we shared the road with piglets and indignant geese. The fields were full of horses and cows, with gentle bells clanging from goats on the hillside.
I could feel a lack of juice in my legs as we rode through the canyon on the final day, pedaling at around 2,200 meters and climbing constantly. There was not only a lack of oxygen up here but a bracing wind as I sailed downhill for 34 kilometers. But the landscapes were incredible, clouds sending vast shadows rolling across the hills and desert, flashes of sun lighting up the white, yellow, and crab-pink colors of the rock. I saw guanaco down in a canyon and, farther along, a family of skittish wild donkeys crossing the road as the salt flats of Salinas Grandes came into view.
“All this is Salinas Grandes, 212 square kilometers of salt flat. It’s the 12th biggest salt flat in the world,” Gaby told me as we approached. “It’s sodium chloride. You could eat it if it went through the industrial process. But you can also extract lithium from it. They sell it to Canada, the U.S., and Japan to develop hybrid cars.”
Diggers and trucks worked on the fringes of the salt flats, but farther away from the dusty edges, the salt “lake” was dazzlingly white. Sunglasses were essential. We walked around on the crispy, crunchy salt. After red rock canyons, cacti-covered plateaus, lush forests, and colonial villages, we’d come to the end of our ride on a brilliant, snow-white world, naturally formed into hexagons on the surface, Salta’s landscapes throwing out new shapes and colors right through to the final kilometer.
Nuts & Bolts
The author traveled with Adventure & Landscape (adventure-landscape.com, +54.9387.5700500) whose seven-day Cycle the Andes trip includes bike rental, support truck, guides and mechanic, accommodation at boutique posadas and hotels with breakfast and some other meals, snacks and drinks, and wine tasting in Cafayate. Van support is provided on all trips for sections deemed either too dangerous because of traffic or gravel roads not suitable for road bikes. It’s also a way, if time is limited, to see the best of the region’s landscapes by cutting out less interesting sections.
Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com.ar/en-us, 1.800.333.0276) fly from JFK in New York to Salta via Buenos Aires.
For more on Salta, see turismosalta.gov.ar
Graeme Green is a British travel writer and photographer for publications including National Geographic Traveler, The Sunday Times, BBC, Wanderlust, The Independent, Vacations & Travel, and South China Morning Post. He’s a big fan of getting out on a bike to explore and photograph different parts of the world and has completed cycling assignments in Cambodia, Bolivia, Zambia, Burma, Italy, Vietnam, Switzerland, the U.S., the UK, and others.