Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cafayate – The Small Mountain Town that Was

On the bus ride from Mendoza to Salta, Argentina we decided that we’d go to Cafayate, a small town in the northern Andes. We’d heard it was a small mountain town in wine country. This was the second time we’d made the attempt to find one of these, as our last attempt ended up putting us in a pretty large city.

Fortunately, this was much more promising. We woke in Salta and immediately caught another bus to Cafayate. It was three and a half hours outside Salta. Two hours in, we hit the mountains, making us both much more convinced we made the right decision.
Mountains in this part of the world are very different than the mountains we’re used to in the Pacific Northwest. The entire mountain chain is clearly sedimentary rock, with layers of rock easily visible on the cliff faces. There were no trees, leaving the rocks exposed to the elements. Not all the layers were flat, many of them running along with the mountains and cutting off at cliff faces. The only plant life was sparse weeds, aloe-vera and a lot of cacti. These mountains were very different than the mountains I was used to.
There really wasn’t a bus station in Cafayate. I was a bit nervous that we would have difficulty finding a place, but there were a few hostels that were handing out flyers outside the bus. We checked out a couple and soon had chosen a place to hole up for a couple days.
Thankfully, this small mountain town was exactly what we were looking for. Walking from one side of town to the other took about twenty minutes. The whole town was centered around a main square. It was a large grass plaza with walkways, benches, trees to provide shade and a central statue. At night, people selling kettle corn and other snacks out of carts appeared, as did street performers.
We decided to rent bikes to ride to some wineries, this was going to be the third time in our lives that we decided to do this.
The first time, we were in Napa Valley, California and decided to ride across the valley. The bike rental place assured us that we could just put our bikes on a bus if we got tired. They forgot to tell us the buses only come once an hour, and more often than not the bike racks were full.
The second time was couple days earlier in Mendoza, Argentina, where we decided to rent some bikes. The bikes ended up being such a poor quality that it soured the whole experience.
Nevertheless, we trudged on, convinced this “wineries on bikes” thing was going to be fun. In fact, we were so convinced it was going to be great that we rented a double-bike.
Umm… yeah.
We started by dickering with the guy renting the bike over price, eventually getting a deal because we were going to rent it for the whole day.
Leslie climbed on the back of the bike and I started on the front.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
Next thing I know I’m pushing down on the pedal, trying to move us forward, and we were off.
“Bryan!” I hear behind me, clearly more than the two feet she should have been behind me. After a few attempts, we finally got going.
“I need to work on keeping my arms still,” said Leslie, “and you need to work on not throwing me off.”
Soon, we had crossed the six blocks to the edge of town and were riding out into the mountainous wine country. The bike was moving us forward okay, but soon, Leslie’s backside was starting to hurt. Couple this with the fact that first winery we found was closed and it didn’t look like we were off to such a good start.
Then we made it to the second winery, which also had declined to open for tastings that day. We turned back to town a bit disappointed and Leslie was hurting pretty bad. We finally found an open winery on the edge of town and got to go in for a tour.
We’ve been on a plethora of wine tours, so really just wanted to taste some wines. We weren’t too interested in another tour of a factory, especially one run in Spanish. Nevertheless, we ask the woman where the tour starts and she directs us to the beginning of the tour, not mentioning that we needed tickets. We miss the first group and catch on with the second, at which point we go on a wine tour, where I’m desperately trying to understand and give Leslie an idea of what they’re saying. I got a few things, but not much. I did learn that they mechanically separate the grapes and feed the non-fruit part of the grapes to the goats.
We made it to the end of the tour, where we were quite excited to taste some wines. They gave us two tiny tastes. We were quite frustrated at this point.
Leslie decided she wanted to try being in front of the double-bike, hoping that this would help alleviate the pain. Instead, it helped throw both of us off the bike. I think I’m too much dead-weight, as when she tried to get up and start us off she fell off, then we almost made it up, but instead ended up meandering dangerously into an intersection. Running across the street we decided to give up on the double-bike and returned it early. Instead, we went to Casa de Empanadas and had some excellent pastries stuffed with different bits of meats, veggies and cheeses. The blue cheese based ones were our faves.
The next day we went out in a tour with 15 people from a couple different hostels around Cafayate into the Quebrada.
Argentina is quite well off as a country. One way for judging how well a country is doing economically is to watch for the domestic travellers. On our day tour of the quebrada. Quebrada is a word that is somewhere between valley and canyon. For us, it means “dry mountanous land that has cool geological things to visit.”
Highlights of the tour included a massive, natural ampitheater that saw the Argentinians do some dancing while one of the girls played guitar. The end saw us climb a steep set of rocks, which was not too difficult for Leslie and I, but was rather arduous for a woman who was probably in her late 60s, early 70s. Her family and the guide helped her up and down again.
The next day saw us do a different sort of wine tasting with a woman from Germany named Simone. We walked around to a couple of the local wineries, which was great. There was no falling off in traffic, no long rides on difficult bikes and some fun little wineries.
My favorite was one where the woman behind the counter was the daughter of the one of the five brothers that ran the place. She didn’t speak any English, but we all had fun trying to communicate.
We enjoyed the little town of Cafayate, but soon, it was time to go. We packed up our things and got on the bus back to Salta to catch an overnight bus to the Bolivian border.
We picked up some coca leaves on the way, which are the locals remedy for altitude sickness, a potentially fatal problem that occurs when people aren’t used to the lack of oxygen in the air so far above sea-level. We thought we were both in pretty good shape, so there shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Next stop, 3000m above sea-level.

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