2nd February – We leave Villa Union on a red dirt road amongst a red landscape, everything stained from the red dust ,even the dogs laying at the side of the road. A little fox runs across the road and shortly after we narrowly miss a huge brown spider, we stop and go back to look but it has disappeared.
Steep drops, a narrow river winding through the valley, giant Cardon cactus growing on the hillsides and spectacular views. A few cactus still have their beautiful white flowers.
This landscape continues all the way to Sanogosta, where we enter a green valley lined with mountains.
Shortly after San Blas we are in the province of Catamarca. By the middle of the day the sun is scorching once again, a hot wind blasting through the windows. All the rivers that we cross are completely dry, just sand and rocks and we are amongst a scrubby desert landscape. When we stop for lunch however, we discover how much plant life manages to survive this arid environment.
Nearing Santa Maria and a cooler time of day, everyone is sitting outside their houses to watch the world go by, even the dogs do the same. A shower of rain cleans some of the dust off Moby, the famous Ruta 40 is by no means tarmac all the way. At Amaicha del Valle we stay at the Tourista campsite – pretty full and a bit noisy, but don’t think we will notice too much after driving 516km today with temperatures reaching 40. It has been a long and tiring day.
3rd February – We stop at Quilmes on our way to Cafayate, to explore the ruins in the Valles Calchhaquies. The Quilmes were an early, warlike tribe who resisted the Incas and endured almost 130 years of Spanish colonisation. These ruins that rise up the hillside, are the remains of their large urban centre that could have housed up to 5000 people. The Quilmes culture was finally destroyed in the 17th century, when the Spaniards expelled them from their territory and forced them to walk 1500km across the desert to Buenos Aires, a destination that none of them reached. A brewery and a suburb however, have been named after them.
As we reach Cafayate, the surrounding landscape is full of vineyards and bodegas. Some of the world’s highest vineyards are here at over 3000m. Amongst many varieties of grape, the Torrontes grape is well known, producing a slightly sweetish white wine and very delicious, as we discovered when we bought a bottle at Villa Union. Cafayate looks very Spanish with beautiful painted buildings, pavement cafes with colourful shades and a plaza full of shady trees dominated by the huge cathedral of Nuestra Senora del Rosario.
We stay at Camping Lorohuasi, a municipal campsite, busy at the front but opening out to a spacious, sandy yard at the rear which was very quiet and relaxing.
5th February – We leave Cafayate via Ruta 68 through the Guachipas Valley, a landscape of red earth, red rivers and red rocks sculptured by the weather to create an amazing landscape.
By Talapampa however, this red earth landscape has changed to a green one within a huge, lush green valley. Forests reach the mountain peaks and there are more vineyards, fields full of crops including tobacco and leafy lanes.
We arrive in Salta La Linda (Salta the Beautiful), but not from our first impressions. However it is always difficult to adjust to a huge city and they are not always our favourite places. There is only one Municipal campsite south of town with a swimming pool the size of a lake and there is a big police presence we notice, patrolling the park.
6th February – We warm to Salta this morning after having explored an area of town around the main Plaza 9 de Julio and discovering some lovely old architecture from its long, colonial history. We visit the very beautiful Cathedral, the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, the Museum of Contemporary Arts and then have coffee, tea and lemon pie at one of the many pavement cafes surrounding the square.
As we are interested in visiting the Parque Nacional El Rey, east of Salta, we visit the Parque Administration to check that the rivers have not made the roads impassable. Jorge Guasp is extremely helpful in giving us a lot of information about the park and is quite happy for us to make the journey as we have a 4×4.
We leave east on Ruta 9 before turning south at General Guemes. We stop at Camping Pacha Kanchay a short distance up on Ruta 20 where the owner runs an environmentally friendly campsite. Solar panels for energy, water pumped from an underground spring and then recycled after use, natural substances put down the toilet and all the buildings constructed from mud, sand and straw and objects discarded by other people. He grows his own vegetables, has big beds of herbs and keeps hens. We were camping down in a hollow and were told to use a torch when walking up for a shower because of snakes. We both had a hot shower, Bill with 3 huge frogs and me with the same frogs and a very large beetle that flew in and landed on me and then fell to the floor on its back waving its legs in the air. Just as I was recovering from this, a little mouse ran under the door……we are certainly at one with nature here!
7th – 9th February – Our highlight as we continue driving to the Parque El Rey, has to be some young owls that fly up from their nest (which was simply a hole in the sandy bank by the track) and pose for photographs on the fence posts.
It is free to enter this park and 10km further on from the entrance will bring you to the camping ground set amongst bright green, lush grass with trees for shade, table and benches and rustic ablution block (cold shower). Peaceful and relaxing and we are the only people here. The Park Rangers are very helpful but because their generator has not been repaired for nearly 3 weeks now, they spend some time each day filling buckets from the river to then fill a small tanker on the back of a tractor. Horses graze loose everywhere and the small boys who often ride up to see us, are already little gauchos.
This huge park in the middle of the Salta Province, ranges from 750m – 2300m and is circled by forested mountains, from which descend several streams that merge to form the Rio Popayan. The park is made up of dry, chaco grassland areas that rise to different levels of forests, where orchids, bromeliads and ferns grow. The climate during the summer months is very hot and humid and is when the park gets most of its rain. The temperature now is in the 30s and 40s and we have to cover up with long trousers tucked into socks, long sleeves and lots of spray against mosquitoes, ticks and tiny, tiny, biting mites that even seemed to find their way through our mosquito netting. We still get bitten badly however, and both of us find ticks, (not so much fun) but certainly don’t regret visiting this interesting park where we see so many different birds, butterflies, plants, a snake and two deer with very large ears, on our last morning.