Road Trip in Northern Argentina

After a well spent stay in San Pedro de Atacama, I made the first of several border crossings between Chile and Argentina.

The border was a standard affair if not frustratingly slow. The only pleasant part was, after getting our stamps and lining up our bags, we got to watch a spunky little golden retriever sniff our bags for drugs. While those with something to hide might not have agreed, the general crowd seemed to be cheering on the enthusiastic pup as he did his job. I think I miss my dogs.

Leaving at 9:30 in the morning, this was my first day bus in a long time and it was nice to see the countryside I usually miss in the dark. The views on both sides of the border were beautiful. I saw salt lakes, colorful desert mountainsides and towering active volcanos.

I even made a friend on the bus: a pudgy 30-something Chilean on his way home to see his wife. He was keen to practice his English, talking about our shared love of international cuisines and sharing pictures of our family and pets. He was a nice guy.

I arrived in Salta in the evening, along with Hayley and Michelle, a Canadian and a Kiwi I met at my hostel in San Pedro.

Thanks to them I learned that Loki – the infamous hostel chain I visited in Mancora, Peru – had opened a new location outside of Salta and was offering free accommodation until mid-December. Whatever my past experience at Loki was, I knew people there and you just can’t turn down free.

Apparently word travels fast because just about every backpacker from our bus had learned about free stays at Loki and we filled up two taxis to get us all there. It was a good 20 minutes outside of town, but like my previous experience, the facilities are unbeatable, and unlike before, there wasn’t a cesspool of douchebags waiting for me when I got there.

Hayley and Michelle were pretty tired, and after splitting a liter beer, they hit the sack. I could have turned in too but a Loki employee from Colorado talked me into playing flip cup with the group and I had some fun meeting people and losing every game of foosball I played.

I made a big call the next morning.

After some serious thought I committed to an offer from Hayley and Michelle to join them and Lee, a Welshman I also met in San Pedro, on a several day road trip south of Salta. This would include scenic drives and stops in the region’s renowned wine country. Hesitant only because of my schedule and the potential awkwardness of being a last minute add-on, I knew deep down this was too unique of an experience to pass on.

With Lee coming in that night, the girls and I had a day to kill in Salta.

Even though I knew almost nothing about it, Salta was always on my list of places to see due to the fact that I had countless friends spend the summer there through an exchange program organized by my high school.

While it wasn’t the most memorable stop on my trip, I found Salta to be a really nice city: clean, safe and attractive. It really is true what they say about the architecture down here – it looks just like Europe. In particular, this town is known for its countless beautiful churches, colorful and detailed in their design. 

By chance, Hayley and Michelle are both vegetarians so we put visiting a veggie restaurant high on our list of activities. After checking out downtown and the main square, that’s just what we did. The first restaurant we tracked down looked to have been closed for a long time (“fully revised and updated”, Lonely Planet?), the other one, recommended by Loki, was a great choice. Made with fresh ingredients and loaded with flavor, the wrap I accidentally ordered was the best meal I’ve had in weeks.

With heavy bellies, it was time for some exercise. One of Salta’s main attractions is the Telefonico, a gondola that takes visitors up on the hill that overlooks the city. Being cheap and wanting the movement, we elected to hike up the hill instead of paying for the ride. We sweated more than expected but the hour walk up was a nice way to kill time and calories. At the top we enjoyed the view, rewarding ourselves with popsicles and a rest before turning back down.

After some time with the girls I had a good feeling about spending a couple days in a car with them, and I think they felt the same about me.

Before we could actually say we were going, however, we had to actually rent a car. Over the duration of an hour we visited at least 10 different rental agencies. Many had no cars to rent us, others were too expensive. Our first choice would have been to take the car one way to the city of Cordoba, but we quickly learned that drop-off fees are unreasonably expensive.

After quite an extensive shopping experience, we found a dependable-looking local company that would rent us a newish four-door sedan for a reasonable price. Between four people, the three day rental would cost us less than 300 Argentinean pesos a head. The best part is how cheap that would be for me.

As early as my arrival in Chile I had caught word of a mysterious underground exchange rate in Argentina known as the “Dolar Blue.”

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, the undependable nature of the Argentinean currency, paired with the government’s reactionary ban on the exchange of the US dollar, has created a massive black market for changing my home currency at an insane rate. While the official exchange rate sits around 5.7 pesos to the dollar (the rate when I use a credit card or withdraw from an ATM), the Dolar Blue rate fluctuates between 9 and 10 pesos to the dollar.

With my foresight I pulled out close to $200 in Chilean pesos and exchanged them for US currency before crossing the border. Changing them at the black market rate was as easy as walking through Salta’s main square and waiting for someone to whisper “dolar amigo.” My first day I changed $100 at a rate of 9.5, receiving 950 pesos instead of the 570 pesos I would get at the ATM. A few days later I would change some more cash at a rate of 9.7. Cool, right!?

As sketchy as it might sound, this “black market” is everyday business in Argentina and frankly, you’re a fool not to take advantage of it if you can remember to bring some greenbacks before you enter Argentina. Needless to say I was pleased as punch to be paying nearly half price on everything in the country, bringing my expenses down to what I found in Ecuador and Peru.

We drank cappuccinos at a plaza cafe, getting some much needed internet time and watching the sun set over Salta as its buildings became artificially illuminated.

Our last mission for the night was to pick Lee up from the bus station. Because he had failed to respond to emails, we assumed he did not know we were coming. On our way to the terminal, we realized we weren’t going to be as early as we had planned, and began sprinting when it came into sight. It was a good thing we did because Lee was literally in the act of stepping into a taxi when we caught him.

By getting him in time we saved Lee a $20 cab fare, showing off our newly earned public transport knowledge to get us all back to Loki for less than $0.50 each. Unfortunately we had a hard time finding a bus and it was a good hour before we actually made it back to Loki. But for the backpacker, a penny saved is a brewski earned.

With the whole gang together we plotted the next day’s game plan and went to bed early.

With the car not available until 10 a.m. we were able to eat breakfast and wait around for my laundry to be delivered to the hostel. After suffering through the well-meaning but totally useless service of the Loki staff, we finally got our bags stored and caught a bus to Salta. We embarrassed ourselves by paying our rental in humorously small denominations, but when they handed us the keys we were free.

Our ride, nicknamed Dependable Derek, was a small grey Chevy sedan with no bells or whistles to speak of, definitely not “new” as promised – but he was ours. We each had our position on the team. Michelle: first-string driver, Lee: navigator, Hayley: organizer and bracelet-maker, and Me: DJ and second-string driver.

As the only two traveling with our licenses, Michelle and I were drivers by default. It is a good thing I mastered driving a manual transmission over the summer because that’s the only way Dependable Derek came. For our first day’s journey, the wheel was Michelle’s.

It was an incredible feeling to have our own ride. 

We could finally escape the Gringo Trail, stopping and starting when we wanted to. I think I pleased the crowd with my transitional and varied music selections. It was a pretty drive, crossing through several distinctive climates. The latter was very much resembled the deserts of Arizona, spotted with the giant cacti that northern Argentina is also known for.

Our cohesive group was also diverse in both nationality and in age. With 10 years between me and Lee (23 and 33), we made endless jokes about the gap, with him compared to an old man and me compared to a child. At 25 and 31 respectively, Hayley and Michelle were somehow spared.

Three-quarters into the drive we stopped to build sandwiches on the steps of the national park office. The rangers were confused with our choice of lunch stops but they had shade and we didn’t know where else to stop.

We pulled into Cachi in the early afternoon.

Cachi is the largest town around, which says something about how remote we were. After settling at one of two choices in hostels, we were able to walk around the entire town in 10 minutes flat. With that conquered we figured we had earned some beer.

We settled at a cafe table in the middle of the tiny town square and were served round after round of brews. We played cards and earned a proper day buzz.

There is very little to do in Cachi, which was such a strange relief. For a weary group of backpackers, used to trekking around cities and sites, it was such a pleasure to take a load off in a green country town where there is nothing to do but relax. It felt like vacation.

With the sun getting low in the sky we got up to take a walk to a scenic overlook for the sunset. 

En route to pick up a layer from our hostel, Michelle and I spotted an outdoor cafe table with a half-full and corked wine bottle. Our detective skills said that a middle-aged/elderly gringo couple (the only tourists who make it out here) had finished their meal and planned on taking the bottle with them, only to forget it on the table.

Michelle and I played it cool. We sat down at the table for a minute or two, making it look like were dining there and assuring our consciences that they weren’t just in the bathroom. With liquid courage already in our system, we took the bottle and slid into the hostel. No victims, just winners.

It was a short walk up the overlook, a nearby hill. Up top we found yet another cemetery, which is becoming something of a tradition for me. With time before the sunset we took some pictures, then hanging out on the entranceway stoop. I brought my portable speaker, which had already become one of the most valuable devices for the group. As the show unfolded we drank beer, took turns playing tunes and slumped in satisfaction of where we were and how we got there.

Bed would come early, but we first had to eat some dinner. We scoured every inch of town looking for a cheap eatery, but all that was open was a couple tourist restaurants. We settled for the most modest one, where we had first played cards and drank beer, which turned out to be a mistake.

All but one of us ordered pasta. It took a full hour for them to serve us our dishes, and when they arrived they were poorly cooked and lacking in any sauce or flavor. Tired and ready for sleep, we scarfed down as much as we could tolerate, paid up and headed back. It was a bad meal, and overpriced, but not our last.

We woke up fresh and early, anxious to hit the road again.

We got our typical free breakfast – toast and jam with coffee – and hit up a bakery for bread and cheese for the day’s lunch. Then the good part came: I got to drive!

Dependable Derek may not be a Ferrari, but he performed for me like a champ. Save for the last 20 km., I was navigating through windy country roads of dirt and gravel. This is where no tourist bus can go. With nonfunctional AC we spent the entire road trip with the windows down, only rolling them up in response to dust from a passing car. The intense heat of the sun forced me to regularly lather my left arm with SPF 50.

The scenery was absolutely incredible – desert hillsides scattered with massive formations of rock – and the only drawback was that I couldn’t snap pictures with my hands on the wheel. The others had fun playing DJ and I was having a blast ripping around the countryside. Just outside of our destination we hit pavement and knew we were close when we saw field after field lined with grape vines. We were in wine country.

Cafeyette is the unofficial capitol of the Salta wine region, famous for its signature white grape, Torrontes.

While not exactly huge, Cafeyette (pronounced “caf-ay-chjet-eh” thanks to the shushie Argentinean accent) was an upgrade from Cachi and definitely a bigger stop for tourists. We shopped around for a cheap hostel and after finding one, made our lunch in the provided kitchen. With a little respite we were back out the door to begin an afternoon of wine tasting.

We got to our first two vineyards by car, figuring we wouldn’t be able to drive after any more. The tasting rooms, known as bodegas, charge a fairly minor price and offer a choice of their wines or a sampling of several. The first couple were decent but not great.

It is popular for vineyards to offer jovenes (young wines, usually vintage 2013), which seems like a bad idea to me. Giving people barely aged versions of your wine is showing your product in its worst state. Our common complaint, especially with the reds, was that it simply needed more time on the shelf.

Nonetheless, we were having an excellent time, and hit at least six or seven bodegas by the evening. A couple bodegas in town served up some wine that really impressed us, an organic vineyard in particular. While it is unreasonable to carry around wine in my pack for the next couple weeks, I hope to find a few bottles in Buenos Aires before I fly home.

Buzzing from our tasting, we went to the local plaza to get ice cream, drink beer and play cards. 

Getting hungry, we spilt up into two groups. Though we’re all on a budget, Lee and Michelle are in a different tax bracket within the backpacking community and can afford to eat out every meal.

With no hard feelings, Hayley and I went to the market to round up ingredients for making dinner at the hostel. Our selection was frustratingly limited, but with some creativity we gathered what we needed for what would turn into a spicy rice and vegetable dish. I also got myself a cheap bottle of wine.

Though I did a majority of the cooking, Hayley and I got the chance to know each other one one one. When the others showed up again we socialized on the deck for a while and I got into a rather long and slightly wine-fueled conversation with an old long-haired hippy who I think was the proprietor of the hostel.

I’ve come to realize that the difference between a successful conversation in Spanish doesn’t depend so much on the strength of my Spanish that day but on the willingness of a person to listen. So often people don’t have the patience or time to listen to what I’m saying or make the effort to bridge the gap. It’s so cool to talk with someone in Spanish and actually feel like you had a conversation.

As with the night before, our day drinking caught up with us and it was early to bed once again.

Our short road trip finished with a return to Salta.

With our buses not leaving until the evening we felt no rush to bust out early or rush back to the city. We looped back via the paved and more direct highway, with Michelle and I splitting up the driving duties. We made several stops along the way, taking our time to enjoy the plentiful scenery.

Not finding anyplace to get lunch along the way, we headed straight for Loki after I took over driving. When we got there we had veggie burgers, stole showers, played a game of pool and retrieved our bags from storage.

I was elected to drive into town, a job no one wanted. It was terrifying. Driving through wine country, national parks and highways was such a leisurely experience that city driving came as quite a shock

With Lee as my map reader, we found a gas station coming into Salta and carefully navigated our way into the city center to return Dependable Derek. With no lights, no signage, and no logical right of way, it was a nerve-wracking experience, but I kept my cool and got the group (and more importantly, Derek) to the lot unscathed.

While Hayley and I had already purchased bus tickets to Mendoza, Lee and Michelle had to run to the terminal to get their tickets to Cordoba, so we split up once more before our final goodbyes.

We got groceries for the 18-hour ride ahead of us, I exchanged the rest of my dollars in the plaza and we got coffee while waiting for the others to return. With the WiFi down where we met up, we moved on to another cafe and shared our last couple beers together while catching up on the web.

Finally, we said farewell to Lee and Michelle and they hopped in a taxi to the bus station. With a couple more hours to kill we stayed in the plaza, drinking mate before it was time to walk to the terminal.

It was nice to see pretty Salta one more time at night, but I was excited to head south, escape the heat, and see something new.



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