A Driving Tour of the Calchaquíes Valley

With green rolling hills, lush jungle, and multicolored rock, the landscape surrounding Salta has it all. Tobacco, tropical fruits, and sugar cane are the main agricultural products here, and you will see tobacco "ovens" off the side of the road. Heading south from Salta on RN 68 for 38km (24 miles), you'll reach El Carril, a typical small town of the valley, with a central plaza and botanical garden displaying 70% of the region's flora.

Although you can reach Cafayate more quickly by continuing south on RN 68, it is far more interesting to go west on Ruta 33 for a longer, more rugged circuit that will require you to stop overnight. Travel 2.7km (1 3/4 miles) after El Carril to Cabaña de Cabras, in La Flor del Pago (tel. 387/499-1093), one of the principal goat farms and cheese factories in Argentina. Ducks, geese, and hundreds of goats roam the scenic property, and you can sample the delicious chivo in the small dining room and cheese shop in the proprietors' home. A bread and jam snack costs only $3 (£2); a cheese sandwich is $5 (£3.40); and a glass of local wine is $3 (£2). (The kind owners will prepare a multicourse lunch or dinner with advance reservations.) You can also stay over in one of their well-appointed rooms for $60 (£41).

Dense vegetation covers the region surrounding El Carril, but the land quickly dries out as you climb RP 33 toward Piedra del Molino (Mill Rock). The road narrows from pavement to dirt 10km (6 1/4 miles) west of El Carril -- watch closely for oncoming cars. A small shrine to Saint Raphael (a patron saint of travelers) indicates your arrival at Mill Rock (3,620m/11,874 ft. elevation) and the entrance to Parque Nacional los Cardones, a semiarid landscape filled with cacti, sage, and limestone rock formations.

Ten kilometers (6 1/4 miles) before Cachi lies Payogasta, an ancient Indian town on the path of the Inca Road that once connected an empire stretching from Peru to northern Argentina. Cachi is another precolonial village worth a visit for its Indian ruins. From Cachi, take RN 40 south past Brealito to Molinos, a 17th-century town of adobe homes and dusty streets virtually unchanged from how it must have appeared 350 years ago. Here you will find the increasingly famous winery and wine lodge Colomé). Continuing south, consider stopping 9km (5 1/2 miles) before Angastaco at the Estancia Carmen (tel. 387/1568-01322 [cell]), which boasts spectacular views of the Calchaquíes Valley and its long mountain canyon. Between 9am and 6pm, you can visit the ranch's Inca ruins, rent horses, and peek inside the private church in back, where two 300-year-old mummies rest in peace.

Continue south on RN 40 to Angastaco, which may be a good place to spend the night. Hostería Angastaco, Avenida Libertad (tel. 3868/497-700), 1km (about 1/2 mile) west of the village, is popular with European travelers. The simple hotel offers live folkloric music each evening. The staff will help arrange regional excursions and horseback riding. From Angastaco to San Carlos, you will pass the Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrows Ravine), with its stunning rock formations, which appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. People often stop their cars by the side of the road and climb a bit. Jesuits settled in San Carlos, and the church is a national historic monument. Cafayate marks the southern end of this circuit.

Return to Salta along RN 68 heading north, which takes you through the Río Calchaquíes Valley and on to the Quebrada del Río de las Conchas (Canyon of the River of Shells). The most interesting crimson rock formations are Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), El Anfiteatro (the Ampitheater), and Los Castillos (the Castles), which are all indicated by road signs. Salta is 194km (120 miles) from Cafayate, along RN 68, and it shouldn't take more than a few hours to drive.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.