To travel to Argentina from Uyuni in Bolivia it is possible to take a bus, but after hearing rumours that the road is pretty dire we decided to take the train. The railway station in Uyuni was right next door to our hostel, which was pretty handy because the train only departs at one time of day: 2 in the morning! Fortunately however the tickets for the first class carriage only cost a couple of dollars more than the standard price, and in first class you are treated to blankets, heating and a snack to get you through the journey. This meant that we were able to get a decent amount of sleep on that first leg of the trip – despite the fact that the train itself was so rickety we felt like we were on the verge of derailing more than once!
We had also heard rumours that the border crossing from Bolivia into Argentina is one of the worst in South America and can take hours – so we were pleasantly surprised when we got to the border and were immediately ushered towards a separate “foreigners” immigration booth, which had no line and stamped us into the country in less than 5 minutes. It was then just a short walk to the bus station where we hopped on a bus to Salta, a city in the mountainous north west of the country.
Famous for its steak and wine, Argentina was a country we had been looking forward to for a while, and we couldn’t wait to start indulging in some great food when we got to Salta. Naturally one of our first meals in the country had to be steak, and we were lucky enough to find the fantastic El Charrua Restaurante y Parrillada just a short walk from our hostel. The food did not disappoint – we both enjoyed enormous steaks and some delicious Argentinian red wine, and immediately started planning all of the other steak restaurants we wanted to visit in Salta. Fate however had another thing in store, and on the second day I came down with a really bad bout of food poisoning (not from the steak, thank goodness!). Unfortunately this meant that we didn’t really get to explore Salta any more as I was confined to the hostel for several days, so we decided to continue our wine and steak extravaganza in Cafayate, our next destination.
Cafayate is a small, tranquil town a few hours drive from Salta, and is a very important location in Argentina in terms of wine production. Surrounded on all sides by miles of vineyards, Cafayate is home to a number of wineries and is therefore a very popular spot with tourists. We fell in love with Cafayate almost immediately, with its bright and sunny streets, cute little restaurants and laid back atmosphere. On top of that the people we met there were incredibly kind and friendly – the manager of our hostel, Hospedaje Neny, was so warm and welcoming and even gave me a special tea on arrival to make me feel better (we had contacted her previously to change the dates of our stay as I couldn’t travel due to being ill).
If you read any blog post about Cafayate you can almost guarantee that it will mention wine ice cream. A local ice cream shop, Heladeria Miranda, claims to be the inventor of this delicacy and you can buy a variety of white and red wine flavours made from regional wines. We were excited to try them, but to our disappointment it turns out wine ice cream sounds better on paper than it is in reality – the result tastes a bit like off sorbet and brought us to the conclusion that wine should just never, ever be frozen! After sampling the wine ice cream we decided to treat ourselves to a nice steak dinner to make up for the lost time in Salta and visited PACHA, a tiny restaurant with only a handful of tables but the most amazing food and friendliest staff.
One of the best activities to do in Cafayate is take a tour to see the Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas, the giant red rock formations that dominate the surrounding landscape. These grand and fascinating natural structures have been formed through wind erosion over thousands of years, and are an amazing sight to see. They reminded us of our trip a few years ago to Sedona, Arizona, which has a very similar landscape – both places are surreal and almost make you feel like you’re on Mars!
We did an afternoon tour with a travel company called Ipuna. Our guide Marcelo was very funny and tried to get to know everyone in the group – which was difficult when it came to us as he didn’t speak English and we can’t get far past the basics in Spanish! Despite not fully understanding everything he told us we had a great day admiring all of the rock formations, including one that looked like a train, a few areas that had a rainbow-like hue similar to Rainbow Mountain in Peru, and the famous natural rock amphitheatre.
Another unmissable activity in Cafayate is, of course, the wineries. There are a number of wineries – or bodegas as they are called in this part of the world – surrounding the town, and one option for a great day out is to rent bikes and cycle out to visit a couple of bodegas in the surrounding countryside. Most bodegas in the region offer daily wine tastings where you can show up at any time with no need to book in advance, and often if you buy a bottle of wine afterwards then the tasting itself is free.
We visited 2 bodegas on our DIY wine tour: Bodega Domingo Molina and Bodega Piattelli. As I am not the most confident cyclist at the best of times, let alone when I’ve had a few glasses of wine, we decided to walk out to the bodegas rather than hire bikes. Our first stop was Domingo Molina, a small, family run bodega about 10km out of town. We were followed all the way out there by a small, skinny black dog – and when we arrived it turned out this dog was a frequent visitor to the Cafayate bodegas, as some of the other travelers who were there recognised her from another bodega the day before!
The host at Domingo Molina was fantastic and let us try a number of lovely wines while sitting outside in the shade and admiring the view over the vineyard. We met another couple there from the Netherlands who told us that they had been living in London up until recently, but decided it was time for a change and set off to travel with no plans to settle until they found somewhere they liked. There was also a couple travelling from New Zealand who had spent the last 18 months driving all the way down to Argentina from Alaska!
We enjoyed the wine at Domingo Molina so much we decided to buy a couple of bottles before setting off on a slightly tipsy stroll down to Bodega Piattelli. This bodega is significantly larger and has a very popular restaurant on site, and as well as our wine tasting we were also given a tour around the vineyard and told all about the production process. One interesting fact we learnt was that while white wine is fermented without the skins and seeds of the grapes, most of the flavour of red wine actually comes from the skin and seeds so these elements aren’t removed until after fermentation. After the tour we sampled a number of the wines, but the experience wasn’t quite as enjoyable as at Domingo Molina as our guide seemed in quite a hurry to rush us through the process. We did however meet a great couple from the UK during the tasting who had driven to the bodega (the boyfriend had drawn the short straw to be designated driver for the day), and who very kindly gave us a lift back to Cafayate after the tour.
If you’re ever travelling to Argentina we can’t recommend a visit to Cafayate highly enough – we had such a wonderful time there, and if we are ever in the country again we will definitely go back for a visit. Our time there went by way too quickly, but fortunately we had more exciting times (and more wine!) to look forward to at our next stop: Mendoza.