While Ruta Nacional 68 from Salta to Cafayate is paved, the second day’s stretch north to Molinos and Cachi is not such easy driving - beyond the village of San Carlos, about 20 km (12 miles) from Cafayate, Ruta Nacional 40 becomes a narrow, dusty and often washboarded road where, however, every curve is a new photo opportunity.
RN 40 is, in fact, legendary as Argentina’s counterpart to Route 66 in the western United States. Though there’s no single song that sums it up in less than three minutes, Argentina’s Dylanesque folk-rock musician León Gieco once undertook a musicological road trip, De Ushuaia a La Quiaca, that covered the entire route from the Bolivian border to Tierra del Fuego in a three-album series (even though, technically, RN 40 ends at the tip of the continent near Río Gallegos). Oscar-winning musician Gustavo Santaolalla produced the first two albums of the series.
One problem along this route, whose folded sedimentary badlands are only slightly less colorful than those of the Quebrada de Cafayate, is that there is no public transportation between the town of Angastaco, 70 km beyond Cafayate, and the cozy village of Molinos, another 32 km north (the distances on the fading highway sign above are no longer accurate). In a rental car or on a mountain bike, it’s easily doable but, between Angastaco and Molinos, the road is so narrow and winding that coming face to face with an oncoming vehicle is a serious matter - sound the horn at every curve.
Dating from the 17th century, Molinos features a landmark colonial church with a twin bell tower and one of the best accommodations along the route, the recently upgraded Hacienda de Molinos, whose pepper-shaded patio (pictured above) is also an outdoor dining room (even in mid-winter, afternoons can be warm and sunny here). Molinos is also the last place to fill up on gasoline until the town of Cachi and, for cyclists, it also has a comfortable campground.
The area’s top attraction, though, is Estancia Colomé, 18 km southwest via a winding gravel road, where Swiss wine magnate Donald Hess has turned a 19th-century bodega and vineyard into a state-of-the-art winery, complete with a modern gallery dedicated to the unconventional light-and-space works of California artist James Turrell. Open for guided tours only - otherwise you might never find your way out - the museum makes a fine complement to the vineyard and winery tour; for those who can afford it, Colomé also has a luxurious nine-suite hotel (pictured below) with a restaurant that’s open to the public (the winery, for its part, offers a light menu throughout the day).
If both Molinos and Colomé are beyond your budget, the town of Cachi is only 27 km farther north so that, in principle, it’s possible to spend the night there. Cachi (pictured below) enjoys an impressive setting at the base of the 6,380 meter Nevado de Cachi, a snow-covered summit that rises more than 4,000 meters above the town. It features a shady plaza with an 18th-century church and, opposite the church, a fine archaeological museum (though the explanatory text is in Spanish only). It also offers a diversity of accommodations for all budgets (my personal favorite is the cozy 15-room Hostal El Cortijo) and a modest but improving restaurant scene (where the house wines usually come from Colomé).
Beyond Cachi, RN 40 is paved for 12 km to the Payogasta junction, where it continues north toward San Antonio de los Cobres through wild high country that’s inadvisable without 4WD. Rather than that longer route, take the southeasterly Ruta Provincial 33, which climbs to the 3,348-meter Cuesta del Obispo, in Parque Nacional Los Cardones, so named for the saguaro-like candelabra cacti that dot the dry highlands here.
RP 33 is paved to the Cuesta, beyond which it’s a zigzag descent down the scenic Quebrada de Escoipe - scenic in winter, at least, when it rarely rains. In summer, which is the rainy season here, it’s often obscured by cloud and requires caution. Gradually, the province is paving the road to the RN 68 junction, the point of return to Salta - and the end of one of Argentina’s most engaging road trips. There’s plenty more, though, to bring visitors back to the Andean northwest at any season.