From the Culinary Trail – An Appetite for Argentina Part 2

Cruising Ruta 40 from Cafayate to Cachi.

ruta 40 kake2kale

Our car bounced and tossed on the single track dirt road for what felt like hours.   We were in the middle of nowhere and the urge to turn around grew stronger with every lurch and blinding bend. Then, ahead of us we saw water running across the road. Find out more, later.

If you like road trips, then you may be interested in Ruta 40 (RN40).  It is one of the world’s longest highways and is Argentina’s longest national route, stretching 5000 km along the spine of the Andes Mountains between the southern and northern tips of the country. As a fun comparison, America’s famous Route 66 is roughly 4000 km long (east to west).  Outside of Argentina, awareness of RN40 likely grew because of the ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ movie which popularized Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s motorcycle trip through South America, including RN40.   Considered one of the wildest and most remote roads on the planet, RN40 crosses 27 Andean passes (as high as 5000 m), 20 national parks, and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites. Much of the route covers desolate topography with a scattering of frontier villages.  This is not an ordinary route.

I have been fascinated with RN40 for a while. However, I haven’t had the time or means to do the entire trip, which I suspect would take 4 weeks at a leisurely pace.  Instead, I am content to drive shorter portions over several visits.  My first segment was completed in 2007 when I visited Patagonia. Recently, I cruised the portion from Cafayate, Molinos, Seclantes to Cachi.  This last trip was, without exaggeration, one of the best scenic drives of my travel life. But, in Kake2Kale style, let’s talk about the food first!   Then, I will retrace our epic drive and provide a glimpse of what I discovered.

Traditional Cuisine

One would expect the food in these remote villages of the RN40 to be pretty basic. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the meals, from traditional to fusion.  Because I was craving typical dishes, I found the local specialties more interesting. Aside from the empanadas (described in the previous post, part 1), I thought the goat soup, locro, tamale and humita were all exceptionally tasty and good value! And, they included a variety of superfood ingredients.

Cachi Goat Soap kake2kale

I don’t have the statistics, but based on a visual survey I think there are more goats than cows in the northwest. And, judging from the amount of goat cheese (Queso de cabra) available, I think I’m right. Besides, the terroir is more suited for goat farming.  Because of the high altitude and cooler mountain weather, it is easy to understand why goat soups (pictured above) and stews are popular.

Cafayate Goat Stew kake2kale

Locro (pictured above) is a heartier and thicker stew that is made from corn, white beans, and potatoes.  It can include chorizo, beef, pork or goat. Or, the vegetarian options include chickpeas and pumpkin.

At first, I thought tamales and humitas were the same since they are both wrapped in corn husks and boiled.  But, they are different. There are variations of the stuffed ingredients, depending on the village or region; but, in general I found the following.  A humita is stuffed with a dough mixture of fresh corn, onion, garlic, and spices. Sometimes goat cheese is added.  It is most often wrapped in a rectangular shape with a tie in the middle (pictured below, left). On the the other hand, a tamale is stuffed with a dough of cornmeal and ground or shredded meat. Other ingredients could be boiled eggs and/or cheese.  The parcel is rounder and tied on one end or both ends (pictured below, right).

Now that the gastronomic highlights have been covered, the rest of the post is all about the beauty of the route.

tamale humita kake2kale

Wines of Cafayate

Armed with a sense of adventure and a regular rental car, with no 4×4, GPS or maps (just a few Google Map screen shots), our party of four friends set out from Salta airport and headed south (190km on a paved highway) to the high-altitude wine region of Cafayate in the Calchaquí Valley.  Although the region is not as famous as Mendoza, Cafayate’s reputation is improving.  The area is best known for the Torrontés white wine, and rarely seen canopy trellis vines. The relatively obscure Torrontés varietal is produced only in Argentina and is a genetic hybrid of two varieties – criolla and muscat of Alexandria –  brought to the country in colonial times.  As a fan of muscat grape, I enjoyed the Torrontés wines’ aromatic, fragrant and floral notes.  Sitting at an elevation of 1700 metres, I understand that grapes develop  thicker skins as protection against the intensive sunlight and radiation; hence, allowing the grapes to ripen more completely.  Besides Torrontés, other popular varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tannat and Merlot.  Most memorable and best valued wines on this trip are: i) Bodega Nanni Rosado, Syrah and Tannat Reserve, ii) Bodega Quara Malbec and Torrentes Tardio, and iii)  Bodega El Porvenir Cabernet and Malbec. Sadly, these are not readily available in Western Canada.

Cafayate 1 kake2kale

The wine region’s setting is remarkably dramatic. Situated at the edge of the Andes Mountains, the massive green vineyards are a strong contrast to an area that is largely desert-like and sparsely populated.  At its heart is the quaint and sleepy town of Cafayate.  Here, sampling the Torrontés and Malbec ice cream is a must.

From Cafayate, we picked up the RN40 and travelled north to the villages of Molinos and Cachi as overnight stays.   The route is a barely maintained gravel road (sometimes grated) that is prone to flooding because it crosses river beds of all sizes.  We decided to travel in September because it is the season between the winter melt and summer rains.  We hoped for dry weather, but knew there was a risk of the road being impassable, especially since we didn’t have a 4×4 truck.  As we set out and heard there was a storm brewing, I secretly wished we had rented the more expensive all-terrain vehicle.

Molinos and Colomé

molinos kake2kale

When driving the RN40, it really is the journey that matters and not just the destination.  The terrain along the drive between Cafayate and Molinos is surreal, particularly through the Quebrada de las Flechas (Canyon of the Arrows) around the 4308 km marker.  As far as the eye could see, jagged rock formations reached sharply into the air – like arrows – to heights of 20 metres. The strange landscape was covered with pink and ochre colours, depending on the sun’s angle during the day.  As we drove, the lunar-like topography felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie.  Believe it or not, UFO sightings are frequent in the area!

After a punishing and dusty 3-hour ride (including photo stops) that covered 116 km, we made it to Molinos.  But, we were not done.  We deviated off the RN40 and continued to drive another 24 km to Bodega Colomé on a more inferior road.  It was on this drive that I contemplated turning around. I really thought the suspension would break or the wheels would fall off with all the grinding and bumping of the car against the road. The water that crossed the road, which I mentioned in the opening, turned out to be minor.  We persevered and hoped there were no deeper streams ahead.  Luckily, there were none.  It felt like hours but it took one hour to drive 24 km. When we arrived, my first thought was – ‘why build a winery in the middle of nothing and make it so hard to get to’?

Founded in 1831, Bodega Colomé is the oldest winery in Argentina.  It was purchased and restored by the Hess family in 2001.   Of all the Hess wineries (US, South Africa and Australia) it’s their Colomé estate and wines (biodynamic) that are the most unique. With vineyards at elevations between 2300m – 3000m, Colomé is also famous for having the highest altitude wines in the world. Yes, the wines were good and we carried a 2012 Malbec (special lot, 2600 metres) back to Canada; but, the most impressive part about the winery is their amazing art museum.  The owner, Donald Hess, built and dedicated this museum to the works of James Turrell, an American artist specialising in light and space.  The James Turrell Museum opened in 2009 featuring 9 experimental installations which can only be visited by appointment and accompanied with a trained art guide from the Bodega.  On the day of our visit, there were only a dozen visitors (not surprising considering the crazy road) and six of us had the museum to ourselves.  Upon leaving, I understood why Hess rebuilt Colomé.  He, like me, appreciated the remote beauty of the area; however, I’m guessing he takes a helicopter to get there!

Cachi 2 kake2kale

Molinos (pictured above) is a tranquil and pretty town with colonial and adobe houses.  Despite its charm, Molinos felt like a ghost town with its abandoned streets.  Stranger than that, were the corner doors in buildings.  The few people we met could not shed any light on the design and a Google search turned up empty.  For now, it remains a mystery to me.

Cachi kake2kale

Seclantás and Cachi

Carrying on from Molinos, we drove along the RN40 and passed more beautiful barren landscapes on route to the village of Seclantás and the ‘artisan route’.  Both are slightly off track from the RN40 but worth the detour to visit the homes of weavers selling their beautiful goods.    The main products were hand-woven ponchos, blankets, scarfs, and shawls made from llama, vicuña or alpaca wool.

Seclantas kake2kale

Seclantas 2 kake2kale

The last town on the RN40 that we visited and stayed overnight was Cachi (2280 m).  It was the antithesis of Molinos. The streets were abuzz with people strolling, shopping or dining.  There were kids riding horses, artisans selling their wares, and families gathering at sidewalk cafes.   Tour buses filled with day visitors were part of the mix, likely because of Cachi’s proximity to Salta, and most of them were Argentinian.   Even though Cachi is livelier, it retained its primitive charm.

Cachi 3 kake2kale

The distance that we drove along and off the RN40 was only 250 km. Relative to the size of Argentina, this is a short distance.  Reflecting back, the slow speed of travel on the relentlessly bumpy road was a blessing.  The pace encouraged us to soak in the views and stay longer.   As expected, the things that amazed us were the endless big scenery, the rough road, the simple villages, traditional cuisine and the isolation.  What I didn’t expect was the silence, the beautiful silence of nothingness.  When we were leaving Cachi, someone told us that the local government had approved to pave the road.  My heart sank….when they finished paving, the silence will be lost.

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}