Less than an hour from Cafayate, just across the border of the Tucumán province, are the remnants of an indigenous civilization called Quilmes. Part of the regional Diaguita/Calchaquí culture, the Quilmes came under Incan influence in the 15th century and then fiercely resisted the Spaniards before falling to them in 1667. At its height, in the early 17th century, the Quilmes tribe numbered nearly 5,000. In the ruin's small museum, we examined arrowheads and pottery shards; outside we scrambled over rock walls and peered into the stone houses built into the cliffs. The sun was high and hot, and to reach the shrines atop the village's tallest peaks, we had to hike straight up a trail for 20 minutes. From our perch we could see additional ruins, hidden by brush, that had clearly not yet been restored.
Driving south on Ruta 40 the next day, we cruised for hours through the high desert on an arrow-straight paved stretch of highway. Our destination was Talampaya, an under-visited national park sometimes referred to as Argentina's Grand Canyon. It was here—a place of towering red cliffs and 2,000-year-old petroglyphs etched in black by indigenous nomads—that we were tipped off by some locals to what would be our best meal in Argentina. Our new friends drew up a crude map that, if I was picking up their high-speed Spanish correctly, would lead us to the best goat around.
And that is how we found ourselves at La Palmera, a clay-floored restaurant with puma and wolverine skins on the walls that has no menu and serves just one dish: chivito, baby goat, a tantalizingly tender meat cooked a la parrilla in a kitchen that is open to the elements. Our waiter, a 60-year-old with a huge smile, brought serving after serving, piled on a single plate that he refilled and dropped in the center of the table until we couldn't eat any more. Unlike adult goat, chivito is not gamy but has a rich, buttery flavor reminiscent of suckling pig. During the course of this authentic Argentinean feast—10 platters of chivito—silverware was never offered, and we did our best to clean off our hands with the thin, waxy paper napkins you ﬁnd throughout Argentina. It hardly mattered. Sometimes the most memorable meals are the ones that you happen upon.
Three bottles of local Malbec, three empanadas, three salads, three creamy flans and untold baskets of fresh bread later, we stumbled out having spent just $30. As we left, we danced with the handful of other patrons, posed for photos under the wolverine skins, and bought a dozen beef empanadas for the next day's car snacks. The waiter also gave us three small bottles of red wine with which to chase them down. Fortunately we had no driving ahead of us—our hotel was a few hundred yards away.
The very charm of a road trip is in its unpredictability. And so, sometime after lunch on day four, we made a spur-of-the-moment detour. Hanging a right off a long stretch of smooth pavement, we headed directly toward the Andean cordillera on Ruta 436. The road pointed straight at the massive peaks, which were almost completely covered in snow, and pitched into a narrow sliver between two of them. There it followed a dry river and climbed steadily upward.
Barreal is a small mountain town in the Calingasta Valley that sits in the shadow of the Andean peaks Aconcagua and Mercedario. A farming town known for its garlic, onions, lavender, and anise, it has forests, lush fields of green, and air that smells of licorice. After more than three days' driving through the red and brown semiarid deserts of northwestern Argentina, it was as if we'd opened a portal into another world. In Barreal, life was flourishing.
Posada San Eduardo, a smartly restored 19th-century farmhouse, is owned by Ricardo Zunino, a former Formula One race-car driver. When we pulled into the driveway, Zunino emerged wearing boots, a full-brimmed hat, and a quilted shirt. A cat and two dogs trotted out behind him; birds chirped from the nearby apple orchards. After inheriting the property from his parents, Zunino gave up the fast life in Europe and retired to Barreal to tend to his horses. It's not hard to see why he chose to stay.
"Here," he said, gesturing at the tiled patio and a small brick building, "is where we serve breakfast in the morning. If you like, you can also ride horses. Make yourself at home."
Maria, the resident cook, housekeeper, and hostess, lit fires in our rooms' adobe fireplaces, and we settled on the patio for some dinner. Zunino appeared with a bottle of Colón Malbec from Mendoza and pointed out the moon and two extremely bright stars that turned out not to be stars at all. Jupiter and Venus were in perfect alignment with the moon, something that happens only once every 28 years. The skies here are so clear that two major observatories have been built in the hills looming over Barreal to the east.