DAY ONE Salta City to Cachi, north Calchaquíes Valley
DISTANCE 98 miles (allow 3 to 4 hours)
Head southwest out of Salta to the Cuesta del Obispo Pass, a dramatic 12½-mile-long cliff-edge dirt road over the rippling Obispo Mountains that peaks among the condors and giant cacti of Los Cardones National Park. The first town, on the banks of the Calchaquíes River, is Cachi, a dusty settlement straight out of a Peckinpah western. Gauchos and mestizo women walk the streets; a bell tolls in the cactus-wood 18th-century church on the square. There are fancier places to stay in Cachi than La Paya (Camino a Molinos; 54-3868/491-139; www.casadecampolapaya.com.ar; doubles from $35), but none are as authentic as this working ranch five miles outside of town. A rambling Spanish-style farmhouse, with a wraparound porch and swimming pool, looks out on a river valley framed by the Nevado del Cachi Mountains. You can hike to Inca ruins in the hills, or pay a visit to the property’s old whitewashed chapel. Head into Cachi for a beer and an empanada at the delightful Oliver Café (160 Ruiz de los Llanos; 54-3868/491-052), run by local tour operator and sometime politician Martin Oliver.
DAY TWO Cachi to Cafayate, south Calchaquíes Valley
DISTANCE 102 miles (allow 3 to 4 hours)
Set off down the Calchaquíes Valley after breakfast. Cactus-dotted scrubland and desolate gray moonscapes mutate into red-rock cliffs; one-horse colonial towns fly by. Don’t miss the restored 18th-century adobe church in Molinos, or an espresso on San Carlos’s sleepy town square. Soon, desert gives way to vineyards set under shimmering blue mountains: Cafayate is the center of high-altitude viticulture in Argentina. Stop for tastings at Finca las Nubes (El Cajón Hill; 54-3868/422-129), a boutique winery close to town, and at Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya (Km 8, Rte. 40; 54-3868/421-233), where winemaker Michel Rolland has created superb Malbec and Cabernet blends. Stay at Patios de Cafayate (Rte. 40 at Rte. 68; 54-3868/421-201; www.starwoodhotels.com; doubles from $299), a 19th-century Spanish-colonial boutique hotel and wine spa on the El Esteco winery, near town. Relax on the tiled patio with a glass of aromatic white, then dine on cabrito (goat) at El Rancho (4 Vicario Toscano; 54-3868/421-256), in town.
DAY THREE Cafayate to Salta City
DISTANCE 115 miles (allow 3 hours)
Just outside Cafayate, the limestone hills morph into the Quebrada de Cafayate—a spectacular swirl of ocher-colored arches and canyons. The road then levels out as it nears Salta City, founded in 1582 and the most beautifully preserved colonial city in Argentina. You could stay at one of the boutique estancias, such as actor Robert Duvall’s plush House of Jasmines (Km 11, Rte. 51; 54-387/497-2002; www.houseofjasmines.com; doubles from $125), or the Solar de la Plaza (669 J. M. Lequizamón; 4-387/ 431-5111; www.solardelaplaza.com.ar; doubles from $145), an elegant hotel in the heart of the city. It’s a five-minute walk to the Plaza 9 de Julio, where locals mingle on packed terrace cafés; try Van Gogh (502 España; 54-387/431-4659), and take in the view of Salta Cathedral. The striking red-and-gold Baroque San Francisco Church, built in 1625, is two blocks east on Caseros Street, where you’ll also find the best restaurant in town: El Solar del Convento (444 Caseros; 54-387/421-5124) serves a complimentary glass of bubbly before you order your steak.
Destination Salta Province, northwest Argentina
Start/End Salta City
Total Distance 320 miles
Trip Length Three days
Car Rental Europcar, Salta Airport (54-387/421-8848; www.europcar.com)
When to GoFall or winter (Argentina’s spring and summer).
Maps Europcar or the Salta tourist office (93 Buenos Aires; 54-387/431-0950; www.turismosalta.gov.ar) will both be able to give you road and city maps.
Reading The Rough Guide to Argentina ($25.99)