NORTHWEST ARGENTINA: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE ARGENTINE COWBOYS, GAUCHOS SALTEÑOS
BY: MICHNUS OLIVIER :: PIKIPIKI OVERLAND
RAINBOW COLOURED MOUNTAINS, OFFROAD PARADISE AND OCHRE DESERTS WHERE LLAMAS ROAM
What would have been a quick loop into a desert area at the foot of the Andes Mountain range, visiting dusty desert towns, seeing some snow-capped volcanoes, salt flats and other worldly coloured landscapes, turned into a month-long exploration and search for the authentic Argentine gauchos.
It was a bitterly cold day as we crossed over from Chile into Argentina at a border crossing called Pasa Jama on 4200m (13800ft). Howling winds blew the snot out of our noses pushing our bikes all over the road.
Our first night was spent in a small roadside hotel where the owner asked us the usual questions: where are we from, where are we going and such, except this time, the owner was a prolific talker with an abundance of valuable information flowing faster than we could keep up trying to remember. The burly man made himself comfortable at our table in the resto-bar, his English proficient enough that we could have a decent conversation. Unfortunately, our Spanish is still limited to asking for beer, and more beer, please.
“Do you know the Gaucho celebration festival will be in Salta next month?” he asked.
He continued to explain, the gaucho is a legendary folklore figure who looks like he has ridden his horse straight out of a western cowboy movie and into real life. These nomadic Argentine cowboys traditionally used to look after herds of cattle which roamed the country’s haciendas (farms). They wear distinctive red ponchos, leather boots and embroidered tights and the horses have these cow hide flares for leg protection against the cold. Every year around June the 17th, the city of Salta dresses up to pay tribute to its most illustrious citizens. The festival is a weekend of parades and BBQ parties.
These are the gauchos of Güemes and they celebrate the memory of their beloved commander, Martín Miguel de Güemes. He was a true hero of Argentina, born February 8, 1785. He fought for their national independence and is a big part of the fact that the Argentine national flag flies today.
Nevertheless, the man continued with a smile on his face, “there is not much time for you to hit all the dirt roads and towns and then some of the most scenic landscapes in all South America.” He circled more places on our map for us that he considered must-sees.
The generosity of locals has in the past lead us to see unforgettable places we would not otherwise ever discover. Google will only help so much, but when you want to see places not many tourists ever venture to, then speak to locals.
His scribbles on the map looked like a case of measles with all the dots we had to try and visit. Strangely, when we did some research and checked the feeds on social media, we did not get the idea that travelers were spending much time in this area, hence, the reason we initially timed about a week or two for the area. Now it dawned on us, either people are chasing down or up hitting Ruta 40 to say been-there-done-that or there is really nothing special to see. In any case, we decided to route a basic plan and if there was more to experience we would add to that route. We chucked back a few more beers with our new friend, before heading to our room.
Part of the route plan was to explore portions of Ruta 40 and the quaint villages along the route. Especially towns like Cafayte which is bang in the wine region. The legendary Ruta 40 or National Route 40 is the longest in Argentina and one of the world’s greatest riding adventures. It covers the length of the country from north to south, parallel to the Andes mountains, from La Quiaca, on the Bolivian border, to Cabo Vírgenes, in Santa Cruz province, the southernmost point in the continental territory of Argentina. The route covers more than 5200Km (3231ml) crossing 11 provinces, 20 Reserves and National Parks, 13 big lakes and salt mines, 126 bridges and 26 mountain passes, reaching a maximum altitude of 5000mt(17000ft) above sea level. But, not the entire route is that exciting and we skipped parts to go ride through the mountains instead on old dirt roads.
We stuck to dirt roads as much as possible in this sparsely populated region. It is for sure a dirt road, off-road utopia. Most roads are in good condition, hard packed but as always with interesting bits of sand, washboard, rocks, sandy middle ridges, and fast sweepers to keep eyes focused and the fun level close to a 10. Throw in the mountain passes and some serious advenduro back country single tracks and you have the makings of a life changing memorable trip.
You are on your own, make a mistake and there is no quick salvage. Which makes the riding so much more prickling.
On our way out the next day our route took us straight through the biggest Salt Lake aka Salinas Grandes in Argentina. This incredible expanse of salt is only 180m (590ft) above sea level and the 3rd largest in the world. We made a quick stop, and when we were told we were not allowed to ride alone on the Salt Lake, we decided to hit the road to Seclantes as it was still quite a distance.
Seclantes, a small village nestled next to Ruta 40 about a 160km south of Salta, is where we had a date with a South African and German couple who started an overland oasis for travellers. Johan and Martina, both seasoned motorcycle overlanders loved the area and Argentina so much they bought an undeveloped small farm outside of Seclantes. With the help of “work-away” travellers they constructed a beautiful small colorful hut with an open kitchen to the side, all unplugged and off the grid. On an open field with a small vineyard you find space to pitch tents.
It is the perfect place to source more information on what to see and where to go. In addition to kicking off the riding boots for a few days we enjoyed their incredible hospitality. They are famous for the best clay oven pizzas in all of South America. In the evenings we would stay up late watching the Milky way drift above while discussing route options and sucking on local beers.
To get the best of the area we headed straight back north near the Bolivian border and Abra del Acay, the highest point in Argentina’s Ruta 40 at 4972m (16000ft). It is a dirt road and a load of fun to ride. In wet season it can turn into a monster and nearly unrideable. In winter it is just bloody bitter cold. Mostly at altitude and being a desert area there is not much except cacti and short grass, but the multicolored rolling hills and mountains makes for spectacular scenic views.
On our return loop we headed towards Iruya, another small village of a thousand people. The picturesque town is situated along the Iruya River nestled within a dramatic mountainous Altiplano landscape. It is a place where Condors roam, and as you descend into town a feeling of riding into a world where time stopped. The town’s church, Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Rosario y San Roque, was built in 1690. It is smack bang in a canyon and there is only one dirt road in and out. When it rains no one goes in or out.
The dirt road includes switchbacks and hairpin turns with dangerous drop-offs. In many places the road is bordered by cliffs of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet), crossing several rivers and tops out at Abra Del Cóndor, a high mountain pass at an elevation of 3942m (12,933ft). The road then suddenly descends into town, riding into the riverbed and up another canyon to the village of San Isidiro.
Exploring the area feels like being a kid on an Easter egg hunt. Riding the best engaging dirt roads just to find a new eye-popping unfathomable beautiful place.
It is not just the rocks-capes, rainbow coloured and flaming red mountains, the ochre deserts where llamas roam, the charcoal-grey lava flows, the break of dawn, the sunsets, the pureness of the air, the enormous silences, the sooty-black volcanic cones, the quaint towns with their colorful plazas and pristine lime-washed colonial chapels set against striped mountainsides. Most importantly also it is the friendliness and warmheartedness of its people.
Johan has sent us a message to confirm the Gaucho festival is a go, we better book a place in Salta and get there soon. On our way to Salta we stopped at the Cerro Hornocal, the 14-coloured mountains which is a spectacle of pastel colors painted on a mountain range. This is even more impressive than the rainbow mountains in Peru.
We rode into Salta on the Friday with Gauchos in tow just in time for the festival. Friday evening huge bonfires sent smoke signals, it was a hoedown, a tertulia of mass proportions. Gauchos in their traditional clothes gathered around fires with their horses to start the guarding of the monument for the night. Women dressed up with wide brim hats finishing off the tradition.
On Saturday the official parade started around 3pm. Thousands of participants, colorfully dressed, marched through the streets with nearly 2000 gauchos on horseback to follow. They love their horses, the tradition and the socialness of it all.
Strikingly, there was not much police control, or authorities hampering the happiness of people. Yes, it is controlled chaos, but I could shoot photos without hindrance, people could do what they please. That freedom was felt throughout the northern part of Argentina. It is a place where authenticity, the feeling of freedom and living off the land, is held close to the heart. I can probably write a book just on this region alone.
For a few days after we stayed in the Cafayate, where probably some of the very best wine in Argentina, if not the world, is produced by small bodegas. The desert lifestyle lends a certain laid-back charm to Cafayate with its family-owned stores and bustling restaurants around the plaza.
Very few places we have traveled gripped us by the heart as did this region.