Few have heard of Cafayate. Most tourists are rushing around the entire South American continent trying to tick off the big highlights with their equally big backpacks in tow. Even those enjoying a fortnight’s holiday in Argentina look at you blankly.
But the locals clap their hands, their eyes light up, and they tell you that Cafayate is their favourite place. After travelling around the world’s eighth biggest country for three weeks for our maxi moon (the mini moon was in Rome last year), my new husband and I are inclined to agree. Cafayate is just wonderful.
We flew from Buenos Aires to Salta, a run-down colonial city in the north-west. From there we drove three hours south via the tortured landscape of the Quebrada de Cafayate. This spectacularly scenic route is not to be missed. The valley is at its best in the late afternoon – sandstone in dusty reds and browns and then vivid pink, majestic mountains and epic caves. Your mouth will be open at the wonders, camera at the ready, for the entire journey.
Cafayate is a town known for its wine – it is second only to Mendoza in terms of quality wine production in Argentina. About 12,000 people live here, and yes, there are hotels, and there are tourists, but it still feels suitably off the beaten track and tranquil – but with enough restaurants, bars and buzz in the evening to keep you entertained each evening.
Grace Cafayate is situated just outside the town and was our home for three nights. The boutique hotel is set in an exclusive 1,360 acre estate full of vineyards, small clusters of posh villas owned by the rich and famous, a golf course, several polo fields, spa, and lots more. Whichever way you look, the backdrop is the same – those stunning mountains in the Calchaqui Valleyand that big, big sky.
The hotel is simple and elegant: neutral tones and smiling hospitality (Kateryna from Ukraine was a brilliant host). Nothing to detract from the scenery outside. Huge windows in your luxurious bedroom and bathroom show off the peaceful estate beyond.
We tested the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant on our first night – Muse by Jonathan Cartwright. In Argentina, your diet can quickly become repetitive, revolving around ham, cheese and dulce de leche during the day, and red meat and red wine in the evening. The steaks are invariably amazing wherever you go across the country, but the contemporary fusion of European and Argentinean at Muse is a welcome treat. We eagerly consume slow-cooked lamb with gnocchi and fillet of beef in paprika puff pastry. My husband ordering llama carpaccio – and then looking rather sad as he peered at his plate – did almost threaten to de-rail our romantic dinner though. Four courses cost just AR$290 (about £21).
And so to the vineyards on our first full day. Cafayate is famous for its Torrontes, a dry aromatic white wine. There are also some fine Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons made here, but in 30 degree heat, you will be thankful for that cold, refreshing Torrontes. Piattelli and El Esteco are picturesque wineries worth visiting, affording you an insight into the history and technical processes of wine-making, a wander around the vines and of course lots of samples.
We had sacrificed Iguazu Falls (the famous waterfalls on the border with Brazil) in our bid to create a manageable three-week itinerary. (In case you’re interested, we did BA, Cafayate, Bariloche, Puerto Madryn and El Calafate.) But never fear, Cafayate had a spectacular waterfall – with NO TOURISTS – all of its own. The Cascadas del Rio Colorado are actually five waterfalls. We hired a local guide who spoke no English (although we did manage to converse a bit though mime and our limited Spanish: we learnt he had four children, we acted out ‘engineer’ and ‘journalist’ when he pointed and said ‘job?’, and I quickly realised ‘mano!’ meant ‘hand’ whenever he held out his hand to me). The climb was exhausting and challenging. On more than one occasion the guide had to grab my arms and literally pull me up onto a cliff. Other times he pushed my bottom up when I struggled to get my stumpy little legs onto high-up rocks, and at one point he formed a human bridge between two huge boulders (with a sheer drop below) so I could quickly press one foot onto him as I gasped and leapt over.
But it was all worth it. A wonderful way to burn off those wine and steak calories, and take in a new breath-taking view, this time dotted with cacti.
Have I convinced you yet to visit Cafayate? Put it on your 2015 wish list. Mountains, wine, waterfall, fine food… you really don’t need to go anywhere else in Argentina. The only sour note was tasting helado de Torrontes. Make sure you stick to dulce de leche ice-cream and Torrontes in a wine glass, and you won’t go wrong.
Prices start at Grace Cafayate from $345 a night in a deluxe room, including a champagne breakfast. For more information and to book, visit www.gracehotels.com.