HEADING WEST – PROVINCIA DE SALTA

Road trip on routes 68 and 33, from Salta´s capital to the small town of Cachi, stopping at Los Cardones National Park and Payogasta.

Autor: Constanza Coll

Last time I travelled to NOA (North Western Argentina) could not make it to Cachi. I was in Cafayate and all the roads were flooded, no possible way to get there, so I had to head straight to San Salvador de Jujuy. This time, from Salta capital and during dry season, there is nothing that can stop me from heading south on 68 and west on 33, through Los Cardones National Park and Payogasta to my destination, the amazingly beautiful town of Cachi. Between the asphalt roads and my current speed, the GPS estimates that it will take me around 3 hours to make this 160 Km trip. That is because it is not taking to account the million times I will stop to take a picture, get something to eat, or just walk around the hills.

There is one reason for this NP to exist, is to protect the cacti, which grow slowly and were endangered by the exploitation of its wood. Cardones can grow up to three meters high, but only after 250 or 300 years.

Rented a car at salta´s airport, typed in “Cachi´´ on the GPS and went down National Route 68, the same route that goes to Cafayate, almost on the border with Tucuman. I learned to drive as an adult, so now I try to make the most of every road trip I take. It is different when you are behind the wheel: the landscapes pass form windshield to mirrors, all you can do is concentrate on the road, open your eyes as big as you can and let the horizon come. On the roundabout of “El Carril´´ I take the westbound exit to Provincial Route 33. There is another 65 Km to the Los Cardones National Park entrance.

Created in 1996, the park extends for over 64.000 hectares, with very diverse regions such as “bolsones´´, where the famous“cardones´´ grow, mountain peaks, smooth hills, puna, and even pastures from the Yungas. The weather its mostly arid, with a huge thermal difference caused by the high altitudes, for this reason the best time to visit it is during the dry or intermediate season.

In addition to the cactuses (Trichocereus pasacana) that give the park its name, this is the house of scrubby bushes, all kinds of cactus and Amancay Flowers, gray and red foxes, guanacos, condors, Andean snakes and Stone Flickers (carpintero de las piedras), emblematic bird park. However, if there is one reason for this NP to exist, is to protect the cacti, which grow slowly and were endangered by the exploitation of its wood. Cardones can grow up to three meters high, but only after 250 or 300 years.

The car makes an extra effort to climb to the highest point in this journey, the Stone Mill, with a natural balcony at 3,348 meters altitude. On the stretch wrap, there is a group of artisans who come every morning from Cachi to sell carvings and pendants made with local stones, ponchos and blankets woven in Telar Criollo (criollo loom), and small cactus in hand-painted pots. From up there, I look at the closed curves and counter curves that I have left behind, and those that come ahead, downhill by Cuesta del Obispo (bishop´s hill). It seems i´ll get to Payogasta by lunchtime, there will be another 45 kilometers between the hills and the Tin Tin straight, which according to anthropologists, is part of the ancient Inca roads. You can see the Tin Tin and the Black hill on the sides of the road, and the Nevado de Cachi straight ahead, with its 6,380 meters peak.

The Tin Tin straight ends at the cross of routes 33 and 40. I stop for a couple of tamales in the small center of Payogasta, and continue going south for another ten kilometers to the town of Cachi. With a population of 7280 people according to the last census (2010), colonial style houses and a church with “Cardon´´ wood ceilings and altars, dating from the sixteenth century, the oldest part of Cachi was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975. It’s five o’clock and I’ve finally arrived. After just a while, the sun begins to fall and the yellow lights that illuminate the adobe houses, the square and the church entrance are on. If there were no electricity and those lamps burned kerosene, i might well believe that it’s actually the 1800s.

From the Jorge Newbery Airport, there are many nonstop daily flights to Salta Capital, by Aerolineas Argentinas, Lan and Andes Airlines. In Salta airport there are several car rental companies that offer daily rates starting at AR$ 900.

Opens every day of the year, from 9:30 AM to 6 PM. Admission is free and open to everyone, but does not offer any services. The closest Hotels, restaurants and service stations are in the villages of Payogasta and Cachi (www.parquesnacionales.gob.ar).

45 kilometers from the entrance to the PN Los Cardones, on Route 40 in the kilometer 4509, Sala de Payogasta has a northern cuisine restaurant on one side of the road, and a boutique hotel with a mountain spa on the other. They have humitas, empanadas, casseroles and desserts with goat cheese, cayote and walnut (Check average AR$ 170, double bedrooms from AR$ 800, www.saladepayogasta.com).

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