Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Cafayate

October 23, 2015

In 3 words: Intimate, proud, dry

(Warning: This isn't exactly a 'snapshot'. I had so much to share about this little gem that I've broken it out into a couple of chapters...)

Intro to Cafayate
Frankly, I can't remember how I heard about Cafayate or why I landed there. Perhaps because it was a convenient stop between Tilcara and where I was really excited to go for some wine - Mendoza. Cafayate is a wine town as well, but is quite small and therefore lives in the shadow of Mendoza. But I have to say - I liked Cafayate 100 times more. It has everything to do with my experience there and the locals that welcomed me like family.

One of my rules when traveling solo is never to arrive in a new place after dark, purely for safety reasons. But I made an exception with Cafayate to arrive at 11pm, knowing it was a small town, not overly touristy and that my place was just 3 blocks away from the bus station. I got off the bus and immediately walked past 3 young kids playing on their front step in the street. Did I mention it was 11pm? I had made a fine choice.

The next morning I took a walk, as I typically do to get a feel for the town, attempt to get my bearings in terms of where I am, and take some pics. It is a relatively quiet town and what was immediately evident was the intimacy and feeling of community. They were also incredibly chatty to the girl with the camera trying her hardest not to stand out.
"Where are you from?"
"How long are you visiting us?"
"Do you like 'my' Cafayate?"

That first afternoon was the highlight of my Cafayate visit, as I helped to break ground in a town yet to be built. (See Personal Highlight below!) The fun continued late into the night, as I went to a bodega called Nanni for some wine and empanadas with the owner of my hostel, Walter, and his friend, Guampe, whose family owns the winery. The wine was amazing, and I learned when I received a tour later in the week, that all of their wine was organic...even down to the corks.

The following day, Walter invited me over to his house for a Sunday asado (BBQ), where I met his wife and kids. Guampe joined as well. There was a lot of meat, bread, and thankfully - salad. Asados are a typical weekend affair for family and friends, so of course I felt lucky to be a part of something so intimate. I tried to keep up with the conversation, with Walter translating for me through most of it. They all had fun practicing their English, including Walter's 7 year old daughter!

That night in the town square, there was a celebration for the start of spring. All of the high school kids build and decorate elaborate floats and make a short trek around the town plaza to show off their creativity. It was quite impressive. In typical Argentinian style, it was set to start at 9 but really began at 10. I think every family in Cafayate was out for the event - babies and all. The celebration went on past midnight and all of the kids outlasted me!

Cafayate is super, super dry. Before I got my hand on some more oil, I felt like a snake shedding a layer of skin. Literally, when I smiled I felt like my face was cracking open. There was one day that the wind was ridiculous. And in an unpaved town, it makes it nearly impossible to walk around, unless you want every orifice of your body filled with sand. I stayed in that day and Walter gave me Spanish lessons over some wine - the best way to learn, of course.

The following days were filled with wine tours, hiking, a bike ride and more asados. I was having such an amazing time that I extended my stay a few days.

The last day, I rented a bike and toured more of the bodegas. When I returned, Walter and his wife were at the hostel with some friends and we decided that an asado was in order to celebrate my last night. So we went to the market together and I put together one of my famous salads while Walter worked the grill. That night, we had lots of laughs, lots of wine and I learned tango and some other Argentinian dances to top it off!

The hikes
The first hike was a four hour trek to Cascadas del Rio Colorado, local waterfalls, which I did with two French girls from my hostal. It was a true game of operator...check this out: our guide spoke Spanish; one of the girls spoke Spanish and French; the other spoke French and English; and then there's me who needs the English version. It was pretty impressive that we made it work given the language barriers. I was catching about 10% of the Spanish and 10% of the French. We had lots of laughs and at times it felt like a game of charades! It was a great climb with lots of bouldering and other challenging maneuvers through the rocks.

Another day, I went to Quebrada de las Conchas with Walter and a group of Argentinian girls. A stretch of mountains, richly colored sandstone, gorges, and crazy rock formations including another Garganta Del Diablo, where I got to do some bouldering; and an amphitheater, where we got to listen to a local was playing some hauntingly beautiful indigenous music. 

Personal highlight:

When I returned to the hostel late afternoon on my first full day there, I met Walter and chatted with him for a bit. Walter spoke English fairly well and told me that he was going to help the locals set up a "market". He asked if I wanted to join him and his friend, saying that I could either help or just read a book or go for a walk around the area. I thought, why not, I like markets and I can certainly help lay out whatever they are selling. So I jumped in the car with him and his friend, Guampe and his 3 dogs, and headed about 15-20 minutes out of town on a dirt road.

Turns out, Walter's English vocabulary isn't exactly 100%. I think instead of "market", he meant to say "town". He was helping to build a town. Literally.

Apparently, most of the bodegas in Cafayate have been bought out by Italian, French and American wineries, so profits from tourism are now leaving the town. (The wineries are also using all of the water and leaving the town deprived.) The locals have approached the government with ideas, plans and requests to help them build shops, restaurants and other things to benefit from the tourism that the wineries are bringing in - to no avail.

That said, the locals decided to take matters into their own hands. In an adjacent town called San Luis, the locals have started clearing land on their own - self-funded - in order to start building something from the ground up.

So there I was - in the middle of a bunch of land, surrounded by a stream and mountains. Walter pointed to a dirt road that would be good for a walk, to check out what they have built to date. So I took off while they went to work chopping down trees and clearing brush for where the new town center was going to be.

When I returned an hour or so later, I think they expected me to sit down and read a book. But no way I was missing out on this. I asked how I could help, and Walter handed me some sort of tool. It was there that I learned how to prune trees - maxi dress and all.

I was helping to shape the future town plaza!

I worked for about 90 minutes when a local showed up and started talking to Walter and Guampe. Turns out, the wineries are trying to claim the land to expand their vineyards. And the government apparently "doesn't have" any of the paperwork that proves the locals own the property. It sounds like a big old mess and Walter believes that the government will support the wineries given they have the deep pockets. The sun was going down, so we left; Walter and Guampe feeling frustrated that all of the work that has gone into the town to date could be for naught. (Update: Walter tells me the locals are still fighting and continue to build up the land.)

It was amazing to contribute to something so important to the people of Cafayate, even if it was just snipping some branches for a couple of hours. When I get back to visit someday, I hope San Luis will be there in all its glory and that the locals who welcomed me with open arms are benefiting from all of their hard work!

Coffee: No good coffee to report of in Cafayate. I am giving them a pass  because the wine was so good.
Wine (I thought it was important to add this category, given I was in wine country): I tasted a grape I had never heard of before called Tannat. Typically considered an unbalanced wine given the overwhelming tannins, I found one that I loved and it even beat out the Malbec for me.
First choice red: Bodega Nanni, Tannat Reserve. 
Runner-up red: Quara Malbec
I don't have much to report for my white wine friends, as I don't typically enjoy white. However, I was introduced to Torrentes (by Nanni) and I have to say...I could definitely sip a glass of this on a hot summer day, as it is fairly dry and not sweet and fruity.
Bodega Nanni is family-run, all organic and one of the oldest in the region. And they are just really good peeps! (Full disclosure: that may have influenced my taste buds.)
Food: I did not eat out much here. I was either being fed or cooking at the hostel. 
Accommodation: Rusty-K - highly, highly recommended.

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  • Reply Carrie November 6, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    It is a quiet morning in my kitchen and I am sipping coffee and enjoying your story. My favorite part is that you were able to extend your stay because you haven’t over scheduled you plans. Being a part of San Luis history, regardless of how it turns out, will stay with you forever. What a profound experience to be a part of! And the maxi dress makes it even better.

    • Reply Nicole Renee November 6, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      Haha, I know – a bit overdressed for pruning trees 🙂

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