Los Valles Calchaquíes

Dramatic, constantly changing and stunningly beautiful, the Valles Calchaquíes are perhaps the most captivating part of Salta province. The river Calchaquí springs 5000 m up on the slopes of the Nevado de Acay, just south of San Antonio de los Cobres, and flows, via a series of timeless oasis villages through a spectacularly long and broad valley, to Cafayate and beyond. The first village is La Poma, set in wide open red rocky land, but you're more likely to start exploring at the pretty town of Cachi, reached from Salta by a breathtaking drive up the Cuesta del Obispo and through the giant cactus park, Parque Nacional los Cardones. Cachi is set against the massive range of the Nevado de Cachi mountains, with a hidden valley, Cachi Adentro, irrigated since pre-Inca times to produce the bright red peppers which you'll see drying in the sun in April. Head south from Cachi, and there are unspoilt villages dotted along the valley: Seclantás, with its poncho weavers, Molinos, with its lovely church and Bodega Colomé to the west, Angastaco and San Carlos, all reached by the rough ripioRuta 40. There are extraordinary rock formations at Quebrada de las Flechas, just north of the more established wine-growing centre of Cafayate. South of here, the valley and Ruta 40 continues to heavenly Santa María (Catamarca) and Amaichá del Valle . The sun shines here all year, and there is minimal rainfall, making it perfect to visit in the winter. 

Background

The whole vast Calchaquí Valley was densely populated in pre-Hispanic times, by sophisticated peoples who built stone dwellings in large organized 'cities', the impressive remains of which you can see still at Las Pailas near Cachi, and at Quilmes further south. Much archaeological work has yet to be done to establish more detail about their daily lives, and there are currently digs at Las Pailas and La Borgata, near Cachi Adentro. Often referred to as 'Diaguitan', the Diaguita were just one of several tribes in the valley. They left a rich legacy of ceramics, which you can see today in all the small museums throughout the region. From beautifully painted urns made to contain the bodies of their dead children, to simple cooking pots and glazed black polished vessels, these artefacts speak of sophisticated peoples with a high degree of social organization.

After the defeat of the indigenous population in the Calchaquí Wars, the Spanish established missions and haciendasin the valley, which were run along feudal principles - some until as recently as the 1980s. During the colonial period the valley prospered, providing pasturage for mules and herds of cattle en route to the mountain passes into Chile and Alto Perú (Bolivia). After independence, lower parts of the valley became the primary wheat-growing and wine-producing area for Salta city, but the local economy declined in the late 19th century when the railway brought cheap wheat from the pampas and wine from Mendoza. Salta's endemic racism and the feudal legacy has meant that the indigenous people in the valley are only recently coming to value their own cultural inheritance. Rather than taking a commercial group tour from Salta, seek out local guides who will tell you about their fascinating history.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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