Isolation and Empanadas in the Desert of Northern Argentina
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

In the northern Salta Province of Argentina, a dirt road journey into the desert leads to a sparsely populated land of canyons and beehive ovens.

Salta hiking

Our vehicle bumps over rocks and takes quick turns in succession on our way to Acsibi Caves. The road we are on changes every year: it’s the bottom of a riverbed. When we jump out an hour later, after being bounced and battered for an hour, climbing rocks and rappelling sounds like a welcome change. 

The further we get into the canyon, the more intense the scenery becomes, the rocks glowing bright red and the sky a deep blue against it. Just as we’re starting to feel badass after hiking a few miles and traversing rickety wood ladders over a two-hour period, we exit the caves and find a spread of food. As the cork on the bottle of Malbec pops, we sit and enjoy the majesty of a place that’s a few days’ walk from the closest store.

Salta through the canyon

The trip didn’t start out this isolated. When you just make the trip from the city of Salta to Cafayate in Northern Argentina, you are seldom alone. Although it’s not an overly busy road, the stopping points get their share of buses and cars. Families, lovers, and busloads of tourists gape at The Amphitheater and The Devil’s Throat. These stupendous rock formations would be tourist draws in their own right in most countries. Here they’re just a place to pull over along one of South America’s most stunning drives—the Quebrada de las Conchas.

At the end of the blacktop road is a small city, one of the size where you can cover most of it by bicycle. The streets feel like they’re rolling up behind you as you leave one of the open restaurants at night. Cafayate is the epicenter of one of the premier wine regions in the Americas though, the vineyard center for the distinctive Torrontes white wine that thrives here but in few other spots.

cafayate winery

Most visitors only have one direction to go after they’ve come here. Whether visiting on a too-short day trip or in for a night or two, they usually turn around and go back the way they came. For us though, this town is just the gateway. Where the blacktop ends, the adventure begins. As our four-wheel drive trucks with two rows of seats head into the vast desert, a plume of dust rises up behind us and we say goodbye to pavement for days.

A Drive Through the Desert

When we want to stop and take a photo on this road toward Cachi, our guide and driver doesn’t even bother to pull off the road. This is marked as a national highway, but there’s little traffic on this dusty line through the desert. As far as we can see on both sides are rock formations that rose up from some violent geological clash before any animals walked this planet. Beyond those are dry plains and mountains, sunbaked crevices and the occasional small farm where hardy souls try to scratch out a living from the meager land. They’re clearly the types who don’t want a lot of company. It can be a half hour driving along before we see another sign of habitation.

desert landscape outside Cafayate in Salta Province, Argentina

Layers of strata point to uplifts in the Earth’s crust over time, while more recent shifts are jagged points that look to be standing ready for battle. In this “Canyon of the Arrows,” it’s hard to decide which way to point the camera.

Just looking into the glare makes me instinctively reach for my water bottle and I can feel the skin on my face tightening more with every hour we go deeper into this inhospitable atmosphere. Soon the monotony of browns and reds breaks, however, and we enter a town and walk into an open courtyard with restaurant tables under trees. Here at Casa de Campo La Paya we eat what comes naturally here: local cheese, sausages, olives, and of course big platters of empanadas.


Back on the road we roll through more canyons and mountain landscapes, with occasional villages punctuating the dusty brown. The soda and snack food signs outside the convenience stores provide the artificial splashes of color.

We pull off the main road and climb a hillside to a “village” that’s basically ten houses and a church. The husband and wife who own the guesthouse greet us in their living room beside a glowing fireplace and show us to our rooms. They light up the wood in a beehive oven outside that has had the same design for more than a thousand years.

hiking the Valley of the Acsibi Caves in Salta Province, Argentina

In the evening, the hosts serve us some of their rough but welcome homemade wine and what we are realizing is the default meal of choice in this region: beef empanadas. Here they’re very hot, straight out of the oven, and we’re told to shake them before the first bite to distribute the hot juices inside.

We ask our guide and driver Gastón, who lives in the city, about asado barbeque traditions in Argentina. “When we are having relatives or friends over,” he says, “we normally buy one kilo of beef per person to be safe.” He pauses a bit and adds, “But we usually eat empanadas or something like that while the beef is cooking on the grill.”

We set out the next morning for the Valley of the Caves, exploring a cactus field with a mountain backdrop before descending into the valley and driving along that riverbed to our destination. In the USA or Canada this valley and cave system would be a major tourist attraction, a marquis national park or monument. Here the whole vast area is private property, in the same family for generations. The patriarch Fido Aban serves as our guide. He discovered the caves here when he was eight years old as a curious child and now it’s hard to determine his age. He has a grown son running the hostel operation and helping with the cattle farming, but Fido looks more fit than we do. He takes on the ladders and rappelling ropes like a man who has done this a thousand times—as he probably has.

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Read this article online at: Isolation and Empanadas in the Desert of Northern Argentina

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