Drive The High Desert Acid Trip Highway

With the Southern Hemisphere fall on and most of the tourists heading up north, it’s time yet again to head as far south as aeronautically possible, get a car, and do some driving in Argentina on some of the world’s emptiest, most gorgeous roads. Like the one that takes you along the Quebrada de Cafayate, northwest Argentina’s acid trip canyon.

The rationale for road trips in the Southern Hemisphere is a simple function of astronomy, geography and population density. The land mass below the Equator may only be half that of the Northern Hemisphere, but it is home to only 10% of the world’s humans. Even if you subtract Antarctica, where driving is far from trivial, that translates to a lot of land and few people, with summer coming at the nadir of Northern Hemisphere life.

Where to, then? The Calchaquí Valley in northwest Argentina is home to a section of Ruta 40—the highway which connects the Bolivian border with the Straits of Magellan, over 3,000 miles away—a lot of crazy geography and excellent wines. It’s a broad, flat valley about a mile above sea level. You can reach it driving north on Ruta 40 from Catamarca province, or take the scenic route I wrote about a year ago, from the lowland sugarcane city of Tucumán up the Río de los Sosa gorge, retracing Che Guavara’s 1950 motorcycle trip.

Drive The High Desert Acid Trip Highway

A 10,000-ft pass connects the gorge with the Calchaquí Valley. It’s a strange place. You can reach it in an hour and a half from Tucumán and feel the temperature drop 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the 90+ of the lowlands. Argentina’s ubiquitous semi-feral cows will be grazing on the slopes of the pass, but very few rainclouds make it across, which makes the eastern side of the pass a land of lush Alpine meadows and high-altitude rainforests, while giant Trichocereus atacamensis cacti will start popping up as soon as you begin your descent into the valley. The road from the pass connects with Ruta 40 on the bottom of the valley and this is where you make a right turn and head north.

The drive to the town of Cafayate is a pleasant desert cruise. There are rocks, cacti, hardy trees, Quilmes—the very interesting pre-Inca site and not the Argentine lager—and a lot of sky. In Cafayate, there is lots of amazing wine as the Calchaquí Valley is one of the world’s best places for growing quality grapes. But if you can resist, drive through town and turn right on Route 68 in the direction of Salta. This is where the otherwordly scenery begins: the Quebrada de Cafayate.

Drive The High Desert Acid Trip Highway

It’s best to drive this section of the trip around sunset. Not that the canyon needs any help from the lighting, but it helps. The scenery is like a planet where designer hallucinogens come standard in tapwater. There are white rocks, purple rocks, green rocks, red rocks, orange rocks, blue rocks, and they come in the strangest shapes and sizes, offset against a deep blue, high desert sky. Route 68 snakes along the entire canyon, and it’s a very good road. The crazier rock formations are marked with signs. You can stop anywhere, take photos, and realize that you should’ve brought along way more bottled water than you did.

As you drive north, the desert canyon ends as abruptly as it begins, and the landscape transitions into flat sugarcane plantations. Another hour of driving will take you to the colonial city of Salta, where you can get a steak (or a barbecued kid goat!), do a 180°, and drive the Quebrada de Cafayate again. It’s that good.


Northwest Argentina’s Magnificent Driving Roads

Welcome to the Tucumán Jungle | Drive The High Desert Acid Trip Highway | Meeting Buses at 13,000 Feet

Photos by Lets (top), Peter Orosz (middle) and David (bottom)