Imagine steep, red canyon walls rising up toward the bluebird sky and creating a natural amphitheatre. Sun-soaked vineyards and bustling, lively town plazas. Rock formations in so many shades it’s like an artist took a paintbrush to the mountains with every colour of the rainbow. This is just a taste of what it’s like to explore the rugged, dramatic Calchaqui Valley, which is one of the most photogenic valleys in Argentina.
Found a couple hours’ drive south of the Spanish colonial city of Salta, there’s no better way to explore the region than by hopping in a car and heading down the highway which is how I found myself with Ossian Lindholm. A Salta native, the renowned photographer leads expeditions around the world with Travel Vision Journeys, including this Argentina photography tour. The adventures are perfect for shutterbugs of all skill levels even if you don’t know the difference between a F-stop and a flash, combining class time with hands-on instruction from Lindholm in some of the most impressive landscapes on earth.
The Calchaqui tour
The otherworldly Argentina landscape meant there were photo-ops at literally every turn, so we pared it down to about half a dozen locations for our day trip through Salta province. Since every road trip requires food and a bathroom break, we made a quick pit stop at Posta de las Cabras, a cute goat farm with a cafe and plenty of baked goods to fuel up on before continuing along the highway.
Our first opportunity to put our DSLRs to work came about half an hour later, when we pulled off the twisting black pavement to a spot that revealed a crimson canyon dotted with vibrant green foliage, making for the perfect contrast. It was here that Lindholm spoke with the group about his process, sharing composition tips and explaining how he adjusts for lighting conditions. However, I was a bit too busy jumping for joy at the scene spread out before us to take notes. See Exhibit A:
Book a Calchaqui tour from Salta or Tucumán:
Up next was El Anfiteatro, and we didn’t need Lindholm to tell us that it was a popular tourist attraction. Nope, that became evident as soon as we saw a line of tour buses parked haphazardly along the shoulder of the road and people armed with selfie-sticks streaming toward it. ‘The Amphitheatre’ was created by erosion from waterfalls that existed millions of years ago, forming patterned cave walls that soar 20 metres high. The resulting acoustics are spectacular, luring buskers who strum guitars hoping to sell CDs to travellers wandering through the cavern. Since I don’t even have a CD player (and really, does anyone anymore?), my friend Eric and I instead spent our time trying to nail perspective shots. Because Instagram.
Once my calf muscles had gotten a workout from jumping and flailing my arms around in the air while simultaneously praying Eric’s shutter speed was set fast enough, our group piled back into the van and set off for the next lookout point: the winding Rio de las Conchas river. With thick burgundy boulders jutting out over the valley creating natural lookout points, our options for experimenting with composition were endless. It was clear why Lindholm had brought us here: it was a photographer’s dream.
What to do in Cafayate Argentina
Being halfway through the day already, tummies started growling as we pulled into Cafayate (pronounced Calf-ah-zha-tay). The village is in the heart of a top Argentina wine region, second only to its famous cousin Mendoza. We had a bit of time to meander through its sun-soaked main plaza, sample a sweet sorbet made from the area’s signature torrontés grape, and peruse the handicrafts market before heading to lunch at a nearby vineyard—which it’s safe to say we were all beyond excited about. I mean, panoramic views are lovely and all…but wine.
We’d be dining at Finca Quara, a winery dating back more than 140 years making it one of the area’s most renowned. The Renaissance-style building was impressive to say the least, surrounded by perfectly-manicured gardens and framed by the Calchaqui Valley’s rolling hills. Our camera-clad group passed through the expansive tasting room lined with more bottles than any of us could conceivably count, containing the likes of Malbec, Tannat and of course Torrontés, an aromatic white wine. Making our way down into the dark cellar, we found ourselves surrounded by massive, uncorked barrels and got a quick lesson about the high-altitude varietals produced in the region. Then just like that, it was time to start sipping the Cafayate wine.
As we sat on a veranda shaded from the heat of the afternoon sun, platters of food kept appearing around the table seemingly out of nowhere, all expertly paired with different wines. Our bellies filled, the drinks went down smooth, the laughter got louder, and our midday meal somehow turned into a leisurely lunch which none of us were in a hurry to end. Except for Lindholm, who was keen to get us to one final location for our photo tour as any good guide does.
Somewhat begrudgingly and longing for a nap, we eventually managed to pull ourselves away from what remained of the feast and make our way back to the van. Fortunately, Lindholm had saved the best spot for last.
La Yesera Cafayate
We pulled up to the La Yesera trailhead about half an hour later, and as soon as I looked out the window and saw the epic scene laid out in front of us my fatigue faded. THIS was why I’d been drawn to Salta province…exploring the rainbow mountains is one of the top things to do in northern Argentina!
A kaleidoscope of colours zig-zagged across the horizon, the hues of the purple, green, fire-red and blonde hills all seamlessly blending together. It was absolutely magical, and for the next couple of hours we hiked around the barren landscape, scrambling up and down the desolate dunes, admiring the windswept canyon which looked like it had never seen a human footprint.
As the golden hour began to cast a soft, ethereal light over the valley, we snapped our last set of shots then began the long drive back to Salta. As night fell, a glorious sunset rose up behind the vineyards, making for the perfect ending to our photogenic journey through Argentina’s Calchaqui Valley.
Where to stay in Cafayate
If time allows, base yourself in Cafayate for quicker access to the Calchaqui Valley. Standout spots include:
- Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort: This top ranked property was built in the middle of a vineyard, and boasts views of the impressive San Isidro Hill and Cafayate Canyon. Rooms are basic, and there’s an outdoor pool on-site. Click to book
- Grace Cafayate: This luxury hotel is an incredible place to relax after a long day of exploring (or wine tasting!) thanks to its modern rooms, pool and spa. Other amenities include a wine and cigar bar, gym and fine dining restaurant. Click to book
- Hotel Portal del Santo Salta Cafayate: Guests love the attentive service and clean rooms at this charming hotel, which has an outdoor pool, mountain views and is close to Cafayate’s main plaza. Click to book
This article was originally published in January 2018 and updated in April 2020
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