The first time I went through the Quebrada de las Conchas on Route 68 in Argentina, I was on my way from Salta to spend a few nights in Cafayate. I was traveling independently back then and saw it all from the window of a public express bus. I was entranced with the views, but they passed too quickly. We didn’t stop once along the way, there or on the return.
This time when I visited 11 years later, I was traveling with Salta-based Socompa Adventures on a three-day 4WD tour through the arid Salta Province countryside. We were in no hurry to get to Cafayate, so we stopped the vehicle when it suited our mood and took time to visit some of the most notable formations along the way.
Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo) is a popular stop with Quebrada tours and independent drivers in their own car. There’s a narrow canyon of rock layers split in two. You stand at the bottom and feel small looking up at the cliffs leading to a narrow opening.
Further along is the amphitheater, where there’s a flat area surrounded by walls going around roughly in a circle. Above is the blue sky. A musician sometimes plays off to the side for tips.
Millions of years ago this area was under the sea. When the tectonic plates collided, they pushed the layers of long-crushed sediment up. You can see strata from different time periods that collided and mixed, at some points so violently that they’re almost vertical.
We stopped several times at viewpoints, seeing an array of rock formations extending to the horizon, fiery red mixing with browns and grays, the green trees providing accents and occasional forests in an area where water flows. Mostly the vegetation is sparse though, with cacti and occasional leafless plants that are waiting patiently for the rainy season.
Eventually we stopped at a flat place beside the road and took off on a walk, admiring the panoramic mountain views. Rounding a corner we came upon a multi-layered rock cake standing alone, the softer material around it long since eroded away.
As we drew closer to Cafayate, the formations got shorter, changed shape, and drew closer to the road. Eventually they stopped altogether though and the land flattened out. Mighty mountains and fiery red rocks gave way to rows of green grape vines clinging to wires in perfect rows. We had arrived in Cafayate, the land famed for Torrontes white wine, Argentina’s second-largest vineyard region.
You can rent a car in Salta and drive independently along the Quebrada de Cafayate, but you won’t be able to go beyond that town unless you rent a heavy-duty vehicle: the roads are all gravel ones after that. If you want to explore the region deeply with a guide who knows where he’s going, check out the options on Socompa Tours’ website.