Arrival was like the opening of a Sergio Leone epic. We had been driving for hours up a long, spectacular valley: great slashes of red rock strata knifed into folded grey mountains and a sparkling river snaked along the dusty valley. At one point we entered a sleepy town square where many houses had blackboards outside declaring what was for sale inside. We bought tamales, delicious hot corn dough wrapped around meat or cheese – no vegetables, of course; no self-respecting Argentinian would eat a vegetable unless under doctor’s orders, and what do those quacks know?
Further up the valley a small fox with big ears scuttled across the road then stopped to watch us. He was only 20m away, quite unperturbed, looking like he’d come over if we called his name. It was only later that I remembered his curious lack of fear.
The houses on this stretch of northern Argentina’s Calchaquies valley are often abandoned, with unbuttoned thatch tumbling over their porches. A pair of vultures hung on a thermal above. As things became even more desiccated, we came around a gravelly bluff and arrived at a clutch of single-storey adobe buildings gathered around a pile of sleeping dogs. One of them got up, wagged his tail, then flumped back down again, exhausted. Nothing else moved. I resisted the desire to whistle a Morricone theme.
While Edgar, my guide, went off to find our hosts, I climbed the gravelly bluff, followed by a loping hound who appeared to be grinning at me. (I found out later he was nicknamed Sonrisa – or Smile.) The view from 100m above the tiny settlement was a shock: the stark beauty of serrated stacks of ridges contrasting with a lush valley, where flocks of tiny doves were surfing along swelling ranks of vines. This place obviously had some secret charms.
Hosts Ernesto and Raquel – he a tall, handsome horseman; she, small and energetic – were already setting the lunch table in the shady porch. The next few days were to be a homestay run by a collective called Red de Turismo Campesino. I was a little anxious at that moment: in this barren moonscape, what could a visitor do except doze in a hammock and wait for Clint Eastwood to stroll through the saloon doors? Except there were no saloons in sight, nor even a shop.
Ernesto asked if my partner, Sophie, and I would like to see the vineyards before lunch, so we set down the valley. In the deep shade of the trees a new world opened up: rabbits hopped among the chickens, while wild birds flitted around. Their apparent tameness reminded me of the fox.
“We’ve never hunted this area,” said Ernesto. “So everything comes close – apart from the puma.”
There were fruit trees here and a few hectares of vines. Attempting to establish some common ground, I told Ernesto about my collection back home of small tropical and sub-tropical trees – avocado, mandarin, banana and lemon, all grown from seed, and not one fruit from any of them in years. What should I do?
“Graft on them,” he laughed, and pointed up the track. “Don’t worry about that. Come and see the horses.”
Ernesto’s horse was the tamest I’d ever seen. At a whispered command and a gentle push, it would lie down and stay silent. “It’s a local tradition to teach a horse this trick – from the days when we fought the Spanish.”
It was a reminder of the complex history here. The local tribe, the Diaguita, were conquered by the Incas 100 years before the Spanish arrived and tore into the local culture like wolves (quite literally: they ripped out the tongues of those who refused to speak Spanish). With treatment like that the Diaguita language and culture were almost obliterated, but connections and ancestral pride linger. By the 1990s many people had moved away but, like Ernesto, some were moving back, eager to reconnect with the land. At the same time parts of the valley, especially further south, were being taken over by multinational winery businesses. Locals were responding with demonstrations and movements such as this tourism network, trying to keep local hands on the land and revive traditional skills.
Back at the house the table was groaning under plates of food (meat, mainly) and several neighbours – Walter, Fernando and Nelson – had turned up, each with a couple of bottles of their own wine. It was, I predicted, going to be a long lunch. The cool of the veranda was lovely. The people were friendly. But I expected the wine to be as rough as a donkey’s armpit. The point, I’d thought, was to support these small producers until they could make something halfway decent and at least compete at the bottom of the market.
“I only do about 1,000 bottles a year,” said Walter, handing me a glass. “Try this malbec. I named it after my Dad.” I noted the amateurish label. But with the first taste came realisation that I had badly misjudged. The wine was glorious, with rich, smooth flavours.
Fernando poured another red, a mix of criolla, malbec and cabernet grapes that his late father had devised and he had perfected. “It won a gold medal in the national championships,” he said, proudly – and justifiably, as I soon discovered. While that was slipping down very acceptably, Nelson was pouring from an unlabelled bottle.
“I’m just starting to make wine,” he said. “I moved back home from the city two years ago.”
“Are you happy?”
The others all started laughing. “Does he look unhappy?”
It was true. I’d rarely seen a human being who looked quite so contented as Nelson.
A couple of hours and several empty bottles later, they all stood up and stretched. Siesta, I thought, wrongly.
“OK, we want to show you why we love this place.”
We piled into Nelson’s truck, drove for 10 minutes up the track, then got out and walked to the river. The location was spectacular: huge, jagged crags all around and a river coursing through, wide as a football pitch. The men threw off their shoes and waded in up to their waists. “Come on! We’re going to show you the rock paintings.”
The water was icy, rapidly clearing any red-wine fuzziness. On the other side we entered a secret world of narrow, twisting canyons that led to ancient rock art, a vestige of the Diaguita era. On the way back we were treated to a theatrical sunset as successive ridges of mountains briefly burned up with the last rays and then faded to purple.
That evening, Ernesto taught me the esoteric art of the asado, the Argentinian barbecue. First lesson: if one man can carry the meat, there isn’t enough.
“Do you have any cows?” asked Nelson. “What about horses? Vineyards? How many types of fruit do you grow?”
My one small dog, Wilf, and my handful of sterile fruit trees did not impress him. I could have happily spent some days here, learning about wine-making, but next day Edgar and I set out again, this time to stay in the house of Soledad Qutipa, a local potter and horsewoman. She lives under a mountain called El Zorrito, where the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, is rumoured to have hidden his treasure.
Inside Soledad’s lovely adobe house were numerous strange terracotta figurines, her tributes to the Earth Mother, Pachamama, who despite five centuries of catholicism still reigns supreme here. The use of adobe in buildings, for example, continues as a mark of respect to her: when villages are abandoned they slowly disappear back into the earth, leaving no trace.
As soon as we arrived, I was given a lesson in making local favourite humitas, a delicious stodge of corn, onion, basil, cheese and peppers. When they were ready, Soledad took us outside to eat.
“Do you want to visit Los Colorados?” she asked. “It’s where I find the clay for my pots, up there under El Zorrito.”
The last humita finished, we went to meet her neighbour, Antonio, whose horses are a crossbreed of local mustang and Peruvian paso, the latter renowned for having a strange ambling gait instead of a trot. For me, who finds horses as comfortable as cars with square wheels, this proved a hit. On these easy-going animals we blasted through the sparse, aromatic bush, eventually entering a gorge which led into a silent world of twisting, narrow slot canyons. It felt like some ancient fossilised casbah inhabited only by owls. I picked up a pellet filled with the skulls of tiny, long-toothed rodents.
This magical and mysterious place had been discovered by Soledad’s mother when, as a child, she had come in search of a lost sheep.
On the way back, Soledad explained her interest in pottery. “It’s a traditional art here, dating from before the Spanish. I like to use ancient symbols like toad, sury (a flightless bird), snake and owl. When I’m making pots, time passes and I don’t notice. It’s very satisfying.”
At the house, Soledad took out her bags of clay and showed me how she makes a traditional Diaguita jug with handle, making it look deceptively easy. Afterwards we drank herbal tea (mate) from jars she had made, then I sat under a vault of stars and watched meteorites running down the Milky Way like beads of quicksilver.
Community-based tourism is not a simple matter. In my experience, the goal of a balanced cultural exchange can easily be destroyed by too much emphasis on the tourist dollar, or by the local culture being too weak or uninteresting. Here in the Calchaquies valley they have got it about right, with strong local characters bringing energy and passion to the task. They were asking me almost as many questions as I did of them.
I spent my final day amid wineland near the town of Cafayate, which is also home to some intriguing communities. A few miles outside the town, approachable only by walking across a deep gorge, we found the idyllic oasis of El Divisadero, presided over by a formidable 80-year-old, Teresa Gutiérrez. Acres of vineyards and fruit trees are tended by an extended family of 12 sons, 56 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Visitor accommodation is a stone cabin on an outcrop, with stunning views up the valley. Hummingbirds flitted among the flowers and black eagles soared overhead.
I sat with Enrique, one of the sons, and ate his mother’s unbeatable empanadas, meat pasties, fresh from the earth oven.
“The tourism co-operative has worked well for us,” he said, “They brought us piped water and latrines. Next we want electricity and a bridge.”
He pointed out various trees: “That’s a cross between orange and lemon that we made. That’s a small white peach – delicious.”
There were figs, apples and avocados too, as well as grapes: malbec, cabernet and local speciality torrontes. It was time to broach the subject of my sterile fruit garden again. “Enrique,” I said, “I once grew a lemon tree from a seed and it’s now 10 years old and hasn’t produced a single fruit. What do I do?”
He tipped back his hat and gravely drained the red wine from his tumbler. “Have you made offerings of coca leaves to Pachamama?” I had to admit I had not.
“Then you must,” he admonished.
“And give her some wine too.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
He grinned. “Then beat the tree.”
The cultural exchange, I felt, was complete. Next spring, my back garden will witness some unusual ceremonies.