Travelling the Dirty Road, we become familiar with one word in particular. Essential. What is essential to your journey? Food, water, shelter, and little else. The colour of the journey, the substance, is made up of the company you keep, the strangers you meet, the stars above your head at night. Bring your essentials, find your substance.
We find ourselves trapped. Drunken and stuffed: sedated as we lie in the sun beside a turquoise swimming pool with plastic cups of frozen vodka-lemonade cooling our hands. It has been a long and dirty road through Bolivia and the 10 hour bus ride from the Atacama Desert to Salta City has left us spent. We’ve found an oasis in Argentina, or a prison, depending on how you see it; a hostel tucked away in the gorgeous farmland of the Salta region in the North-West of the country. It has warm, duvet-covered beds with real pillows, hot showers, good wifi, pizza, and all-day booze. Everything, and in excess. At night, tables are pulled out for hybrid beer-pong-flip-cup tournaments and “blood-bomb” booze shots are administered as punishment. Sleep in ‘til 3 - you’re not doing anything with your day anyway. We are from all over the world (mainly Australia) and have come for only a couple of nights to recharge, but like a budget Hotel California we’ve not yet left. Some have been here for months and are now working behind the bar. Sure it’s nice! Everyone is relaxed and friendly and constantly buzzed - but what are we doing here? This is not the Dirty Road we travelled across the world for.
At night we laconically drag ourselves onto the city bus and explore the town of Salta. It’s beautiful cafe-lined squares are filled with fragrant trees and surrounded by neoclassical architecture and a pink cathedral. Some streets are scary and definitely unsafe, some are packed with tourists, and some - the ones we want - are where one finds the cambio men. Because of the plummeting Argentinian peso, American dollars are in high demand and a “blue dollar” trade on the street instead of at the bank can get you up to double the pesos per dollar. Pretty good news for us.
Our favourite place to empty our fat pockets becomes the peña; a restaurant typical to the Salta region where local folk music is played while you (and the musicians) eat and drink. La Casona del Molino is an old adobe mansion in a residential area with tables in every room and a massive garden. They serve traditional Argento parrilla - barbecued meats - chunky stews from the region and fresh empanadas. Here, people come for dinner and bring their instruments. They play for enjoyment, not tips - and if you know the song you sing along with pride. Under the trees, we sip our Fernet-Cocas while four friends beside us sit around their table drinking red wine, strumming passionately at their guitars and singing with their eyes shut. The music is gorgeous and the feeling is of a room full of old pals.
Four days now at the hostel: we need to get out. We meet a new friend and ask him to join us; a young french hippie named Jonathan who loves nature and playing songs on his guitar; a modern day nomad. Jonathan has mastered the art of travelling light. When he doesn't have enough money to eat, he smokes instead. When he can't buy smokes he busks. We thought we were bad ass for hitchhiking in a transport truck until we heard that Jonathan, on his way to Córdoba with friends, was picked up in a hearse. There weren't enough seats so he laid down in the back instead. We hope this makes Jonathan a good guide on this particular dirty road (and he was). We pack our rental car with only what we need - tents, blankets, two giant jugs of water and a map - ready for our journey to finally begin.
We are taking a five day trip to the Cafayate wine region and back. The craziest thing about the landscape is how quickly it changes. As we hit the open road we travel through what seems like a hundred different worlds in only one day. Jurassic park mountains of green and rock give way to forests of knobby cacti lining red cliffs. Then a desert plain so flat you can see for miles, then alien rock formations that look like quivers full of arrows and so on and so on; all under perfect skies of blue.
Winding around the hair-pin mountain turns of the Cuesta del Obispo, we hold our lives in our hands and bounce over a tiny dirt road worn down to a corrugated ripple squeezing to the side of the rock face to let huge eighteen-wheelers pass. The light is fading fast and it's too dangerous to take these roads at night but we haven't yet made it over the passage. Where the hell are we going to camp? It's just mountain, river, and road. Jonathan, our spirit animal, instinctually pulls off onto a small side road looking for a safe patch of ground to make camp. We come across two little girls who need a ride up the path to their dad's peach farm and after we drop them off their papa tells us of a small church at the very top with a flat plateau where we could pitch a tent. We somehow get the car over a stream and set up shop below the church and inside a small paddock with two skinny horses to keep us company. As the sun sets it lights the red rock on fire then gradually reveals a blanket of stars.
In the morning we continue along the bumpy death road until the landscape happily opens up into paved road and the Calchaquí Valley; a dry and rocky terrain home to the Gaucho, the Argento cowboy. This really does look like the Wild West. An untamed territory dotted with the occasional dusty, white adobe villages and the odd lone star on horseback. We bound up and down the rolling dirt hills in our Chevy, windows down and music up. Nothing but blue sky dreaming.
We arrive at the tidy hamlet of Seclantás. Verdant green palms, a pretty rose coloured church and white haciendas line gravel streets. At the top of its hill is a view of the bruising pastel sky and a small cemetery colourfully decorated with tributes and flowers. We eat dinner at Inti Raymi, the courtyard of an elderly couple's house/restaurant and ask Señior Dìaz, to bring us out whatever he wants. Four courses later and we've been delighted by Argentina's soul food. Hot stews and warm bread - some recipes preserved from the ancient Incan methods, and many ingredients grown in the little garden next to us.
Stuffed and sleepy we stumble back to where, during daylight, we had found our next camp: a five minute drive out of the town and down a trail leading to the river. It's impossibly windy and we crawl past bushes of arguably the biggest thorns ever seen outside of a Disney movie, posting up under two scraggly trees with long branches to which we could fasten our tents. If we hadn't eaten so much hot stew we may not have slept quite as soundly in the storm. We wake with the sun and have a simple breakfast by the great muddy Calchaquí river before getting back on our old "horse".
We've entered wine country and ever so often we pass vineyards and a sign for a local bodega. We're not interested in just any bodega. We drive for an hour off the main road, crossing a (thankfully) almost dry arm of the river, kicking up dust on the hilly trail, wild horses galloping across the open country beside us. We're our way to Colombé, a gorgeous vineyard and winery owned by the Swiss millionaire Harold Hess. And now, for a sweet moment our trip gets a little less "Dirty". The scenery is impossibly beautiful and the estate is fresh from the pages of Condé Nast. The grapes here are particularly high in quality. They're from one of the highest vineyards in the world and because of their altitude and the dry, hot sun, the Malbec and Tanat are richly flavoured. We have lunch and a delicious bottle of wine al aire libre overlooking rows and rows of vines with big craggy mountains behind them.
Though the bodega itself is impeccably landscaped the real treat is the 18,000 square-foot museum dedicated to James Turrell, the Californian artist of light and space. We're a little buzzed from the good grape juice and drift in to join the tour. It's. So. Cool. Rooms filled with spectacularly textured colours of light in geometric shapes that play with your vision and spacial sense. Or maybe that's the grape juice. Either way it's a surreal way to spend an afternoon in the middle of Nowhere, AR.
Finding a safe place to sleep at night while on the Road to Nowhere is pretty damn hard. But with Jonathan the Boy Scout at the helm we managed to find potentially the best site ever. Just outside of the small - very small - hamlet of Molinos, we drive down and park beside the river, before crossing it by foot. It's 15 metres wide, thigh deep, and opaque, but we see a farmer and his horse crossing it and the beach on the other side is really, really pretty. Also, we're tough as nails. So we hold our tents and packs above our heads and dodge the snakes as we wade across.
We make camp on the soft sand under the darkening sky and make a small fire from dry sticks propped up against a sheltering rock. We sneak clusters of fresh, tart grapes from the little vineyard encroaching on the beach. Soon those brilliant stars are freckling the night and we're roasting potatoes wrapped in foil and drinking wine from a box (back to the dirty road for us) while Jonathan plays songs on his guitar. A big soft black puppy, presumably from a nearby farm, sneaks out of the woods and timidly tries to join us. We feed and pet him, roll with him in the sand, throw him sticks, then rest our heads on his side while we all drift to sleep beside the crackling fire that dances on the warm night breeze. Heaven.
Cafayate is at an altitude of 1,683m, comprised of plenty of vineyards and nestled between great red mountains. It's laid-back and rustic, retaining its Old West vibe among the luxuriousness of a wine town. Here, one starts drinking early and doesn't really stop. We pass from bodega to bodega, most conveniently located within the small town and a quick walk from one to the other, paying a small fee to sample various wines and learn about the farms and families. We venture a short walk out of town and hit a goat farm and vineyard that sells its fresh cheese - and of course, wine.
The next morning we say goodbye to our friend. We wish Jonathan luck and love and safe travels as he stays on to find work in Cafayate and we head back to return our horse in Salta.
The trip back will only take us a day but is some of the most scenic country yet and the highway, mercifully, is mostly paved. The hills are made of the most vivid shades of rusts and spices and their peaks and canyons take on shapes of glass chards and mythical beasts. One is the Garganta del Diablo. A giant chasm of red rock likened to the devil's throat that you can climb up and into. The most spectacular site by far and hardest to capture on film is the Anfiteatro: a ravine in the rock wall that works as an acoustic amphitheatre. As we walk towards its entrance we can already hear the guitar of the musician singing folk songs in the corner. Once inside, it echoes all around us. Just blue sky above, sand underfoot and perfect surround sound.
We hold the memory of the beautiful music in our minds as we drive the last stretch of highway towards the Salta Valley and the weather shifts from dry to humid and rainy. Towards the hostel and a comfy bed, hot shower and real toilet. We never needed those "things" on the road and despite being deprived of them for four nights, we still don't. We bathed in the river and slept on the earth under the stars. We physically touched the country we travelled to and by doing so understood it just a little bit better. We saw, and smelled, and tasted so much more in one hour on the road than 96 beside a hostel's pool. We may have met 20 new buddies at the beer pong table but we made one genuine friend in Jonathan. We spent a journey with him struggling with tents, thorns and streams and together we sat in silence, witnessing incredible beauty. We shared an experience. An experience made more real, more tangible by the bareness of it all.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.