Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Calchaquí Valley in Argentina.
"Imagine if you shrank the American West into a tiny ball so that the Grand Canyon and Napa Valley were next-door neighbors," said Mark Johanson at the Chicago Tribune. That's the joy of northwestern Argentina's Calchaquí Valley, where you can drink fine wine, feast on superb cuisine, then wander dramatic landscapes while still pleasantly tipsy. With Argentine photographer Ossian Lindholm as my guide, I recently took a road trip across Calchaquí — Argentina's second leading wine region after Mendoza. I flew into Salta, an "instantly appealing" Spanish colonial city that's arguably home to South America's best empanadas. Baked instead of fried, with flaky crusts that give way to "melt-in-your-mouth fillings," the turnovers were a taste of delights to come.
Driving south through small tobacco-growing towns, Lindholm explained how, among the region's many winding rivers and interconnected valleys, everything seems to slow down. "Your body enters another frequency," he said. That other-worldly sensation grew stronger when we stopped to walk through the Gorge of Shells, "an almost Martian expanse of brick-red cliffs and startling rock formations," all of it carved by an ancient sea. As we drove on, the valley's sandstone walls became earthen rainbows, the red streaked with stripes of green and yellow. "Just wait," Lindholm said. "Those colors will look even better after a glass of wine!"
My introduction to the region's signature white-wine grape comes, of all places, at an ice cream parlor in the small town of Cafayate. A sweet and fruity torrontés sorbet "goes down like a Slurpee under the hot afternoon sun." For the real thing, we head to Finca Quara, one of the region's oldest wineries, where vintner Mariana Páez sets out a few bottles alongside some tapas. Blue cheese–and-mushroom risotto balls meet their match in a "light and citric" 2015 torrontés, while a "heavy-hitting" cabernet sauvignon pairs beautifully with sizzling beef skewers and Andean potatoes. After our meal, we take a sunset stroll to a nearby ravine to assess the vistas with "wine-glazed" eyes. At a lookout, we stop. Off in the distance, the valley walls are boldly striped with colored earth, and they "rise toward the cobalt sky like elaborate works of sand art."