Road Trip Northwest Argentina: Where Gauchos Go To Party

As our rental car began to drift atop a layer of windblown sand, I grabbed hold, down-shifted and noticed the hills around me were swirled in a peppermint twist. All those Ruta 40 signs in Argentina finally delivered on an implied promise: you’ll be impressed, and what once captured your imagination will now claim your full attention.

But it wasn’t the fabled Route 40 of Patagonia that would provide the exclamation point on our time in Argentina. It was a week-long road trip across the quebradas of Northwest Argentina, where chilies dry in the midday sun, llama comes served with wine pressed just down the road, and gauchos hold harvest festivals in the hills.

On the Road from Salta to Cachi - Northern Argentina
Landscape in Northwest Argentina

We had begun our road trip with a climb out of Salta on a Saturday morning. As midday approached and lunch options looked slim to none, we passed a hand-painted sign strapped to the side of a bridge. Neither of us recalls exactly what the sign said other than the mention of food, festival and gauchos (a cowboy, roughly)…and today’s date.

What more could we need?

After divining the turn-off on the unmarked road, we snaked our way over a well-underestimated 5 kilometers. En route, we helped a distressed local Argentine family push their aging wheels after they’d stalled in the middle of a hill.

Lending a Helping Hand - Northern Argentina
Pushing a car up the hill on the way to the festival.

When we arrived at the end of the road (both literally and figuratively), it was pretty well clear that we’d hit the cultural mother lode. This was a gaucho harvest festival, and it was stocked with people who had poured in from the hills.

Apparently not many foreigners make it to these parts. For our pluck and persistence, we were rewarded with curiosity and – with the passage of time – increasing interest and hospitality. We paid our 15 pesos ($4.25) at the door and were led into a tented area. This year’s corn and cowboy festival was sold out, and the capacity crowd gave us a look like we were, well, from places far away.

A grill covered in various cuts of cow smoked away in the corner. An all-ages crowd of men and women ladled servings of locro (a local stew made from beans, corn, vegetables and meat) from large white plastic buckets. Others worked various kettles and carved bits of meat, while teens performed bus duty, running plates and bowls back to the hungry crowd.

Serving Out Locro at a Village Gaucho Festival - Northern Argentina
Serving up Locro and Asado at a Gaucho Festival in Northern Argentina

Stomachs rumbling, we awaited our turn in line, but the organizers hand-guided us to an empty space between the crowd and the stage, where in minutes they would set up a table especially for us.

Next came plates of asado (Argentine barbecue), bowls of locro, and a two liters of cola for the four of us (Jason and Aracely, our fellow roadtrip buddies) to share. The meat was well-exercised, but we made our way through it while fielding questions from passers-by as to where we were from and how we discovered their annual village festival.

One man engaged us. “So, where are you from? How did you get here?

“We’re from the United States, but we drove from Salta today. We saw the sign for the festival on the side of the road.”

Then he offered the contrast of his own arrival. “Oh, that’s good. I live 25 kilometers away. I don’t have a car, so I came by horse.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Jolly Village MC - Northern Argentina
The emcee of the Gaucho Festival.

The emcee, a jovial man with salt and pepper hair peeping out under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat, shook our hands heartily and gave us a big, personal welcome before he took the stage. After a rundown on local issues – from the importance of maintaining gaucho traditions to protecting local land from outsiders (i.e., city folks) to the promotion of local agriculture – we were treated to the first of the day’s entertainment: live gaucho music. The full meaning of the words were lost us – what with our conversational Spanish — but the mood was proud and celebratory with hints of melancholy.

This is the song of the land.

Gaucho Style Music at Village Festival - Northern Argentina
Gaucho Musician at a Harvest Festival

Local children’s dance troupes and an adult troupe from Salta followed, with members of the crowd sneaking in from time to time to join their favorite dance. A man that looked like he’d walked out of a lineup of colonialists — a cross between a 400-pound Christopher Columbus and a character out of a de Bernières novel – captured my attention. He was pasty-white, bubbling of flesh and dressed in what looked like a period outfit. I wondered whether he wore it often – but I didn’t have the courage to ask.

Video: Where Gauchos Go To Party

The music and dance continued; the afternoon lazed away. We resisted the urge to stick around for the raffle: “You should stay. You could win 50 kilos of corn or flour.”

Instead, we handed our stubs to our neighbors and made the rounds to say goodbye. We left with handshakes, hugs and a warm invitation to return next year at the same time.

So the travel lesson of the day: next time you see a handwritten sign on the side of the road, follow it. You just may find a group of gauchos on the other side.

Photo Slideshow of Gaucho Harvest Festival in Northern Argentina

If you don’t have a high speed connection or you would like to read the captions, view the Northwest Argentina, Gaucho Festival photo essay.

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Comments

  1. says

    It’s a beautiful area and an amazing place for a road trip. You certainly hit traveller’s gold coming across that festival! Sounds brilliant. One of the things I love about the Salta region is how gaucho culture is just part of life and not something put on for tourists. Horses are a mode of transport rather than just for a pleasure ride. Even right in the centre of Salty city we are always hearing horses trotting past our apartment and seeing horse-drawn carts with piles of oranges for sale.

  2. says

    I’m jealous of you in a happy way. This is exactly the type of event I would love to participate in and chat with the others. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. says

    Clearly you were meant to go. You just happened to be in that place on that specific day. It was cool to see the colonial Spanish influences in the dress and dances.

  4. says

    @Erin: Absolutely. That was the great thing about Salta and the surrounding region: living history was on display, 24×7, regardless of who was there to consume it. Glad you are enjoying the area.

    @Tracy: It was indeed a lucky find. As with just about anything in life, we really couldn’t have scripted anything better.

    @Keith: Glad you enjoyed it. If we weren’t literally in the middle of nowhere, the folks at the festival would have been more than glad to talk to us until the wee hours of the night, I’m sure. Even on our way out of the festival, a man and his family approached me and we spoke for about ten minutes. After finding out that I was from the United States, he began to tell me about visiting a relative of his in Brooklyn. It’s a small world we live in.

    @Jennifer: The outfits we saw in the audience were especially interesting because none of the people wearing them were performing. They were simply being watching the festivities.

  5. says

    @Michael: In truth, we’d had much better asado in our travels throughout Argentina (particularly with Audrey’s family). But for this particular meal, you sure couldn’t beat the backdrop.

  6. says

    @Andi: Driving around Argentina might just take a lifetime. If however, you choose to bite off a chunk, the area around Salta, Cachi and Cafayate is most definitely worth it.

  7. says

    I just can’t believe how adventurous you people are, taking a turn on the road like that. Still it seams the gauchos are kind people, taking visitors like that, they seem to be more than happy to have guests like you. I wonder if the rest of Argentina is like that …

  8. says

    We adored Salta and the Cafayate region. Beautiful in so many ways beyond just the amazing landscape. We were fortunate to get to interact with many locals there, but you guys really won the lottery. How awesome.

  9. says

    @Ivo: The people in and around Salta are terrific — if the experiences of our road trip there were any measure. The various regions of Argentina are similar to one another and still quite different in their own way. But Salta, the Cafayate Valley and the quebradas really stand out for us.

    @Theresa: Apt description, like winning the travel and culture lottery. The festival was by far the most coincidental of our finds, but as we are about to write, good people graced our entire road trip in the region.

  10. says

    That is truly incredible! Exactly the kind of travel experience I’ve always wanted to have. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and trying to learn from it, because this is the type of travel I like to do too (but I’m not as good at it as you are :). I lived in Argentina (Mendoza) for six months, and some of my favorite memories are from the locals-only type of places where you’re the only foreigner around. But this gaucho festival sounds incredible … good for you for finding it just at the right time!

  11. says

    @Elisa: It was incredible. We couldn’t have scripted it better even if we tried.

    I agree that locals-only sorts of places hold great potential for stories, experiences, and genuine human connections.

    Regarding finding and having the sorts of travel experiences we have, we try to put together our thoughts on that very issue from time to time. Two articles that we wrote come to mind, in case you have not seen them:
    1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers
    2. How to Travel Outside Your Comfort Zone

    Sorry we didn’t connect with you before (we were in Mendoza for a spell earlier this year). Anyhow, great to see you here.

  12. says

    Great post the highlights that adventures can happen anywhere if you are willing. These types of stops can be some of the most memorable time on a vacation.

    The more we learn about others, the more we accept and respect.

    Best,

    Chuck

  13. says

    @Chuck: These moments — the ones unexpected, unplanned — are by far the most memorable. And yes, these moments also teach us a little something about mutual respect, ourselves and the rest of the world.

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