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.
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.
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.
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, including 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.
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.
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.