Wild Desert Donkeys – San Antonio to Cafayate

San Antonio de Los Cobres – La Poma – Cachi – Molinos – Angastaco – San Carlos – Cafayate – (end of post for gpx / map)

After accidentally timing Paso Sico and San Antonio de Los Cobres perfectly with the busiest days of the year (or possibly ever), due to peak tourist season and flooding roads, it was a relief to finally leave.  My route continued via the famous Ruta 40 and after climbing up a pass of nearly 5000 metres it descended for 260km down to world famous vineyards through dry rugged cactus terrain intermittently following a divine river oasis.  It was spiced up further by crazy wild donkeys, beautiful shaded plazas, leeches (!) and incredible rock formations.

Here is a photo diary of my onward route to wine producing Cafayate…


Crossing the railway line I’m quick to snap a couple of llamas loitering on the other side of this bridge…


…before arduously tackling the 1200m climb for the best part¬†of the day.


The onset of the rainy season brings with it the advantage of some interesting cloud formations.


The pass. Just shy of 5000 metres. Clearly I’m not the first traveller to pass through here; this sign is plastered with ‘adventure tourists’ all wanting to leave their mark.


A spectacular descent ensues


Around or below the 4000 metre mark I stumble across these ruins and set up a relatively early camp. Dark clouds are forming and I become concerned when I realise the¬†shape of the derelict infrastructure is¬†prone to flooding. However, an unexpected hardship materialises from an alternate source. I wake up ‘itchy’ at 3 am and it takes a minute¬†to realise various leeches have crawled inside my sleeping bag and are cheerfully sucking on my blood. Through my bleary eyes¬†one of them looks like they have legs. ¬†Urrgghhh… ¬†I realise that although it provides more space, erecting only the fly sheet is not always¬†a good idea. I get my inner mosquito net up in minutes.


A new vice in my diet. Butter. Various sources are conflicting as to whether or not it is unhealthy. ¬†However, I find it helps immensely with ‘getting in the calories’. Sometimes, I have recently found¬†myself guiltily spooning that stuff¬†in. ¬†I try to keep it somewhat insulated from the sun by packing it deep in my¬†bag (well wrapped).

Further descending reveals cactuses adopting some interesting¬†forms…

I’ll have what he’s having.


The windy gravel roads continues in a downwards direction but against a non-trivial headwind.  All reports I have read promise tailwinds. Does the prevailing wind shift direction in the rainy season?


The 2 kilometre deviation to the old town of La Poma provides some interesting distractions in a well shaded and very peaceful little plaza. I ‘sit around’ relaxing for half an hour.


Ahh…. look at the lovely horse. How cute? Oh but wait it has its hooves¬†tied together so it can’t escape; not so nice and a not uncommon sight in Latin America.

These bells hang right by the old church.

Anecdote: the old town (which is now a mini-tourist attraction) suffered an earthquake in the 1930’s and they built the new one several hundred metres down the road…


The occasional person drifts quietly in and out of the scene going about their business.


After re-joining Route 40 the road undulates and winds it’s way via a river beaming with life. A veritable oasis in this arid rugged desert.

It leaves the river for a few kilometres and I dart off to the side to find almost limitless camping opportunities set amongst sand, stone and spiny vegetation. However, my expectations of a peaceful desert night under the stars start to evaporate¬†when I hear my first donkey ‘noises’. Initial innocent braying increases in volume and intensity over the next half an hour. ¬†Pretty soon they are galloping in and out of the vicinity of my tent in a hugely overexcited way. The idea of accidentally being trodden on by a donkey is unsettling so I find myself frantically¬†exiting the tent whenever they get close. I even pile up some rocks to throw in case things get nasty. The braying and galloping lasts most of the¬†night but¬†fortunately the tent stampeding never materialises!


‘The Night Monsters’. Later I speak to a gardener in one of the towns. ¬†These rascals¬†are wild and although are accepted by the community are somewhat of a nuisance (eating the well kept grass in the plaza etc.) ¬†They look cute though don’t they?

My next desert camp is more peaceful


Molinos. Each pueblo en route provides some welcome shade where I can top up my butter supplies.

The contrast of the dry desert where only the toughest lifeforms survive and the thriving green vegetation that live close to the water sources captivates the soul.

After some dehydrating midday desert riding and a quick rest in Angastaco the roads winds through some impressive rock formations, including tourist attraction ‘Quebrada Las Flechas’.

With¬†various spiky plants in limitless supply I arduously carry my bike 50 metres off the road to my camp spot. A puncture would mean¬†an immediate 30 minute time penalty so it’s worth the extra effort.

I camp here, the various rock formations offer countless opportunities to get out of the wind.

The next morning.

I have been working on reducing my morning pack-up routine, after realising how much time I have wasted daily. Sometimes it has taken as much as two hours from the moment I wake to the moment I leave. However, I am now down to 32 minutes including all morning activities plus 18 minute breakfast.

And then I pull up to Cafayate which turns out to be a massive tourist destination for Argentinians (in January at least); mostly from Buenos Aires. Staying at Camping Raya, I realise that it’s unusual in this country if you don’t play the guitar and stay up talking loudly till 6 in the morning.

I manage to tag along on to a 12 strong Argy trip to ‘Garganta del Diablo’ in ‘Quebrada de Las Conchas’. Despite well placed prohibitory warning signs a few of the group climb the final part of the ‘Throat of the Devil’.

As always with rock climbing, it’s easier climbing up than going back down and I find myself surprisingly nervous on the return; it’s not hard but a mistake here could be serious. A ten minute process involving a fair amount of ‘endurance courage’ ensues requiring the meticulous checking of every foot and hand hold. Not something I’d recommend.

Agile Rocio from Buenos Aires offers us an interesting perspective…

Route Notes:

GPX file here.¬†For more information on the route¬†it’s over to Andes by Bike.

Next up: Route 40 turns flat, fast and paved and gets very hot as I head towards Mendoza.


4 thoughts on “Wild Desert Donkeys – San Antonio to Cafayate

  1. Here I go again Nick. I want to live my life again after each one of your reports. I know I visited 60 countries in the world but none were in South America and I just ran out of time (age…). Had I not met you I would not have the privilege of seeing these places through your eyes. I love the colors and composition of the ascent and descent photos, the spiny thorns against the rock, the donkeys with their lovely soft eye shadow contouring… Wishing you continued awesomeness… Adele

    • Thanks Adele, I’m sure there’s plenty in those 60 countries I haven’t seen – unfortunately we can’t do everything ūüôā glad you’re enjoying the blog!

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