Giant cactus, rainbow mountains, dusty villages, salt lakes, red canyons and vineyards. There’s so much to see in the northwest of Argentina.
Yes, there are tours that can give you a taste of what this part of Argentina is all about, but the best way, I think, is to have your own set of wheels. That feeling of being behind the wheel while exploring a foreign land is exhilarating and can’t be beaten.
We set out on our 5-day road trip from Salta, heading north through green farmland into mountain territory, where the narrow road winds endlessly and crosses from Salta Province into Jujuy.
The landscape becomes less forest and more arid, and before you know it the road is on a constant incline. Spectacular mountains start to surround you, the occasional village or mining settlement whizzes by and the landscape is dotted with cordon cacti up to seven metres tall.
Here we are at the start of the 155 km long UNESCO designated Humahuaca Valley, or Quebrada de Humahuaca – a narrow landscape created by the Río Grande, which is dry in winter and a torrent in summer.
Our first stop, the tiny village of Tumbaya that’s home to about 200 people. Barely a soul can be seen in this small, dusty town made up of mud brick dwellings, and those couple of people you may see vanish as quickly as they appeared. Not a great deal to see or do here, other than take a quick wanter around the small town plaza and drop into its adobe style church that dates back to the 17th century.
A small detour from Route 9 brings you to the town of Purmamarca, where the main attraction is Cerro de Siete Colores, or the Hill of Seven Colours. It’s the most perfect backdrop for this small, tourist-filled town.
For such a small village there’s a surprisingly large amount of eateries and places to stay, and it’s difficult to ignore the riot of colour that fills its streets. Plaza 9 de Julio and its peripheral streets are filled with artisan products like llama wool ponchos, beanies, socks, jumpers and hats, to woven blankets, clay bowls and pots, kids toys and musical instruments.
If you look hard enough, you may spot someone selling local cheese and salami, but one thing you can’t ignore are those giant empanadas being grilled on the street. They’re either filled with ham and cheese or spiced potato and they’re delicious!
Once you’re back on Route 9, the landscape becomes more and more stunning. Purmamarca may have its Hill of Seven Colours, but the small town of Maimará has an enormous ripple that stretch for a few kilometres right next to it. The name of this geological wonder is Paleta del Pintor, or The Painter’s Palette, and you can see why.
One thing that’s difficult to miss while driving past is the Maimará Cemetery. The necropolis covers the summit of a small hill above the town and is filled with small vaults, crosses, dried flowers and statues. A fascinating sight, especially with a backdrop of that stunning mountain.
Several kilometres north is the bigger pueblo of Tilcara, which was our home for the first night. The town is a hub for lodging and has a very decent selection of eateries, bars and museums – perfect to base yourself for a spot of local exploration like hiking, bike rental, horseback riding and even sandboarding. Or, simply wafting about town and taking it all in.
Tilcara’s main square, Plaza Álvarez Prado, is where you can find a daily handicraft market selling all the usuals like textiles, bags, notebooks and coca leaves. Great place to grab a freshly pressed juice from one of the stalls, sit beneath a shady tree and people watch.
Take a turn down Boliviar and you notice a bunch of people selling a variety of things like bunches of fresh herbs, eggs, breads, giant empanadas and slices of delicious pastafrola – a delicious quince tart. This means you’re getting close to Mercado Municipal de Tilcara, the city’s main market.
The front part of the building houses many stalls that sell everything from fruit and veg, to spices, meats and cheeses. It’s a great opportunity to see many of the typical products that are unique to this part of the Andes, and it’s a shame almost everyone tenses up as soon as they see a camera – hence the lack of photos of all the beautiful things they sell.
At the back of the main market building is a covered sports court which is also used for the market. Here is where you find more fruit and veg vendors, fresh and artificial flowers, puffed grain products, household goods, clothing and footwear.
A market wouldn’t be a market without at least some kind of food you can pick up and eat. Over by one wall are a few stands offering grilled skewered chicken, french fries, fugazzeta and breakfast sandwiches.
Let’s not forget the empanadas. These aren’t the massive ones you see grilled on the streets, these are empanadas jujeñas, another variety that’s a little different to those in, say Salta. Empanadas jujeñas are still meaty, but they’re spicier and often have peas and capsicum added. And we love them!
Mercado Municipal de Tilcara, Boliviar 375
Additional to the museums in the centre of town, about 1 kilometre outside of town is Pucará de Tilcara – an open-air museum which was a fortified town originally built in the 12th century by the Omaguaca tribe.
Built on a hill with spectacular views up and down the valley, the pre-Incan fortification of Pucará has been partially reconstructed to give us a better look at how the inhabitants lived. Small square and rectangular stone buildings with low doorways and roofs constructed of wood, mud and straw.
At the top of the hill is a pyramid built in tribute to archaeologists Juan D. Ambrosetti, Salvador Debenedetti and Eric Boman who rediscovered the site in 1906. There’s also a small museum onsite, plus a botanical garden that’s filled with many endemic species of cacti.
Eat & drink.
As mentioned previously, Tilcara has a great selection of restaurants to get your fill on regional food and a few bars to wet your whistle. Spending 24 hours in town didn’t give us much time to sample Tilcara’s food scene thoroughly, but here’s what we got a taste of, anyway.
Walk down the street from the main plaza a bit and you find Ma’koka, the towns most popular coffeehouse. Park yourself in this bookstore-cafe, sit back with a coffee and enjoy the jazzy beats. If books aren’t your thing and cd’s are, they’ve got a fine selection of those, as well.
You can enjoy local vino, artisan beer and nibble on cake or sandwiches made with corn or coca bread. Celiacs are looked after here, as well.
Ma’koka, Calle Dr Manuel Belgrano 420
Right in the centre of town is Sirviñacu, a restaurant and bar where you can sample homemade, regional food and a bottle of local vino. There’s a small terrace at the front where you can sit and people watch, but when the sun goes down and the air cools, head inside and get cosy with another bottle of wine, platter of nibbles – and if you time it right – listen to some live music.
Sirviñacu, Belgrano 406, website
One of the most popular restaurants in Tilcara would have to be La Peña de Carlitos. Come here for lunch and it’s a sleepy affair where you can sit and enjoy good, local food in relative peace.
Come at night, however, and the energy of the place cranks right up with dozens of people filling the tables and others waiting outside, wanting to come in.
The menu is all things regional, plus the Argentine usuals like pasta and milanesa. The empanadas are pretty good, and you can even sample them filled with delicious llama, plus carne, cheese or quinoa.
Llama is a popular meat here in the northwest, so we took full advantage of than. Esofados de llama (85) is a deliciously tender llama stew, slow-cooked with potatoes and served with rice and plenty of bread.
I went for churrasco de llama (85) – which is basically a tender steak with your choice of guarnición (side) – mine was buttery mashed potato.
Desserts were our two new favourites – budín de pan (bread pudding, 40) and queso de cabra con dulce de cayote y nieces (firm goat cheese with honey & walnuts, 60)
The tempo increases a few more notches when the musicians get going at the front of the restaurant and belt out traditional acoustics and vocals. A fun night for all.
La Peña de Carlitos, Lavalle 397
Day 2 involved a little backtracking down to Purmamarca, then onwards along Route 52 through rugged terrain and up Cuesta del Lipán, the Lipán Slope. Hairpin after precarious hairpin and the road reaches the height of 4,170 meters above sea level, before descending into a wide, salty valley and carrying on all the way to the Chilean border.
We didn’t make it as far as Chile, as we were only heading out here to see this.
Covering an area of 525 km², the Salinas Grandes salt flat can be see almost as soon as you descend into the valley from Lipán Slope. The highway runs straight through it, and the first obvious place to stop is at a small information centre where there are craft stalls, as well. Salt llama, anyone?
Our lack of Spanish made it difficult to understand what the protocol was. Could we just park the car and walk onto the salt flats, or did we have to pay?
Eventually we understood it costs 200 pesos per car, where a guide (only speaks Spanish) jumps in with you, tells you where to stop, then they guide you across the salt. It’s quite brittle and unstable in places so you need to know where to walk, otherwise you could end up neck-deep in salty water.
Alternatively, I’m sure that we parked on the side of the highway away from the tourist info, we could have avoided the 200 peso fee and experienced it without a guide.
Either way, it’s a spectacular landscape and worth detouring for. Do note, Salinas Grandes is in high altitude territory – around 3000 m – so altitude sickness can strike. Drink lots of water (or chew on coca leaves, like the locals) and if you do start to feel a bit off, get to lower altitudes as quickly as possible. Also, wear sunscreen and glasses.
There are no towns near Salinas Grande so if you need a lunch stop or something to snack on, options are next to none. We had no food packed, so lucky for us there’s a small restaurant back up the hill that has a few things going.
La Pekana is a tiny, family-run eatery strategically located between the salt flats and the peak of Lipán Slope. There are a couple of tables outside in the high altitude sun, with more inside the cool restaurant.
A board display the days offerings which, considering the isolation, are very well priced. Lunch that day was llama milanesa with mash (130) and empanadas (14 each). Drinks don’t come refrigerated, so I wouldn’t expect anything chilled.
La Pekana, Route 52 (km 54), Saladillo
Backtracking once again, we retraced our steps all the way up to Tilcara and 42 km beyond, to the very dusty town of Humahuaca – which will be our second home for a night and the northernmost point of the road trip.
Despite being the biggest of the three tourist hotspots in the quebrada – Tilcara and Purmamarca being the other two – Humahuaca takes the role of being the quietest and least developed.
The small town centre is washed in white and many Spanish influences can be seen in its adobe buildings. The most impressive would have to be the Cabildo, Humahuaca’s town hall.
At noon each day you can watch the mechanical figure of San Francisco Solano emerge from one of the towers, raise the crucifix in his left hand, then point his right hand as he delivers a benediction. A bit of a novelty, but it does attract attract a small crowd.
For a good view over town, walk up to Santa Bárbara Hill near the main square and take it all in next to the imposing Heroes of the Independence Monument. A few strides away is Torre de Santa Bárbara, the only remaining part of a Jesuit chapel that once straddled the hill top.
The narrow, cobbled streets of Humahuaca are good places to stock up on colourful crafts and textiles from the region, or you could just focus on those enormous charred empanadas that can be seen dotted around town. Some of the girls also sell api, a hot drink made from purple maize, water, sugar and cinnamon – the perfect morning energy boost.
The only indication that there was some kind of produce market in the centre of town was a lone trolley laden with wooden crates of fruit, sitting next to an unmarked doorway.
Inside Mercado Municipal de Humahuaca, it’s a very tight space crammed with a handful of stallholders selling everything you’d expect to see. I lost count of the nervous sideways glances I got each time I lifted my camera to my face. So many lost photo opportunities!
Mercado Municipal de Humahuaca, corner Tucumán & General Belgrano
In a town where restaurants open their doors for dinner no later than 8 or 8.30 pm, finding Pacha Manka trading before that time was like striking it rich. Come on, Argentina, some of us need food before 8.30!
The wine list is fantastic and even the house red was brilliant. The menu is an interesting mix of traditional and ‘progressive’, but we stuck to the traditional.
Picante de pollo (160) is local chicken stew with rice and a single chuño (regional dried potato), and loco pulsudo (125) – a hearty stew of pumpkin, maize, broad beans, chorizo and pork hock. All really good, even if we were in a bit of a touristy restaurant paying tourist prices.
Pacha Manka Cafe & Resto, Buenos Aires 457
A visit to Humahuaca and not seeing Quebrada de Humahuaca would be a bit of a sin, to some. We asked our hostal when the best time was to see it and she said in the afternoon before sunset. One thing we didn’t know was how long it would take to get out there.
If the road was perfectly sealed, the 25 km drive would take about half an hour. The problem is the road is unsealed the entire way, and driving on it in a rental sedan took almost two hours. Sometimes it verged on being a 4×4 track.
To see the coloured mountains in their prime, they need to be bathed in afternoon sun. We were only half way as we watched the shadow of the sun creep up the mountain, and when we eventually got through the boom gate to pay to get onto the property, the sun was behind clouds and about to set.
Frustrating, to say the least. At least we got there before dark.
Day 3 was an early start and back on the road heading south all the way back to Salta. Straight through the city and along Route 33 west through stunning forested valleys along the Escoipe River and then up the spectacular Cuesta del Obispo, or Bishop’s Slope. It’s a slow climb up the hairpins, thanks to most of the road being rock and gravel, but all is rewarded at the 3340 m peak where you can stop and take it all in.
It’s difficult to ignore the multitude of makeshift memorials along the way; locations where drivers lost their lives. Very sad to see, but a part of me isn’t surprised. Seeing locals speed and drive as recklessly as many of them do is beyond comprehension.
Route 33 drops in altitude a little and a vast desert opens up before you. This is Los Cardones National Park, surrounded by mountains and filled with towering cardón cacti. As soon as the road becomes perfectly straight, you know you’re on the Tin Tin Straight Line, named after the mountain to its west. This 12 km straight line was built by the Inca’s and used for centuries to cross this part of the desert, although now it’s covered in asphalt.
Night 3 is spent in the small town of Cachi, located in the fertile Rio Calchaquí valley that’s abundant in crops and vineyards. The streets are filled with white adobe houses decorated with coloured doors, lanterns and panel windows forged with iron grills.
At the centre of town is Plaza de 9 Julio, where locals come to socialise and kids come out to play; especially in the afternoon when the temperature cools and the shadows creep across the cobbled plaza and pale yellow church façade.
A late afternoon arrival meant we had limited time to explore the town centre; what there is of it, anyway. Cachi is a very small place and can be seen in no time.
Evening drinks were well and truly in order, so we perched ourselves on the landing at Oliver Resto Bar, ordered a bottle of local vino, and watched the sky fade and the stars emerge.
Aside from the regular menu that’s very much about local food, pizza and pasta, these guys also do breakfast at 7.30am; which was perfect as the breakfast at Viracocha Art Hostel, where we stayed, started a little late for us.
There’s muesli and combinations like toast, jam, coffee, tea or maté. The above Sud Americano breakfast sets you back about 85 pesos.
Oliver Resto Bar, Ruiz de los Llanos 160
Day 4 started out driving south from Cachi along the Calchaquí River valley and Route 40, which is little more than a 135 km long stony track all the way to the town of San Carlos. Our speeds along the Route 40 ‘track’ barely exceeded 60 km/h as it felt like our rental was going to shake apart any second.
Driving through tiny settlements built of straw and clay certainly made us feel like we were in a very remote part of the country, and the first real town we entered was Seclantás – known for its woven textiles and ponchos. Up on the hill is Cementerio De Seclantas, a fascinating place to explore and catch a great view over town and the surrounding valley.
Route 40 continues south along the Calchaquí River and once you pass the town of El Carmen, the landscape becomes quite something. Millions of years of erosion have formed upturned and tilted layers of ancient sediment into enormous, jagged sculptures. We found ourselves stopping the car many times just to get out and admire these incredible formations.
Corte el Cañon was one of them, and as we got out of our car a guy that was already parked there said we had a flat tyre. It was bound to happen as this part of Route 40 is one shocking piece of infrastructure.
And here we are, at our destination and home for the next two nights. Time to take a break from driving along a 165 km long bumpy road and relax in this tranquil little town in the heart of wine country.
The main attraction here is the vineyards – where Torrontés grape is king – many of which you can walk to from the centre of town. But if indulging vineyards isn’t on the agenda, there’s still enough to see and do around Cafayate.
Being a flat town, Cafayate is very easy to walk around and most of it centres around Plaza 20 de Febrero, the town square. Catedral Nuestra Señora del Rosario overlooks the west side of the Plaza, whereas the other three sides are lined with restaurants, cafes, shops and a handicraft market.
Something that visitors are bound to come across in Cafayate is the heladerías – or ice cream shops – all of them selling a great range of flavours including dulce de leche, cayote (a type of stringy melon, tuna (cactus fruit) and of course – wine.
We sampled cabernet and torrontés sorbet at the heladería that’s tacked onto Parrillada Santa Barbara, as well as the malbec gelato at Il Cavallino – all of them are very refreshing and distinctly flavoured of wine, with a little sweetness. Sadly, the place that started it all – Heladería Miranda – was closed for refurbishment, so we couldn’t give them a go.
Parrillada Santa Barbara, General Güemes Norte 151
Il Cavallino, Vicario Toscano 98
Tucked away just off the plaza is a convenience store that stands apart from the rest. La Última Pulpería is like entering an old rural store that existed a century ago, one that’s cluttered with sacks of herbs, spices, grains and boxes of vegetables. There are candles, medicines, tools, bottles of booze, playing cards, sheep pelts, bales of hay – it’s endless and it’s a fascinating place to visit.
I love that the owner stands around drinking beer with his mates as he serves customers!
La Última Pulpería, Bartolomé Mitre 12
For a little market action, head around the corner from the plaza in the morning hours and soak in the bustle of fruit and vegetable deliveries to the handful of shops clustered around Pasaje 20 de Febrero.
Just as many butchers can be found here, as well as a few tiny convenience stores. I especially liked the one that sold packets of remedies for gastro, period pain and other some ailments – well, the animated illustrations on the packets, that is.
It’s a building you see a lot when you look at Cafayate online – a rather unique house that’s made of brick and render. Known as the ‘llama house’, for obvious reasons, it also features some kind of bird and looks to still be partially under construction.
Who knows, maybe it’s Cafayate’s version of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família, except instead of being a church, the Llama House is more of a ceramic workshop and studio. I only know this because I stuck my face in the front window!
Llama House, Avenida General Güemes Norte 296
Finding somewhere to eat in Cafayate isn’t a struggle, especially if you poke around the main plaza. There’s plenty there, even if the menus are priced for the tourist wallet and seem to be cast from the same mould. Milanesa, pizza, pasta, steak and empanadas. Argentina wouldn’t be Argentina without these five staples.
Venture away from the plaza and you can easily find some little gems, geared more for the locals. This is one of them.
One would think the restaurant is called Coca-Cola, thanks to the blatant mural that takes up its entire side wall. Looking past that, if that’s at all possible, this corner eatery is called La Nueva Esquina. It’s only open from 11am-5pm, there’s no written menu other than a chalkboard, the only seating is on the pavement and it’s seriously cheap.
For some reason I ordered a Coke to cool me down, not sure why, and we asked for the menu. At that point we had no idea there was no printed menu, so asking for the ‘menu’ means you want the menù del día – hence our surprise when the guy came back a couple of minutes later with two bowls of soup.
The penny dropped and we realised we just ordered the menu of the day, which was displayed on the chalkboard. It was only 45 pesos for three courses.
The rustic soup was a very tasty broth with a few vegetables and large hunk of goat, slow cooked, tender and full of bones you could pick up and nibble on. Confronting to some, delicious to us.
The main was milanesa (surprise, surprise) with the most divine buttery mash, and for dessert (or postre, as they say in Argentina) was a delightful cup of orange jelly. I felt like I was ten again, eating that jelly, sipping on Coke, but for three dishes that cost less than $4, who can complain?
La Nueva Esquina, Avenida General Güemes Norte 298
A few doors down from the Coca-Cola restaurant, oops I mean La Nueva Esquina, is the beautifully air-conditioned Flor de Valle. This is Cafayate’s mecca for all things pastry, and aside from the dazzling array of goodies, they do espresso, those huge slab sandwiches you get in Argentina and they even cater for those of us that like to dabble in a little cake decorating. Get your supplies here, cake decorating queens!
As irresistible as it looked, the iced donut tasted like it was left in the Calchaquí Valley sun for several hours – all dry and crumbly – but its un-iced friend seemed like it was made that same day. Decent coffee, if you like your espresso.
Flor de Valle, Av. General Güemes Norte 278
Baco is a great little corner restaurant one block up from the plaza along Avenida General Guemes where, day or night, you can sit outside beneath shady trees, or inside the rustic dining room-bar amongst antique bric-a-brac.
As the name suggests, pizza plays a role on the menu, but there are sandwiches, grilled meats, pasta, milanesa and empanadas. Aside from all the Argentine staples, there are a few ‘unusual’ dishes like trout in black butter or roquefort sauce, and a few rabbit dishes.
We sampled the carne (13) and rabbit (14) empanadas, both of which were oven-baked and really tasty. Even better with a chilled beer.
Worth a try is the conejo a la provenzal (125), a divine pan-fried saddle of rabbit in garlic and parsley. On a second visit, the pollo a la mostaza (chicken in mustard, 155) was another very nice choice.
Baco Pizzeria Resto Bar, cnr Av General Guemes & Rivadavia
Up on the plaza, the most popular joint has to be Resto Bar Don Francesco. Tables and chairs spill onto the pavement and roadside, it always seemed busy and it’s a perfect spot to just sit, eat, drink, listen to live music and enjoy the chilled Cafayate atmosphere.
Out of pure curiosity, we gave the quinoa empanadas (12) a go – something that’s popular in this part of the country. Compared to the carne empanas (9), they’re a bit lifeless and bland.
However, the generous bowl of cazuela de cabrito (lamb casserole, 120) suited me just fine. Tender hunks of lamb, copious amout of potato and carrot, and a rather nice red wine to go with it.
Resto Bar Don Francesco, San Martín 90
Anyone with a penchant for geology has the luxury of having Quebrada de las Conchas on the doorstep of Cafayate. Every tourist agency in town sells some kind of outing to this enormous ravine, so getting there isn’t much of a challenge. Having your own car makes things even better, as you can stop wherever you want, for as long as you want, whenever you want. You can even rent a bike, as many people did.
Barely fifteen minutes out of town and you’re already part of the jaw-dropping scenery. Orange and multi-coloured formations jut out of the valley at obscure angles everywhere you look; most of which have their own names.
My favourite is Los Castillos, or The Castles, which rise from the shallow Conchas River like some abstract, manmade monument. All tours only park by the road and let you see it from a distance, but if you can, get out, walk to the river, take your shoes off and wade through the cool water as you look up in awe at this magnificent beauty.
That’s not all you’ll see. Route 68 has a string of sites along it like Las Ventanas (The Vents), El Obelisco (The Obelisk), El Sapo (The Toad) and Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat).
El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), which you can see below, is one of the most popular sites, due to is unique formation that carries acoustics incredibly well. There’s even a guy playing a musical instrument to demonstrate the sound, which is actually not too bad for a music hall formed entirely by erosion.
Route 68 is also the main road that leads back to Salta, so without further ado, that’s a wrap for our road trip through Northwest Argentina!
Car rental in Salta.
The centre of Salta has an enormous amount of rental companies. Big names like Avis and Europcar and many others that run independently. Do your research to find what’s best for you, and always pay attention to any reviews. There are some real horror stories out there.
We went with a small company called Carodar. They speak English, seemed very reliable and our 4-door sedan was 700 pesos per day. Fuel costs will vary, as you’d expect, but not every town we went through had a petrol station. When renting the car they should show you on your map where the petrol stations are, and if not, you need to ask them.
Regarding the flat tyre we got prior to arriving in Cafayate, we took it upon ourselves to have the flat fixed in Cafayate, as we weren’t sure what the agency would charge to do so. In Cafayate it cost us about 128 pesos (AUD$11) to have the tyre patched and repaired; I’m sure way less than the agency would have charged.
Finally, Argentina’s northwest is extremely dusty, so your car will be far from clean when you return it to the agency. Be sure to ask if they charge for cleaning, before you set out, as our agency charged us 100 pesos to have the car cleaned – which I think is a damn cheek.