The provinces of Salta and Jujuy are home to some of the most scenic drives in Argentina. We picked colonial Salta as a base to explore the northwest’s dramatic landscapes. Let it all sink in with a glass of Torrontés in wine-heaven Cafayate.
After we ended the year in my hometown Malabrigo, we boarded a night bus to Córdoba. Long-distance bus travel is very popular and comfortable in Argentina; breakfast is served in your fully reclinable cama seat. We arrived fresh as a daisy in Cordoba, ready to pick up our rental and start the eleven-hour drive to Salta. Turned out we were a bit too eager to get off the bus, as one important backpack stayed behind. Luckily, I managed to get a hold of the cleaning station across town. Slightly delayed but reunited with our backpack, we started driving through the green hills of Córdoba.
Interesting stops along this route are limited, but San Miguel de Tucumán is definitely one of them. The capital of the smallest province in Argentina is anything but small. One must do in this bustling city is the Casa de Tucumán, where the Argentinean independence was declared more than 200 years ago. At night, light and sound shows make you relive the historic spectacle.
The following morning, we explored the historic centre of Salta. The eye-catcher of the Plaza 9 de Julio is no doubt the cotton candy-colored Cathedral. The plaza lined with trees offers a welcome break from the heat, much appreciated by the many furry friends.
One of the beautiful historic buildings along the plaza harbors three 500-year old Inca children. The mummies were discovered on the Llullaillaco, one of the highest volcanoes in the Andes. The Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) displays a different mummy every six months, to safeguard preservation.
The streets leading up to Plaza 9 de Julio are designed for wandering around, with a lot of clothing boutiques and handicrafts shops. The cosy historic center gives Salta the feel of an average-sized town. That image quickly fades when you take the cable car up to San Bernardo hill.
In the afternoon, we hit the road to the province of Jujuy. The car is your best friend in the northwest, as you watch incredible scenery unfold from the window. The Quechan village of Purmamarca is the starting point for two very scenic roads. Its setting against the backdrop of the Cerro de los Siete Colores is nothing short of spectacular.
Purmamarca’s colorful town square has a year-round handicrafts market. Stock up on inexpensive souvenirs while supporting the local community.
Ruta Nacional 52
The first impressive route leaving from Purmamarca leads into Chile. You better buy some coca leaves along the way, as Ruta 52 winds up to 4170 meters above sea level. Truck drivers chew coca leaves to combat fatigue, but the leaves are also known to prevent altitude sickness. Pieces of leaf all over your mouth with a slightly numb jaw may not be the best feeling, it definitely wins from a burning headache.
The spectacular scenery along Ruta 52 continues after its peak, with an occasional vicuña passing by the window. Further down the road, the red hills make way for a growing white surface.
Salinas Grandes is the second largest salt flat in the world, after its famous big brother in Bolivia. Ruta 52 cuts right through the sea of salt.
Quebrada de Humahuaca
The drive from Salta to Salinas Grandes is about 250 km one way. Needless to say that we were ready to head back to Salta after exploring the salt flats. If you have more time on hand in Jujuy, there’s another route going from Purmamarca towards Bolivia. The Quebrada de Humahuaca made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and with good reason. The spectacular drive through the Rio Grande valley takes you pas colorful mountain ridges, thousands of giant cactuses and remains of (pre-)Incan settlements.
Quebrada de las Conchas
The next day was my birthday, which I got to spend amid the wonders and fruits of nature. We left the city of Salta behind and headed for Cafayate. It soon became clear that we were entering wine country.
Between us and Cafayate’s delicious wines lay just one more scenic route. The Quebrada de las Conchas or “Shells Ravine” covers 30 miles of Ruta 68, north of Cafayate. The drive may as well take you the whole afternoon, the countless stops included.
The route is scattered with dramatic rock formations and breathtaking views. The rocks have such particular shapes that they received names, some more obvious than others. Judge for yourself, from north to south.
Garganta del Diablo – Devil’s Throat
Tres Cruces Mirador
El Sapo – The Frog
Casa de Loros – Parrot’s Nest
Los Castillos – The Castles
Las Ventanas – The Windows
It was late afternoon when we made it to Cafayate, right on time for my Argentinean birthday night. We celebrated with lots of delicious food and wine on Cafayate’s cosy central plaza. Restaurant Terruño served up one of the best dinners we had on our whole trip. The giant glasses of Torrontés may have played a role in that. Argentina’s signature white wine was simply made for hot summer nights. Its unique aroma and flavor take me back to Argentina on every first sip.
We continued our trip through Argentinean wine country to La Rioja and San Juan.