5 Places not to be missed in the northwest of Argentina
When planning a trip to visit Salta and the northwest of Argentina you have many choices as to which routes to take and what cities to stop in. I asked a lot of people for advice and what they thought and also did some research on my own. But still, it was a difficult decision. Everyone says you have to stop in Cafayate and Salta and they are right. They are both beautiful places in their own right. Time is also a big factor. Many people who visit this region have limited time, maybe even only a week. If there is any way you can find any extra time, I recommend that you really do it in this area. The scenery is truly breathtaking, the people you will meet can be some of the most friendly in Argentina and the villages you stop in are all amazing.
Now that I have been to these places and experienced the northwest for myself, I would like to give some advice to any of you looking to plan a trip there. I won’t tell you to visit Salta, Cafayate and Pumamurca. Most likely, if you visit my 5 unmissable places, you are going to pass through these popular areas. However, If I had known then what I know now, I would take more time to linger at these 5 unmissable spots.
Easily the number one place we visited during our travels, Iruya will literally take your breath away. Heading north on Route 9 towards the Bolivian border, you will see a turnoff sign heading east for Iruya via Road 13. The road starts out bumpy and dusty but don’t get discouraged. It’s going to take you a total of 3 hours to get in all the way to Iruya but the reward is huge. Head over the brilliantly colored, treeless mountains all the way to the top.
You know you are at the top when you see a large pile of empty soda and water bottles. What looks like a leftover party by the local youth, is actually what’s left of offerings to Pachamama (mother earth). It is customary to leave a bottle as an offering to her and ask for protection from things like earthquakes. After you arrive at the top, you start to descend down the nail biting, dusty road as it zig zags down revealing jaw dropping views of the valley.
Finally, you arrive to Iruya, population 1,070 sitting high at elevation 2,780 m (9,120 ft). It helps if you chew some coca leaves if you start to experience altitude sickness. They are legal only in the north and you can find them everywhere sold in stores but don’t get caught with them in your bag when you start heading south. The people in the town will all greet you with a smile and you can stay in one of several local family-run hospedjaes. We stayed at Casa familia Clarisa for AR 30 pesos per night ($6) and had a double bed with a hot shower and breakfast. We stayed a total of two nights in Iruya and I could have easily and happily stayed longer. Not to be missed.
Iruya by night:
2. San Isidro
If you visit Iruya, don’t miss San Isidro. It’s a 7 km walk to there from Iruya. We did it as a day hike, which you could certainly do but it would have been even better to spend the night there. You follow the river on the well trodden trail for about three hours and the last 10 minutes, you ascend up to the top of this tranquil, beautiful village. We arrived very thirsty; there isn’t much shade on this hike and it was a hot, sunny day, so plan accordingly if you go hiking. San Isidro was a hikers dream. We were instantly greeted by one of the local villagers and when we asked him if we could eat something in the town he happily ushered us into his beautiful garden. Two table were quickly set up, rounds of beer and huge liters of cold water were brought out. He set off to pick us fresh lettuce and beets from his garden and within the next hour, he brought out a simple yet amazingly fresh meal. A hiker can only dream something like this up after walking all day in the sun. I felt like I was in a dream as I sat eating delicious food in a spectacular landscape.
Our chef proudly showing off his goods:
We had to leave to go back to Iruya but I could have easily lingered in San Isidro and spent the night in this peaceful space. Don’t miss this one either.
Many visitors to the northwest make a point to stop at Pumamarca. Some decide to go to Salinas Grandes, others do not. The guide books we read tell you it’s not necessary to stop at Salinas Grandes if you plan to visit the Salar de Uyni in Bolivia. It’s true, the salt flats are bigger and better in Bolivia, however, the drive up to the Salinas Grandes should not be missed and leave some time and maybe even a night to visit Rinconadillas and the other little villages that lie beyond Salinas Grandes. The road going up to the Salinas zig zags upwards to a height of 4,000 m offering spectacular views all the way up.
Plan to stop often for many photographs. As you descend from the top, the Salinas Grandes stretches out in front of you, it’s white expanse shining brilliantly in the sun. It’s an amazing place to stop and walk around but be sure to continue on the road.
On the right hand side, you will see a sign to turn off for Rinconadillas. Take this bumpy dirt road with its stunning golden hued landscape views to Rinconadillas. It is one of the first villages you will come across. The population is about 400 and people here are warm, friendly and willing to have a chat.
Llamas walk up the dusty streets where you’ll find old abuelas weaving their wool into scarves and socks and if you are hungry, one of the locals will invite you in for some beer and pizza. You can spend the night in villages like Rinconadillas at homestays (just ask one of the locals and they will point you in the right direction) and I had wished we had time to do so. If you have the time, you are sure not to be disappointed.
4. Parque Nacional Cardones
Driving from Salta to Cachi, you will pass by Parque Nacional Cardones. Once again you will find the landscape completely changes and this time you find yourself in the middle of a surreal landscape dotted with cactus everywhere (cardones is the Spanish word for cactus). But the best part of this park, lies in the detour you can take off of Route 33 (the paved road). Hop on dusty road number 42 for a memorable way to Cachi. You will want to stop every minute to take photos but it’s better to just park somewhere and walk around.
The best part about this road is that it feels like you are hiking, even though you are driving. Many roads take you nearby some spectacular sights but road number 42 takes you right through it.
There are many choices of places to base yourself north of Salta. Pumamarca and Humahuaca are popular choices. These towns are indeed nice but I felt that Tilcara retains more of an authentic feel, even though it is also a tourist town like the others. We stayed at the amazing hostel Malka where I could have easily stayed for a week or two, so I’m sure that helped me like this town ever more than I already did. Everywhere you look in Tilcara, the views are amazing.
And it’s worth it to drive up to the Pucará which is a site of pre-Inca ruins. The views from here are incredible. We liked Tilcara so much, we went back again.
It’s not easy to plan a trip to the northwest and so if you would like any further information about these areas, please do not hesitate to contact me. I will be more than happy to answer all of your questions or provide you with more details.