Top 5 unmissable drives in northwest Argentina
1. Ruta 40 from Cachi to Cafayate
This easily takes the #1 spot. What Route 66 is to the USA, Route 40 is to Argentina. Stunning scenery, cool hippy history, biker dudes heading out into the open road. What more could you ask for out of a route?
Cachi is another unmissable spot in the Andean northwest of Argentina. Cachi is located in Salta province and is southwest of Salta city. Below is the church located in the plaza of Cachi:
It’s a charming, small village surrounded by beautiful mountains. It also boasts a restaurant that makes some of the best pasta I’ve ever had at Ashpamanta:
The drive from Cachi to Cafayate will take you through some of the most beautiful landscape that Argentina has. From red rocks dotted with cactus to white, windswept rocks, you will want to stop all the time to get out and photograph this unforgettable landscape:
Be aware that this is a dirt, non-paved road and at times can be quite bumpy. You won’t be able to go more that 40-50 km/hr so it seems to take forever, perhaps because you will also have to stop often to let herds of goats go by, so plan accordingly.
We did it easily in a rental car, you do NOT need a 4×4 as some other people told us. We didn’t have any problems with the crappy Chevy we had. The only time you need to exercise extra caution is in Dec/Jan because it will be the rainy season and the area is prone to flash floods. Check with a local for road conditions if driving in those months.
This route is about 160 km and will take you at least 5 hours. If you have an extra day, don’t miss a night or at least a day visit to the appealing Molinos (located in between Cachi & Cafayate). If you do stay in Molinos, take the day and drive to Colomé vineyards-incredible wines and another unmissable drive:
Tip: If staying the night in either Cachi or Molinos, look for a hospedaje to stay in. These are very inexpensive rooms located in local villagers homes. Often you can get breakfast included for an extra 5 pesos more. Shop around and ask to see the room first.
2. Route 42 through National Parque Cardones
If you are driving from Salta to Cachi via Route 33, you will pass a sign for Route 42. Stop what you’re doing, make a left and head into one of the best drives you will ever take. What really sets this route apart making it one of the most unique drives I have ever done, is that you feel like you are hiking but you are remain in the car. What exactly does that mean? That this road puts you right smack in the middle of the most stunning terrain you will come across. Usually you have to get out and go for a hike to truly be in the middle of a landscape. That’s not the case on this drive where you will be immersed in complete beauty.
Red rocks punctuated by giant cactus and unexpected yellow flowers line this dirt road which weaves right through the Parque Nacional Cardones. Simply breathtaking. Driving the entire route 42 takes about an hour but you will want to take much more time for photos:
3. Road to Iruya
I’ve written all about Iruya here but I just cannot say enough about how extraordinary this route is. Head off of Route 9 and take a right onto Route 13. It’s a dirty, dusty road that can be pretty bumpy in places but please don’t let this discourage you.
You will be fine, even in a rental car. The road will take you through mountains in all shades of gold, red and browns leading you to the top which is often shrouded in clouds. As you descend on the nail-biting, hairpin turns down, you will be treated to even more beauty:
Huge, rocky canyons in every color invite you in and finally you see the cobblestoned Iruya lying in the distance:
The road takes about 3 hours once you turn off Route 9 and it’s worth to take at least 2 days to explore Iruya and the surrounding area. Unmissable.
4. Road from Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes
Purmamarca is on every tourists list of places to see in the northwest. And yes it’s true, it’s worth a stop. The mountains behind Purmamarca contain practically every color imaginable and while the town lacks charm, it’s worth a few hours of your time. But a lot of people I met, simply turn around and head somewhere else. This is a big mistake! Paved route 52 winds its way up to an altitude of almost 5,000 meters (16,400 ft). Intense colors and old adobe churches are just a few of the things to see as you ascend:
After twisting and turning up some incredible windswept rock formations in colors of green, purple and pink,climbing on right through the clouds, you will arrive at the peak. When we reached the top we had punctured above the clouds, back into blue sky and the visibility was such that you could see for miles:
As you descend down road 52, you continue on and enter the Salinas Grandes, a blinding oasis right in the middle of the road:
Guide books I had read told me that if I plan to visit Bolivia’s bigger and better salt flats, that I need not visit these. It’s true, the salt flats are not as big as in Bolivia, but the drive there is. Don’t miss this one.
Plan on at least 2 hours one way for making this drive (a bit less if you don’t want to stop). If you have the time, I highly recommend that you keep driving on past Salinas Grandes on to Rinconadillas, which I wrote more about here.
5. Route 9 from Tilcara to Yavi
We questioned if we should go all the way up to Yavi. Yavi is located in the Jujuy province and sits on the border of Argentina between Bolivia and the rest of the country. It seemed a bit out of the way. It’s a 5 hour drive if you are coming from Iruya and I think it’s surely worth it, not so much because Yavi is the most spectacular village but because the scenery on the way to Yavi is jaw-dropping. You’ll pass by psychedlic swirled mountains in shades of purple, pink, gold and green and every color in between.
Yavi is another typical adobe village of the northwest and isn’t overly impressive:
although the church here is extraordinary:
It was finished building in 1690 and has remained, for the most part, unchanged since that time. Gold plated wood and beautiful wood carvings with wood imported from Cuzco, Peru are just some of its unique highlights:
It’s open M-F from 14:00 til 17:00 and Sat from 9:00-12:00. If you want to spend the night here, the Posada La Casona is a great, inexpensive option (and one of your only ones). The hostel is furnished in wood and adobe and is lovely both inside and out:
There is not much to eat in Yavi, so bring your own provisions or 16 km south, you’ll find La Quiaca, an unsightly, run-down town. Directly on Route 9 you will find a restaurant of the same name (Ruta 9); it’s on the right hand side heading there from Yavi, and while it’s a complete hole-in-the-wall, it has pretty good food.
These 5 unmissable drives are just a taste of what the Andean northwest has to offer. Almost every other drive you do in this region is bound to be spectacular. Honorable mentions go to: Route 68 from Cafayate to Salta through the Quebrada de Cafayate-another absolute stunner: