Top tips for visiting the northwest of Argentina
Visiting the northwest of Argentina was one of the highlights of our trip in South America so far. However, I found it a bit daunting when planning our time in this region. There is so much to see and do, where do you start? We knew we wanted to rent a car for sure to give us freedom and flexibility but for how long? Where would we rent the car? I scoured the internet and guide books for answers. For those of you planning a trip to this stunning area, I hope to address some of your questions and provide tips in visiting this special region.
First things first though. How do you even get to the Andean northwest? There are 2 main ways.
If you are coming from North America, Europe or Australia, you will probably fly from your home country into Buenos Aires (EZE airport). If you are from the USA, they will make you pay a reciprocity visa fee of $160. It definitely sucks but it’s because we make Argentines pay that same fee when they arrive to the US. You can pay & receive your visa directly at the airport or at the border if you arrive by bus. The good news is you won’t have to pay again for 10 years-they will put a sticker in the back of your passport and it’s good until then. From Buenos Aires you can fly directly to Salta or even better to Tucumán. Aerolineas is one airline that offers reasonable rates to Tucumán or Salta from BA.
If you are travelling around pretty much any region in Argentina, you can take a bus. Buses in Argentina are not like other countries. Especially not like the USA where taking a greyhound is a complete nightmare. Buses here are far superior, rivaling first class on an airplane. If you book a ‘suite’ bus, you will be treated to completely flat 180 degree seats, champagne, a hot meal with wine and possibly even whiskey for dessert! You can also watch movies by day or even play bingo! I kid you not. If you don’t splurge for the ‘suite’ (totally worth it), surely get the ‘Cama’ class where you at least will get a meal and the seat reclines somewhat back. Avoid ‘Semicama’ where the seat doesn’t recline back so much and you probably won’t get food.
Plataforma 10 is a great website for helping to book your bus travel in Argentina. But keep in mind, what you see on the website is not every single bus that travels to that area. So you should just use this website as merely a guide, although we have booked many of our tickets right online. Also, if you do book online you MUST print out your ticket from either your hostel/hotel or from somewhere in town. You cannot board the bus without some form of a printed ticket.
General travel tips for the area:
1. Rent a car
If you are on a budget, like we are, try to find some other people who also want to rent a car so you can share expenses but no matter what your budget is, you really NEED to have a car for this region. Tours are overpriced and buses don’t go to every village and if they do, you may have to wait a day or two to catch one due to availability. The car rental is pretty expensive but even more costly is the insurance. Gas is also a big expense, figure about $60-$70 (US$) for each fill-up for a standard car. Most people rent their car in Salta and I suppose if you are flying into Salta, this makes sense. But if you are coming by bus or can arrive in Tucumán instead, the car rental prices are much cheaper. We rented the standard Chevy car that they give everyone for about $50/day. Salta quotes were almost double that. The bonus of visiting Tucumán is this amazing hostel and tasting the legendary Tucumán empanadas.
2. Come up with a plan and try to extend your time
This really depends upon how much time you have in the first place. But sometimes you can pull time from other places. In talking to people who visit this area, I find people often shortchange their time up here. I think that’s crazy. Shorten your time in Cordoba or Mendoza or even Buenos Aires and spend more time here. If you don’t, when you arrive here, you’ll wish you had. I would say at least 5 days in this area is the bare minimum. We spent almost 3 weeks and it was ample but I would have liked even more.
3. If you like wine, don’t miss Cafayate & Molinos
I already wrote about the wonders of Cafayate which you can check out here. I’ve met a lot of travelers from Argentina that just want to go to Mendoza for wine. I really prefer the smaller, less touristic wine region of Cafayate. The winemakers here seem more passionate about their product and because Cafayate is so small, a lot of the bodegas are close to the village and are easily walkable or bikable. If you are really bent on trying Malbec wine, the grape also flourishes here, although the production is much larger in Mendoza. Torrontes is a white grape that is the real star here. Molinos is north of Cafayate and shouldn’t be missed due to the massive but wonderful Colomé vineyard. Plan to spend at least a day there, if you have the time. The drive into Colomé is one of the best in the region and the wines are spectacular. Worth a detour!
4. To save money on lunch, get some empanadas. Actually, don’t miss out on the empanadas in this region!
Empanadas are found all over Argentina. And if you have been traveling around Argentina for any amount of time (or South America for that matter), chances are you are sick of them. Well, if you can manage to muster through another empanada, I urge you not to skip out here! The empanadas here are fantastic and unique to the region. Both Tucumán and Salta boast their own unique versions and I implore you to try both! As an added side bonus, they are both inexpensive and filling and make a great lunch especially when washed down with the local Salta beer. You can even find them filled with quinoa, as pictured above.
5. Don’t spend too much time in Salta
Salta is a beautiful city and home to many extraordinary, colonial-style churches. It’s got an exciting nightlife, great museums and many local peñas which are places where you can hear the traditional folkloric music of the gauchos. In some places, you can even watch traditional gaucho dance, where they will dress up in costume. Salta caters to tourists and has first-rate facilites but it also retains a small city feel and much of it’s own culture and character. Not an easy balance and Salta does it with ease. However, given all these great things about Salta, I still feel like 3 days is plenty. If you really want a big Argentine city, stay in Buenos Aires. You are coming to the nothwest for the landscape, so spend more time outside the cities. Some people I know spent a week in Salta only later to tell me it was much too much time. 2 or 3 days is plenty. Trust me on this one.
6. Stay in locally run hospedajes both for saving money and meeting locals
In small villages like Molinos, Cachi, Iruya, San Isidro or Riconidillas, you have a great opportunity to get out of the hostels and stay with a local. Local hospedajes, as they are called, are numerous in these areas. Just look for a sign outside a house or ask a local where you can stay. Most of the time, it’s about US $6/per night including breakfast. Often you will have your own room with a shared bathroom. All the ones we stayed at were spotless and the hosts were very friendly. It’s ideal for practicing your Spanish or hanging out with the local kids. A great memory from this trip is drinking beer on the porch in a hospedaje while learning how to play dominoes with one of the local kids.
7. Don’t miss the local goat cheese and pan casero, it’s the only really good cheese in Argentina!
Argentina has many great foods. Cheese is not one of them. You’ll need lots of good luck to find good cheese or good coffee in this country. That is, until you get to the northwest. Starting just north of Tucumán, you will begin to see old ladies on the side of the road selling fresh queso de cabra. This is fresh goats cheese and of a surprisingly high quality! Often they are selling it with pan casero, which is a homemade flat bread. Don’t hesitate to stop and try some. It’s also available everywhere once you get to Cafayate. A must try.
Tips for specific regions:
San Miguel de Tucumán:
Tucumán is grossly undervalued in terms of places to visit in the northwest. If you are on a time budget, one day is enough but I think this city, while not as dazzling as Salta, has enough to merit a visit. Keep reading for more tips:
1. A la Gurda hostel is reason alone to visit this city. The warmest friendliest people, comfortable beds, spacious dorms, separate mens & womans bathroom, huge balconies all set in a renovated, historic house. Worth the visit to Tucumán alone.
2. If you decide to rent a car (which you really should), do so here. You will save a lot of money (probably half of what you would spend if you rent in Salta). We rented from Hertz, which was a sound choice.
3. Don’t miss the Tucumán empanada, The meat is typically steak (as opposed to ground beef), they are often fried and served with a lemon or lime wedge. You can find them everywhere. Or better yet, come during their annual festival de empanada in the beginning of September which celebrates this tasty pie.
Cafayate is the perfect town for exploring the regions fantastic vineyards. All kinds of grapes are grown here including Malbec, Cabarnet Sauvignon and the popular Torrontés, as well as others. Here is some practical advice for visiting this town. If you would like more information about Torrontés, click here for an article I wrote all about it.
1. Plan on at least 2 or 3 days here. It would be nice to go on foot one day to the wineries that are in town and rent a bike (or if you have a car) spend the next 2 days visiting the bodegas outside town. Or you could take one day for hiking in the region. There is gorgeous scenery every way you look and some nice hikes to look into.
2. Skip the restaurant Terruno. We wanted a nice meal to splurge on and this one came so highly recommended, we felt we had to try it. Big mistake. Way overpriced and the food didn’t measure up. We left feeling very disappointed. You are better off eating empanadas for dinner.
3. Speaking of these lovely pastries, do NOT miss La Casa de las Empanadas. Located just off the main plaza (Mitre 24) it doesn’t look like much from the outside. The surly and slow service will be forgiven when you bite into one of these tasty treats. Some of the best empanadas we had on our travels in Argentina with big variety. The humitas here were the best I’ve tried as well.
4. Don’t miss Cabras de Cafayate. You can visit this goat cheese farm and get a tour to see how they are making this cheese (tour is in Spanish) and at the end, you can sample the goods. Or if you don’t have time to take a tour, you can buy this cheese at a few of the bodegas and directly at Cabras de Cafayate. The cheese is truly delicious, some of Argentinas best cheese.
5. Check out my post for which bodegas to hit up. Skip on Las Nubes, we were very disappointed, although the bodega is in a lovely location.
Parque Nacional Calilegua
Parque Nacional Calilegua, located in the Jujuy province in Argentina has some beautiful landscape. The green rainforest-like environs are a welcome change from the desert landscape. The parque is located in a cloudforest and you will experience much different surroundings here than in the rest of the northwest. There are some great hiking trails in the park and you can camp overnight if you have the equipment. Here is some advice for visiting the area.
1. You can drive through the park on a dirt, windy road which is in pretty good shape, although at times can be a bit bumpy. It will take you 1.5 hours (one way) to drive the road up to the top. Along the way, you can stop off and park for the numerous hiking trails (ask the guards at the office for a map), which are all conveniently numbered. If you have extra time, go another 1.5 hours further to the small village of San Francisco. You can spend the night here in local hospedajes. Lets say you have 2 days for the park; you can spend one day driving up the road and hiking various trails. Spend the night in San Francisco and the next day drive back out. We had 2 days in this area and I had wished we went to S.F. but we didn’t know about it in advance.
2. If you only have 1 day for the park, you can spend the day in the park either driving or hiking (or a bit of both) and spend the night in the nearby town of Libertador San Martín. This quaint, very small town is not touristy in the slightest. The town is working-class devoted to the production of sugar cane. So if you really want a local experience, you shouldn’t miss it. People here are some of the warmest and friendliest. We stayed at Residencial Gloria (just ask a local where it is) and we were taken care of like family. Most of the other guests there are workers from the nearby sugarcane plant. There aren’t many options to eat but we ate both nights at La Nueva Casona, decent food for cheap prices.
Tilcara is one of my favorite towns in the northwest. It’s located in the Jujuy province about 84 km north from San Salvador de Jujuy. It’s a bit touristic but it still retains a charm of its own and it’s a very pretty town being located in the valley surrounded by stunning mountains. There are some decent restaurants in the area and it’s a nice base for exploring nearby regions. Some people prefer to base themselves in Purmumarca but I prefer Tilcara. Here are some suggestions to help make your stay even better.
1. Stay at Hostel Malka. One of the best hostels I have ever stayed at, Malka is located up on the hill at Barrio Malka, Tilcara 1642. The hostel is actually individual cabanas which you share with your fellow hostel-mates. Each cabana boasts stunning views, a huge bbq, furnished patio for dining al fresca, hammocks, a well-equipped kitchen and more. The views from everywhere are amazing, the host is so friendly and the breakfast delicious. Don’t miss this one. Worth going to Tilcara for.
2. Don’t miss the Pucará de Tilcara. It’s located up on the hill, just over the bridge outside of town. The views from this pre-Inca ruin site are worth the walk up alone. For a small fee, you can walk among the ruins which served as a strategic military center.
3. For eating out, try El Patio (Lavalle 352) or Khuska Resto Bar (Padilla S/N, Tilcara 4624) both have good food for a reasonable price.
Salta is a beautiful city that boasts some of the most unique colonial churches that I have come across. Solid eating, local peñas to experience the folkloric lives of the gaucho and distinctive museums give Salta a character of its own, even if the town is centered around tourism. The tourist services here cannot be beat. But remember, you are better off doing it on your own in a rental car. Either way, you can’t miss a stop here in the ‘capital’ of this province. Below, find some advice for visiting the city.
1. Don’t miss an experience at a local peña. Peñas are places where you can usually get dinner and drinks but will also be treated to the local, folkloric music of the gauchos. Often times, people will dress up and traditionally re-enact dances. Down on Balcare Street, you will find a slew of them, some quite touristy. One of my favorite we visited was La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1). First off, the food was really good and very reasonably priced. Secondly, the place is set up so that you have your choice of different rooms to dine in. Musicians usually start coming in at 10 pm or so and they are not pre-booked players. Every night is different depending on who shows up. Music starts in one room and then another and by the end of the night, it can get pretty loud but it’s a wonderful experience. Plan to stay at least until 1 or 2 am.
2. Budget sleeping options: Backpackers hostel (Urquiza 1045) very solid place or 7 Duendes (San Juan 189) is another good option. We also liked Salta por Siempre (Tucuman 464). Don’t miss the empanadas at La Criollita (Dr Facundo De Zuviria 306) or El Buen Gusto Empanadas (O Higgins 575)
3. Tren a las nubes. Do it yourself though and just rent a car. You can drive the same route for much cheaper and without all the tourists. But if a touristy train is your thing, then by all means take this unique train to the clouds.
4. Walk the city and see the churches. Great colonial architecture is what makes these churches stand out and each one is different and extraordinary.
Molinos is a very small town (more like a village) on Ruta 40 between Cachi and Cafayate. Most people just pass it by but I highly recommend a stop here and if you can stay a night, you won’t be disappointed. Here are a few tips:
1. If you stay the night, take the day and don’t miss bodega Colomé. The drive there from Molinos is spectacular. It takes about an hour one way but leave yourself more time for this drive. We went for the sunrise the following morning and were treated to gorgeous lighting on the rocks. The wines at Colomé are some of the best we tried in Argentina and you can also eat lunch there. Strangely, there is a museum there as well, which has nothing to do with wine but is a fascinating place to visit. Do not miss it if you have the time! I won’t describe it so you will hopefully we as surprised and delighted as I was. Another tip: skip the lame movie they will try to show you at the bodega. Leave your time to taste these fantastic high-altitude wines or walk among the vineyards on the bodegas own trails.
2. Stay at Cardones Molinos. A hospedaje which is warm and friendly and centrally located.
Cachi is an unmissable town and the drive from Salta to Cachi is amazing too. More like a village, Cachi has a small size but is worth spending the night. Here are a few tips for Cachi.
1. Don’t miss a meal at Ashpamanda! We walked into this little place not knowing what to expect. There are only 4 tables and the kitchen is in plain view of the diners. The kitchen is not your typical restaurant commercial kitchen, instead it’s simply a home kitchen. Pasta plays a big part in the menu but when we ordered the pasta we weren’t expecting what was to come next. The ‘waitress’ (there are only 2 people running the place, the chef and the assistant who acts as waitress as well) explained that the meal will take some time to prepare. I was stunned when I saw the chef preparing fresh pasta and rolling it through a machine. This was some of the best, freshest ravioli I have ever had. Unmissable if you are in Cachi.
2. Walk up the top of the hill to the sublime cemetery. You will find beautiful cemeteries located all over the northwest Argentina (and they are always up on a hill somewhere). This one I found especially beautiful. Go at sunset for optimal lighting.
3. Stay at a local hospedaje. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the one we stayed in, but it was up the hill, opposite the cemetery, up from the plaza.
I’ve already said a million times that Iruya is unmissable. I won’t go on anymore about it, I promise. I will just give you a few tips.
1. Plan for at least 2 nights. If I had to do it again, I would stay one night in Iruya and one night in nearby San Isidro. In Iruya, stay at the local hospedajes. We stayed at Clarisa but there was an even nicer place just before you arrive at Clarisa. I wish I could remember the name but you can’t miss it. Look for it if you go. Also, always ask to see the rooms first and the bathroom so you know exactly what you are getting. Don’t be shy, this is how everyone does it.
2. Even if you don’t have time to spend the night in San Isidro, hike there for the day. It’s about 5 hours total (3 hours in, 2 hours back). It’s mostly flat except the last bit that climbs sharply up to San Isidro. There isn’t much shade at all, so bring sunscreen, a hat and water. Don’t bother packing a lunch, instead don’t miss a fresh homemade lunch at Comedor Norte or the local empanada place. You can also get water (and beer!) in both places.
3. The place to eat in town is Tina’s. Check their hours though, we went when it was closed. Margarita’s is a good alternative.
4. To save even more money, most of the hospedajes will let you cook your own food. Keep in mind the ‘grocery’ stores in Iruya are teeny-tiny with hardly any selection. I ate the worst pasta of my life in Iruya that I mistakenly bought from a big bulk bag. It practically turned to mus in the boiling water. Gross. Try to bring some groceries from another town.
San Salvador de Jujuy
Jujuy is the other province in the area (the other being Salta). San Salvador de Jujuy is the capital of this region. We spent one night in San Salvador de Jujuy but honestly, if you are on a time budget, just skip it. There is not much to see or do here but we did eat at a nice restaurant where we had a delicious llama stew. Restaurant Viracocha (Independencia 994) is worth a stop if you are hungry and in the area.
Purmarmarca & Humahuaca
Just drive through. These are two of the most touristic, boring towns in this region. I’m sure there are nice places to stay and eat in both of these places but I didn’t care for the vibe in either. The surrounding area, however, in both of these areas is stunning and there are some amazing hiking opportunities around Humahuaca. Don’t miss these areas but not worthy of spending a night, in my opinion.
If you have visited these regions and have anything to add to my list, I would love to hear from you! Enjoy the beautiful NW!