Dust swirls on the winding road. The view looking upward is full of yellows, reds, greens and browns, glistening in the midday sun, beneath a magnificent sky exploding in blue. The silence is broken only by the wind. From its symbolic entrance through Santiago del Estero and as far as its northernmost gateway in La Quiaca, northwestern Argentina encompasses traditions and oral histories kept alive through generations by the indigenous peoples who have just recently been encouraged to share their melodies with the outside world.
The journey begins in the city of Salta, one of the busiest in the region. Salta has a colonial air of past glory, with magnificent cathedrals, public buildings, and mansions under the imposing forested hill of San Bernardo. Salta has many museums, including the renowned MAM, Museo de Alta Montana or High Mountain Museum, which houses the famed Children of Llullaillaco, three 500-year old mummies sacrificed by the Inca. Don’t miss the opportunity to go to a Peña on Balcarce street, a folkloric dinner show where gauchos sing perform traditional dances.
Between adventure and relaxation is the best description of Cafayate, south of the capital. It is located near some of the most stunning scenery in the country, the Quebrada de las Conchas, and other prehistoric natural formations such as Devil’s Gorge and the Amphitheatre.
Cafayate is also known for its high altitude wineries which you can tour and sample the different varieties obtained thanks to a unique climate. The most famous wine to come out of Cafayate is the Torrontes, grown exclusively in this region due to the unique combination of altitude and climate. I personally recommend the late harvest Torrontes with its marked fruity nuances.
The drive through the winding Cuesta del Obispo and the visit to the vast Cardones National Park are reasons enough to visit Cachi, a small picturesque town where climbers can set up a base camp before challenging the Cerro de la Virgen or the Nevado de Cachi.
The trail continues north towards Jujuy. From the capital, San Salvador, the first visit is to the Quebrada de los Reyes gorge, a completely different landscape, green, very green in summer, forest-clad mountains divided by the Rio Reyes River. The area is famous for its 50°C thermal waters which can be enjoyed at the Termas de Reyes spa and hotel.
Termas de Reyes was frequented in 1946 by Eva Peron where she had established a treatment center for children. It is an earthly paradise, completely immersed in nature but with the benefit of high comfort. All the hot water used in the hotel comes straight from the hot spring. Its thermal spa overlooking the Gorge is unique in the world. All treatment rooms, gym, sauna and each private thermal bath have a stunning view of the gorge. Enjoy the view while you relax after a day of travel and discovery in the area. I recommend a relaxing float in the outdoor thermal water pool, surrounded by the forest and maybe even a low hanging cloud. After all that relaxation, you can recharge you energy levels without leaving the hotel in its amazing restaurant. Here the regional cuisine takes on a gourmet twist making it even more delicious. And then relax some more…
And after all that relaxation, we continue our journey to Purmamarca. It is advised to get up early to get the best photos of the impressive Cerro de Siete Colores, the hill of seven colors. The main square of this small pre-Hispanic town offers vicuna and llama wool ponchos, woven scarves and rugs in its market, as well as empanadas to take along as snacks for the road.
This is where one of the most beautiful excursions begins, the Salinas Grandes salt flats, 12,000 dazzling hectares of piercingly white salt. The immensity of the salt flats is framed by the most beautiful mountains and blue skies and their reflections in shallow saltwater ponds. Don’t forget to bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a jacket.
Just north of Purmamarca you will find Tilcara, a town that in recent years has been filled with boutique hotels and restaurants. It is considered the archaeological capital of the province because of its Pucara, a pre-Colombian fortress and its main tourist attraction. From the top of the Pucara, near the pyramid monument, you can enjoy an incredible panoramic view of the Quebrada de Humahuaca.
Heading further north into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, we reach the town of Humahuaca, for which the gorge gets is named. Humahuaca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has preserved the profile of a mountain village. The new tourist related businesses respect the traditional construction of adobe and stone which is ubiquitous throughout the city.
Continuing on route 9, always uphill, we reach the northernmost point in Argentina in La Quiaca, with its famous sign that marks the distance to the far south: “Ushuaia 5121 km.” On the way back, there are several options such as: Yavi, a historic town built in the mid-seventeenth century known for the Easter procession of its small; Susques, located at the bottom of a small basin that provides excellent acoustics for its legendary church bells; and Iruya, (in the province of Salta), a town 5,000 meters above sea level known for its church with the blue roof. In addition to streams and hills, Salta and Jujuy share the jungle of the Yungas, the National Park with the most biodiversity in all of Argentina.
To the southeast of the region shine Tucumán and its capital, San Miguel. There, the Historical House of Independence opens its doors every day to visitors who wish to see the room where the Argentine declaration of Independence was signed was. 25 minutes down the road, the landscape changes. The Cadillal reservoir, surrounded by hills, is ideal for connecting with nature. Cerro San Javier hill is a very popular choice for paragliders. A little further on, you get to Tafi del Valle, one of the most beautiful destinations in Tucumán province.
Even further south we reach Santiago de Estero, whose homonymous capital, founded in 1553, is the oldest in the country and has the first Basilica Cathedral built in Argentina. The Convent of Santo Domingo is houses one of the few clones of the Shroud of Turin in the world. A few miles away, in La Banda, cradle of the Carabajal family of musicians, you will find the Patio de Don Froilan where you can see artisans making traditional drums. On the outskirts, the thermal resort of Rio Hondo attracts tourists all year round.
The beautiful landscapes of mountains, rivers and salt flats continue in Catamarca, northwest of Santiago del Estero. San Fernando del Valle, the capital, invites travelers to visit the towns of Rodeo, Las Juntas, and Tinogasta, where hiking along the edge of cliffs is the definition of adventure. Fiambalá, located at the beginning of a high altitude plateau is ideal for wine tasting and enjoying more hot springs. From there, La Ruta de Adobe, the Adobe Road, takes you on a 55 km of old towns and villages, some of them more than 300 years old. In Catamarca, Rute 40 follows the ancient Inca Trail joining Belen, the “cradle of the poncho,” and Laguna Blanca, with its Biosphere Reserve. Not so far away, you can see a series of snowcapped volcanoes rising up more than 6,000 meters. The whiteness of the peaks matches the color of the Salar del Hombre Muerto salt flat in Antofagasta. A unique tour characterized by stunning landscapes and exotic traditions to enjoy.