Our Journey through North West Argentina
Salta is a great little city to use as a base to explore North West Argentina. The city itself has pretty, old colonial architecture and is tourist friendly. Within the city you can get a map of all the main sights; including the cathedral, the Church of San Francisco, Plaza de 9 Julio and San Bernadino hill, which can be accessed by cable car or a hike.
There are a few museums too, with many Inca artefacts as Salta was the most southern point of the Inca Empire. It is also home to Idiomas Salta, which we chose as our Spanish school. You can read more in our Learning Spanish blog.
We arrived in Salta from San Pedro de Atacama on an Andesmar bus. The journey had taken 12 hours but was through stunning landscape. The border crossing was uneventful although totally disorganised; we had to get off the bus along with our luggage join one queue to leave Chile, another queue to enter Argentina then get our bags and join yet another queue to have them scanned. Now we are British and so do love a queue, but this wasn’t much fun. There was another European on our bus who had lost his Chilean entry visa, just a slip of paper, but it looked like they may not let him leave. He couldn’t speak any Spanish at all so I spoke to the immigration man and eventually they let him exit.
We passed by many of north west Argentina’s sights which whetted our appetite for coming back to visit them. We are really excited about going into Argentina as so many people told us how much they loved the country. I’m a little wary about the food, apparently it’s just meat, meat, meat so not sure I’ll be eating much.
We chose an AirBnB apartment for the two weeks that we would be in Salta. I was ridiculously excited about being able to cook my own meals. Upon arrival at our apartment I headed straight for the supermarket. It wasn’t easy to get foods that were vegetarian or very British but during the two weeks I managed to knock up a bean chilli, curried rice and a Sunday roast amongst other things. Greg was more excited about the TV channels that were home to English Premiership football. All in all we settled into a home routine.
We started our Spanish lessons two days later and really enjoyed our two weeks. Greg has progressed to be able to be self-sufficient in asking for things and understanding numbers. I have progressed through tenses to be able to put proper sentences together. We are really glad that we took the time to do them.
We ate lunch out a few times, mainly for Greg to experience Argentinian steak. Unfortunately I ended up having salad and chips (fries) or egg and chips. This isn’t the land of gourmet vegetarian food, although there is a vegetarian restaurant in Salta, which surprised me. The steak was funny, in Argentina that’s what you get, just a steak, maybe a lettuce leaf on the side but that is it. It’s like the land that forgot about vegetables! Greg’s favourite steak came from Doña Salta, although he had a great experience at El Viejo Jack too.
We did have an ironic address in Argentina; Islas Malvinas, which the Argentinian’s call the Falkland Islands. It seemed bizarre to have this address as the first one in Argentina, along with a lot of graffiti about the islands that went with it. We were wondering if we are going to have to pretend to be Irish whilst in Argentina. But no, we have found all the Argentinian’s that we’ve met in north west Argentina very friendly indeed.
Salta is close to a lot of North West Argentina’s sights that you can explore either by a bus tours or by hiring a car. We decided to do the latter so that we could have more freedom. The key places to visit are:
- Humahuaca and Tilcara;
- The Salinas Grandes (salt flats) & Cerro de 7 Colores;
- Cachi; and
The drive was a little scary through Salta but once out of the city the roads are generally quiet albeit many are unpaved.
Humahuaca and Tilcara
Taking the road out of Salta towards the town of Jujuy there are a number of really pretty villages. The landscape surround the villages is the colourful valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca. We decided to stay overnight in Tilcara so that we could visit these villages and go to the salt flats without doing a long daily drives. Tilcara has a laid back hippy vibe and is a nice place to wonder around, grab some food and drinks.
We drove up to the Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo) and walked around taking in the beautiful views. The drive up was pretty hairy, I can’t deny that I was quite scared on the steep, one track road with sheer drop. We had to overtake two horses at one point and I nearly had to close my eyes. Luckily for us we were following another car who took care of any oncoming vehicles at least. The Devil’s Throat could be reached by a long hike or by the scary drive up. When you arrive you pay a small entrance fee and then can take an hours walk to a waterfall and a half hour walk around the Devil’s Throat. The views back over Tilcara and the beautiful north west Argentina valleys are simply stunning.
We drove up to Humahuca via Uquía, where there is a church famous for having paintings of angels with guns (ángeles arcabuceros). These paintings were originally condemned by the Church, and many of them were destroyed. The remaining ones are concentrated in the areas around north west Argentina. They were interesting to see as they are famous in South America. Humahuaca is a very sweet little town set in the beautiful coloured hills that this area is famous for. We wondered around the town, and walked up to the huge Independence Monument. I think that Humahuaca would have been a nice place to stay the night too. It has lots of nice places to eat and beautiful buildings.
We stayed in Tilcara at Hostel Apapacha, through Booking.com. The hostel was basic but they had a major positive of their gorgeous young dog, Chola, who we spent hours playing with! I think maybe we miss Juno! We taught her lots of naughty habits – oops! When we went out for dinner though Chola, like most of the dogs in South America, is allowed to wonder freely along the streets and she came and met us. It was very sweet.
We ate at El Nuevo Progreso, and had a lovely meal although the chairs are so uncomfortable. It was quite a treat to have a meal out with a bottle of wine to share, we felt like “normal” people again! They also had a vegetarian option, which wasn’t egg and chips so I was happy.
It took around 6 hours to drive here along pretty decent roads the majority of the time.
A cool tiny village along the banks of the river Iruya, nestling in amongst the mountains. There is not a proper road connecting Iruya to the rest of north west Argentina and it is often impassable due to flooding. Unfortunately, this was the case when we were there so we couldn’t go. The total journey time would have been around 10 hours from Salta, mainly due to the dirt track road.
Salinas Grandes & Cerro de 7 Colores
We drove from Tilcara to Salinas Grandes via the Hill of 7 Colours (Cerro de Seite Colores). We arrived at the Hill at 9am and were so lucky as there were just another 3 people there. One of them sporting a furry llama head. They were Argentinian and very friendly so we were able to do get photos of Greg and I together for a change. The hill is beautiful and well worth a stop. The town of Purmamarca is pretty but very touristy so gets very busy.
The drive up from Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes is breathtaking. We must have stopped 6 or 7 times to take in the view and take photographs. We tagged teamed with an American couple doing the same thing and kept stealing the others’ photography ideas. For the first time in a while we were both hit by the altitude again, but as old hands we just brushed it aside.
The Salinas Grandes are very impressive. Located on north west Argentina’s border with northen Chile we had passed by on the bus that we originally took from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta. We walked onto the salt flats on our own, although you can hire a guide who will drive you 8 kms further into the salt flats. We chose to come here as missed the Bolivian salt flats, but we were more than happy with the Argentinian version. The view is just endless.
Greg and I spent some time taking the silly perspective photographs that are obligatory in any salt flat. The one shame was that we didn’t have a third person to help us, but we had fun anyway!
There are actual working mines here, so we went to see giant mounds of salt and bricks of salt, which were really beautiful. Next to the salt flats, we were lucky enough to see some wild donkeys and guachas up close. They were so beautiful but a little camera shy, so I had to leave the car to take photographs that wouldn’t scare them.
Cachi is a little town around 4 hours from Salta. The town itself is pretty but it’s the journey not the destination that comes up trumps here. You can reach Cachi either by a main road or by taking a detour through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones (Cacti National Park). We took the detour, which probably added another 4 hours, but was totally worth it. There is a dirt track road and we didn’t see more than 4 people on the whole of our drive. The scenery was awesome. I could imagine Clint Eastwood riding through the landscape, full of huge cacti. The cacti look like people quite a lot and it’s no wonder that the first Europeans kept thinking that they were being attacked when spotting them. I took to playing a game of guess the cactus impersonation, which I’m sure quickly bored Greg!
This is the head of the wine making region, with numerous bogatas to visit. It’s around 6 hours’ drive from Salta, so would probably be suited to an overnight stay. There are two reasons to visit Cafayate when in north west Argentina; firstly, for the stunning red rock scenery (Valle Calchaquíes) and secondly for the wine. Cafayate is known primarily for Torrentes, a uniquely Argentinian grape variety that smells fruity but tastes sour.
Train to the Clouds (Tren de las Nubes)
This is an eight-hour train journey (each way) that connects north west Argentina with Chile. The railway is the fifth highest in the world and passengers can eat in the dining car whilst enjoying the views that this area has to offer.
All in all, we had a terrific stay in north west Argentina. We were able to improve our Spanish, stay in a home from home, learn more about the Argentinian culture and people and experience the beauty of the north western valleys. Next stop……Iguazu Falls………
If you enjoyed this post and want to read more about our Spanish Lessons, you can read the specific blog here.
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