Road Trips in Northern Argentina

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Road Tripping Through Northern Argentina

The Andean desert in the north of Argentina is an outer-worldly landscape of cliffs and canyons. Remote villages and quaint towns make up the bulk of the life in the area, and when meandering along the mountain roads you stumble across wine country, salt flats, rainbow mountains- features famous and crowded with tourists in other parts of South America. Yet, in Argentina, they’re deserted.

Leaving from Salta, most visitors group together to hire a car. I can’t drive, but two French girls that I found on Couchsurfing did. They recruited a fourth girl from a French backpacking group on Facebook, and we pitched together to get a car for a few days.

Earliest light in the centre of Salta

Earliest light in the centre of Salta

Salta

I took the night bus to Salta from Cordoba, reaching the desert town in the early morning. I awoke to watch us pull past cowboys riding horses in front of saloon-style buildings, sporting spurs and Stetson hats. These gauchos saunter past large statues of conquistadors, which I have always thought of as very weird. The town is incredibly proud of their role in gaining the independence of Argentina, and these monuments to their own occupation seem a touch out of place. The dusty desert roads leading into Salta meet an end at the more built up centre of town, the hub of the tourist routes in Northern Argentina. This is where you’ll find the tour companies, the car rentals, the hostels with more than 4 beds. The city itself is worth more time than a brief stop-in to find a tour, however.

Visit the unique museum of Incan ritualism, with the only other mummified ritual sacrifice outside of Arequipa, the beautiful pink cathedral and churches, the imposing statue of the northern hero General Güemes. Eat llama empanadas and sip on cafe con leches in Plaza 9 de Julio. You can also take a cable car, or hike up to, Cerro San Bernardo for a view of the city from a high.

Visiting in June, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to see the gaucho festival that celebrates the death-day of General Güemes, and the crucial role that the gauchos played in the liberation of Argentina. Thousands of gauchos from the north of Argentina congregate, with a parade, musical performances and street festivities springing up in celebration. The festival is on the 17th of June, if you happen to be in the area it’s definitely worth a visit.

A gaucha in the procession

A gaucha in the procession

Cachi

We set off early in the morning for Cachi. Winding roads took us through multicoloured mountain ranges, fields of thousands of towering cacti, and desolated desert highways. The roads are good, the ride is smooth, and the views are spectacular. The only life you see along the way are tiny Quechuan villages, each consisting of a couple houses, a church and a football field, and the occasional person selling use of their toilet on the side of the road. The lack of life is part of what makes the journey so special. The Atacama Desert is beautiful, the Bolivian Altiplano is beautiful, but Northern Argentina takes what is special about those regions and takes away the buses full of tourists that you inevitably run into there.

Quaint and quiet, Cachi is an obvious stop on the journey round the region. They do impose tourist prices, but there are plenty of places that you can grab food or stay for a night after a long drive.

We, instead opted to head for Molinos.

Molinos

We figured that, being only a short distance from Cachi, it’d be best to drive a bit of a way on to Molinos and save ourselves the gringo prices of the hostels in Cachi. This was not necessarily the wisest move. The road was rocky and difficult, making for a significantly less smooth journey than we’d grown used to. The town of Molinos itself was also tiny, consisting of 2 dirt roads, a hostel, a church and a corner shop. We were told that there were restaurants we could find food in, but each was shut when we tried to check them out in the evening. The corner shop also didn’t sell anything we thought we could fashion into a meal, I’d recommend picking up ingredients in Cachi if you’re planning on taking the road up to Molinos.

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Cafayate

Less colourful but equally imposing, carved rock faces frame twisting roads, stretching out to the horizon without another soul in sight. We stopped constantly along the journey, climbing whichever mountain paths or dried out river gorges happened to take our fancy. The drive was shorter today, we wanted to make the most of our time in the town of Cafayate.

A wine district thousands of metres above sea level, Cafayate’s bodegas produce a unique and interesting breed of wines. We went to the first vineyard we found on Google Maps, learnt about the process of growing and maturing the wines, and acting grown up enough to understand how to properly sample and critique wines at the sampling. Being with a group of French girls definitely helped us seem like we knew what we were talking about. We also visited the wine museum, which covered similar information about the unique processes involved in making wine at high altitude.

At night, a small artesian market springs up in town, which was empty of tourists the night that I visited. Browse Inca style art and alpaca wool products, chat to the local ladies who make them, enjoy a locally brewed beer or wine, and relax.

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Salinas Grande

Salar de Uyuni rightfully retains the title of the most famous, and most impressive, salt flats in the region. You can also find salt flats in Chile and in Peru. However, having seen all of these, the remarkable difference is that there aren’t any other people in Salinas Grande. I can’t stress enough times in this post how few tourists there are in Northern Argentina. I’m all for a bustling tourist destination, they’re usually beautiful, but it is a lovely break to be able to have beautiful sites all to yourself. Enjoy the stretching salt plains at Salinas Grande, to the north of Salta, unperturbed by passing tourists or dirty marrs to the flats left by their buses.

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The Hill of 7 Colours, Quebrada de Humahuaca

If you’ve read my opinions on Cusco, you’ll know I have little love for Peru’s famous rainbow mountain tour. It’s too touristy, it’s too expensive, and it’s too damn high. Argentina provides the perfect alternative. Imagine looking at a mountain range with trippy rainbow glasses on, and that’s essentially the experience at this mountain range. It is very high above sea level, at 4,100m, but requires no difficult climbing. An important caravan route for the Inca Empire and an important crossroads during the War of Independence, the mountains have history and beauty in abound.

Bonus: Cordoba

Not a part of the road trip route through Northern Argentina, but worth a visit in its own right. Cordoba is a city plucked from Europe and dropped into the stomach of South America. Hectic shopping streets bustle on busy Saturdays, and the downtown bohemian district is peppered with students through the night. Vibrant, lively and laid back, Cordoba is a pleasant place to stop and stay a while.

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The city is home to Latin America’s oldest university, and as such has a big student population. It’s also home to a number of interesting historical and religious sites, and the various free walking tours through the city will keep you plenty busy for a couple of days.

The weekend night market in the downtown area is lively and varied, and a great place to spend an evening browsing, haggling and sipping mate.


Though it’s the least visited region of the country, it’s worth remembering that there’s more to Argentina than BA and Patagonia. Gaucho culture and alien landscapes give an impression of another side of Argentina.

I travelled on from here to Bolivia, featuring a disastrous border crossing. Read about that here, and about my time in Bolivia here.

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Travel blog guide to northern Argentina, to Salta, Cordoba, Cachi, Cafayate, Molinos
Want to get off the beaten track in Argentina? Check out the deserts, mountains and vineyards in the Andean region.