We traveled for three weeks in Northwest Argentina, or NOA (from Noroeste Argentina in Spanish), and it’s easy to see why this region has made the hot destination lists of many travel experts in recent years, including National Geographic. It offers spectacular scenery, history, culture, and delicious cuisine - and it’s not yet overrun by tourism.
NOA includes six provinces extending along Argentina's northwestern border with Chile to Bolivia in the north. The geographic diversity of the region ranges from jungle to the high peaks of the Andes while the main cities of San Miguel de Tucumán, Salta, and San Salvador de Jujuy provide urban attractions. Smaller towns and rural areas offer fantastic wines, historical sites, adventure travel, and ecotourism. The influence of indigenous peoples, gaucho culture, and Spanish colonialism all come together in a wonderful cultural mix. This is where the country’s independence movement started and is a popular destination for argentines.
Our trip focused on the northernmost provinces of Salta and Jujuy, which contain some of the most striking scenery, local culture and cuisine, making the area popular with international visitors. But there is plenty to see and do throughout the region. Many visitors add Tucumán to their trip, a province also known for history, culture, and scenery.
Based on the scale of the region you should plan a minimum of one week for your visit – preferably 10 days to two weeks. Be prepared to meet very friendly people who enjoy life at a slower pace, including an afternoon siesta (2-5pm) during which most banks, shops, restaurants and services are closed. This is a place to take your time – absorb the local culture, try the food and wine, and marvel at the jaw-dropping scenery.
The climate in NOA varies significantly based on altitude and location, but generally this is a year-round destination. Summer (January - February) brings very hot days and sudden rainstorms while during winter (July-August) days can be sunny and cool with nighttime temperatures around freezing. The rest of the year you are likely to have warm days and cool nights typical of a desert climate. Pack for layers and regardless of the time of year be very careful with the sun!!! At this altitude and latitude the sun is extremely strong.
Rainbow rating: 🌈🌈🌈🌈 (out of five): Although Argentina is considered a relatively progressive country, as a more rural region NOA is more conservative. However, LGBT tourists will feel welcomed and are very unlikely to experience any overt discrimination. Argentina is also a very family-oriented society, so travelling with children poses little to no problem.
It’s best to arrive in Salta, where you should plan to spend two nights. This helps acclimatize you to the altitude and introduces you to the history, culture and cuisine of the region. See my separate blogs on Northwest Argentina Cities and Canyons and Valleys, with things to do as well as hotel and restaurant recommendations.
After a few days in Salta you have two options:
Option 1: Head southwest to Cafayate and the Calchaquí Valley. The higher elevation, rocky soil, and drier climate make this the second largest wine making region in Argentina and home to some of the highest vineyards in the world. You’ll want to visit at least one winery, or “bodega” in Spanish. The scenery is amazing, as you’ll first see in the Quebrada de las Conchas, located between Salta and Cafayate along route 68.
Note on “quebradas” (kay-bra-duhs): In NOA you will see many references to quebradas. The English translation is ravine, but these geological features can range from huge canyons to gullies, or washes, as they are sometimes referred to in the southwestern US.
Cafayate is a medium sized town surrounded by vineyards and gorgeous mountains. It has a very relaxed vibe and a cowboy (gaucho) feel. You should plan to stay at least one night. Further afield in the Calchaquí Valley you can visit smaller towns such as Molinos or Cachi. From Molinos you can head up to the Colomé and Tacuil valleys to visit high altitude wineries. To return to Salta you’ll take route 33 from Cachi/Payogasta to cross the Cardones National Park for a view of countless huge cacti similar to the Saguaro in North America.
Option 2: Head north to the province of Jujuy. This trip crosses an extensive agricultural valley, slowly rising in altitude as you pass the provincial capital city of San Salvador de Jujuy (worth a brief visit or one night stay) toward the Quebrada de Humahuaca, designated as UN World Heritage site in 2003. This high altitude river valley is home to some of the most impressive scenery in the region. The province also has a large indigenous population, reflected in the architecture, cuisine, and crafts. Options for lodging and activities are numerous – see my more detailed blog on the area.
Depending on which option you chose and how much time you have, you can add the other option, or continue further south to the province of Tucuman. You can also drive between the CalchaquÍ Valley and the Quebrada de Humahuaca (or reverse) via Route 40 and Salinas Grandes. However, this route takes you over a high altitude plateau (Altiplano), including hazardous road conditions passable only with a 4x4.
Things to Note:
NOA has been growing steadily as a destination and is generally well developed in terms of services for tourists. English is spoken in most hotels and some restaurants and a bit of Spanish will take you a long way. Here are a few additional things to be aware of:
It’s best to arrive by plane, although bus connections with larger cities such as Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Mendoza do exist. There are airports in Salta, Jujuy and Tucumán, with Salta being the most convenient for a stay of several days to a few weeks. International connections will almost always go through Buenos Aires.
Public transportation within the region is manageable via a network of local buses (be sure to book express buses between cities). At some point, however, you will want to have a vehicle to explore more remote areas at your own pace. For this I highly recommend a larger vehicle, preferably a 4x4 – see notes on infrastructure below. The airports have international and local rental companies on site, and in Salta city you’ll find numerous competing rental companies. The alternative to a rental car is to book day excursions to popular sites, which are on offer in all tourist areas and can be arranged upon arrival or in advance.
This region takes carnival festivities very seriously, and many tourists flock to the region during this period. If you plan to visit during February or early March, it’s advisable to book accommodations in advance. The other high season is mid-July, during the mid-winter school break.
Infrastructure – Many of the secondary, and some of the primary roads in the region are compact stone (basically dirt roads). This is particularly true in the Calchaquí Valley, where national Route 40 between Cafayate and Cochi is a 150km stretch of dirt road, with many sections subject to flash flooding during the rainy season (January – February). Similarly, mountain roads are generally well maintained dirt roads. Check with your hotel or a local contact on road conditions before heading out, in case there are washouts or repairs in progress.
Internet and mobile services – Wi-Fi is available in most hotels, cafes and restaurants, however quality and speed vary greatly. You can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card from local cellular service providers, which will at least give you WhatsApp and other messaging services, although daily data rates can be high.
Cash and Plastic – Automatic tellers/ATMs (Cajero (ka-hair-oh) Automatico in Spanish) are available in most locations including small towns, but the transaction limits and fees are a hassle. At the time of our trip, the per transaction withdrawal limit was 3,000 Argentine pesos (approx. $150 US), subject to a transaction fee of $10 US! You can exchange US dollars or Euros in most banks – I don’t recommend exchanging on the street unless you have a very good command of Spanish. Credit and debit cards are accepted in almost all hotels and many restaurants. If you pay your hotel bill with an international credit card, you will be exempt from paying the 21% value added tax (referred to as IVA) applied to lodging.
Altitude – The larger cities are located at lower altitudes of around 1,700-2,000m (5,500-6,500 feet), which should not present a problem. The more outlying towns are a bit higher, but generally under 7,000 feet in elevation. However, to explore some of the mountainous areas, you will be going up to elevations as high as 14,000 feet! Remember to take it slow and proceed with caution. The good news is that you won’t typically be staying at those elevations for more than a few hours, unless you take a high altitude multi-day horseback or mountain bike excursion.