Northwest Argentina: Canyons and Valleys

couple with mountain landscape in background
Hornocal, Hill of 14 Colors, Jujuy

NOA, from Spanish Noroeste Argentina, includes the six provinces stretching along the northwest border with Chile up to Bolivia. The two northernmost provinces, Salta and Jujuy, are particularly rich in natural attractions, including jungle, desert and mountains. We spent three weeks in this region and were extremely impressed by the awesome landscapes, friendly people, and local culture. In this blog I’ll focus on the Calchaquí Valley in Salta province and the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy. For more information, see my blogs on Northwest Argentina An Overview, and Cities.

The abundant and stunning natural beauty of this part of the world is hard to put into words. Landscapes can change drastically over a short distance, depending on altitude and proximity to water. The colors range from white, to orange, to deep red, often with snow-capped mountains visible in the distance.

There is something on offer for every type of traveler – from mountain climbing to wine tasting. Services for tourists are generally well developed and options exist for every budget from backpacker to luxury. However, the area still feels as if it has just been discovered – It’s not overrun with tourists and you can easily escape the pack and find your own spot. The vibe is very casual and the people are super friendly.

You can create your own itinerary based on time available and the type of activities you prefer, planning for a minimum of one or as long as a few weeks. I guarantee you won’t regret visiting this region.

Rainbow rating: 🌈🌈🌈🌈 (out of five) – Although this is a more conservative rural area, you will be welcomed warmly as a tourist.

Calchaquí Valley (Valles Calchaquíes in Spanish), Salta Province

More than a single valley, this is an extensive region that touches four provinces, with most of the area located in Salta province. It’s a region blessed with year-round sunshine, a dry climate, and rocky soils perfect for growing grapes. As such, it has become the second largest wine-producing region in Argentina. If you like wine you won’t be disappointed by the impact of the altitude on some well-known varieties including Malbec and Syrah. This region is also home to the Torrontés grape, which produces a dry white wine with subtle fruit flavors.

The Calchaquí Valley offers stunning vistas in all directions: canyons, steep mountains, wide open deserts, and riverbeds that may be dry or raging with water depending on the year. The palate of colors changes throughout the day as the (very strong) sun arcs across the valley and illuminates the eroded formations.

I recommend starting in Cafayate, a large town with ample tourist services located 190km (a thee hour drive) southwest of Salta city. Getting there by bus or private vehicle is easy and the roads are better developed than in other parts of the valley. This approach will also take you along route 68 through the Quebrada de las Conchas (Shells Canyon), which starts just south of the abandoned town of Alemania and continues for 70kms through spectacular multi-colored terrain. This is truly impressive scenery and you’ll want to stop every few minutes - another reason to have a rental car. There are also organized tours of the canyon from Salta or Cafayate. Some of the highlights of the canyon are Garganta del diablo (Devil’s Throat), El Anfiteatro (Amphitheater), and the incredible view from Tres Cruces. Beware that there are very limited services in the area, so take water and appropriate sun protection.

Cafayate is a small town with a unique blend of indigenous and european traditions, and a growing tourism industry catering to all types of travelers. It has a strong cowboy vibe and is popular with motorcyclists. Much of the activity is centered within a walkable few blocks around the main square, Plaza 20 de Febrero. There are also numerous wineries (bodegas) within the town limits, so you can literally walk from tasting to tasting! Plan to spend at least one night in Cafayate, preferably two or three.

If you are looking for local textiles, leather and silver items, or ceramics, Cafayate is a great place to shop. Be sure to stop by the Mercado Artesanal, located on the main square. This association of local artisans has a great assortment of handmade items at reasonable prices.

The new Museum of the Vine and Wine (Museo de la Vid y el Vino) introduces the history, climate, and unique winemaking methods of the valley. After a brief visit to this museum, you feel like an expert when visiting the wineries of the region.

Wine tasting is a highlight, as Cafayate is the hub for the Ruta del Vino, or Wine Route. We visited Nanni, which has a line of organic wines, and El Esteco, one of the largest producers in the region. We also stopped by Piattelli for the gorgeous view, but I honestly found the place to be overly opulent for the setting. Apparently Amalaya, located just up the same road, is very nice.

For the more adventurous, you might consider hiking to the waterfalls in the Quebrada del Rio Colorado, located just outside town. I highly advise hiring a guide because the path is not obvious and can be very dangerous. Even with a guide this is only recommended for people in good shape. Ask your hotel or the tourist information office on the main square for the location and information on guides.

We stayed at Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel, located just outside of town and surrounded by the El Esteco vineyards. It is a very impressive property; a maze of hacienda style buildings some of which date back to the late 1800s. Connecting the wings of the building are charming patios, each with a different style. The restaurant terrace and pool area have wonderful views of the mountains and the vineyards, as well as the horse paddock tucked into the corner of the property. The restaurant, La Rosa, is highly recommended, as is the wine list exclusively offering wines from the neighboring vineyard.

Cafayate also has a range of restaurants. As you might expect, those on the main square tend to be a bit more touristy, but they have lovely outdoor seating areas on the square. We have a few recommendations:

Pacha – This tiny restaurant offers a limited menu of delicious food; a bit of fusion with local inspiration. Service is very attentive, and the chef stops by your table to advise on selections and check on how you are doing. We had a great meal there.

Baco Resto-Bar is located three blocks from the main square and offers an eclectic environment and basic pub food. This is also a pena, an establishment with live regional music performed by anyone in the crowd.

Casa de Empanadas is located just off the main plaza. Serves a great variety of empanadas and other local cuisine. Has a dirt floor and you can sign your name on the wall with a marker. They also have live entertainment.

Molinos and Cachi:

You head north out of Cafayate on the famous Route 40, which runs from Patagonia to Bolivia for over 5,000kms (3,100 miles) along the edge of the Andes mountains. For a few kilometers you have the impression that Route 40 will offer an amazing drive through the Calchaquí valley – and it does in terms of stunning views – but after about 15km the road turns to packed gravel which continues for over 150km to Cachi. The road is drivable, but I recommend a comfortable vehicle and frequent stops. We had a mid-sized car that seemed to transmit every bump directly to our bones.

Aside from the road condition, the trip is stunning – You climb higher in the valley, passing through varied landscapes. It gets even better as you enter the National Natural Monument of Angastaco and after that the Quebrada de las Fleches (Arrows Canyon). There are a few wineries along the way and you can stop in the small town of Angastaco just off the main road to have lunch or simply see what life is like in a remote town.

Molinos is a tiny pueblo which played a significant historical role as the seat of the governor of the northern provinces, a strategic location which benefited from the trade of gold and other items between Alto Peru and Buenos Aires. It’s the perfect place to stop for an overnight rest or a stay of a few days.

photo of church through a doorway
View from entrance, Hacienda de Molinos

We stayed at the gay-friendly Hacienda de Molinos, which is the restored residence of the governor, dating back to the 1700s. It’s an amazing property with a huge patio in which you can relax and meet other travelers under the shade of a huge mesquite tree. The staff are very attentive and the restaurant offers a delicious menu of local cuisine accompanied by a very good wine list. Given the sleepy nature of the town you’ll be tempted to spend just one night, but I highly recommend a stay of at least two nights.

From Molinos you can take a day trip to the Colomé and Tacuil valleys – the highest wine producing valleys in the world, at an altitude of over 2,500m. The winery at Colomé offers tours and tastings, as well as a lunch menu. The James Turrell museum is also located here – one of the most remote modern art museums I have ever been to. Entrance to the museum is free, but you need to have a reservation. Tacuil valley (and winery), even higher in altitude, is reached by a nerve-wracking dirt road that clings to the mountainside as you descend into the valley. Bodega Tacuil is in the process of building a visitors’ center. Call in advance if you wish to visit the bodega.

The Colomé bodega is also includes a luxury boutique hotel, Estancia Colome. Nine exclusive rooms in a spectacular setting offer the perfect escape if you want to be far away from everything. Beware that the road to Colomé is passable in a 4X4 only and there are no signs, so you better go with someone who knows the way.

You’ll feel refreshed after a stay in Molinos – Enough to continue north on Route 40 to Cachi over 45km of gravel! At the town of Seclantás you should opt to take the Camino de los Artesanos if you are into wonderful handmade textiles. It’s a relatively short jaunt and you will have a few opportunities to stop and shop for textiles along the way.

Cachi is a wonderful town with a well-maintained central square. You’ll immediately note the buildings painted a brilliant white and the VERY elevated sidewalks made from river stone. There is very much a back-packer/mountain climber vibe and a few basic hostels and hotels. For Cachi, one or two nights suffices, unless you are planning to undertake activities in the area.

We stayed just outside of town a bit higher up in the valley at the hotel La Merced del Alto. This is a nice property - a bit rustic-chic. It’s small in terms of the number of rooms, but the public areas are large and spacious. The views from almost any room are spectacular – valley, snowcapped mountains, idyllic farm fields… Be sure the go up into the tower for 360 degree views. During the high season, the place is apparently quite family-oriented, so that may be a concern for some people.

There are two options to travel between the Calchaquí Valley and the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy province. The longer but safer route is through the city of Salta. The other is via Route 40 between Payogasta and Salinas Grandes, which passes over high mountains, presenting very hazardous road conditions. We took the safer route, and unless you have a well-equipped 4x4 I recommend that you to the same.

Returning from Cachi to Salta via route 33 takes you through the Parque Nacional de los Cordones and its endless cacti, over a high pass (stop at Piedra de Molino for spectacular views) and down into a gorge on a dirt road. It’s not a drive for the faint of heart, but the views and abrupt climate zone changes are amazing.

photo of cacti in landscape
National Park "Los Cordones"

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Jujuy Province

Although Salta and Jujuy are neighboring provinces with many similarities, Jujuy has a very different feel. You get a deeper sense of the indigenous community here, and the climate is different. It’s an agricultural region, but not a wine producing region.

The trip from San Salvador to Jujuy into the Quebrada de Humahuaca (ooh-ma-wa-ka) is impressive. The road climbs steadily out of Jujuy and is well maintained. You soon begin to see the range of colors for which this area is known – The layers of stone and sediment in the mountains display a range of colors from white to deep red. In 2003, the area was also designated by the UN as a World Heritage based on its function as an ancient route for trade and cultural exchange.

We stayed in Tilcara, which is basically in the center of the Quebrada. It’s a dusty a laid-back town geared toward backpackers and adventure tourists, and there are numerous excursion outfits including bike and horseback tours. A side note: There are dogs everywhere and they like to bark all night long.

Adjacent to Tilcara is the archeological site of Pucará. It’s well worth the short hike out of town, which offers sweeping views of the valley and a glimpse into the life and culture before the Incas and Europeans arrived. The entrance fee is 150 pesos for foreigners.

We took a late afternoon drive to Puramarca and Salinas Grandes. Puramarca is the location of the Hill of 7 Colors. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see past the town overflowing with souvenir stands surrounding the hill. We stayed for about 20 minutes before continuing to the salt flats at Salinas Grandes.

Road to note: Route 52 from Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes takes you up and over a mountain pass at 4,130m (14,000 feet). The road is a paved feat of engineering. For those who enjoy navigating hairpin turns and steep inclines, this is a drive to remember. Others will want to breath deeply and try not to look down. The views up and down on both sides of the pass are amazing. You’ll also see vicunas grazing on the side of the road – and darting across it!

The salt flats of Salinas Grandes can be seen from a distance as you descend from the mountain pass. It’s hard to tell whether it is a cloud, fog, water or sand, and depending on the time of year it may be a shallow lake. The touristy stop at the edge of the dried lake is a bit depressing – everything is made of salt and the vendors are selling the standard souvenirs, but the impression of the salt flats is worth the visit. If it’s dry you can walk out across the crusty salt surface. It’s best to go at sunset, but be sure to wear sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen as the light is intense!

Humahuaca is the largest town in the valley, located about 50km north of Tilcara. The town is very busy during carnival season and has some interesting shops, cafes and restaurants. The monument to the heroes of argentine independence is huge.

For us, the highlight of our time in the Quebrada de Humahuaca was a visit to Hornocal, the “Hill of 14 Colors.” This name reflects a serious case of modesty – It’s more like a mountain of ever changing colors! You get there by following a compact stone road to an altitude of 4,350m, which is preferable to do in a 4x4 but can be reache in a standard car with caution. At the summit, you come to a viewing area closely managed by local indigenous people. At this point you are looking directly at a huge mountainside of color – It’s a breathtaking site, and not only due to the altitude. Go after 3pm to ensure the best light. There are also organized tours available from Humahuaca and Tilcara.

We also visited Iruya, a remote mountain village north of Humahauca. To be very honest, unless you are looking for another mountain road experience, I would not highly recommend this visit. The town has very little to offer day trippers, but they do say that one should stay overnight to get the real feel of isolation – Now that I can believe!

There are numerous other smaller sites in the region and you can also continue north to Bolivia. This is a region that requires a bit of advance research and flexibility once you are on the ground, but I can guarantee that you’ll have a wonderful time. For more information check out my other blogs on Northwest Argentina: An Overview, and Cities


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