Northwest Argentina Is About As Off The Beaten Path As You Can Get If I had a penny for every time in my travels around Latin America someone had told me that I simply had to visit such-and-such picturesque place because it was totally un-touristy and in the middle of nowhere, only to arrive and […]
If I had a penny for every time in my travels around Latin America someone had told me that I simply had to visit such-and-such picturesque place because it was totally un-touristy and in the middle of nowhere, only to arrive and find a what was now a town bustling with souvenir shops, restaurants, and more inhabitants than my own tiny village in southwest England – well, I’d have three pennies: one for Cabo Polonio in Uruguay, another for Pisco Elqui in Chile, and a final one for Puno in Peru. In fact, this disappointment of finding that you’re quite far down the list of travelers to have “unearthed a hidden gem” has happened to me so many times that I was half-expecting the same thing to happen when I went to northwest Argentina. But what a relief it was to be wrong.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca valley, which runs through Salta and Jujuy in northwest Argentina. Photo: Humawaka
Bordering on Bolivia to the north and Chile to the west, Salta and Jujuy are the most northwest provinces in Argentina and are, both literally and figuratively speaking, 1,000 miles from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Their distance from the Europeanized coast and proximity to the Andes means that you can truthfully say that the region has managed to safeguard its indigenous, rural culture – from urban development and from an invasion of foreigner travelers. In fact, the travelers you’ll find in Salta and Jujuy are mostly young Argentinians who’ve come by bus from the capital to camp with friends in the summer and go on hiking and horseback riding trips through surrounding valleys and mountains.
A square in Humahuaca. Photo: Robert2183
Travelling by bus from the Bolivian border, Humahuaca is the first town I stopped in. Given the charm of its narrow, dusty cobblestone streets and cowboy-appeal of the mountains and cacti in the backdrop it’s hard to believe how genuinely un-touristy the Humahuaca is; I didn’t hear a single word of English spoken when I was walking around – although by the time we arrived it was late afternoon, when all of the day tours from Salta had already come and gone.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Humahuaca, but the place is so atmospheric that my friend and I didn’t feel any great need to do anything, and so although we passed several nice-looking bars and restaurants nestled down alleyways, we chose to embrace the romance of the town’s old-worldliness and spent the evening sat under the stars in a pretty little square lined with whitewashed, two-story buildings, drinking wine from a bottle before retiring to our posada for a very peaceful night’s sleep.
A view over Tilcara to the Quebrada de Humuaca. Photo: Stéphanie Batigne
The next morning we headed by bus to Tilcara, a nearby farming town that is also home to a population of arty types who have come from the big cities seeking refugee in Tilcara’s chilled-out pace of life. The town is filled with good posadas, and we found one that had cheap rooms arranged around a nice outside courtyard space, and a shady patio for communal eating. The surrounding countryside has lots of different hiking routes, and there’s the option of a guided trek to a nearby waterfall called “La Garganta del Diablo”. We opted for a slightly less-demanding walk to the pre-Inca fortress on the edge of the town, but immediately regretted not having gone for a longer hike once we got up there and had a chance to survey the panoramic view of the landscape: a harsh, dry valley surrounded on both sides by undulating mountains which were so vividly-colored they looked HD. It turns out that the valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca, is a Unesco World Heritage-listed and famous within Argentina because of the way the different minerals in the rock create visible, multi-colored layers in the mountains.
The Cerro de los Siete Colores behind Purmamarca. Photo: Humawaka
Purmamarca is the most touristic of all three towns, and for an obvious reason: it sits right under the Cerro de los Siete Colores (the Hill of Seven Colors), a rock formation where you can distinguish the different color layers so clearly it’s hard to believe it wasn’t manipulated in Photoshop (although you will see many Photoshop-enhanced postcards of the hill). An easy 3km path heading out from the village takes you around the hill and back, with numerous photo opportunities along the way (the morning is the best time to see the colors, before the noon glare).
Also within easy reach of Purmamarca are the Salinas Grandes, a dried-up lake nearly 11,000 feet (3,350 m) above sea level that is now a salt plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Taxi drivers queued up near Purmamarca’s bus station will sell you a seat in their car, and the road to the salt flats is a stunning (but very nausea-inducing) wind up the side of the mountain – our driver let us stop along the way to hop out briefly and admire the view. Seeing the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia had set the bar pretty high in the salt flat stakes, and the Salinas Grandes paled slightly in comparison, especially given that we went in summer, when the salt is covered in half a foot of water and doesn’t have the characteristic cracked surface.
The Salinas Grandes in Salta. Photo: Gonzalo Rivero
Humahuaca, Tilcara and Purmamarca are so close together that travelling between them on local buses is really easy and, most importantly, lets you avoid the hellish experience of getting bussed about on a tour from Salta. Lots of people choose to explore this remote part of Argentina by staying in Salta and doing day tours out to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, but personally I don’t see any sense in it: not only is there very little to see in Salta (and Argentinians will be the first to tell you so), but there are so many nice posadas in each of the towns that there’s no reason not to stay overnight. Plus, it’s not every morning that you wake up to a view of a mountain with seven colors.