When talking about traveling to Argentina, most people will mention places like Buenos Aires, Patagonia and Iguazu Falls. Multicolored mountains, indigenous peoples, colonial history, delicious wines… the northwestern Andes in Argentina has a lot to offer too! A roundtrip through the Salta and Jujuy provinces are not for the weak-hearted but definitely worth it! Go and check it out, if you are brave enough. It is definitely one of the most beautiful road trips I have ever made.
We spent one week exploring the area west of Salta city. Add a few days for a slower pace, especially between Cachi and Cafayate.
- Day 1 fly into Salta airport and drive to Purmamarca (2 nights)
- Day 2 explore Purmamarca, Salinas Grandes, etc.
- Day 3 drive from Purmamarca via Salta and NP Los Cardones to Cachi (1 night)
- Day 4 drive from Cachi to Cafayate (2 nights)
- Day 5 horse-riding with gaucho in the Andres and wine tasting
- Day 6 drive from Cafayate to Salta city (1 night) via Quebrada de las Conchas
- Day 7 explore Salta city and fly out of Salta airport
If you lack time, I would suggest to make a choice between the northern part of the route (Purmamarca-Humahuaca) and the southern part of this route (Cachi-Cafayate). The southern part can also be done the other way around (clockwise), by going south first, from Salta to Cafayate, then up to Cachi and NP Los Cardones, back to Salta. We did this part counterclockwise. For a handy map see the bottom of this article.
Upon arrival in Salta we decided to save Salta city last night as we were most curious about the surroundings. We picked up our rental car and headed north to Purmamarca via the R9. There are several military check points along this road. If you want you can make a short pit-stop at San Salvador de Jujuy to see some of the few remaining colonial architecture around Plaza General Manuel Belgrano for example. The province capital also includes a few interesting museums, should you be interested and have the time.
Cerro de Los Siete Colores
After San Salvador de Jujuy you slowly but surely drive into the mountains. The mountain ridges and Rio Grande form a wonderful combination. It took a while to get used to the lack of crash barriers along ravine abyss, but we survived! Purmamarca, located at the R52, just off the R9, is a cute little mountain village with an excellent view of the Cerro de Los Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colors). Gorgeous!
Tip: best to take photos of Cerro de Los Siete Colores is in the morning, when the sun shines on it.
Colores de Purmamarca
Our accommodation Colores de Purmamarca offered exactly what we were looking for. The stylish terracotta colored homes radiated a welcome, warm atmosphere and we could cool down at the pool for a bit after the exciting drive, before going into the village for dinner at La Posta. It’s just a 5 minute walk from Colores de Purmamarca to the village square. Along the way we noticed some nice local street art.
After a good sleep we walked to the daily market at Plaza de Purmamarca first, in the search for a hat or cap to protect our heads from the sun, which is extra powerful out here. So many colorful fabrics and hand-made items on this market, a great place to buy a souvenir! The market of Purmamarca is not big at all, but I like these kind of small scale local events as it gives a glimpse of local daily life. There was also this lady baking some sort of bread on a BBQ, it smelled so good!
Driving up the R52 over the Andes to the Salinas Grandes (Salt Flats), you climb up to a height of 4170 meters (13681 ft) with spectacular views. The winding roads of the R52 would totally fit in an episode of Top Gear. We had to stop a few times to take photos as it was so very beautiful!
The Salinas Grandes might not be as spectacularly mirroring as the one in neighbor country Bolivia, but it is definitely worth the drive! The salt flats are located at an altitude of 3450 meters. At the entrance there is a big lama made out of salt and mini versions of the salty lama can be bought as a souvenir. We noticed many motorcyclists visit Salinas Grandes from the direction of Chile, which is about 2.5 hours to the border.
Sick of it
Be careful of altitude sickness while driving the R52 between Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes. My boyfriend did not feel well after this trip so we decided not to go to Humahuaca and Tilcara. Both were definitely on my to-do-list, but hey that is travel life, you just go with the flow. We saw so many beautiful mountains that day, plus a donkey and some guanacos as a bonus. Possibly you would better do first the villages and then the salt flats. Also not far from Purmamarca is Parque Nacional Calilegua but you would need a 4×4 or tour. Oh well you won’t hear me bleating… That night we ate goat for the first time in our lives at Bramasole in the center of Purmamarca, along with some local live music.
Purmamarca – Cachi
From Purmamarca, there are two ways to reach Cachi, the next stop on this route.
from Purmamarca take the R52 southwestwards, exit left towards San Antonio de
Los Cobres, followed by the R40 southeastwards via La Poma to NP Los Cardones. This
route is the longest and has several interesting extra options.
- You can make a bypass from San Antonio de Los Cobres by taking the R51 at Munano (not the R40), after about 50 km you visit the pre-Inca ruins at Santa Rosa de Tastil.
- Half an hour west of San Antonio de Los Cobres (R51/R40) you can visit the Viaducto La Polvorilla, a 63m high railway arch that the famous Tren de Las Nubes uses.
- Clockwise: from Purmamarca go eastwards to the R9, go south back to Salta via San Salvador de Jujuy, and then R68. Turn on the R33 at El Carrill towards NP Los Cardones and then further to Cachi. This is the fastest and easiest route, you save 1-2 hours compared to the counterclockwise route, which takes at least 7-8 hours.
NP Los Cardones
In anyways, make sure you cross NP Los Cardones, a national park full of cardón cacti. They grow up to 8 meters tall at an altitude between 2000 and 5000 meters. It is a great sight to drive along the moss-green and rust-red gray mountain walls, where large, thick cacti grow along the road, and the Rio Escoipe. Cuesta del Obispo is a nice viewpoint in this amazing area.
Cachi is a picturesque mountain village with a history of Indians and colonialization, located next to the 6380 meters high mountain called Nevado de Cachi. The oval-shaped Plaza 9 de Julio (square) forms the center of the village. The floors and roof of the Iglesia de San Jose church are made out of cactus bark.
We spend some time people watching with a drink and a snack at Oliver. For dinner we ate at the stylish Boutique Hotel El Cortijo located inside a colonial house. The Malbec and Torrontès wine are excellent here so the most convenient would be to spend the night at Boutique Hotel El Cortijo. A cute, budget friendlier alternative accommodation in Cachi is Hosteria Villa Cardon. My alternative suggestion for a nice, cozy and budget friendlier restaurant in Cachi would be Virachoca.
Cachi – Cafayate R40
The R40 is probably one of the most popular roads of the region, for a reason. It is a pretty ride. From Cachi you take the R40 southwards in the direction of Cafayate, the next stop. If you want to make a bypass to see more except the R40 road, take for example the exit of the R42 towards NP Los Cardones. Cross the Rio Calquichi (river) and take the first right to the Camino De Los Artesanos, where you can find lots of local workshops. This parallel road may cost about 1 hour extra, also depending on your level of shopping and photography. You can go back to the R40 and cross the river again at Churcal.[quote] Should you not have a 4×4 and want to see Cuevas de Acsibi and Laguna Brealito for example, stay at Finca Montenieva and take a tour from there.
20 km south of Churcal, exit the R40 to the R53, with a town called Molinos, where you can eat delicious empanadas (see map below). If you are into a more sophisticated, high end type of place, drive about 40 minutes southwest from Molinos, to Estancia Bodega Colome.
Oh yes, did I already mention I went horse riding with a gaucho in the Andes?! It was very cold when we left in the morning and the gaucho was no communication hero but we managed and the mountain-view at the end of the track was fantastic!
Quebrada de las Flechas
High up the mountains, following the R40, you will notice the Quebrada de las Flechas, spectacular pointed rock formations. The R40 between Cachi and Cafayate took us about 1 hour longer than Google Maps indicated, 4.5 instead of 3.5 hours, excluding any by-passes, wine tasting, tours or whatever. The roads around Quebrada de las Flechas are rather tricky, very high in the mountains and without guardrails. Sometimes a van with tourists whizzed past us, I guess if you drive here all the time your pace will become faster than ours, but we simply enjoyed the views and watched our safety.
Coming from the R40 from Cachi to Cafayate you can clearly see the landscape changing from mountainous brown-orange shades to lush green with overhanging trees, vineyards, sunflowers, lamas and gauchos. Cafayate is the heart of the wine production in Salta province and the wineries form a great place for a relaxing break from this adventurous road trip. Read all about the wineries and accommodation recommendation in Cafayate in the seperate article Wineries in Cafayate, Salta province, Argentina.
Should you have some extra time left in Cafayate, I would suggest to visit:
- Rio Colorado Waterfalls just outside the town early morning;
- Quilmes Ruins, a regional highlight which we unfortunately missed, but if you have the chance, I’d say go for it! It is about one hour south of Cafayate (54 km) in Tucuman Province;
- Tafi del Valle, which is about 2 hours south of Cafayate (120 km, via R40 and R307).
Or just stay in Cafayate for a day or so longer, drink some more wine, cuddle with the cute dogs and watch the bees on the sunflowers… very relaxing indeed!
El Anfiteatro at R68
No matter whether you are heading back to Salta from Cafayate, or driving in the other direction from Salta to Cafayate, I assume you will take the R68. Make a pit-stop at El Anfiteatro and Garganta del Diablo, part of the Quebrada de las Conchas. Further north at Coronel Moldes (R68) you can take the R47 to Embalse Cabra Corral for kayaking and wild water rafting over the Rio Juramento.
In the capital of the Salta Province, like in several other Argentinian cities, Plaza 9 de Julio forms the heart of the city. On the 9th of July Argentina celebrates Independence Day as Argentina’s independency from Spain was officially declared on July 9, 1816. Salta gained prosperity as food supplier of the silver mine workers in colonial times, explaining the amount of colonial buildings in Salta. If you want to see a lot of gauchos on one day, visit Salta on Martín Miguel de Güemes Day (June 17 each year).
Nowadays Salta is a lively student city with more than 500K inhabitants and enough to see to keep you busy for a few days. There are tons of museums such as MAC and MAAM, parks, churches, squares, etc. In November you will see the oranges hanging on the trees around Plaza General Don Martin Miguel de Guemes for example. Florida and Alberdi are the two pedestrian streets that you can stroll around until late at night.
Calle Barcarce is well-known for its vibrant bars, clubs and restaurants, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Do not be surprised to run into a quiet bar at midnight; partying starts only around 2 am. Make sure you visit a peña with live folk music. For suggestions see below map
The Teleférico San Bernardo cable cart takes you up to the 800-meters high Cerro San Bernardo, providing a panoramic city and valley view, especially at sunset. Or take 1021 steps up.
Accommodation in Salta
Ideally, in Salta stay close to Plaza 9 de Julio or Calle Balcarce well-known for the amount of bars, clubs and restaurants and near the Tren del Nubles train station. Salta has several very nice boutique style hotels that reminded me of Palermo in Buenos Aires. Personal favorites are Delvino Boutique Hotel and Villa Vicuña Hotel Boutique, whereby I feel Delvino offers more value for money and the Villa is slightly more charming. Should both be full, I would suggest to check out Solar del Plaza alternatively.
Day trips from Salta
Besides the places described earlier in this article, there are more things to see and do around Salta.
- Places like Tolar Grande are difficult to reach without 4×4 so a guided tour might be a more relaxed option.
- Quebrada de San Lorenzo is a popular green area for holiday homes, whichcan be easily visited from Salta by bus (30 min), for example to go hiking or bicycling.
- Argentina’s most spectacular train ride Tren a las Nubles (train to the clouds) from Salta’s Estacion del Ferrocarril General Belgrano (see map), book early in advance!
Taking a tour from Salta is ideal for solo travelers too!
- Salta – Purmamarca 200 km (2.5-3 hours)
- Purmamarca – Salinas Grandes 80 km (1.5-2 hours)
- Purmamarca – Salta – NP Los Cardones – Cachi 340 km (6 hours)
- Cachi – Cafayate 160 km (min 4.5 hours)
- Cafayate – Salta 200 km (3.5 hours)
- Total: app. 1060 km (659 miles)
How to get to Salta & around
Most likely you will fly to Salta Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport (SLA) from Buenos Aires or Iguazu (IGR). Alternatively, when starting with Purmamarca as the first stop of your road trip through Salta Province, you could fly to the international airport of San Salvador de Jujuy, Aeropuerto Internacional Gobernador Horacio Guzmán (JUJ) and drive from there to Purmamarca within 30 minutes, saving at least 2 hours compared to Salta airport. There are a lot less daily flights to JUJ than SLA though.We flew with Aerolíneas Argentinas, a Skyteam alliance member. To find suitable flights, check availability and prices, use Skyscanner.
Tip: If you make a round trip, best is to book all flights to/from/in Argentina as one big flight ticket. The total price may be significantly lower compared to all separate individual flight tickets for each leg. Check with your travel agent. This saved us app. EUR 250 per person.
Renting a car is an absolute must in Salta province. It will give you a lot of freedom and flexibility to take this fantastic road trip. Ideally you do not have to drive the whole ride alone as the rides can be pretty long and tiring. If you rent a car from Sunny Cars, of which I am a big fan, a 2nd driver is already included in the price. With Hertz for example you will have to pay about AR$21 per day extra, which amount may have increased due to the recent exchange rate drop of the Argentinian Peso. Should you travel alone you may want to join group tours instead.
Sunny Cars is an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. Ideal, I use them all the time!
Further rental car tips
- There is no real need to rent a 4×4 car for this road trip, unless you want to hit the sand roads to Tolar Grande for example? Consider taking an organized tour there from Salta.
- Download an offline map; below map and/or from maps.me for example.
- Drop off your rental car before staying in Salta. Inside the city the car will only be a burden with parking etc. A taxi ride between Salta airport and the city center costs about AR$150.
- Bring an aux cable if you want to listen to music on your smartphone during this road trip; many rental cars here lack USB or Bluetooth connection.
- Check the car carefully and make photos of damages before signing any papers, especially if not renting with Sunny Cars or when not taking all-risk insurance.
- Get an international driver’s license. Some rental agencies do not ask about it but some do and refuse to hand over the keys without. Plus the police may also ask for it. Dutch? Go to ANWB.
- Never drink and drive!!
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Have you ever been to Salta or got plans to go? Feel free to leave a comment or question below!
Please check also my other Argentina articles in the Argentina Blog Archives.
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