Wanderlust Wendy

Northern Argentina Road Trip from Salta

After a few days of settling into Argentina in Buenos Aires, we flew up north to Salta to begin a whirlwind of a four-day Northern Argentina road trip. If we had more time, I would have doubled the length of this itinerary and spend two nights in each destination. Whenever possible, I try to spend more than one night at each place. The constant packing and unpacking get rather cumbersome, even with a car. 

Day 1: Buenos Aires to Salta

Early morning, we boarded a two-hour flight in Buenos Aires headed for Salta. The airport in Salta was small, and we were in a taxi in no time heading for Villa Vicuna Boutique Hotel. It’s a charming and quiet boutique with beautiful colonial design near the historical center of Salta. 

Rental Car with Hertz

I had previously booked a rental car with Hertz to be picked up at the airport for the next day. On our stroll, we saw a Hertz office near our hotel, so we requested to move the pick-up to the downtown location. The office staff was very accommodating and helpful. I highly recommend renting from Hertz. 

We had a small 4-door sedan. I wasn’t sure whether the road condition would call for a bigger vehicle, but my research showed that a sedan would suffice. For us, it works perfectly. For the Americans among us, knowing how to operate a manual shift car is very important to save on costs.

Salta Highlights

After the rental car arrangement was sorted, we strolled around Salta for the rest of the day. First, a quick bite of delicious empanadas at La Tacita café just next to Hertz. This little joint sits across from Iglesia San Francisco, a beautiful church clad in gold and red. Those empanadas were so delicious that we made a second order. The owner was mighty friendly, which was a lovely added bonus!

The town was relatively quiet, perhaps because it was Saturday. We headed into the main square at Plaza 9 de Julio. Typical park activities took place, with some vendors selling souvenirs. We headed to the municipal market to check out the local scenes. Unfortunately, many businesses were closed, and stands were also wrapping up for the day. 

We returned to the central plaza and enjoyed some high energy live music under the History Museum’s covered walkway. For dinner, in anticipation of the upcoming few days of a meat-heavy diet, we had dinner at Chirimoya, a decent vegan restaurant with many choices. 

Tip: Withdraw cash from the various ATMs on at Plaza 9 de Julio. We were happy to have done this since we saw many long lines for ATM in smaller towns along our trip. 

Day 2: Salta to Humahuaca via Tilcara

We picked up our rental car from Hertz early in the morning and began a long day of driving. The nice guy at Hertz recommended to not follow Google Maps on our drive up North. Instead, he recommended taking the more scenic route along Highway 9. He was right. Very quickly, we were on a secluded road driving up a mountain with spectacular views. 

As we headed north, the scenery shifted from a vast luscious green to breathtaking geological marvel. The rock formation reminded us of our road trip through the United States Southwest. For miles on end, we were often the only car on the road. I love how small we feel amidst the natural world. 

After a few hours of driving, we pulled into Tilcara for a late lunch at Restaurant El Patio. Their quinoa patties were delicious. We had a coffee in the center of town, and I wish we had allotted a day in this charming village. We couldn’t linger for long since we wanted to visit the 14-color Hornocal outside of Humahuaca. 

Visit Mirador: Hornocal o Cerro de 14 Colores at Sunset

The drive continued. All the road thus far has been paved until we pulled off of Highway 9, heading toward the Hornocal. Then the pavement ceases to exist. 25km of the unpaved road was relatively even, though I began to worry when we started to climb hills up to the peak at 4,350 meters (14k feet). All was well. Our little 4-door sedan made it atop to witness this colorful mountain top.

The picture doesn’t do it justice is so applicable for this gem. An entire mountain range filled with layers of colored stones, compressed over millennia. When we arrived, there was a set of girls playing music. It was surreal to witness this background and take it all in with the music. Truly felt we were on a movie set. 

The magic really began when the sun started setting around 6:30pm. The golden hour reflects sun rays upon this colorful mountain range. I wish we could have spent the night on the mountain top. We must have stopped the car to snap photos at least 10 times on our drive back. Every hundred meters revealed another awe-inspiring perspective. All worries vanish, only awe remains. 

We checked into Hosteria Munay Humahuaca for the night. Since we have a car, I chose this one for its cheap rate, despite located outside of town. We drove into town and had dinner at La Tuna. We tried llama stew, quite heavy but delicious. The town seemed quiet, so we headed back to our hostel. Tired after our long drive, we looked forward to some sweet slumber. 

Tip: Download an offline version of Google Maps to ensure navigation in areas without cellular reception. Also, download plenty of music and podcast episodes to accompany the long but beautiful journey. I recommend packing layers. The temperature difference on the Hornocal was drastic. I was happy to have a windbreaker tugged in my backpack. 

Day 3: Humahuaca to Purmamarca via Tilcara

We moved rather slowly due to the high altitude. After injecting some jet-fuel-liked coffee at our hostel breakfast, we checked out and headed into Huamahuaca to fill up on gas, and explore the town. The mid-morning scene was fairly languid. These Andean towns have a smilier feel – mud-brick buildings mixed with splashes of colonial influence. Tourism is not yet very developed, and we were glad to get a rare glimpse of life here before moving on.  

Garganta del Diablo

Since I liked Tilcara so much, we decided to go back through the town again for lunch. But before lunch, we spontaneously decided to go visit Garganta del Diablo (The Devil Waterfall). Following Google Map’s navigation, our little car went on some slightly dodgy, uneven dirt road for 6km. At one point, our small car stalled after stopping for a car coming down the hill. Thankfully, Xav’s masterful driving backed up the car, and we were able to re-start. 

The waterfall itself was okay. A small entry fee was requested to descend on foot to the waterfall. Since the scenery from our drive was so marvelous, I felt a tad underwhelmed. Indeed, it’s about the journey, not the destination. If you are up for it, you can also hike up to the waterfall. We saw some very motivated hikers along the way. 

Evening in Purmamarca

We had lunch at a somewhat unremarkable place, checked out the town, and then moved on and headed for our accommodation for the night in Purmamarca. In mid-afternoon, we checked into our lodge at Huaira Huasi, a charming family-run place outside of town, on the road toward Salinas Grandes.

After two days of intense driving, we were happy to rest in this adorable cabin for an afternoon. Late afternoon, before sunset, we drove into town. Climbed the small hill up to Cerro El Porito to take in the surrounding view. The town is much more developed for tourism as a hub for Salinas Grandes, with ample lodging and souvenir stands. 

Day 4: Purmamarca to Salta via Salinas Grandes

A long day of driving ahead, so we left early from our cabin and head off for Salinas Grandes. Witnessing a salt flat was an experience that I had really looked forward to. Uyuni in Bolivia is much larger and hence more famous, but we didn’t have room on the itinerary to make it there, so Salinas Grandes would make do. 

Salinas Grandes

We followed a smooth paved road that climbed over a mountain range. The drive to Salinas Grandes took around two hours, with some stops on the way for photos. I was expecting a lot of tourists, but was pleasantly surprised to the area relatively empty, with just a handful of other tourists meandering about. The area is a flat salt desert with minimal facilities. 

The midday sun was unforgiving, and without any shadow, we had to limit our exposure. We made a few attempts at taking dorky perspective photos given the flatness, and had several delicious empanadas by an enterprising vendor who targeted hungry tourists. Not sure if it was the sun or hunger, but those empanadas were among some of the best that I’ve tasted! 

Tip: Absolutely prepare ample sun protection, even in the winter. The salt flat not only does not have an ounce of shade, the sunray also reflects off of the vast salt flat, and thus quite potent.

Take the Road Less Traveled Back to Salta

After lingering for an hour or so on the salt flat, we began the drive back to Salta. Google Maps had given us navigation on a smooth-paved road, but we came to a junction that had another unpaved road. In an instant, we decided to take the road less traveled. We figured the worst-case scenario would be an extra detour, and we could always retrace the original route.

The first 20 minutes or so was slightly nerve-wracking since the road was rather bumpy. But we quickly acclimated. We also saw dust clouds from cars roaring through from afar, so we felt at ease that we wouldn’t be alone for long if anything happens…! Taking the road less traveled was a fantastic decision. We were able to see so many vicunas up close. At one point, stopping the car entirely to let them cross the road. 

The drive took much longer than anticipated, but it was worthy of every extra minute. We arrived in Salta in the early evening. Checked into Solar de la Plaza Hotel and explored a different part of Salta than our initial visit. We had dinner at La Cefira, a really great Italian restaurant. When craving European food in Argentina, you can’t go wrong with Italian. 

Tip: Be sure to stock up on water during the road trip in this region. The high altitude and desert climate had us feel incredibly thirsty. It’s easy to not pass a shop for hours on end, so best to be prepared before departure. 

We headed to the airport the next morning and returned the rental car at the Hertz location there. Took a flight down to Ushuaia to begin the next phase of our Argentina adventure. 

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