Many people associate Argentina with city culture in Buenos Aires, wine in Mendoza, the beauty of Iguassu Falls and the scenery of Patagonia. The north-west region is every bit as memorable, but often overlooked. We hired a car for five days to explore the colourful historic landscapes of the Salta and Jujuy provinces. Here is our north-west Argentina road trip itinerary.
In this article:
Argentina road trip itinerary: an introduction
North-west Argentina is home to a diversity of remarkable sights and attractions. Los Cardones National Park, the Cafayate wine route, Tilcara and the Hill of Seven Colours are all within reach of the hub city of Salta.
All of this is spread across a wide geographical area, however, and navigating it by public transport is challenging and time-consuming.
We decided to stretch our travel budget and hire a car. It was one of the best decisions we made in our travel planning! We had complete freedom to explore when and where we liked, and judging by the pictures we’d seen, we suspected we would be in for a spectacular road trip. We weren’t wrong.
To keep our costs down, we decided to make it a camping road trip. We had brought a tent on our journey, and this was our first opportunity to use it. So off we with four wheels and our trusty Urberg tent.
This article recants our itinerary and the highlights of our road trip. I have included details of our costs in Argentine pesos (ARP) and US dollars (USD) based on the 17:1 exchange rate during our visit. Note that the Argentine currency has experienced severe recent fluctuations, and costs may be subject to frequent change.
Before we set off: preparations in Salta
The region’s major city, Salta, was the natural pivot for our road trip. If you happen to travel to Salta from San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile like we did, you are in for one of the world’s most beautiful bus journeys.
We arrived in Salta late in the evening. We were struck by two things; firstly the warmth after spending over a month at high altitude, and secondly how busy it was. As Lisa said when we arrived, “this is the city we’ve been to that reminds me of London the most”. Majestic modern buildings, endless shops, street entertainment and swarms of people.
Before collecting our car, we spent two nights at Ferienhaus Hostel, which was excellent value at ARP 200 / USD 12 each per night for a dorm bed with free breakfast. This place ticked all of the vital boxes: two minutes’ walk from the main square, good kitchen facilities, hot showers, big lockers, and strong wifi.
The stories we had heard on the road about ‘expensive Argentina’ turned out to be wide of the mark. Sure, it would be more expensive to eat out, but the city was full of cheap supermarkets.
For about ARS 150 / USD 9 we bought enough food to make a gigantic three-course meal with a bottle of wine. If that’s still too dear, you can always buy ‘super panchos’ (Argentinian hotdogs) for ARS 10 in the park.
We used most of our spare full day in Salta preparing for the road trip. In search of a map we turned to bookshops; we ended up finding three superb ones and spent hours exploring them. Finally, we found a stationery shop to pick up some sketchbooks and coloured pencils, and we were ready to go.
Day 1: Salta to Cafayate
We picked up our car at 10am sharp on Friday morning – a shiny new Chevrolet Celta. For five days we paid GBP 280 / USD 358, including full insurance cover. Over the course of the trip we spent ARS 1,710 / USD 100 on petrol.
We found our hire car by using RentalCars.com, a global car hire comparison service. We used this for other road trips in New Zealand and Australia and it was always where we found the best rates.
The prospect of navigating out of this hectic city, with right-hand-side driving to boot, was a little unnerving at first. We did take a few wrong turns in the process, including a U-turn on a one-way street – Salta is surprisingly difficult to navigate for a city that is literally ‘atlas’ spelt backwards!
After a stop at the supermarket to load up on journey snacks, we eventually found our way to Ruta 68, and we were on our way to Cafayate.
Gorge of the Sea Shells
The route from Salta to Cafayate begins mundanely, but blossoms into a scenic extravaganza through Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas (Gorge of the Sea Shells).
Before that we needed a lunch stop, so we decided to come off Ruta 68 and head to where we could see a large body of water on the map just a few kilometres away. Lakes are always pretty, right? The tactic worked, and we soon found ourselves picnicking on the peaceful shores of Cabra Corral Reservoir.
The next section of the drive wound through red canyons and jagged rock formations for the best part of two hours. Every corner we turned brought a fresh wonder, and I lost count of the number of ‘mirador’ stops we made to take in the scenery and get some pictures.
Cafayate and the Argentina Wine Route
The rock formations made way for acres upon acres of vineyards as we approached Cafayate. The town is one of the most important locations along the Argentina Wine Route, one of our main reasons for visiting.
It was a little unfortunate for us to arrive in August, out of season. We could only imagine how incredible those vineyards must look at the height of summer in oceans of green against the backdrop of Andean mountains, although the barren, skeletal winter look does elicit its own kind of charm.
We arrived in Cafayate at around 4pm and headed straight to Luz y Fuerza, our campsite of choice for two nights. We paid ARS 420 / USD 25 in total. This broke down as ARP 60 per person per night, ARP 40 for the tent per night and ARP 50 for the car per night.
After pitching the tent we headed out to explore the town. The combination of low season and siesta time meant it was very quiet, but we found a murmur of activity in the central plaza. Best of all, we found wine ice cream!
Heladeria Dessio on the square offers malbec and torrontés flavours at ARP 40 / USD 25 for two scoops. After indulging, we bought a bottle of actual wine and headed back to the campsite for an early night.
Day 2: day trip to Tafí del Valle
On our full day based in Cafayate we decided to take a day trip to Tafí del Valle, a two-hour drive across the border into the Tucumán province and up into the Calchaquí Valley. With its own microclimate, the Tafí del Valle is renowned as a great spot for trekking and enjoying panaoramic valley views.
The ascending drive took us above 2,000m altitude and provided yet more impressive scenery. In particular, the mirador near Observatorio Astronómico de Ampimpa gazes back down the climbing road, with dusty plains stretching to the mountains on the horizon.
Tafí del Valle: a town in the clouds
By the time we reached Tafí del Valle we were driving in clouds. Stepping out of the car we were met by chilly air and the first rain we’d seen since the Amazon jungle six weeks earlier.
With the weather not so favourable for trekking, we decided instead to potter around the town, and stop for a coffee and Jesuit cheese sandwich at La Quebradita café, with a great view of Angostura Lake. Our bill was a very reasonable ARP 210 / USD 12.5.
After lunch, we drove back to Cafayate in time for a walk to the Rio Colorado waterfall and some winery tourism. We didn’t make it all the way up to the falls, but it was a pleasant walk nonetheless.
For our winery experience, we went to Bodega Nanni, the region’s only organic winery, situated conveniently in the centre of the town. This turned out to be a good choice! The staff at Nanni were super friendly and helpful, and gave us a free tour in English, while we paid just ARP 50 / USD 3 each for a tasting.
At the end we decided to buy a bottle of the finest wine in their shop, the ‘Arcanvs’ gran reserva for ARP 450 / USD 26.50. Twenty quid for the poshest wine in the bodega? Yes please.
In general, wine in the region is staggeringly cheap. In shops you can get a bottle for as little as ARP 40 / USD 2.5. That evening we ate in a restaurant on the main square and paid ARP 100 / USD 6 for a decent bottle of local red. Our total bill for food and wine came to just ARP 340 / USD 20.
We were glad for the wine overnight as the temperature dropped; north Argentinian winters are still warm by British standards, but you need to wrap up for camping.
Day 3: Cafayate to Cachi on Ruta 40
In the morning we were on the road again to take the famous Ruta 40 up to Cachi. The longest road in Argentina and among the longest in the world, it stretches from Ushuaia in the deep south of Patagonia all the way up the Andes to the Bolivian border.
We assumed that such a renowned road would by smoothly paved throughout. Not the case! The section between Cafayate and Cachi is a 100-mile gravelly dirt track, and it took us about three hours to drive it. The views make up for the bumpy ride, though; we were in for yet more scenes of colourful rock formations as far as the eye can see.
Cachi: a desolate town before election day
Cachi was a little too quiet for our liking. Our only night there happened to be on election day, and much of the town was closed. Most frustratingly, the law dictates that alcohol cannot be sold on election day, and so when we went to Oliver’s, a renowned wine bar in the town, we were told apologetically that we could buy no wine.
Our camping experience in Cachi was also an odd one. We headed to Camping Municipal, one of the few sites we’d found online. When we parked up, an army training exercise appeared to be taking place.
We found some staff and asked about camping; they advised us that we could indeed camp there, at just ARP 30 / USD 2 per person per night,. However, when we tried to pay, they didn’t take our money. With our limited Spanish we couldn’t figure out who or where we were supposed to pay, and we ended up camping for free.
We went for a walk around Cachi, which we found to be a cute, quaint little town. We filled the car and stocked up on food for the next day’s drive, and did some sketching in the main plaza.
All in all, we couldn’t find much to do in Cachi. One of the most highly rated attractions in the area is the Recta del Tin Tin, a long, straight section of Ruta 33. So with soldiers running around our tent and a road being the best thing to see, we decided to move on the next day.
Day 4: Cachi to Tilcara through Los Cardones National Park
The drive from Cachi to Tilcara was the most beautiful of our north-west Argentina road trip. We set off at sunrise, with mountains kissed orange as we drove into Los Cardones National Park. It turned out that Recta del Tin Tin was actually a fine sight to behold, especially at the break of day with huge shadows of hills splayed across it.
The road through the national park coils around colossal green hills, climbing and descending and climbing again. Green turned into red as hills became canyons.
We passed back through Salta onto Ruta 9 north into the Jujuy Province. The landscapes mellowed down for this stretch, but once we were past the city of San Salvador de Jujuy we found the most stunning rock formations we had seen yet
The most notable of these was the Hill of Seven Colours in the town of Purmamarca. The hill’s unique blend of colours derives from a complex history of tectonic plate shifts, marine sediment and water body movements.
Live music and local food in Tilcara
We made it to Tilcara by about 3pm and set up camp at El Jardin, paying ARP 400 / USD 23.5 for two nights (ARP 80 per person and ARP 40 per tent per night). As with Cafayate and Cachi, we had the site pretty much to ourselves at low season; we would have preferred more company, as camping in an empty field in an unfamiliar place can be a bit unnerving! Other than that, it was a great place to stay, with flat pitches, power points and hot showers.
We strolled into Tilcara and found a bigger, livelier and more photogenic town than Cachi. That evening we tried some locro (a regional dish) at a restaurant called La Peña on the main plaza. By 9pm the place was packed out and we were treated to some local live music. For two courses each and two bottles of wine we paid just ARP 495 / USD 29.
Day 5: trips to Pucará and Humahuaca
On the final full day of the roadtrip we walked out to Pucará, an ancient ruins site on a hill just outside Tilcara. On the way we befriended a stray dog, who followed us up and down the hill. We called her Nancy.
The entry fee to Pucará was slightly steep at ARS 100 per person, but it was worth the visit. The restored ruins were fun to explore, and the hilltop delivered a fantastic panorama of the town and surrounding valley, which we stopped to sketch. Our ticket also included entry to the archaeological museum back in the town centre, but we didn’t end up making it there.
In the afternoon we drove up to town of Humahuaca for a final dose of beautiful scenery, and yet more colourful rocks. The highlight here was the Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia at the town’s summit, a majestic statue peering out on the markets below and the hills beyond.
Day 6: the return drive to Salta
The next morning we were up at 5am to drive back to Salta and drop the car off. A sad goodbye – we loved having our wheels!
It was back to the standard travellers’ fare of buses, until our next road trip across New Zealand. But there was plenty more wine to be had in Argentina in the meantime.
What we spent on our Argentina road trip: breakdown
In total, our Argentina road trip cost ARP 12,900 / USD 759.50 / GBP 574. This is based on the currency exchange rates at the time. We paid for the car hire in pounds sterling, and everything else in Argentine pesos.
Here’s how our costs broke down into different spending categories:
This is for the five nights of camping and five full days of car hire.
Do you have an Argentina road trip story to tell? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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