Our initial research into Argentina uncovered that the country’s north-west region, with its vast national parks, ancient rock formations and bountiful vineyards, is not an experience to be missed.
These various sights and attractions are spread across many towns and cities, covering a sizeable geographical area. Getting around between the hub city of Salta and the likes of Cafayate, Cachi, Jujuy, Tilcara and Humahuaca could be challenging and time-consuming by bus.
So we decided to treat ourselves to a hire car. Not the cheapest way of getting around, but it would give us complete freedom to explore when and where we liked, and judging by the pictures online we suspected we would be in for a spectacular roadtrip. We weren’t wrong. The trip was also an opportunity to use our tent for the first time on our travels.
This article recants some of the highlights of our roadtrip. As travel blogs were one of the most helpful resources for planning it, I will try to repay the community by featuring as much useful information as I can for travellers, including costs.
For reference, the exchange rate during our trip averaged around 22.5 Argentinian pesos to the British pound (it did fluctuate significantly while we were on the road, in the wrong direction for us).
The region’s major city, Salta, was the natural pivot for our roadtrip. NB: if you happen to travel to Salta from San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, you are in for one of the world’s most beautiful bus journeys. We arrived in Salta after said bus journey late in the evening.
We were struck by two things; firstly the warmth after spending over a month at high altitude, and secondly how incredibly busy it was. As Lisa said, “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, great value at ARP 200 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 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 roadtrip. 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.
We picked up our car at 10am sharp on Friday morning – a shiny new Chevrolet Celta. For five days we paid GBP 280, including full insurance cover. Over the course of the trip we spent ARS 1,710 on petrol.
While it was amazing to get behind the wheel of a car after so long, the prospect of navigating out of this hectic city, with right-hand-side driving to boot, was terrifying. We both agreed that Lisa was best suited to the task, and she was more than equal to it! 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.
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.
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 in total – 60 per person per night, ARS 40 for the tent per night and 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 ARS 40 for two scoops. After indulging, we bought a bottle of actual wine and headed back to the campsite for an early night.
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.
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.
After lunch, we drove 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 ARS 50 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 ARS 450. 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 ARS 40. That evening we ate in a restaurant and paid ARS 100 for a decent bottle of local red. Our total bill for food and wine came to just ARS 340. 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.
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 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 ARS 30 per person per night, but 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 according to Google 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.
The drive from Cachi to Tilcara was the most beautiful of our roadtrip. 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 is 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, most notably the Hill of Seven Colours in the town of Purmamarca.
We made it to Tilcara by about 3pm and set up camp at El Jardin, paying ARS 400 for two nights (ARS 80 per person and ARS 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 ARS 495.
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.
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 roadtrip across New Zealand in November. But there’s plenty more wine in Argentina to be had between now and then.