International travel can be an extremely personal, spiritual experience that is most meaningful when left out of the public sphere and safeguarded in your own memories. However, sometimes not sharing your knowledge with the world is just plain greedy. Pachamama taught me better. After spending countless hours reading traveler reviews online before my 2014 adventure and returning virtually unscathed, I’d like to contribute to this growing culture of passionate travelers in South America with advice on how to get the most out of a trip to Salta & Jujuy, Argentina.
The northwestern provinces of Salta & Jujuy are essential destinations if you want the complete Argentina experience. The desolate landscape, prehistoric rock formations, and enduring indigenous culture seems worlds away from the more widely recognized Argentine hotspots like Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and the Pampas. It’s precisely what makes this place so precious.
Cerro de Los Siete Colores, Purmamarca, Jujuy, Argentina
In this post I will include my itinerary and general travel tips for those considering traveling to Salta and/or Jujuy. I will include hostel information, but my recommendation is to follow this outline and make hostel arrangements when you arrive in each pueblo, especially during the off season (March-October). This takes pressure off in case you find yourself enamored by a certain area or a new people you meet along the way. I believe it makes for more meaningful travel when you take the backseat and allow the trip to work out the details for you.
My recommended schedule: 1. Salta 2. Humahuaca 3. Iruya 4. Tilcara 5. Purmamarca 6. Cafayate 7. Salta (other areas worth researching: Cachi & Atacama Desert)
Safety: Generally it is a safe area, but buy a lock if traveling with expensive electronics just in case. If traveling with a large backpack, always take out important documents and expensive equipment before stowing your bag under buses. There are plenty of stories of switching backpacks minutes before departing for the next city. YOU MUST KNOW BASIC SPANISH PHRASES or travel with a Spanish-speaking friend. People generally do not speak English in this area. If you are a woman traveling alone/group of women, always ask your hostel or local tourism offices for taxi driver recommendations. Unfortunately this is an increasingly popular area for sex-traffiking, and it is best to know who you are riding with at all times.
Food: When in this area you HAVE TO try llama, empanadas with quinoa, fried goat cheese, asado, locro (a delicious, affordable stew), alfahours (a chocolate cookie-like dessert)
Drinks: Coca leaf tea, Torrontés (a regional white wine)
Health: Most of the journey will be through regions with extremely high altitudes. If you struggle with altitude sickness, bring medicine with you and plan your schedule so you can rest before and after long hikes.
Best time to go: Carnaval week (same time as Mardi Gras each year, Feb or Mar) for a very authentic, indigenous celebration of this national holiday (will be more crowded and expensive, plan ahead); March-October for the “off season” where travelers enjoy mild days and cool nights, low prices, and plenty of peace & quiet
Coca Leaves: The coca leaf is a traditional herb that has a caffeine-like effect, curbs the appetite, helps with digestion and remedies altitude sickness. It is illegal everywhere else in the country besides the Jujuy & Salta provinces because the plant is used to make cocaine. COCA LEAVES ARE NOT COCAINE and WILL NOT HARM YOU. You will see men & women chewing on them 24/7, and some add “bica” (a natural, white powder) to add more strength. You should definitely give it a shot when traveling through the region, especially if you are experiencing dizziness and/or nausea. Just don’t try to bring it back on the plane.
Coca leave tea, a natural stimulant that remedies altitude sickness
Locro, a scrumptious regional stew
DAY 1: Buenos Aires -> Salta
Hostel: Backpacker’s Suites & Bar, $7USD with breakfast (cheapest), 4/5 stars, Clean, fun atmosphere, helpful staff, $10 deposit for sheets, far from bus station
We opted for the 2-hr flight over the 18-hr bus ride NOT because we can’t be road warriors (the continental buses in Argentina are actually awesome), but there was only a $10 difference.
THE KEY TO THIS SPECIAL DEAL: We bought our $205 round-trip tickets through the Aeorlineas Argentinas ARGENTINA/Español page. The company charges more for foreigners, so when you get to the welcome screen opt for the “Argentina (Español)” option. It’s best to check-in beforehand, print/bring your boarding pass, and not check any luggage. However, we “cheated the system” three times from Buenos Aires and never ran into problems. It’s important to note that you have to pay with a credit card (no American Express), but you will still be getting the ticket for at least 2/3 of the “foreigner price.”
DAY 2: Salta -> Humahuaca
BEST OF Humahuaca: Best place to buy handmade, Argentine tapestries & clothes (many pueblos peddle cheap goods from Peru now), great local food, incredible scenery in the Quebrada
Bus: 5 hrs, $11USD one-way, stops in Jujuy & Tilcara, no transfers
Hostel: Hostel La Humahuaca, 2/5 stars, $7USD with breakfast (cheapest), Great location but very dark & service is hard to come by
Arriving in Humahuaca in the evening was like walking onto a Hollywood set for an old western movie after hours. It was surreal walking through the silent, empty streets and gazing at the fearsome indigenous warrior monument overlooking the pueblo.
Monument to the Andean warriors in the area who won independence from Spain in the 19th century
Had we left Salta earlier in the day it would have been possible to spend one night in Humahuaca. However it was one of my favorite destinations and was worth getting to know.
DAY 3: Humahuaca
The thing to see in Humahuaca is the Serranía Hornocal in the Quebrada de Humahuaca. It’s like a giant sand art mountain flaunting 14 distinct colors and hidden between the mountains on the edge of the pueblo.
In order to get there you walk to the market on the edge of the pueblo and pick up a “taxi” (usually a 4WD pick up truck). The roundtrip is $30USD split between the passengers. In order to ensure your safety and save some $$$, try to organize a group of 5 at your hostel, ask your hostel owners for the name of a good driver, and ask tourists in the market if they’d like to accompany you if you haven’t secured a full car.
Make sure you go in the morning or late afternoon. Drivers will usually not take tourists to the Hornocal around noontime because of the sun intensity. WEAR SUNSCREEN.
DAY 4: Humahuaca -> Iruya
BEST OF Iruya: San Isidro hike (4-6 hours), home stays, local food, remoteness
Bus: 4 hrs, $7USD roundtrip, no stops, no transfers (bring a blanket or jackets to your seats if traveling before sunrise or after sunset)
Hostel: Home stay (read below)
The only way to arrive in Iruya is through Humahuaca. The road to one of the most remote pueblos in Jujuy is breathtaking, but also narrow & unpaved. Therefore, the bus schedule is very rigid. Most people leave Humahuaca at 6am, arrive at 10am, and leave at 2pm. We opted to stay the night, and it was one of the best decisions we made.
The lookout atop the pueblo—-it takes about 20 minutes to reach the top
In Iruya it became increasingly clear that tourism in this region of the world is a necessary evil. It wasn’t teaming with souvenirs and vendors like other pueblos, but the signs were all there. People are generally friendly & helpful when you approach them speaking Spanish, but otherwise they will look right through you and go on with their daily routine.
Locals who will voluntarily approach you, however, are women with flyers for home stays. There are a few hostels in the pueblo, but we ended up paying $6USD per person for a private room in a delightful woman’s house. If you want a truly authentic experience go with this option.
There are a few hikes, the best being San Isidro. The path takes you through the mountains and sheep pastures to a neighboring pueblo.
En route to San Isidro
DAY 5: Iruya -> Tilcara
BEST OF Tilcara: Cave tour, most accommodating pueblo for tourists in terms of hospitality and accessibility
Bus: 6 hrs total, transfer to Humahuaca, bought ticket to Tilcara for $2USD, bring blanket or jackets on bus if traveling before sunrise
Hostel: Club Hostel, 4/5 stars, $9USD with breakfast (cheapest), Great location, helpful staff, and lots of open space to relax and make new friends
Unfortunately my stay in Tilcara is full of regret, largely in part because we skipped the tour of the caves (las cuevas). The tours REQUIRE a tour guide and cost $10USD per person. The hike typically lasts 4 hours and takes you to some of the most beautiful hidden sights in Jujuy. If interested, go to the tourism office in centro before 3pm and sign up for a tour. You do not have to pay ahead of time.
Instead we hiked up to Garganta del Diablo, a very disappointing waterfall that is located at a painfully high altitude. My disappointment probably is largely in part to the fact I saw the original Garganta del Diablo only 3 weeks prior, but all-in-all, not worth the trouble. It costs $2USD per person to enter the waterfall sight.
There are also some ruins en route to the waterfall, but it costs $3USD to enter, and the ruins are artificial reconstructions. ESPECIALLY if you’re planning a trip to Peru, you might want to take a pass on this attraction.
Seen in Tilcara: The world would be a happier place if everyone/thing chewed coca leaves
DAY 6: Tilcara -> Purmamarca
BEST OF Purmamarca: Salinas Grandes tour, Cerro de Los Siete Colores
Noteworthy restaurant!!!: Peña el rincón de Claudia Vilte (try the locro or cabrito)
Bus: 2 hrs, $5USD, no stops, no transfers
Hostel: A local church had a few private shacks for $7USD per night, and it was actually pretty comfortable. Purmamarca is known for it’s exotic, hidden hotels if you want to splurge a bit.
The streets of Purmamarca are completely packed with budget souvenirs from Peru from 9am-5pm, and tourists can be seen and heard on every street corner. After spending nearly 5 days in extremely remote pueblos, we welcomed the hustle and bustle but remained watchful of our tourist etiquette.
Many people go to Purmamarca to access Salinas Grandes, an ancient salt desert 690 feet above sea level. If you are going to Bolivia, skip it. Salar de Uyuni is the most breathtaking salt desert on Earth. Otherwise, Salinas Grandes is worth the $10USD. Pick up a “taxi” near the bus station and find 3 other travelers to go with you to save money and ensure safety. ***You will definitely be feeling the altitude as the car swerves up and down the mountains, so bring a remedy like coca leaves.
The best times to go to Salinas Grandes is early in the morning or at 4pm. You will be allowed 30 mins to an hour to explore and take pictures. It’s one of the greatest photo opps in the Northwest. However, trucks harvesting the salt will sometimes interfere with the serenity and extraterrestrial beauty of the desert. Hopefully you go on a better day than we did.
The other attraction you need to know about is Cerro de los Siete Colores, the trail that takes you through the hills in between the pueblo and Quebrada de Purmamarca. It’s named for the 7 distinct and vivid colors of the rock formations. For the most breathtaking views take the hike early in the morning or in the late afternoon. The hike lasts about 4 hours.
Cerro de los Siete Colores (around 3pm)
The best restaurant in Purmamarca, Peña el rincón de Claudia Vilte
Guests enjoy live, regional music every night at Peña el rincón de Claudia Vilte
DAY 7: Purmamarca -> Cafayate
BEST OF Cafayate: Epic wine tasting and gorgeous bodegas, Torrontés (a white wine that only grows here), tours of La Concha
Bus: Pumamarca to Jujuy (1.5 hours), Jujuy to Salta (2.5 hours), Salta to Cafayate (4 hours), you must transfer buses at each of these points. The bus schedules are synchronized so you’re never waiting more than 30 mins in between.
Hostel: El Balcon, $7USD per/night (cheapest), 3/5 stars: Good location, awesome asados, attached to a 24-hr convenient store, management is a little iffy
This day was a doozy, but it was high time to leave Jujuy and explore Salta Province. The city of Jujuy is notoriously boring and dirty, and we had plans to explore the city of Salta at the end of the trip, so we opted to travel all the way down to Cafayate. One thing to look forward to on this bus ride is the amazing scenery between Salta and Cafayate. I must’ve stared unblinkingly out the window for an hour completely taken by the grandeur of the deep earthy colors and geometric shapes formed into the ancient mountains.
Our hostel offered a $9USD all-you-can-eat asado, which ended up being the best one I had in all 4 months traveling in the Southern Cone. Hostel asados are worth splurging on if you’re on a budget. There’s no better way to share stories with other travelers and shamelessly indulge in the famous flavors of Argentine meat and wine.
View of central Cafayate from our hostel, El Balcon
DAY 8: Cafayate
After a day or road-tripping, we were ready to spend the day relaxing in Argentina’s most famous wine country. Cafayate is home to a wide range of wineries (bodegas) due to the optimal climate and altitude for wine grapes. The view of the clouds touching down on the Andes doesn’t hurt either.
In order to make the bodega rounds, you can rent bikes on the plaza for $8USD for 5 hours. The best way to discern if bike rentals is the way to go is to map out your bodega schedule and determine the distances. On the first day we split a taxi between 3 people and went to two distant bodegas; the total cost for the day was just over half the cost of 3 bikes, and we spent more than 5 hours in the bodegas, so we ended up making the most economical and relaxing choice. You can always try to walk and hitch hike too.
We started at Finca de Las Nubes, a picturesque little bodega a few miles outside centro. It is consistently rated one of the top bodegas in Cafayate, especially due to its scenic view and out-of-this-world Torrontés wine. The tasting tour (Spanish) was $3USD, and the price could be used toward a bottle of wine.
Finca de Las Nubes Winery
May in Argentine wine country: Harvest season ends in April, and the leaves are fresh with fall colors. Nothing beats it.
Next we headed over to Piattelli Winery for lunch by taxi. The luxurious spread of the winery was straight out of an American reality TV show. In fact, most everything reminded us of the United States: the architecture, interior design, expensive prices, and stellar service. They even give English tours. Then we discovered why…Piattelli is a new winery owned by an American construction mogul. The striking differences between the quaint, family-owned bodegas we had already visited and the growing giant that is Piattelli was a lot to take in. So we decided to absorb it all over some lunch.
Piattelli is the perfect place to dine with its incredible terrace view. I recommend you share the cheese plate and apple/goat cheese salad, and a bottle of the rich Cabernet Sauvignon. MAKE SURE they serve red wine to you at the right temperature. Sadly our experience was tainted when they served us a chilled Cab.
We walked & hitch hiked back from Piattelli, went to the famous Casa de Las Empanadas with some new hostel friends, and called it a night.
Lunch on the terrace overlooking the Andes
There are daily English tours of the winery at 3pm or by appointment
DAY 9: Cafayate
Slightly wined-out, we opted for a guided tour through Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas in the afternoon. For $15USD you can sign up for a 3-hour guided tour at the tourism office in the plaza. Most tours leave at 2pm and are given in Spanish. However, some guides do speak English, and the tours are usually full of bilingual tourists who can lend a helping hand.
The tour includes a bit of hiking but nothing too rigorous. Most of the time is spent getting in and out of the van. There are around 12 distinct points. Some stops like the Obelisco are simply photo opps. Others stops like La Garganta del Diablo are interactive.
It was one of the most touristy activities we did on this trip, but had we not paid for this tour we wouldn’t have seen some of the most beautiful, prehistoric sights Cafayate has to offer.
The original Obelisco, a prehistoric rock formation that shares its name with the famous monument in Buenos Aires
Our guide takes us through la Quebrada
Many of the stops are inspired by the recognizable shapes of the rock formations, i.e. the “Locomotive” pictured above
DAY 10: Cafayate -> Salta
Bus: $5USD, 4 hours, no transfers, a few stops
Before we left for Salta we wanted to squeeze in a few more bodegas within walking distance from the plaza. First we visited Winery Nanni, the only organic winery in the area. The tour (Spanish) was outstanding, and explained the reason they are certified organic is because they don’t use artificial chemicals or pesticides in the process. The bodega has existed since the 19th century. The family-owned company produces 50,000 bottles each year and only exports the product to Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The rest of the produce remains in the Salta province. If you visit this winery you must try a bottle of Bonarda Reserve, probably the best wine we tasted our entire time in wine country.
Next we walked over to El Esteco, a bodega with old Spanish grandeur and a luxury poolside lunch spot to go with it. We enjoyed pumpkin risotto, pumpkin ravioli, and pork chops over fresh vegetables with a bottle of their signature Torrontés. The restaurant is located behind the hotel on the right side of the bodega. Whether you’re a guest or not, you’re welcome to stop by for a decadent lunch while watching baby llamas prance about the yard. They had excellent service and a killer view of the Andes. It was an absolutely memorable experience, and a wonderful way to say chau to Cafayate.
Eating lunch on the poolside patio with our new baby llama friend, Clarita
Bodega El Esteco—-don’t forget to taste a few grapes on the way in…
Pumpkin risotto with some Torrontés at El Esteco
DAY 11: Salta
BEST OF Salta: Empanadas, gorgeous colonial churches, relaxing in the park
Hostel: Backpacker’s Hostel Salta, $7USD with breakfast (cheapest), 5/5 stars, Good location, amazing bar and dinner area in back, affordable dinner specials, friendly & helpful staff, fun atmosphere ***This is different than the aforementioned Backpackers Suites & Bar (4/5 stars)
After all of the buses and jumping around from one hostel to another, a relaxing day in Salta was exactly what we needed. Hostels here are the best in the area since it’s the jumping off point for many tourists. It’s easy to find employees who will help you book an excursion and point out fun things to do. We decided to lounge in the park and watch jugglers, explore the various colonial churches, walk to the mall and watch a movie, and eat as many empanadas as we possibly could. No regrets.
One of the many orange trees & the Salta Cathedral—located on the main square
The oldest church in Salta, Iglesia San Francisco
DAY 12: Salta -> Buenos Aires
It was hard to believe we were in the same country when we hopped off the plane in Buenos Aires, and I think this is one of the most beautiful things about Argentina. I hope my tips & advice have helped you plan your journey to one of Argentina’s greatest treasures. ¡Buen viaje!