The highlight of my trip to Argentina is without a doubt a roadtrip around the Puna in the North. The dreamy landscapes in the Puna are composed of rainbow coloured mountains and arid landscapes covered in giant cacti. The region has a strong cultural point of view and it harvests one of the largest salt flats in Argentina.
It is hard to get lost on the well maintained roads as they generally only take you in one direction. The North of Argentina is also an interesting destination for fans of fermented grape juice and other local specialties. Generally the distance from one destination to another is less than an hour, however you should consider a lot of photo stops. I did my roadtrip in seven days, but if time is not a luxury for you the roadtrip could be done in five days. What are you waiting for, lets hit the road!
DAY # 1: SALTA
Your journey starts in Salta, the capital of the province of Salta. It is definitely worth spending a night in Salta before you pick up the car. With its unique colonial architecture the city carries the nickname ‘Salta La Linda’ (beautiful Salta). One of my favourite things to do in Salta is hiking up to Cerro San Bernardo. Not only do you get the best view here in Salta (especially during sunset) but it is also an outdoor gym. In case you don’t want to take the stairs there is a cable cart that can take you up and down.
Tip: save yourself some dinero by spending a night in Salta and pick up a rental car the second day of your trip. There are several companies that rent out cars in the centre so you don’t have to go back to the airport to pick up a car.
DAY # 2: SAN SALVADOR DE JUYJUY
If I am being honest I must admit Salvador de JuyJuy is not my jam. The traffic in and around this city is chaotic and there is not much to do. Besides, the weather was pretty depressing. But, I’ve heard from others there’s great places to eat and there is some interesting architecture in the centre. Therefore, JuyJuy is a great destination to break up your journey. Just make sure you leave early the next day.
The next morning I was excited to leave San Salvador de JuyJuy. When I reach the parking lot I realised I I would not depart from this city anytime soon as my car was locked in by a dozen of other cars. Thank you Argentineans with amazing parking skills. I figured the only thing I could do is wait and grab a coffee. The lady at the coffeeshop snickered when I told her what had happened. Amazingly, when I got back to the parking lot a lot of cars had disappeared and I started liberating the rental car. I felt like I am in driver’s class again and it took me about 45 minutes to leave this parking lot without damaging the car. Cheers again.
By the way, a locked in car on a parking lot will not be the only obstacle on your route. You might be confronted with cuter challenges, such as a pack of furry alpacas on the road.
DAY # 3: PURMAMARCA
The next stop on your roadtrip through the North of Argentina is Purmamarca. Purmamarca is a remote village trapped between colourful mountains on the edge of the Puna. The roads in the village are unpaved and dusty and the village is cramped with restaurants and accommodations. One of the most notable sights in Purmamarca is Cerro de 7 Colores. Well, the name says it all, as this is a mountain with 7 different colours. For more natural wonders take your time to explore Passeo de Los Colorados. I do recommend doing this excursion on foot. Passage by vehicle is optional. However, the roads are bad and sometimes do not have a wider span than 2 metres next to a cliff which is pretty terrifying.
DAY # 4: SALINAS GRANDES (PURMAMARCA)
Just the route to Salinas Grandes [big salt flats] is an excursion in itself with hairpin turns while ascending or descending. Don’t even get me started on the amazing views on the way. The distance from Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes is only an hour. However, it is recommended to take your time on the road to firstly enjoy it to the fullest and secondly because it safer. Please note I had some encounters with crazy drivers on this route, caution while taking hairpin curves is recommended.
The road to Salinas Grandes is the same road that leads to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Just before reaching Salinas Grandes there is a hairpin turn. After taking this turn you are blinded for a second or two by the gigantic white salt salt flat in front of you. The salt flat makes up for more than 200 square meters where resources such as sodium and potassium are extracted.
Tip: bring some photoprops for a photoshoot on the salt flats.
DAY #5: TILCARA
The next stop of this roadtrip is Tilcara. Tilcara is only a 30 minute drive from Purmamarca. An interesting place worthwhile to explore is Purcará de Tilcara, a botanical garden with archaeological discoveries and countless types of cacti. The view over the mountains from the height of this archaeological site is also fantastic. A little further out the village there is a challenging hiking route to waterfall Garganta del Diablo(devil’s throat). The hike to this waterfall takes three hours and during your walk you will pass many panoramic viewpoints and cross crooked bridges. I myself unfortunately had to skip this route due to an injury but I’ve heard from other travellers it is worth a visit.
FINES IN TILCARA
Pay attention while driving in Tilcara. In Tilcara there are many one-way roads that are not clearly marked and you are not allowed to park everywhere. If you do not comply with the rules you risk a fine from the municipality. This is not something to worry about, you will not be denied entry to Argentina if you get fined. However, it will cost you a lot of time to pay for the fine and can cause a serious delay in your travel itinerary.
You probably figured but I did get fined in Tilcara. When I reached the village I was overwhelmed with impressions when I entered a one-way road. At some point I noticed the cars on the side were all parked in the other direction. This is when it hit me: I was driving at the wrong direction. Just a few seconds later a municipality officer signalled down my car.
A friendly lady officer told me I was driving on the wrong side of the road she informed me I had to pay a fine of 300 pesos (20 euros at the time). She informed me I could not pay the fine immediately. Apparently I had to pay the fine through ‘official channels’ which in this case was at the municipal office. It was already 16:00 and the office closed at 16:30 so I had to wait for the office to open at 8:30 the next day. I was planning to leave around 10:00 that morning so I had nothing to worry about.
The next morning I arrived at the municipal office at 8:30 to pay the fine. Apparently this municipal office has a lot going on as more or less 10 people were already waiting when I arrived. After an hour or so it was my turn. Somehow my fine had tripled overnight and I was asked to pay 900 pesos. Of course I refused to pay and I was told to wait for a supervisor. They let me wait another two hours to tell me that they could not reduce the fine. I again refused to pay. Half an hour later they decided to set me free and I paid 300 pesos.
This is a textbook example of corruption and taking advantage of tourists. During my travels I consulted friends in Argentina about this issue and they told me I should’ve ignored the fine. I can’t really tell you to ignore the fine, but I hope I did help you to avoid receiving a fine in the first place.
DAY # 6: HUMAHUACA
Humahuaca is a 45 minute drive from Tilcara. The village is slightly larger than Tilcara and Purmamarca and therefore has more inhabitants. Humahuaca is connected by dusty roads and a wide range of accommodations and restaurants. However, during my visit to Humahuaca I came across the absolute highlight of the roadtrip: Hornocal.
Before my visit to Hornocal I was a bit skeptical. I had seen photos of Hornocal online and I was convinced some photoshop genius edited the dreamy images that popped up on my screen. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The view from Mirador de Hornocal(Hornocal viewpoint) is incredible. I felt like standing in front of a painting and I had to pinch my arm to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The path to Hornocal is one of the few roads in the area that is not pleasant for driving. The road is unpaved and covered in small pebbles. When driving at a certain speed the pebbles shoot up and damage the exterior of your car. It is a beautiful route but it is recommended to be vigilant, take your time and drive slowly. Also, make sure you are on the look out as you might encounter vicuñas along the way.
Tip: The altitude of Mirador de Hornocal 4000 meters. Consequently, there is a serious risk of altitude sickness. Make sure you are well rested before your visit to Hornocal and carry sufficient water with you to stay hydrated.
DAY # 7: BACK TO SALTA
I hope you enjoyed your views on the way because you are driving the same road back to Salta. The drive back to Salta from Humahuaca is approximately five hours. Even though you already drove the same route, it is recommended to start your trip back well-rested. Make sure to check if you’ve retrieved all your belongings from the car before drop-off at the rental shop.
> DAY # 1: SALTA > DAY # 2: SAN SALVADOR DE JUYJUY > DAY # 3: PURMAMARCA > DAY # 4: SALINAS GRANDES (PURMAMARCA) > DAY # 5: TILCARA > DAY # 6: HUMAHUACA + HORNOCAL > DAY # 7: BACK TO SALTA
CAR RENTAL IN ARGENTINA
In Argentina you don’t need an international driver’s license to rent a car. A creditcard on the other hand is essential as only creditcards are accepted for deposits. Some car rental offices only rent out cars to individuals over the age of 25. Some will allow individuals below the age of 25 to rent a car, sometimes with an additional fee. I rented a car with Cactus and I was very satisfied with the quality of services and the car.
The roads in Argentina are well maintained and it is therefore certainly not necessary to rent a Jeep, SUV or some other gasoline slurping gigantic vehicle. I drove the route with a Volkswagen Voyage (see photo above) and in my opinion a car of this size is capable of taking sharp turns, ascending and it is comfortable.
NAVIGATION IN ARGENTINA
Car rental companies often offer the option of renting a navigation system at a price. If you want to save yourself some money for an extra glass of red wine (if you are not driving that day) it is an option to navigate with your phone. The best offline navigation app is Maps.Me. In this application you can download regions so that you can use them offline. Maps.Me allows you to activate a route without internet unlike for example GoogleMaps.
CLIMATE NORTH ARGENTINA
In the areas you visit during this road trip the climate is pleasant all year round. It is important to note that North-Argentina has a desert-like climate where temperatures at night are significantly lower than temperatures during the day. Also take into account strong winds and lower temperatures at higher altitudes.
In winter there is a slimmer chance of rain than in summer. January is the month with the highest level of rainfall and the hottest month is December. The coldest month of the year is July. The area can be visited all year round, but the best months for your visit are from September to November or from February to June.