After a one night pit stop in Salta, our road trip through Argentina’s northwest continues. On this excursion, we travel north through Jujuy Province and the enchanting Quebrada de Humahuaca all the way to the Bolivian border. We enlist the service of Poncho Tours, an excellent operator who runs private, customized tours. Over the next two and a half days, we visit indigenous Andean villages, giant salt flats and multicoloured mountains that would make a perfect album cover for a psychedelic rock band. And, I might add, we eat the best empanadas ever.
So, why not do a self-drive like we did in Part 1 through the Valles Calchaquíes? At first, it was mostly about logistics. Since we were headed to Bolivia, we figured we’d save time and effort by not having to return a rental car to Salta (unlike our Part 1 loop, Part 2 was roughly linear). The logistics piece turned out to be only one of the pros of using Poncho Tours.
Right from the start, Rodrigo our guide takes us on a wonderful road that we’d likely not have selected on our own. We’re heading to the town of Purmamarca. There’s a freeway route but we’re on old Ruta 9. The curvy strip of pavement through incredibly dense jungle is totally at odds with the arid hills surrounding Salta. He expertly manoeuvres his heavy-duty Toyota truck along the narrow road that was never designed for vehicles of this size. It’s awesome and we’re glad he’s driving.
The greenery doesn’t last long and we’re once again traveling through dry landscapes and dusty towns. It’s Sunday and the locals are out doing what Argentinians do best: grilling huge hunks of meat over charcoal. Mike is drooling as he takes roadside photos.
Purmamarca is a postcard-perfect town that sits under the famous Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors) part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca UNESCO World Heritage site. The vivid waves of colour make an exquisite backdrop to the market that is in full swing when we arrive mid-morning. Andean design ponchos, sweaters and scarves are piled high on tables in the main square; pretty woven handbags adorn adobe walls. It’s a visual feast and an ambience I had not expected from Argentina. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in Bolivia. Mike can only handle so much market and his feast comes over lunch when Rodrigo introduces us to a mouthwatering local specialty— fried empanadas with a velvety smooth cheese filling.
Rodrigo asks if we’re interested in a little detour to Salinas Grandes, the world’s third largest salt flats. He tells us that the drive alone, up the Cuesta de Lipán (Route 52), is worth it. Of course we want to do this. After all, he’s driving. The zigzag route that reaches an elevation of 4170 m (13,681 ft) is spectacular. Rodrigo obliges us with numerous photo-taking stops for the pretty llamas on the side of the road.
Salinas Grande is a carpet of blinding white that measures over 500 sq km (193 sq miles). We’ve never seen a salt flat before this and are fascinated by the crusty salt surface that is up to 0.5 m thick. It gets us even more excited for our upcoming adventure in Bolivia where we’ll see the big daddy of salt flats—the Salar de Uyuni (my next post).
In Purmamarca I had spied a postcard that piqued my interest. I asked Rodrigo where it was. Turns out that the town of Maimará and the scene depicted in the postcard—the Paleta del Pintor (Painter’s Palette)—is enroute to Tilcara, our base for the next two nights. It’s a hauntingly beautiful scene—a hillside cemetery against a backdrop of layered pink and burgundy hills.
We immediately fall in love with Tilcara. It’s not quite as visually stunning as Purmamarca but it’s less touristy and has a lovely balance of traditional authenticity and cute hotels and restaurants. It’s also home to the Pucará, a pre-Inca fortification from the 12th to 15th century that is stunningly set on a cactus-studded hill overlooking the town.
That evening we trundle through the dusty cobblestone streets, past charmingly dilapidated buildings. It looks like time stood still, and yet, we end up at Nuevo Progresso, a restaurant with an upbeat artsy ambiance that would be right at home in an urban center. The food is great and we get a real kick out of the pictorial bill. See if you can figure it out on the photo below.
The next morning, we wake to a blanket of low lying grey clouds. I’m disheartened. Today was to be our much anticipated visit to Hornocal—a remote part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca that apparently makes Purmamarca’s multicoloured hills look dull in comparison.
The weather gods are kind to us. By the time we reach Humahuaca, the region’s largest settlement, the sky is brilliant blue. The first thing we notice is the monstrous Monumento a la Independencia, which looks a bit out of place in the otherwise easy-going, traditional town.
It’s fitting somehow that we observe a few minutes of silent contemplation and gratitude in Humahuaca’s main plaza. Every day at noon, a mechanical life-size statue of San Fransisco Solano pops out of the clock tower. Hat vendors, trinket pedlars, tourists and locals stop what they’re doing and fall silent during the duration of a nice hymn. At the end of the song, San Fransisco rolls back through his door and life resumes. It’s kitschy but strangely soothing.
I can barely contain my excitement as we head to Hornocal. It’s only about 40 minutes from Humahuaca but the steep gravel road is challenging. We’re glad to be in Rodrigo’s powerful truck. Along the way, we spot vicuńas, wild cousins to domesticated llamas that like to hang out above 3500 m (11,482 ft).
The view that greets us takes our breath away (and the 4350 m/14,272 ft elevation adds to our breathlessness). Some sources claim that 14 colours can be spotted in the Serranía de Hornocal sandstone formations, others cite as many as 33. Whatever the number, the vibrant hues and inverted V patterns of the sedimentary rock layers look like we’ve entered a Magical Mystery Tour. Hornocal is certainly one of nature’s greatest wonders and a huge highlight of our trip to Argentina.
Mike and I are both quietly contemplative as Rodrigo drives across the Altiplano (Andean Plateau) towards La Quiaca, the border crossing to Bolivia. Goodbye Argentina! We’ve been so impressed with your natural wonders, towns, culture, people, cuisine, wine…
Next post: a 4-day jeep trip through Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.