Road Trip Part 2: Argentina’s Quebrada de Humahuaca


Llamas on the road to Salinas Grande

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.


Jungle scenery along Route 9 from Salta

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.


Fred Flintsone-size hunks of meat


Fabulous view approaching Purmamarca


Colourful hills and lively market make Purmamarca an appealing place


Gorgeous walk through the multicoloured hills of Purmamarca

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).


The beautiful curvy Cuesta de Lipán


We can’t get enough of photogenic llamas


Salt statues overlook Salinas Grande

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.


I wanted to see this in real life


I got my wish, but the photo does not do justice to the Paleta del Pintor

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.


Tilcara makes a great base for exploring the region


Can you figure out what we had for dinner?

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.


San Fransisco pops out of the clock tower everyday at noon


Humahuaca’s Monumento a la Independencia

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.


Aren’t these vicuñas pretty!


Incredible Hornocal

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Breathless in Hornocal


More Hornocal…I can’t get enough!


El Espinazo del Diablo (Devil’s Spin) on our drive toward Bolivia

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. 


Our route from Salta to Bolivian border with Poncho Tours



Categories: Argentina, Places | Tags: , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

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25 thoughts on “Road Trip Part 2: Argentina’s Quebrada de Humahuaca

  1. Pingback: My 10 most memorable wild animal encounters | Writes of Passage

  2. Pingback: My 10 Perfect Moments in Argentina | Writes of Passage

  3. Oh my gosh, those colors! Unbelievable! I know I’ve said it before but I literally just want to ignore reality for a few weeks and recreate your entire vacation. It looks so amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These photos are mind-blowing. How long was your total time in Argenina? I’m really thinking I need to go there someday. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Meghan! We were there for 3 weeks. We could easily have spent more time but we didn’t feel too rushed (of course only saw some of the main highlights). Distances are great so you have to factor in longish travel days. As the crow flies, it’s about 3000 km (1864 miles) from our hikes in the far south of the country (Patagonia) to the far northwest region that I talk about in this post. Argentina has good domestic air service and I’ve read that some lower cost carriers will be starting up soon. There are good, comfortable long distance bus options too but this can mean 24 hours on a bus! Hope you get there!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks so much for all the info. Sounds like travel time would definitely be an issue!! All the places you visited look amazing; it really does seem like you got to see quite a lot of different things.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Going on a road trip in northwest Argentina sounds so much fun, Caroline. These pictures left me speechless and the llamas are really photogenic! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Agness! It was a totally fun adventure. There is so much to see in NW Argentina and I knew very little about it before going on this trip…it was a great surprise.


  6. Every single thing you mentioned in this post is very appealing to me. Gosh, I wish Argentina wasn’t that hard for Indonesians to go — although the fact that Brazil recently granted Indonesians visa-free visit for up to 30 days, making the total number of South American countries that remove visa restrictions for Indonesians to five, makes me wish that Argentina will follow suit sooner than later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a shame that Argentina makes it so difficult for Indonesians to visit. It’s interesting what you mentioned about Brazil because as Canadians we do require a visa to enter that country (though it’s not as expensive if you get it online). I’m hopeful you’ll make it to South America. I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve seen (and lots more to go, I hope).


  7. Every single thing about this trip appeals to me! Gosh, we really have to get back down to S. America – I’ve not been to Bolivia or that part of Argentina, and the landscapes are incredible. (Nice match of your top with the hills, by the way. 🙂 ) As for your bill, I was thinking beef steak, alpaca, red wine, a big potato, and an after-dinner drink!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny that you mentioned my top. When I was looking at that photo the other day I noticed the accidental coordination with the hills (Mike kinda messes it up with the fluorescent green). Remember this fashion tip for when you visit 😉! The thing that looks like a potato is actually a bowl of soup and the “A” is sadly just agua (we learned that drinking too much and high altitude don’t mix well). Incredible part of the world!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mike TOTALLY messes it up but I didn’t want to trash talk a guy I’ve never met! Haha. I look terrible in all earth tones so I’m afraid I would be like Mike after all! Have a great weekend!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. What a fabulous trip. From your words and pictures I can imagine myself being there. We took a different route north to Bolivia – an amazing journey through the Atacama Desert – but I’d have loved to have seen Hornocal. What a beautiful place!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this entire region is amazing Alison! We loved our time traveling in northern Argentina and then up to Bolivia where we started our Salar tour in Tupiza. Thank you for your advice re. Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni). I’m so glad we went there; it was just over the top great. Unfortunately, due to time restriction we only had a very short (but awesome) period in Atacama. I want to go back to South America!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Mike Hohmann

    A fantastic trip, Caroline. Rodrigo’s truck seems to have been a great choice to get around in while getting a good tour guide as part of the package. The colorful Homocal sandstone formations look intriguing and the nearby elevations sound challenging as well. I did note many peaks to the east along the Andes that exceed 20,000′ -which is well beyond my capabilities. As for the the artsy bill at Nuevo Progresso, I’d guess you enjoyed two meat entrees -from beef cattle and possibly a llama (or vicuńa), along with two red wines and maybe a bit of Christian Brother’s (or similar) brandy after dinner. Sounds like a good meal to me! I’m looking forward to your next post taking you into SW Bolivia.

    Reminds me, I’ve got a nice steak to put on the grill, shortly -complimented with a good cabernet, followed by a Cohiba and a small glass of Hennessy Black. Wife is out of town, so no veggies tonight! Oh, I’m so bad!;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Mike, your comment about the no veggies cracked me up. Sounds so familiar with my two guys. Hope you enjoyed a nice dinner! You were right on with our arsty bill. That blob of orange at the top was a soup. The elevations were challenging, even without any heavy exertion. I could not possibly have done any major hiking. It was good to get some acclimatization before Bolivia, where we were not just visiting high elevation sites for a few hours, but also sleeping at altitude. More on that in my next post.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh Caroline your photos are always so beautiful. Striking images and lovely words. I can’t wait to read about your Salar de Uyuni experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. josypheen

    Oh my goodness this all looks amaaaaazing! I am completely in love with your photos of Hornocal! I would loooove to do a similar trip! What time of year were you there? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lovely article. Oh boy those pieces of meat are indeed massive!! Thanks for posting this road trip in such detail, it is really helping me determine where to go on ours maybe next year or the year after. Happy traveling! Marcella

    Liked by 1 person

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