I traveled in the northwest of Argentina for a little over two weeks in 2012. I stayed in the Salta Province and took a day tour to some of the main sites in the Jujuy Province.
I have mixed feelings about my experience. While I loved the landscapes, the people, and the onda, I did not get to experience it the way I would have liked. The main reason is because I didn’t rent a car. I tried to get a group together in my hostel, but it didn’t work out. Tours are not cheap, and the one I took to Jujuy was disappointing because of the lack of time we had at the salt flats.
If I had it to do over again, I would definitely rent a car and spent more time visiting the smaller towns in this area.
Note that Carnival is a great time to visit (although bookings should be made well in advance), and the “real” celebrations are in the small towns.
My favorite part of the trip was relaxing and drinking wine in Cafayate, a must-visit area, especially if you enjoy good wine.
There are lots of domestic flights from Buenos Aires, however, as a foreigner you will pay almost double for your flight.
Bus travel is the cheapest way to go if you can endure it. From Central Buenos Aires, there are lots of bus companies and lots of bus routes that will get you to Tucuman, Salta city, or Jujuy city. Then there are many other short routes to get you between the smaller towns. There is a website called Plataforma10 that has many routes, however, it often gives errors, and it does not include all routes. Use this to get an idea of routes and tickets. Buy your next ticket when you get to your destination. Go to every bus company in the terminal and ask. For each city I visited below, I share the company, route, and price for my ticket.
Class of bus ticket is also important. For long-haul routes, I suggest Cama class. It is worth the extra money. Remember that if you are traveling overnight, you are saving on the cost of lodging. There is also Cama Suite where the seat folds down to 180 degrees, but I found Cama to be very comfortable. This class also usually comes with servicio, meaning meals are included, but you will definitely want to have snacks with you. Check out my post about my 28-hour bus ride in Argentina.
Salta City (and Day Trips)
Salta is a pleasant, medium-sized city with some colonial architecture. There is not a whole lot to do and see in Salta. I stayed for a week, but most people would probably be fine with a couple of days.
I took an Andesmar bus from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This is an instance where your options are limited as there are only 2 or 3 companies that make this trip. There are lots of winding, mountain passes on this route, and we had the border crossing, so this turned out to be a long trip despite the fact that the cities are not so far apart on a map.
- If you want to cook your own meals, be sure to buy produce and bread at the large market. These items are much cheaper and better quality than at the large supermarkets. It is not labeled on maps, so ask your hostel or hotel for directions. It is not too far from the center of town.
- Tours are expensive, and you unfortunately have to rent a car or take a tour to see some of the main sites. Shop around to make sure you are getting the best deal. Renting a car will cost about the same as a tour if you have 4 people (less in low season), and you will have freedom to explore at your own pace. During high season, it is important to book a car in advance, or they may not have the style/ size you need.
Where To Stay
I stayed at Hostel 7 Duendes Base (note there are two different 7 Duendes) because it is within walking distance of both the bus station and the center of town and is located next to a series of parks where I could go running. There is a great TV/ DVD room. The kitchen is good size and well-equipped. The people who run the place are very helpful and friendly.
I also stayed at a lovely B&B in the small town of Cerrillos just 15km outside of Salta city. Poncho Huasi Posada is a wonderful place to relax and experience a non-touristic small northern town but still be a short bus ride away from Salta to check out the few sites. Nick and Alicia, a British-Argentine couple, run this B&B and will make you feel at home. Nick also runs a tourism company focusing on private tours in the north of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.
There is not a whole lot to see in the city of Salta. Grab a tourist map, and you can cover the main sites listed in a day.
- Hike to the Mirador. You get a great view of the city and a workout if you hike to the Mirador. It is considered safe during the day. If you are feeling lazy, you can also take a teleferico, but it’s a bit pricey.
- Visit Pumamarca and the Hill of the 7 Colors. The town itself is beautiful and pleasant to spend a couple of hours walking around. There seems to be some decent accommodations options if you’d like to stay for a night.
- Salinas Grandes (salt flats). While I thought my tour was a waste because I sat in a bus for 13 hours and spent a total of 30 minutes at Salinas Grandes, the scenery as we approached this area was gorgeous. I would only go if you have not already seen or plan to see the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, and try to rent a car if you can, so you can stop whenever you want for photos. Note that the Salinas Grandes have several inches of water in the Summer/ Spring and are dry in the Winter (I wish I had known this as well).
Cafayate is the best kept secret in Argentina, although it is becoming more and more popular. I have been to Mendoza (in 2009), and I enjoyed Cafayate so much more. It is a smaller town and less touristic. The setting is gorgeous. And the vineyards are all very close, so you can either walk or take a short, inexpensive taxi. Cafayate is also producing some of the best wine in the country.
Since I went there from Cerrillos, I took a regular bus for AR$55. However, I later learned that you can book a day tour from Salta to Cafayate and use your return to Salta on a different day. This would have saved me money and time, and I also would have been able to stop along the way and take photos of the gorgeous Quebrada de Cafayate. There are a few different companies that do this, so ask around.
There are also buses from Tucuman to Cafayate.
Note that things are a bit more expensive in Cafayate because it’s a small town.
- Take advantage of cheaper wine prices when you buy direct from the bodegas.
- You can walk almost anywhere you need to go.
- Go to the local market for fruits and veggies, and you can also get a cheap lunch.
Where To Stay
I first stayed at Hostel El Balcon. It was AR$70 a night, however, I found out when I went to check out that they do not offer all of their rooms on hostel booking sites. There are cheaper dorms available.
- Good kitchen.
- Great terrace and fun atmosphere.
- Good wifi.
Favorite Restaurants/ Cafes/ Bars
The food in Cafayate is surprisingly good although there are limited options. You MUST try the Cabras de Cafayate goat cheese. Check out this post on the best restaurants in Cafayate, and I have also listed them below.
- The Restaurant at Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort
- La Casa de Empanadas
This place is all about wine. So my favorite activity (other than laying by the pool at the resort) was drinking wine. Check out these posts for tips on where to drink wine.