Oh the Places You Can Go!

Argentina is enormous and has many different climates and landscapes and geographical features. You need at least a month to see it all, which is, of course, not feasible for most people. I’ve been based in Buenos Aires and have had a few three-day weekends off work that I took full advantage of to hop on a low cost carrier (like JetSmart or Bondi) and see the country. But if you do have a month, I would recommend Week 1 Salta and Jujuy; Week 2 Córdoba and Mendoza; Week 3 Buenos Aires and Iguazu; and Week 4 Patagonia. Here are some of the wonderous sights you can enjoy.

Iguazu

One of the seven new wonders of the natural world, Iguazu is a can’t-miss destination. The national park is well designed and all the great viewpoints are wheelchair accessible (nicely done, Argentina!). There are a few real hiking trails as well, and decent options for food and relaxing. If you’ve ever been to Niagara Falls, this is ten times more impressive. The amount of water and the height and the number of cascades and the greenery and just everything…I loved it.

The town has a lot of great restaurants and breweries, and there are a few other interesting places in the province go, such as the San Ignacio Jesuit Mission ruins. The local guide there was so knowledgeable and did a great job explaining the whole Jesuit existence in Argentina and Paraguay. The Wanda Mine was vaguely interesting – it is cool to see the gems still underground in the rock – but also really just a tourist trap.

While many people also go to the Brazil side, I stayed in Argentina because of COVID (didn’t want to deal with another border crossing) and found that 2.5 days was just the right amount of time to be here. Note that it will likely be extremely crowded and if you go in summer, triple-digit temperatures are normal. A few more tips if you go:

  1. Your national park entry ticket is valid for two days, so you might want to plan your trip to do the guided tour one day and hike on your own the next.
  2. Do the Gran Aventura boat trip in the national park. Trust me. It’s well worth the money.
  3. If you are going on guided tours and have a downtown hotel (the Jasy Hotel was very comfortable, had lovely owners, and was only around $51 Blue for two nights), chances are you’ll get picked up too early to enjoy your hotel breakfast. Make sure you buy food and have some to take with you on the tour or you’ll spend the day hungry and miserable.
  4. Many hotels offer an airport shuttle for $10-$25, but the Four Tourist shuttle (which you can grab a ticket for on arrival), is only $2 Blue.
  5. Be aware that when you order a glass of wine, you just might get damn near a whole bottle. This was quite the pour at Punto Ar restaurant where the three countries intersect.
The three countries: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay

Salta and Jujuy

Salta and Jujuy are two provinces at the very top of Argentina, in the Andes. I cannot survive long without mountains, so this place was on my list of weekend trips to take before I even got to Buenos Aires, and it turns out that this is a hot destination for tourists all across the country. Many local people I talked to had visited here and had lots of advice on what to see and do.

You can base yourself in Salta (which was a wonderful city judging from the few hours I had there) and do day trips, but that seemed like too much time in a bus back and forth. I also wanted to be free to explore, so I opted for a rental car and mapped out a big loop. Yes, I missed out on some of the commentary and history I would have gotten from a tour guide, but I picked up a few hitchhikers over the days and had plenty of interesting conversation and local flavor anyway. Three days wasn’t nearly enough, but it’s all I had, so here’s where I chose to go.

Day One: Quebrada de Escoipe, Parque Nacional Los Cardones, Cachi, and Ruta Nacional 40. Along the Quebrada de Escoipe, there are dozens of viewpoints to stop at, and I probably stopped at all of them, and made many more of my own along the roadway. The epic valleys and red rocks and Argentine saguaros thrilled me. Add in the snow covered mountains in the background, and it was like Arizona, Utah, and Colorado all rolled into one. Before starting the real climb to the peak and the national park beyond, I picked up a little old lady with her grocery bag, walking along the hot pavement, and dropped her off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I assume she had a small house hidden somewhere in the valley.

I stopped for a steak lunch in Cachi and discovered the town was hosting a festival, which included an empanada contest. Not the eat-as-many-as-you-can variety, but the best one as determined by a panel of judges. Empanadas are everywhere in Argentina, but they are truly a big deal in Salta and Jujuy and way better than ones you can get in Buenos Aires. Stuffed tortillas are also extremely popular in that region, but I found them more often than not to be dry and too doughy. They aren’t at all what Americans think of when we think of tortilla shells.

Then I ventured up dusty, rocky, water-crossing filled route 40 to try to get to San Antonio de Los Cobres for the night. I paused at the first water crossing, but after two other economy cars went right through it, I did too. There was a fair amount of traffic, despite there not being much other than homestead ruins (which I had to stop and explore) and a few ranches along the way. Lots of motorcyclists, a few other tourists. I found a little archaeological site with cliff dwellings just a kilometer hike in off the main road.

And then, two hours and only 70 kilometers in (about 60 percent of the way from Cachi), the road was unpassable. Washed out. Gone. Nada. No way around. That sucked. Because the road is in a valley, there is absolutely no other way around. I had to drive five (yes five) hours all the way back to Salta to head north the other direction the next day. Not only that, but with the dark came a heavy fog, and when I started descending from Cuesta del Obispo at 11,500 ft (Salta is at 3,700 feet), I couldn’t see anything for a solid 15 miles of hairpin turns. It wasn’t the best ending to the day and obviously, I would have been better off taking the bus, but the next two days made me still glad I had chosen to self-drive.

Day Two: Cuesta de Lipan, Salinas Grandes, Purmamarca, Maimará. Another winding mountain drive, this time going up to 13,700 feet. I had company – two girls in their 20s from Buenos Aires, up enjoying the region for a week, trying to see the world as cheaply as possible. They talked my ear off about all things Argentina, and I enjoyed the company. Down the other side, we ended up at Salinas Grandes, a massive salt flat and a major tourist attraction. We split ways there – with as many tourists as there were, they’d have no trouble hitching another ride back.

Salinas Grandes is run by the indigenous people of Jujuy, as are all the tourist attractions. To me, this is so much better than having them run by the government. These areas would definitely be national parks in the United States. If you’ve been to Bonneville or the Alvord Desert in Oregon, you might be annoyed that you have to pay to drive out on the salt and get to the salt water pools, but it was only $5 Blue and the native guide was full of interesting information. (Spanish only, I don’t know if English tours are available.) Also, I’m not sure you’d want to drive out on your own. The guides have roundabout routes they take you on (you follow in your own vehicle while the guide is on a motorbike) and when you get out, you realize that the water is literally only one inch beneath the surface of the salt. You can pick right through it with one finger, so I’m not sure how the weight of our vehicles was supported.

On leaving Salinas Grandes, there was an intersection to go to San Antonio de Los Cobres, where I should have come in from that morning. I felt a little bitter at the sights (this and this) I had missed, but it wasn’t possible to go at that point since it was almost an hour and a half away. So I went back over Cuesta de Lipan and into Purmamarca. This little town is famous for its Hill of Seven Colors, which you can hike around. If you venture off the beaten path (as I obviously did) be careful because the hill seems to be largely sandstone. It’s not the most stable for all the scrambling you have to do. Another bit of advice – if you want a photo of the town with the hill rising up behind it, take it in the morning because in the afternoon, the sun it beyond it and it doesn’t look as stunning. There’s a great viewpoint in town you can climb up to for a few dollars. And if you want to buy handicrafts in Argentina, Purmamarca has without question the absolute best artisan market in the whole country.

After stopping at a charming, outdoor biker bar just outside town before the intersection to the highway, I continued to my accommodation for the evening. There’s not much going on in Maimará other than my darling AirBnb which had a great little back patio that looked out onto a lush valley created by the Rio Grande and the stunning Painter’s Palette. The town cemetery is on the main road and if you’re coming down from the north, you’ll get a kick out of the huge Visit Maimará! sign directly above the elaborate crypts. The town is a central location for exploring the region, but for restaurants and life, you’ll want to stay in the next town north instead, which I visited my third day.

Day Three: Tilcará, Huacalera, Serranías de Hornocal, Humahuaca. Despite there not being much information online about Tilcará, that is a bustling town. It has a strong backpacker/hippie vibe and tons of great restaurants. You could easily show up with no overnight reservation and find a place to stay. I wanted to visit the archaeological site, Pucará de Tilcará, but it turned out to be closed on Mondays, so I settled for a fantastic breakfast instead and then continued up the road.

After a brief stop at the sundial that marks the Tropic of Capricorn and a lot of gawking at the gorgeous molle, alamo, and other trees in the valley, I drove through Humahuaca to the backside where dirt roads lead out into the great wild yonder. My destination was Hornocal, but you could drive out there for days. If I had had a tent and a dog, I never would have gone back to Buenos Aires. Hornocal – also run by the very friendly indigenous – boasts the Hill of 14 Colors. Take that, Purmamarca! The parking lot is at 14,200 feet and you descend about 400 feet in about a half mile to a viewpoint. Most people stay up in the parking lot. There were about 10 of us at the lower viewpoint and no one said a word. No one made a sound. We were all simply awestruck. Of course, I noticed many other roads and trails in the wilderness beyond, and it killed me that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life there. Maybe I could.

Driving out, I passed a herd of wild alpacas (or llamas. does anyone know the difference?) and I took a gamble on another dirt road for a way, just for fun. Then it was time to head back to the Salta airport. Dirty, windblown, and happy.

Top tips for you when you visit (because you must):

  1. Rent a 4×4 and drive yourself with only a loose itinerary. The mess up on route 40 aside, I don’t regret renting a car. I would do that again. An economy car was fine for my short trip, sticking to the big tourist sites, but if I were going back for a longer period, I’d get a 4×4 so I could explore all the random trails and roads I passed by. Also, don’t freak out about all the police stops. They are normal in Argentina. I’ve seen them in Buenos Aires and Iguazu as well. I went through about 15 police checkpoints in my three days. Usually, I was waved straight on through. Once I was stopped because I didn’t have my headlights on. It’s apparently the law to drive with them on at all times. Once, it was a DUI stop and every single driver had to blow into the breathalyzer, at 10 in the morning. And once the woman just asked me where I was coming from and that was it.
  2. Take at least a week. Not only was three days not enough for the region, it wasn’t even enough for the area north of Salta. Then there’s all the places south of Salta, like Cafayate. And I didn’t have time to do anything in Salta, like see the Inca maiden mummy at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology. In retrospect, I wish I had spent one month in Buenos Aires and one in Salta.
  3. On a related note, check opening hours. Museums and other places tend to be closed Mondays, so if you do have an itinerary, you’ll want to make sure the things you want to see are open on the days you plan to go.
  4. Bring a puffy. I hadn’t realized how high the altitude would be and how windy it could get. Jujuy was chilly at night in mid-February!
  5. Buy some fruits and vegetables. Those ubiquitous empanadas and tortillas will get to you after a while and you’ll be dying for a salad. In the bigger tourist areas, like Cachi and Salta and Tilcará, order one while you have the chance. And stop in a dispensa and buy some fruit to take with you in the car.

Córdoba

First, let me just say that Córdoba has the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Everywhere I went, people were so helpful and friendly and welcoming and accommodating. There is something in the air of the Sierras that acts like happy gas because it was a wonderful place to be.

Day 1: Córdoba > Los Molinos Lake > Villa General Belgrano > La Cumbrecita > Alta Gracia

Prost! South of Córdoba, life is all about German heritage and the lakeside life. It’s basically a bunch of ski towns without the skiing. After a long day of kayaking or paddle boarding and eating fresh fish on Los Molinos lake, enjoy the stylized Germanic villages filled with spas and boutiques and craft breweries. The most popular is La Cumbrecita, a pedestrian-only town that is a nature preserve. You pay $3.50 Blue to enter the town and leave your car before the bridge. There are lots of nicely groomed trails to beautiful lakes and waterfalls. They were devoid of people on the Saturday I was there, possibly because of the rain. You can spend the night there (and you might want to after indulging in too much weißbier) or, as I did, you can drive back up to Alta Gracia for the night.

Alta Gracia is the childhood home of Che Guevara. Visiting his boyhood home was my main reason for stopping there, but I soon discovered you could easily spend three days in this town and not be bored. There are quite a few museums (and you can get a discounted ticket to visit all of them) and a large Jesuit estancia. My hotel had bicycle rentals (which I didn’t take advantage of because of my hurried scheduled) and was walking distance to everything you would want to see. I wish I’d had more time.

Day 2: Observatorio Astronómico de Córdoba in the Alegre Forest > Traslasierra Valley > Sierras Chicas

While Salta and Jujuy were wild, desolate nature, the nature of Córdoba province is a bit more accessible. Which, happily, means I didn’t reach an impassible wash-out and have to turn around and drive five hours back where I came from. But there are still plenty of places to get lost for days on end. As with Alta Gracia, Mina Clavero was an absolute delight of a town and I wish I’d had a full two days there. Epic hikes and canyoneering are all around, the beaches along the river call for a cooler full of seltzers and an afternoon with nothing to do, and the town is full of excellent restaurants. All the smaller villages around, like Nono, may not offer much but they offer just want you want for a weekend getaway. If I lived in Córdoba, I could easily see myself heading out to a different village every single weekend to soak up the easy life.

And if Salta and Jujuy were all about the empanadas and tortillas, this region is all about the combo of cheese + salami + pan casero. Every single roadside vendor sells this combination, ranging anywhere from $3 – $5 Blue, increasing the further away from civilization you get. There are lots of roadside restaurants as well, and a cool bar overlooking absolutely nothing, right where the Camino del Peregrino begins. If I’d had a dog and a tent with me I never would have left. The other hot item for sale is animal skins. They looked so beautiful against the backdrop of the mountains, and if I had a way to get one home (and if I had a permanent home!), I would have bought several. I found myself stopping every 10 minutes or so to admire the landscape, take photos, and check out the attractions. This was easily my favorite of the three days.

Day 3: La Cumbre > Dique San Roque > Córdoba

La Cumbre is not the same town as La Cumbrecita, but it is also known for its German style housing. There are a few hikes from town, though you definitely want to wear long pants and probably a long sleeved shirt as well because the trails are not much used, and as such, are overgrown with all sorts of prickly, pokey things but fortunately nothing poisonous because I was in shorts and a tank top. If you hike from the Cristo Statue to the San Jerónimo dam, you pass through a winery and you may have some random dogs join you on the hike, which is quite nice.

The drive from La Cumbre back to Córdoba is unfortunately, not really pleasant. It’s very busy, not much to see besides boring suburbs, and I think it’s the only road in Argentina without roundabouts and no left turns allowed. So if you want to veer off into the mountains again, you have to turn right onto a side street, go around a block, then go straight over the road you were just on to get to the other side of it. But be careful! Your navigation will tell you otherwise. If you are the kind of person who blindly follows map technology and doesn’t pay attention to road signs, driving here is probably not for you.

When I arrived at the San Roque dam, I found a slightly longer way to return to Córdoba through the valley back northbound for a bit, so of course I took that way instead of the tollway. I had thought about actually venturing into the city of Córdoba proper with my last few hours to visit the Jesuit block, but I didn’t want to deal with that traffic. and I really wanted a little more time in nature. Along the route, I found a nice parilla for a hearty lunch at which I was accompanied by two more dogs (whose patience was rewarded with some meaty morsels), and then, happy with a weekend well spent, returned to the airport.

And The Places I Didn’t Go

Although Montevideo, Uruguay is only a ferry ride away from Buenos Aires, and although everyone says you have to visit the beautiful Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay, I was tired of PCR tests and border crossings, so I decided to skip those on this trip.

You might also be surprised to see that I skipped Ushuaia. It was was originally in my plans, but because I’m planning a huge trip to Antarctica in a few years, I decided to wait until then. I’ll visit Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, and Antarctica all at once. There’s so much to see in this vast country anyway, so I primarily stuck to locations north of Buenos Aires on this trip, except for my running holiday across Patagonia, which begins tomorrow!


*If you haven’t read my money post, $ Blue means this was half the price I would have paid with a credit card or at the official exchange rate.

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