When you hear Argentina you may think of tango, gauchos, haciendas, and glitzy Buenos Aires. Leave all these ideas at the door, because the northwest is like a country of its own and not Argentina as you know it. Nestled between Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay, this unique region is influenced by its surroundings.
As you go further north the cities turn into smaller adobe villages. The landscape changes from verdant green to impressive multi-coloured rock formations. Accents change, forget ‘che boludo’. The people are of the altiplano, and culturally it’s completely distinct from other regions of Argentina.
So here’s my favourite spots in this part of Argentina. Click here for my favourite local cuisine!
My Top 10 Picks
1. Serranía de Hornocal (The Mountain of 14 Colours)
Not only one of my favourite places in Argentina, but also one of my favourite sites in South America. This colourful mountain sits at 4700m above sea level, and is in every way breathtaking. The much more famous (and instagrammed) Rainbow Mountain in Peru really doesn’t hold a candle to this limestone formation.
Getting there is very easy, with a road direct to the lookout from the small town of Humahuaca. Driving there in your own car is easiest and you don’t need a 4×4. The small road is unpaved, and cars can go a bit slower at that altitude, but you’ll get there!
Tours also run from the city to the lookout.
2. Salinas Grandes
Salar de Uyuni is the most famous and largest salt flat in the world. Lesser known Salinas Grandes is its neighbour, and the globe’s third largest. With the highway connecting Argentina and Chile going through it, it’s super accessible.
Pull up and a local guide will hop into your car to show you around. You’ll drive directly onto the flats and as you go further in, everything becomes more remarkable. Soon the highway is not visible and the impressive white expanse surrounds you.
It feels firmly off the beaten track, with mainly truck drivers passing by. A great day trip from Purmamarca or a stop if you’re crossing the border.
3. Route 68 (Ruta Nacional 68)
This is one of the ultimate road trips. Connecting the small wine region of Cafayate to the beautiful town of Salta, this highway is one that will have you stopping at every turn.
Passing through a natural reserve filled with interesting red rock formations, dramatic mountain valleys and vineyards, it’s a drive that you won’t forget.
Salta, La Linda (the pretty) it’s called. Not many large cities can live up to a name like that, but Salta is pleasantly surprising. Planning to stop for a day here, we ended up extending our stay. Full of beautiful colonial architecture, impressive churches, a hill with sweeping panoramas of the city and packed with culture. You can spend a day wandering the charming streets alone.
The Alta Montaña Archeology Museum (MAAM) is one of the highlights. The MAAM explores the distinct culture of northwest Argentina and has three perfectly preserved Incan mummies. Sobering, but informative. The three Incan children were left at the top of Volcano Llullaillaco (6,739 m) as offerings around 500 years ago.
5. Quilmes Ruins
Another place that is completely off the beaten track. These ruins are of a pre-incan civilisation, the Quilmes, who were the first inhabitants of this land. Dating from the year 800 AD, the preservation of these ancient ruins is astonishing.
It’s estimated that 5000 people lived here at one point, with complex systems of agriculture and irrigation. The ruins are also situated on a hill with sweeping views of the valley below.
These ruins feel like the middle of nowhere, but surprisingly it’s home to a world-class museum. This museum has artefacts, interpretations of the Quilmes people and their culture, videos, recreations of what life might have been like and more. The ruins themselves are huge, occupying about 30 hectares, and you’re free to explore throughout the complex.
Give yourself time to explore both the museum and the ruins, you’ll often feel like you’re the only one there.
Getting there – best in your own vehicle. There are tours running from nearby towns as well.
Entrance – about $4 per person.
Purmamarca is one of the last towns on the way towards the Chilean border. It’s name is from the Aymara language, purma (desert) and marca (city). Nestled in a colourful mountain valley, this quaint town has views towards different mountain formations at every turn.
Full of adobe houses, handcrafts, and walking tracks it’s a beautiful place to visit.
Cafayate is a great starting point for exploring Route 68 and the surrounding wine region. The town itself is picturesque, with an inviting square, and mix of colonial and adobe architecture. Here you can spend your time walking the streets, doing wine tasting or eating some northwest Argentinian cuisine.
Outside of town is a waterfall, walking tracks and the beginning of the colourful route 68.
8. Tafí del Valle & El Mollar
When you come across El Mollar from the southeast it can feel like you’ve stumbled upon an oasis. This fertile valley is impressive, surrounded by mountains and situated on an artificial lake.
This area sells locally produced food such as honey, cheese and cured meat. El Mollar has a reserve filled with ancient megaliths of the pre-Incan Tafí people, dating back to 820 BC. The town of Tafí de Valle is charming, with countless handicrafts for sale, especially clay figurines and pots.
Another lesser known spot that’s worth a visit.
Humahuaca is where you really start feeling your proximity to Bolivia. In the Andean Altiplano, this small town is colourful, picturesque and full of culture. Appreciate the adobe houses, browse the many handicraft markets, look at the clock tower of San Francisco Solano where a statue of San Francisco pops out to bless the crowds at 12pm everyday (as seen in video).
The other main draw to this town is that it’s a great base for visiting the Mountain of 14 Colours (my favourite site of the region).
Tip: this town is slightly bigger than some of the surrounding places and so expect more tourists, and more pushy vendors. Be mindful of your valuables, and try not to engage with sellers if you don’t want to buy anything.
Sleepy Maimará is a town by a river and impressive multicoloured mountains. The main site is the Paleta del Pintor (painter’s palette). A geological formation that earned this name due to the colours that look like they’ve been painted on.
The town has small adobe houses, a pretty little church and unique cemetery.
Termas del Río Hondo may not be worth a trip in itself, but if you’re passing through it’s worth a stop. A spa town, it has a lot of hotels and camping spots around. Camping del Rio has very cheap hot thermal pools by the river, if you want to soak in the therapeutic baths.
Here there’s a natural reserve called Tara Inti that’s inhabited by birds, reptiles and native flora. It’s also home to kitschy dinosaur statutes (great for kids) scattered about the island reserve.
Food to try
- Tortillas Rellenas – or stuffed tortillas. These beauties are found everywhere in the northwest. Street vendors have a little BBQ on the street grilling these babies up. There’s plenty of different flavours, some of our favourites being ham & cheese + tomato, goat cheese and basil.
- Empanadas – empanadas are all over Latin America. Every country has its own variation, and every region within a country has empanadas distinct to them. Northwestern Argentinian empanadas are one of my favourite types, and they’re super cheap! The salteñas are worth a try – oven baked, with potato and capsicum.
- Cazuela de cabrito – goat stew. A hearty, meaty stew. Perfect on a cold day.
- Corn dishes – corn is king here. Tamales, locro, humitas, and stuffed in tortillas…If you like corn, this is your place.