South America’s Most Overlooked Region Is A Wine-Soaked Psychedelic Paradise
Rainbow mountains and pink flamingos await.
I used to think Patagonia was the best place for adventure travel in Argentina. Then I made it to the NW provinces of Salta and Jujuy, where some of my favorite locations on Earth seemed conveniently smashed together into one trippy, Torrontes wine-fueled playground. Think “Grand Canyon meets Uyuni salt flats meets those cool rainbow mountains of Peru meets Quechua culture from Bolivia meets wine country,” and then top it all off with some badass gauchos singing their hearts out about lost love while you gorge on hearty llama stew.
There’s no sense rushing through this part of Argentina: It has a habit of sucking you in. That makes it ideal for a rambling road trip on a malleable calendar. You’ll be stopping on the side of the road to take pictures every two mile. The hour you had planned for a wine tasting easily turns into five as you chat with the winemaker. Your quick stop roadside for some local goat cheese and cayote jam morphs into an entire afternoon drinking yerba mate with the vendors. Roll with it and enjoy.
Of course, you’ll want to prepare for peril to do it right. Road conditions can be harsh—some require a 4x4 and are only accessible if there’s not been heavy rains)—and altitude, which can touch off at a vertiginous 16,060 feet, isn’t for the queasy. But if you can handle the curves and the height (Pro tip: chew the coca, eat the coca candies, and drink the coca tea) you’ll find a paradise unlike any other.
Discover the rowdier side of Salta City
After seeing photos of Salta’s near-barren desert altiplano, you may be surprised at how lush and green the provincial capital city is. Salta was founded back in 1582, and it shows in both its colonial architecture and its traditional Andean heritage. In the central square, Plaza 9 de Julio, you’ll find find the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM)—home to the world’s best-preserved mummy children in the world, if that’s your thing—art museums, a local artisan market for alpaca, leather and ceramic crafts, and plenty of restaurants and coffee shops.
Salta City is very walkable, and exploring is best capped with a long evening of empanadas, pitchers of red wine, and live bands at one of the city’s famous peñas (restaurant with live folkloric music). Casona del Molino has lots of separate dining rooms, and anyone can bring their guitar and start jam sessions. Balderrama is a bit more organized with quality stage shows. Last time I went I witnessed the dramatic flair of a group called Crocodile and His Croco Band, whose lead singer had the entire restaurant rowdily clapping, dancing, and singing along as he worked the room like a Latino Freddy Mercury.
Round out your night with a taxi ride back to your room at Kkala Boutique Hotel: It’s like having a room at a local friend’s house, but that friend just happens to be rather artsy and swanky.
Explore the trippy wine country of Cafayate
If Sedona, Arizona and Mendoza, Argentina had a love child, it would be Cafayate. Just three hours south from Salta via Route 68, the journey is one of Argentina’s most jaw-droppingly gorgeous as it shifts from lush emerald greenery to Dr. Seuss-like desert rock formations to vineyards . Yes, in Cafayate there’s hiking to waterfalls and mountain biking and all that, but really, focus and come here to hedonistically drink wine.
Make the chill and centrally located Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort your home base, then venture out to tastings: Porvenir for their Laborum Torrotes, organic Tannat at Nanni, and a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at upscale Piatelli are not to be missed. Get an outdoor table at the ultra-cool dive Baco Resto Bar for dinner (it’s where all the local winemakers hang) and try some organic Stutz wines—it’s one of the few places you’ll be able to try their wines created from the difficult fossilized sea-floor terrain. Come prepared for chilly nights: While days are mostly scorching sunshine, evenings are almost certainly sweater-friendly affairs.
Take a white-knuckle detour to San Antonio de los Cobres
Not going to lie: San Antonio is not the most flashy or touristic town in the area, but it definitely has character. And the drive up the famous Route 40 to get here from Cafayate is unforgettable. On the way to San Antonio de los Cobres, you’ll pass through Cachi, a tiny old-school Andean town where, after passing rustic adobe houses on unpaved roads, you can stop at the high-end Colome winery and, oddly enough, the only James Turrell modern-art lighting museum in the world.
A restful night spent at El Cortijo boutique hotel in Cachi makes the next day’s tricky final leg to San Antonio de los Cobres a bit easier. While the map tells you it’s less than 100 miles, it may be the most harrowing 3.5-hour drive of your life: a high-altitude white-knuckler that peaks above 16,000 feet. This narrow, winding cliff-hanging “highway” is made of mostly gravel or dirt with almost no towns or functioning service stations, so fill up in Cachi and make sure you leave with a spare tire and some extra courage. It’s usually arid, but sudden freak downpours between November and March can provoke mudslides just to keep things interesting.
Plan your trip dates around when the Train of the Clouds has trips available—it’s the highest train in the world and definitely makes for great Instagram shots because you are still allowed to ride old-school with the windows wide open. Stay at Hotel de las Nubes and make sure to warm up from the bracing winds with llama stew or homemade quinoa empanadas at Quinoa Real after checking out the Women’s Ceramic Co-op (it’s a tiny town, wander for a bit and you’ll run into everything).
Hang with pink flamingos amid rainbow-colored mountains
Upon leaving San Antonio de los Cobres, you may be tempted to check and double check your GPS to make sure what you are on is still legit considered the “highway.” Vicunas and some fox may be the only living things you see for a couple of hours (heads up, if you see pink flamingos, you most likely aren’t hallucinating). Most tourists head to Salinas Grandes to play in the salt flats, but on this drive you’ll pass by so many non-touristic ones that you can pull over and have them all to yourself.
The small, touristic pueblo of Purmamarca is known for its seven-colored colored mountains, but locals know that the real deal for that sort of thing is found up at El Hornocal in Humahuaca, which boast 14 colors in way trippier patterns. Skip staying in Purmamarca and head over to nearby Tilcara for better nightlife and restaurant options–small and cozy La Posada de Luz hotel should be your crash pad on the mountain overlooking the pueblo.
If you feel like exploring (you will), head a couple of pueblos north to tiny Uquia, known for its church devoted to archangels dressed as armed conquistadors. Then find Olga at Restaurante Cerro Las Senoritas. She’s tucked into a dead-end street on one of the highest parts of town (say “Olga” to anyone in town and they can point the way). She’s converted the back porch of her home into a farm-to-table restaurant—the “farm” being her adorable garden in the back where she’ll gladly let you hang out. Olga’s the grandma everyone wishes they had in their life —you’ll find yourself spending the entire afternoon there ordering half the menu just to show her how much you appreciate her efforts of cooking with love.
You’d do well to talk to Olga’s husband, too: He’s the local medicinal plant expert, and if he is around he will point you to the most scenic trek in town and tell you about its “particular energies.”
Find the hidden city of Iruya
For the super adventurous, Iruya is the kind of town you pray to make it to, then secretly hope it rains so you get stranded when the road closes. It’s like an ancient lost city clinging onto the side of the mountain over a river ravine, which all appears after a hellishly slow drive where your back aches from regular stops to remove big-ass rocks from the road. You’ll find it at the end of Argentina’s fog-shrouded version of Death Road, and upon arrival will wonder, “what the hell is this place and why am I here?”
All the more reason to make the journey.
The infrastructure in Iruya at first glance may not look like it holds much for tourism—there’s a church, some steep cobblestone streets, and a smattering of small adobe houses. But the real value lies in getting to know the lifestyle of its inhabitants, who still very much preserve ancestral rituals to Pachamama (Mother Nature). Every August 1, offerings of coca leaves and other aromatic or medicinal plants, yerba mate, wine, and cooked food are presented to the Earth as gratitude for the last year’s harvest and to ask for a bountiful harvest in the season to come, but the people who live in Iruya embody this connection to nature all year long.
For the best viewpoint, go to Cerro de la Cruz, or if you are feeling like a five-mile, three-hour trek in the absolute middle of nowhere, walk to find hidden San Isidro, a somehow even tinier, even more isolated town.
You’ll feel a bit lost in time and space in and around Iruya, about as far from first world problems as one can get. Plan to stay at Hotel Iruya—coming into town should not be considered a casual day trip—and go into this adventure with zero plans. Iruya is a weirdly magical place where whatever needs to happen will happen. In fact, that should be your attitude to this entire adventure.