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A Gringa’s Guide To Northern Argentina

By | [email protected] | July 12, 2016 11:30am

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Grab your poncho and throw on a pair of alpargatas because this gringa is walking you through some of the most breathtaking spots that northwestern Argentina has to offer. Here we go! Jujuy and Salta.

Getting there

My flight left from the city of Buenos Aires bright and early, after a short two-hour flight I arrived to my first destination, Salta. The plan was to take a leisurely drive from Salta to Jujuy. I grabbed the keys to my shiny Chevrolet Prisma, which would soon be my new road companion for the long trek ahead.

Travel trip: Rent a car. This is the most realistic option in terms of logistics and keeping your options open. No seriously though unless you are like this german family who have custom bikes made (for a six year-old and two year-old) and are bicycling across the world. I actually met this family at a gas station stop and could not believe the journey they have been embarking on for almost two years now.

Looking at the default map application on my iPhone, it showed that my destination was only about 250 km (a roughly three hour drive.) Unfortunately, the Apple Map application does not take into consideration the fact that those 250km are through long-treacherous winding mountain roads; not a highway, so it basically doubled my time on the road. My three hour tour took six.

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Travel tip. Wi-Fi is sparse in all of the mountainous regions and many times you will be driving on very narrow, nerve-racking one-way mountain roads, so have your map loaded and ready to go ahead of time.

You had me at JUJUY

Jerry Maguire: I love you. You… complete me.
Dorothy: Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at “Jujuy.”

Jujuy seriously had me feeling like Dorothy and all I could say the entire time upon my arrival was “shut up.” Just shut up. No words can describe the scenery, the nature, and the beauty of what you will encounter here. It felt like I was in some sort of erotic landscaped dream, complete with cacti, ravines, butterflies and 50 shades of green mountains. The rock formations from one mile to the next are all unique and the colors change as fast as you can turn your head. It was unparalleled to anything I have ever seen, with the colors changing so fast it made it hard to focus on the road ahead.

Here are some relevant facts about Jujuy so you don’t have to waste your precious time on Wikipedia. Jujuy derived its name from a type of Inca provincial governor encountered there by the Spanish. The region was part of the Inca empire in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It’s located near the Andes, about 1,238 meters above sea level. Much of Argentina’s mineral resources are located in Jujuy including zinc, copper, tin and lead. The weather is humid during the summer and dry and cold during the winter. Temperatures vary widely between day and night. There, don’t you feel smarter now!? At the very least you have some amazing dinner party conversation. Your welcome.

Travel Tip: Wearing a hat to protect you from the sun’s rays and to bring and wear lots of layers is a MUST. You will peel off the layers during the warm beautiful sunny days but at night those temps drop and you will want to add them right back on.

I made a total of three stops in Jujuy. The first stop was to the much-anticipated salt flats called “Salinas Grandes” It was about a 75 km (46 miles) drive from Hotel Huacalera, the dreamy hotel where I was staying.

Taking in the view at Hotel Huacalera.

Taking in the view at Hotel Huacalera.

Also, I couldn’t have been more excited about the llamas that were literally front and center grazing on grass and grains at my hotel! It was like Disneyland, only with llamas. It was Llamaland. They were so pretty and I had a serious case of eyelash envy. Oh and bonus, I didn’t get spat on when I tried to pet them. I named my favorite one Dolly Llama. She was the friendliest. We became fast friends. Side Note: I felt too guilty a few hours later to actually opt for ordering the llama carpaccio at the hotel for dinner. Others in the area dealt better with the guilt and said it was delicious. To your own heart be true you food focused traveler you.

OK back to the salt flats. This salty destination used to be a massive lake but once it dried up, all the salt concentrated in this area. Today, it’s essentially an area for mining where you can watch the 2-ton tractors carrying pounds of precious salt with men and women hard at work.

Travel Tip: Pick up some souvenirs here and taste the salt of course and don’t forget to bring your sunglasses because it’s bright AF! Also be careful while walking on the salt flats. Muddy thick patches of water lie beneath the flat salty grounds and the deeper and farther out you walk, the greater chance you have of sinking into mud. So be careful!
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Tractors mining the salt flats at Grandes Salinas.

Townie life

My next stop was in the colorful town of Purmamarca. Artisanal shops line the small side streets and offer a good selection of handcrafted clothes and other knick-knacks. This stop was my first real experience with the native Argentine culture and with the people of Jujuy.

The village is smaller in scale, friendly and quiet much like the people themselves. It was a perfect pit stop for lunch where I inhaled homemade empanadas and a glass of wine to wash it all down. I went with a glass instead of a bottle to pace myself because next I would be touring Humahuaca, another charming colonial town filled with cobblestone streets, a town square, adobe houses, and a pretty church.

Putting all my cards on the table, I would say Purmamarca was just little more charming and colorful than Humahuaca, but that’s just me. Either way, these two are must-see stops when touring Jujuy.

Travel tip: When I drove up into Humahuaca there was a man standing outside the “tourist center” selling maps. Keep driving you really don’t need a map to figure it out. The town is literally like a 4 mile square radius and a self-tour is totally sufficient. If you aren’t able to navigate yourself around this town then please don’t ever tell anybody – just keep it to yourself.

Callate Cafayate!

Yes, I am still rhetorically screaming shut up. This time in Spanish apparently. After a good night’s rest and a delicious breakfast it was time to rise with the birds and hit the road again. I needed to go way further south, so I set off on a six hour drive to reach the red clay mountains of Cafayate. At about 49 km (31 miles) before reaching all of the glorious vineyards and valleys, the road surprises you with the landscape of the Quebrada de las Conchas Provincial Natural Reserve. Elaborate shades of deep burgundy red seduce you, it’s scenic and sexy beyond words. You know you are entering a place like no other. Cafayate is a popular tourist destination but the blue skies, ample vineyards and the warmth of the people make you forget that you are just a visitor. It feels like home. It feels like heaven.

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There’s always time for a glass bottle of wine

Cafayate is known for its famous grape varietal – Torrontés, Argentina’s emblematic white wine variety, the result of the genetic crossing of two varieties brought to the country in colonial times: the so-called “uva negra” and Muscat of Alexandria or “uva de Italia.” The combination of temperature and humidity provides the ideal environment to the growth of the sweet and deep fruit flavor. Drink the Kool-Aid. It’s good. Just do what you do on all the wine tours, nod your head, smile, pretend like you care and wait for the ideal moment to chug-a-lug.

I had the pleasure of touring a wonderful family bodega that focuses on quality wine production at El Porvenir. I chatted with wine specialist, Adrian Chale, who took me on a private tour of the grounds and explained in great detail what goes into the process of making their wines.

The desert climate, it’s sunny about 340 days out of the year and “poor soils” (apparently Argentina’s soils are alluvial, deep, permeable and poor in organic material) mixed with and lack of rainfall benefits the production of high quality grapes, makes it easy to practice and produce sustainable and organic viticulture.

After my wine chugging tasting it was time for a little bit of rest and relaxation at my luxury hotel, Grace Cafayate Resort and Spa, which mind you is set alongside vineyards and a golf course on an estate in the Valles Calchaquies.

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After a long day of driving my rental car “Pamela the Prisma” (yes we were on a first name basis at that point) I needed to get my pamper on so it went down as follows at my hotel.  They had me at “full body deep tissue massage”. Which I like the champ I am, followed up with a spectacular lunch prepared by a world-class chef, paired with more delicious regional wines. After all that pampering, eating and drinking I was exhausted, so I did what you would naturally do after a long gluttonous filled-day of eating and drinking; I raced a golf cart down the vineyards at full speed! I may or may not have done a little golf cart drag racing with a fellow hotel guest. And if I’m really going to be honest this was the highlight of my stay.

After watching the beautiful sunset behind the mountains it was time to venture out and try some of the best regional cuisine Cafayate had to offer. Set in front of the corner of the main plaza is El Rancho, an authentic local restaurant.

It was here I tried locro. This was my first time trying the most traditional of all Argentine dishes and I was loco for locro. It was a brisk chilly night and the earthy, meaty wholesome flavors of locro hit the spot. Of course this was not to be outdone by the tamales, humita, and house specialty rabbit, finished up with dulce de leche flan for dessert.

The last bite of my flan tasted bittersweet because I knew I would be leaving the next morning to get back to the concrete jungle of Buenos Aires. Northern Argentina had me at hello, but now it was time to say goodbye.

Special thanks to: Destino Argentino, Hotel Huacalera, Grace Cafayate, Localiza , Bodega El Porvenir

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