The Red Desert, Argentina

The Red Desert ©2020 Anthony Royer

The two northern regions comprised of Salta and Jujuy are in pair with Patagonia when it comes to beautiful nature. I was only getting used to the snow-capped mountains and myriad turquoise lakes of the south. I’m suddenly teleported to a very different scenery: the high plateaus where the dry rainbow-coloured rocks form strange and beautiful shapes. This view changes to occasional lush forest in odd areas where rain is more frequent.

I will have time to admire these mountains while hitchhiking my way from one village to the next. The sun is strong up there; but I have my hat and my beloved filter bottle that I can just fill up at any stream. It’s good to take it easy anyway, because the altitude can really weigh down on you.

Those high plateaus are called “puna” around here, and at 2,500 m (8,200 ft) and more, I start feeling a slight nausea that will stay with me for several days and only recedes when I chew coca leaves. Ah, the disgusting bitter taste of coca… That’s one thing I won’t miss from the Andes!

Quebrada de Cafayate

There are 2 things the small town of Cafayate is famous for: sweet torrontés wine and the nearby canyon. And indeed that canyon is spectacular! (Wine’s not bad either.)

The Quebrada de las Conchas mesmerises drivers on both sides of the Route 68 in the direction of Salta. It’s a series of fantastic rock formations with layers of different colours created by minerals. Nowhere else does the saying “Nature is the best artist” take a fuller meaning.
I hop from bright-red rock towers to the gigantic ‘castles’ and further to the rock amphitheatre; before admiring the sunset in the ‘Devil’s throat’, a bizarre chimney hole in the cliff. The area was under water 60 million years ago, as I can see from the fossils.

Calchaquí Valley

On the day after the Quebrada de las Conchas tour, I decide to hitchhike from Cafayate to Cachi. The Route 40 in the Calchaquí Valley is a dusty road that lies through desolate villages and more rock formations. If I say there’s not much traffic here, it’s a euphemism. But I’m lucky and get picked up by 2 tourists driving to the remotest contemporary museum ever.

The landscape we drive through leaves me and my two companions gawking like idiots. We make a few halts at a lonesome village cemetery, at a viewpoint overlooking the entire valley, and at what looks like a forest made of standing rocks.

After spending a day on that desert road, the arrival in the small western town of Cachi feels like finding the El Dorado.

Humahuaca, Tilcara and Purmamarca

After a few days soaking in the urban folklore of Salta and Jujuy, the two main cities in the northwest of Argentina, I’m back on the road. My goal this time are the 3 villages of Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca, in no particular order.

This is the main road to the border with Bolivia and there’s definitely more traffic. I am accompanied all the way by the hot dry air and the constant presence of the mountain peaks.
The 3 villages literally have the mountains at their doorstep. I just need to walk about 20 minutes in any direction to start climbing and end up with a view that leaves me breathless (it might also be the climb). I’m talking about multicoloured rolling mountains that have been folded by wind and erosion into the most surreal shapes.

The main hits around here are the 7-colour mountains near Purmamarca; and El Hornocal, the 14-colour mountain close to Humahuaca.

NW Argentina Takeaways

There’s something wrong with Argentina. It’s too large, too beautiful, too fascinating. Before this trip, I had heard much about Patagonia and the Iguazu Falls; but I didn’t know I could still be impressed, and by something as completely different as the landscapes in the northwest of Argentina.

Written by: Anthony Royer

 Anthony Royer pic
Anthony is a long-time traveller, polyglot and all-kinds-of-art-lover. His most unforgettable memories are from his travels in Bolivia. He writes, together with Anna, about eco travels, nature hikes and cultural discoveries in South America, on the budget travel blog GreenMochila.com. Check out his itinerary and guide to Bolivia at: greenmochila.com/2-3-weeks-in-bolivia-itinerary/

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