More Santa Fe, New Mexico than Miami, Florida, Argentina’s northwestern provinces open the door to indigenous cultures, red deserts, and the Andes Mountains. This often-overlooked region is the perfect getaway from the bustle of Buenos Aires thanks to its laid-back towns and gorgeous landscapes. Its six provinces include (from south to north) La Rioja, Catamarca, Tucumán, Santiago del Estero, Salta, and Jujuy.
Here’s a guide to the last two on the list: Salta and Jujuy, which take you to the farthest reaches of Argentina’s Andean Northwest.
Located about 932 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, Salta Province is known for its temperate climate, colonial architecture, and Andean culture. Although it’s less urban than Tucumán, its neighbor to the south, Salta has been growing in popularity as a tourist destination. Salta, the province’s capital, remains the biggest draw. Yet if you’re willing to hit the highway, you’ll discover that even its little towns have much to offer.
Nestled in the Lerma Valley, the city of Salta is famous for its well-preserved Spanish colonial and neoclassical architecture. Start by taking a stroll through Plaza 9 de Julio in the city’s historic center to get a feel for it. Built in 1582, the square commemorates Argentina’s Independence Day and features monuments, palm trees, and tropical flowers.
Walk about 0.12 miles north to visit the city’s most famous structure: The Cathedral of Salta. Completed in 1882, this baroque-style cathedral replaced the original, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1856. Today, you can explore its ornate, gold-lined interior. Just remember that it’s still in operation, so be respectful if there is a service going on.
Walk a little south of the plaza for the Cabildo Histórico de Salta. This restored 18th-century government building has taken on a new life as a museum of Argentine history. For a panoramic view, head east by car or bus. When you get to San Bernardo Hill, take a cable car to the top. You’ll not only see the entire metropolitan area, but the towering Andes in the distance.
If you’re looking for unique souvenirs, go west of the city center to get to Craft Market Salta. You’ll find Andean-style scarves, sweaters, and ponchos made from soft alpaca wool. Don’t be surprised if you see bags of coca leaves for sale–the locals chew them and use them to make tea.
Ruinas de Tastil (Tastil Ruins)
Want to visit some pre-Incan ruins? Drive an hour and a half northwest from Salta to Santa Rosa de Tastil. The nearby archeological site known as the Ruinas de Tastil was once home to more than 2,000 people. Today, the only resident is a 13th-century mummy.
If you keep heading north of Santa Rosa de Tastil, you’ll reach a town called San Antonio de Los Cobres. Built on one of the highest points in the region, it’s famous for its little white houses and handicraft sales and worth visiting for a true taste of Andean living.
A few hours northwest of Salta, the Salinas Grandes are like nothing you’ve ever seen. More than 124 square miles of bright white salt flats are spread out beneath the blue sky. Formerly Lago Salinas Grandes, the lake evaporated due to its location—around 2 miles above sea level. You can spend the day and return to Salta or keep driving north to JuJuy Province.
North of Salta, Jujuy Province shares a border with Chile and Bolivia. Less populated and far less traveled than its southern neighbor, Jujuy is home to many of Argentina’s natural wonders. Whether you want to relax and sip mate at a café in the capital or hike in the Andes, Jujuy has something for every traveler. Known as San Salvador to locals and Jujuy to everyone else, the province’s capital hasn’t experienced a tourist boom like its Southern neighbor, Salta. Yet, its friendly residents and low-key vibe make it a great place to visit.
Start your tour at Plaza General Belgrano in the city center, which is sandwiched between the Río Grande and Río Xibi Xibi. The Government House Jujuy sits in the plaza’s center, and the San Salvador de Jujuy Cathedral is located in the northwest corner. Built sometime between 1761 and 1765, the cathedral has become an important landmark in Argentine history. The new Argentine flag was blessed here in 1812, and the cathedral’s crypt is the final resting place of human rights activist Oscar Romero.
If you want to spend some time in nature, Calilegua National Park is about a two-hour drive away for the capital. Established as a protected area in 1979, it’s the most biologically-diverse region in Argentina. You can walk, cycle, or hike the trails through jungle foothills, forests, and woods. After a day of exploring, you can retire to one of the park’s campsites for a night under the stars.
Located one-hour northwest of the capital, the picturesque town of Purmamarca features adobe houses, red roads, and a handicraft fair on the main plaza. However, what really sets it apart is the Cerro de las Siete Colores with its red, pink, gold, and green stripes. Drive about an hour and a half north from Purmamarca, and you’ll reach the mountain valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca. Its colorful zig zag formations mimic the designs of the region’s Andean cloths. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013, Quebrada de Humahuaca is also home to several Quechuan villages.
Now that you know where to visit, you need to know how to get around. Fortunately, Argentina’s cities have well-developed transportation systems. You can easily get around town by city bus. Most of the locals travel this way.
As for traveling from one province to the next, you can book a luxury bus. But don’t be put off by the word “luxury”–these rides are quite affordable. Or, if you want to go solo, rent a car and hit the open road. Whatever you do, don’t let transportation or distance get in the way of a memorable adventure. The Andean Northwest is definitely worth your while!
Want to know more about visiting Argentina? Read our guide to vegetarian and vegan eating in Buenos Aires.
Header photo by Agustin Lautaro.