Argentina’s Northwest (El Noroeste Argentino – often referred to as NOA or simply “El Norte”) is infinitely varied: ochre deserts where llamas roam, charcoal-grey lava flows devoid of any life form, blindingly white salt flats and sooty-black volcanic cones, pristine limewashed colonial chapels set against striped mountainsides, lush citrus groves and emerald-green sugar plantations, impenetrable jungles populated by peccaries and parakeets. The Northwest is also the birthplace of Argentina – a Spanish colony thrived here when Buenos Aires was still an unsteady trading post on the Atlantic coast. One of the colonial cities, Salta, is indisputably the region’s tourism capital, with some of the country’s best hotels, finest architecture and a well-earned reputation for hospitality. From here, you can meander in a northwesterly direction up the enchanting Quebrada del Toro on a safari or on the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), one of the world’s highest railways. Heading due northeast across the subtropical lowlands will lead you to jungle-clad cloudforests, or yungas, poking out of fertile plains into the raincloud that gives them their name: a birdwatcher’s paradise. Or you could head south, via the surreal canyon of the Quebrada de Cafayate, to visit some of the world’s highest vineyards.
To Salta’s northwest huddles boot-shaped Jujuy Province, one of the federation’s poorest and remotest, shoved up into the corner of the country against Chile and Bolivia, where in the space of a few kilometres humid valleys and soothingly green jungles give way to the austere, parched altiplano (or puna), home to flocks of flamingoes, herds of llamas and very few people. San Salvador de Jujuy, the slightly oddball provincial capital, cannot rival Salta for its amenities or architectural splendours, but it’s the best starting-point for exploring the many-hued Quebrada de Humahuaca.
Whereas Salta and Jujuy have a well-established international tourist industry, the provinces to the south remain far less known. Domestically the provinces of Tucumán and Catamarca are dismissed as poor, dull backwaters, but the city of San Miguel de Tucumán has an addictively lively atmosphere and the province does contain some real treasures, including impressive pre-Inca ruins at Quilmes, a marvellous museum dedicated to Pachamama, or Earth Mother, at Amaicha, and dramatic trekking around Tafí del Valle.
Equally impressive are the eternally snowy peaks that give their name to the Nevados del Aconquija, the natural border with neighbouring Catamarca Province, where a plethora of picturesque villages, each more isolated than the previous, reward patient visitors with rural hospitality, wondrous natural settings and some fabulous handmade crafts: Belén and Londres stand out. Try and make it all the way to Antofagasta de la Sierra, an amazingly out-of-the-way market town set among rock and lava formations and reached via some of the emptiest roads in the country.
If you can, time your visit for the Argentine spring or autumn. Summers can be steamy in the valleys, making large cities like Tucumán unbearable, while heavy summer rains around Salta can wipe out roads and make exploring the area difficult. On the other hand, in July and August night-time temperatures at altitude are bitterly low, so your first purchase will probably be an alpaca-wool poncho.