Although the intense beauty of the Quebrada de Humahuaca gorge features so often in tourist literature, posters and coffee-table books that some of the surprise element is taken away, a trip along it is nonetheless an unforgettable and moving experience. Stunning, varied scenery is on display all the way up from the valley bottom, just northwest of San Salvador de Jujuy, to the namesake town of Humahuaca, 125km north of the provincial capital. While most day-trips along the gorge from Jujuy and Salta take you up and down by the same route, the RN-9, you’re actually treated to two spectacles: you’ll have your attention fixed on the western side in the morning, and on the eastern flank in the afternoon, when the sun lights up each side respectively and picks out the amazing geological features: polychrome strata, buttes and mesas, pinnacles and eroded crags. What’s more, the two sides are quite different, the western mountains rising steeply, often striped with vivid colours, while the slightly lower, rounded range to the east is for the most part gentler, more mellow, but just as colourful.
Most (day) tours organized out of Jujuy and Salta only go as far as Humahuaca and then head back, but this still gets you two tracking-shot views of multicoloured mountains, the highlight of which is the photogenic Cerro de los Siete Colores, overhanging the picturesque village of Purmamarca. From Purmamarca a dramatic side road leads across splendid altiplano landscapes, via pretty little Susques, to the Chilean border at the Paso de Jama, high in the Andes. Purmamarca has enough accommodation options to make it a possible stopover, especially if you are forging on towards Chile. Two-thirds of the way to Humahuaca, the small town of Tilcara is another possible stopover; it boasts the best range of lodgings and eateries in the whole area, plus an interesting archeological museum and a beautiful pre-Inca fortress, or pukará. Beyond Humahuaca, the RN-9 crosses bleak but stunningly beautiful altiplano landscapes all the way up to La Quiaca on the Bolivian border, nearly 2000m higher yet only 150km further on. A side road off the RN-9 climbs to the incredibly isolated and highly picturesque hamlet of Iruya, if you really want to get off the beaten track.Read More
Only 5km from Maimará along the RN-9 you are treated to your first glimpse of the great pre-Inca pukará, or fortress, of TILCARA. Just beyond it is the side road off to the village itself. At an altitude of just under 3000m and yet still dominated by the dramatic mountains that surround it, this is one of the biggest settlements along the Quebrada and the only one on the east bank; it lies just off the main road, where the Río Huasomayo runs into the Río Grande. The pleasant, easy-going village is always very lively, but even more so during Carnival. Like the rest of the Quebrada, it also celebrates El Enero Tilcareño, a procession and feast held during the latter half of January, Holy Week, and Pachamama, or the Mother Earth festival, in August. The festivities feature wild games, music, noisy processions and frenzied partying. If you dislike crowds and have not booked accommodation well ahead, though, then these times are best avoided.
The main town in the area, HUMAHUACA, 125km north of Jujuy, spills across the Río Grande from its picturesque centre on the west bank. Its enticing cobbled streets, lined with colonial-style or rustic adobe houses, lend themselves to gentle ambling – necessarily leisurely at this altitude, a touch below 3000m. Most organized tours arrive here for lunch and then double back to Jujuy or Salta, but you may like to stay over, and venture at least as far as the secluded village of Iruya; Humahuaca is also an excellent springboard for trips up into the desolate but hauntingly beautiful landscapes of the altiplano or Puna Jujeña.