Argentina’s Northwest (El Noroeste Argentino – NOA – or “El Norte”) is infinitely varied: ochre deserts where flocks of 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. Alternatively, you can head due northeast across the subtropical lowlands, where jungle-clad cloudforests, or yungas, poke out of fertile plains into the raincloud that gives them their name. These habitats are a birdwatcher’s paradise.
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.
Further south, snaking mountain roads scale the verdant Cuesta del Obispo and the stark but vividly coloured Quebrada de Cafayate from Salta to the Valles Calchaquíes, dry, sunny dales along which high-altitude vineyards somehow thrive, particularly around the airy regional capital of Cafayate. 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 with more than their fair share of political, social and economic woes, and there is a certain amount of truth in that analysis. That said, the city of San Miguel de Tucumán – the region’s biggest urban centre by far – has an addictively lively atmosphere. Tucumán – proudly calling itself the “Garden of the Nation” – may be one of Argentina’s smallest provinces, but it does contain some real treasures, including the impressive pre-Inca ruins at Quilmes, the marvellous museum dedicated to the Pachamama, or Earth Mother, at Amaicha, and the dramatic mountain scenery around Tafí del Valle, where the trekking opportunities are endless.
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. Even more awe-inspiring than Quilmes, the less-publicized pre-Columbian remains at Shinkal, near Londres, look almost more Maya than Inca, with their well-preserved pyramids and symbolic temples, whose real purposes have so far defied the archeologists. 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.
Be aware that summers can be steamy in the valleys, making large cities like Tucumán unbearable, whereas in July and August night-time temperatures around Antofagasta are bitterly low, so your first purchase there will probably be an alpaca-wool poncho.Read More
Estancias and fincas in Salta and Jujuy provinces
Estancias and fincas in Salta and Jujuy provinces
Salta and, to a lesser degree Jujuy, are provinces with a very long colonial history, which has left behind many estancias (traditional ranches), known locally as fincas, some of which now offer rooms to guests. Estancia stays are a wonderful way of combining rest – and sometimes even luxury – with a chance to get to know locals, tune in to nature and experience criollo customs and farming activities.
Remote Finca Puerta del Cielo (t0387/156-840400 or t0387/492-1757; $301-400 full board) is up in the Andean foothills not far from the city of Salta. Reachable only on horseback, though, it’s a difficult place to get to, but rewarding once you are there. It’s famous for its round-the-bonfire asados. You need to book your stay (1–3 nights) through a tour operator, such as Turismo San Lorenzo in San Lorenzo.
Finca Santa Anita (t0387/490-5050 or t431-3858, wwww.santaanita.com.ar; $251-300) is in the Valle de Lerma, 75km south of Salta by the RN-68, near Coronel Moldes, on the west bank of the huge Embalse Cabra Corral reservoir. As well as swimming in the pool or taking organized horse rides, you can watch tobacco being processed and visit the tobacco museum on the premises.
Between Chicoana and Rosario de Lerma, along the RP-33, is the oddly named Finca Los Los (t0387/431-7258; $251-300), where the food’s excellent and the welcome very friendly, but make sure you book ahead if you want to stay – note that they close from Christmas until the end of January. Otherwise, you can enjoy a día de campo (day of farm activities, horse rides, lunch and tea) for $200 per person. The finca sits among superb parkland and the rooms are charming, and there is a small collection of archeological finds as an added attraction.
Another historic tobacco farm, El Bordo de las Lanzas (wwww.estanciaelbordo.com; US$220 per person full board), at Rivadavia s/n near General Güemes, 80km northeast of Salta, can be reached via the RN-9 to Jujuy and then a side road that heads north from the village of Cobos; it is an early seventeenth-century house and maintains its colonial structures but with all modern conveniences – the furniture and artefacts come from Jesuit missions in the Northwest, Peru and Bolivia.
Commanding stunning mountain views through a huge picture window just outside the mountain village of Cachi is luxurious Finca El Molino (t03868/491094 or t0387/421-9368; $401-600). The very comfortable rooms are mostly located in a purpose-built annexe but the delicious meals are served in an aristocratic dining room. The small vineyards now produce remarkable high-altitude wines, made in the state-of-the-art bodega.
Finca Los Lapachos (t0388/491-1291, e[email protected]; $301-400 full board) sits along the RP-42 near the village of Perico, fairly close to Jujuy airport. It’s definitely the place if you’re looking for charm, luxury, peace and quiet and an authentic finca experience, with horseriding and a beautiful swimming pool. The Leach family, who call this place home, are extremely hospitable and related to the British settlers who set up the regional sugar industry; booking ahead is recommended.