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. Here, in addition to some decent accommodation and a monument or two, you will also find an outstanding cultural centre that includes a surprisingly good cinema. 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, but most of the lodgings are on the expensive side. Further up the gorge, just outside the village of Maimará and overlooked by oyster-shaped rock formations in the mountainside, is one of the region’s most photographed cemeteries. Two-thirds of the way to Humahuaca, the small town of Tilcara is worth lingering in, if only for its beautiful pre-Inca fortress, or pukará; Tilcara boasts the best range of lodgings and eateries in the whole area, plus an interesting archeological museum. Between Tilcara and Humahuaca, in the little village of Uquía is one of the finest churches along the gorge; in these parts the typical chapel design is utterly simple, a plain whitewashed facade, sometimes embellished with an arch, and a single squat tower, usually acting as a campanile; many retain their straw roofs.
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. The whole of the RN-9 and some of the side roads are accessible by regular buses from Jujuy, many of them also serving Salta.Read More
Two-thirds of the way along the RN-9 towards Humahuaca 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 religious and popular procession and feast held during the latter half of January (good to avoid if you dislike crowds and have not booked accommodation well ahead), as well as Holy Week, and Pachamama, or the Mother Earth festival, in August, with remarkable festivities, wild games, all manner of music, noisy processions and frenzied partying. Frequent buses from Humahuaca and Jujuy stop at the terminal along Avenida Alvear.