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.