One of the highlights of travelling around South America for me was renting a car in Salta and road-tripping through northern Argentina. If there’s anywhere in the country you’re going to splurge on car rental costs, it’s here.
The north-western corner of Argentina is a region that should not be skipped: it’s dazzling, multicoloured mountains, blindingly white salt flats, and beautiful little towns packed with culture and delicious food make it an entirely unique place to visit.
The roads of Salta and Jujuy include some breathtaking passes / Photo by Daytours4u
From the city of Salta, the capital of the province with the same name, the best way to get around is by car. This is because the distances between places of interest in Salta and Jujuy are far, with many spectacular little towns and breathtaking scenery in between them just waiting to be explored. Plus, if you’re with a group of people, it’s wonderfully cost effective.
While driving is daunting, particularly if you come from a country where you drive on the left-hand side of the road, it’s worth it for the freedom it gives to explore at your own pace.
The Mountain of 7 Colours is one of many incredible attractions in this region / Photo by Daytours4u
DRIVING ITINERARIES FROM SALTA
The vast range of places across this deceptively large region (don’t be fooled by how small it looks on a map) means there is a wide choice of routes, depending on how much time you have. You can also choose to stick to the safer tarred highways, or throw caution to the wind and hit the gravel roads.
The Safe Routes:
If you have just 3 days to explore the northwest beyond the city of Salta, a classic itinerary is Salta – Purmamarca – Salinas Grandes – Humahuaca – Salta. The roads on this route are perfect, quite straightforward, and the distances manageable.
Head straight for Purmamarca on day 1 and spend the night there to soak in the breathtaking vistas of the incredible Cerro de Siete Colores (Mountain of 7 Colours). Leave bright and early the next day and journey to the spellbinding Salinas Grandes, before backtracking northwards to Humahuaca, where you’ll spend your second night. Explore the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a valley famous for its brightly coloured mountains and long history predating the Inca Empire. On your way back on day 3, stop at Tilcara, another important town, where you can visit the Pucará de Tilcara pre-Incan ruins and the Painter’s Palette hills by the town of Maimara.
You can stretch this itinerary out much longer, taking your time to explore these quaint little towns. A good option to add on to this route is to head south of Salta city to Cafayate. It’s not a long drive, and the route is breathtaking. Stop along the way to see the weird and wonderful rock formations in the Quebrada de Cafayate. Highlights like La Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre) are clearly signposted along the route. Cafayate itself is a charming town set in the heart of Salta’s high-altitude wineries; a place to indulge in some exquisite wine-tasting and enjoy some great hikes.
You can visit the Pucará de Tilcara pre-Incan ruins on your road trip / Photo by Daytours4u
If you want to spend some more time in the region, a great option would be the southwards loop from Salta to Cafayate and Cachi and back. This route takes you along the dramatic mountain road, Cuesta del Obispo. A large stretch of this road is gravel, and can be rough going. We don’t recommend doing this drive by yourself during the rainy season. Some rental companies may insist you take a 4×4 option or extra insurance because of the likelihood of a tire blowout. However, the risks pay off in the scenery you’ll see. Not only is the route magnificent, but the town of Cachi is a must-visit; a place home to beautifully preserved Spanish colonial houses.
Another destination worth visiting in the region is the town of San Antonio de los Cobres which can be reached by following the famous route traversed by the Train to the Clouds. This is an alternative way to get to Salinas Grandes. Again, this road should not be attempted in the rainy season, as it is prone to landslides, and there is little to no cell phone reception in the area. At other times of the year this route is safer – just watch out for altitude sickness along this route.
Did you know that you can drive right onto the Salinas Grandes salt flats? / Photo by Daytours4u
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR RENTING A CAR IN ARGENTINA:
It’s a good idea to book a car in advance, particularly if you have a car preference or if you’re travelling in high season. Make sure you hire from a reputable car hire company – there are many horror stories online from small car hire places.
Inspect your car thoroughly before driving off, ensuring that the rental company properly notes all scratches and problems. It’s a good idea to take photos of any bumps and scratches as well, to cover yourself.
There are long distances between destinations and few gas stations. Check with the car hire company where you can fill up, and then make sure you do, even if you still have half a tank. On the northern route, Tilcara is the only gas station in a large radius, so don’t drive on past.
There are many police checkpoints along the roads, particularly when crossing between Salta and Jujuy provinces. Keep all your paperwork close at hand in case. Note that by law, you must always drive with your lights on, even during the day time.
Check your itinerary with the car rental company before leaving, especially during the rainy season and during the Dakar Rally time period, as some roads may be closed.
Normally it is easy to show up in the small towns without accommodation booked, but if you’re travelling in January and February, during Carnival period, it is important to book ahead as the towns host highly popular festivals and hotels and hostels fill up quickly.
Renting a car gives you the freedom to explore Salta’s hidden landscapes / Photo by Daytours4u
ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING
While renting a car in Salta is a fantastic way to explore the region, it’s not for everyone.
There are barriers that might make you uncomfortable. The road signs are in Spanish, many roads in this area are quite rough, especially in rainy season, the passes are long and winding, and there is a somewhat flexible approach to road rules that can be a bit daunting.
Moreover, what you gain in the independence to travel at your own pace, you lose in the insight that a tour guide can give you on local culture and history. If you’re interested in learning more about Argentina’s northwest corner, a guided tour from Salta might be your best option.
There are numerous day tours operating out of Salta, taking you to highlights of the area, such as Salinas Grandes, Quebrada de Humahuaca and Cachi. These guided day trips are a great option if you don’t have a lot of time in Salta or if you want to sit back and take in the scenery while learning from an expert local guide.
There are also local buses that run in the region. These are a good option if you want to go to a destination such as Cafayate and spend a few nights. If you take a bus up North to Jujuy, however, don’t expect lots of easy links between the small towns. You can book bus tickets directly from the bus station in Salta.
The views of Salta from the surrounding hills are spectacular / Photo by Daytours4u
In short, if you have time and a group of people, renting a car in Salta is the ideal way to explore northern Argentina. If you’re travelling solo, have limited time or not up driving in a foreign country, then there are many wonderful tour options available as well. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t skip this gorgeous and interesting region of Argentina.
If you’re interested in guided tours in and around Salta, Argentina4u has a wonderful collection that offers something for every type of traveller.
By: Nicole Eberhard, travel writer and avid explorer, with a Masters in English Literature.