Argentina – rivaled only by Chile in terms of its selfishly insane variety of geography – is an artist’s palette of different mini cultures within one freakin’ enormous chunk of a country.
Far from the cattle-grazing zones, glacier regions or lakes seen further south; the north offers sun, sculptured landscapes and wine – with a bit of archaeology thrown in for good measure. An unexpected favourite of my year, Tucumán, Salta, Cafayate, the north’s sunburned villages and its jagged, rainbow rocks won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Don’t miss the north. Here’s why. Ten reason why, even.
A change of pace
In Tucumán while exploring the centre and streets near the marketplace I remember looking around and thinking “I feel like I’ve finally arrived in South America.”
Even though it changes its outfit more often than a 15-year-old girl getting ready for a school dance, there are certain things you find yourself expecting in this continent. Like crowded markets. Cars racing past you driven by drivers without seatbelts. Heat. Meat. Llamas. Tight jeans, small skirts and big bums. A slight smell of chaos in the air.
Argentina’s north is where this began for me.
Las Ruinas de Quilmes
Between Tucuman and Cafayate lie the ruins of the Quilmes people, a civilisation forced to uproot and move when the Spaniards came marching in on their poncey horses. Relocated a distance of 1500km by foot over the harsh landscape of north Argentina to what is now the province of Buenos Aires, many perished along the way. It does take a bit of imagination to picture the city as it was (time wasn’t very generous to the structures), but the dry, dry, dry landscape surrounding Quilmes is well worth a visit. Get yourself sunscreened up and take a look…
Cafayate and a return to wine
Ohhh, please go to Cafayate. Of course, Mendoza’s wine regions are well known (and sport bike tours allowing one to cycle and drink wine all but simultaneously), but sometimes you just need a sweet, delicious-looking town nestled below a cute crop of mountains. And when that town is not only attractive, but famous for wine, well there’s really no reason not to go and be sloshingly happy in Cafayate for a few days.
(They even make ice cream out of wine. This is a torrontés (white wine) creation about to be blasted to smitherines…They’re so good that in my excitement to eat it I didn’t manage to hold the camera still at all.)
Empanadas take a more delicious turn
While I will swear allegiance to the empanada as long as I live, even pastry disciples like me tire of the meat, cheese or chicken options usually available. Not so in Argentina’s north. Here you’ll find such marvels as ricotta and spinach, pesto, and curry empanadas.
La Casa de la Empanada, just off Cafayate’s main plaza, was my pick of the bunch, sporting all the above flavours as well as 9 more to get busy with…
…And graffiti from travellers around the world, all singing the chef’s praises.
Surrounding a main plaza so picturesque it hurts, Salta sprawls happily out in all directions until it whacks into the base of two mountains, ready to receive you with pretty views. I give Salta 10 points for managing to combine a small town/big city feeling, complete with maniac markets and chaos as well as plazas and museums…with nature-lovin’ options not far away.
La Casona Molino was my favourite afterdark Salta hangout – a peña where locals and professionals strum their favourite folk classics, throw back wine and chew coca leaves like it’s their last night on earth.
Handicrafts, tiny villages and trekking
From Jujuy there’s a string of earth-coloured towns along the sharp ridges and deep valleys of the north. Well worth a visit, Tilcara, Humahuaca, Purmamarca and Iruya are filled with artists and craftsmen and manage to retain their simplicity despite having been touched by growing tourism in recent years.
Iruya was my favourite, a hillside village resting in a rocky valley reached by a bumpy bus ride from Humahuaca. As quiet and peaceful as such an oven-hot place can be, Iruya sports smiling locals…and for the walkers of us is trekking distance from a number of even smaller communities.
7km along the riverbed, San Isidro is the first of these tiny villages, followed by San Juan (three hours), Higueras (four hours) and Chiyayoc (six hours) for those who’d like to stone-hop a little longer.
The crazy geography
The Quebrada de las Conchas extends from Cafayate almost to Salta – and wow, will it have you flipping out at what rain, wind and time will do to a landscape. Once underwater (concha means shell), what’s left for us today is a testament to the stoic, though changeable nature of the land, and an invitation to guess what will be there for future generations to see.
Other geographical jaw-drops are all along the route between Jujuy and Iryua, the king being this wacky rock: El Cerro de los Siete Colores (gorgeously translated in the village as the “The 7 Colours Mountain”) crowning the village of Purmamarca.
Happily, the wallet gets a bit of a rest the further north in Argentina you travel. The prices in the southern provinces of the Patagonia region are not that different to home…so head up north for more bang out of your well-bruised wallet.
Gateway to other countries
If a South American trip spanning several countries is what you’re after, but you don’t have the time to slog out horrifically long bus trips nor the cash for the overpriced flights on offer, then triangle borders are your friends.
While sometimes lying inconveniently in the middle of jungle (Peru-Colombia-Brazil), or boringly in the centre of flat countryside (Argentina-Uruguay-Brazil); other golden triangles give you wonders of the world such as the Iguazú falls (Paraguay-Brazil-Argentina) or these holy-hell-worthy gifts of the earth seen through a bus window traveling from Jujuy to San Pedro de Atacama, all the while knowing that Bolivia was only a few minutes up the road.
The Pachamama (Mother Earth) is held true to all hearts here in central South America – though the amount of rubbish on the side of highways and waste and overuse of plastic in general leave a sour taste in the mouth. It seems that the concept of converting Pachamama reverence into daily practice leaves great deal to be desired.
That said, the myriad of festivals held throughout the year in honor of la tierra madre are beautiful – and many of the rituals performed throughout stretch back throughout the years, to the days when our great-great-great-great-great grandfathers’ faces only sported peach fuzz.
In this pic Humahuaca locals are offering back the earth’s gifts, burying them in the central plaza under the watchful eye of this mamacha. Tobacco, wine, food, sugar and water are consumed and later given back to the ground as a prayer for the Pachamama’s continued fertility.
Not yet as overrun as other parts in this whopper of a country, the top of Argentina is…well…tops.