When you think of Argentina, the first thoughts that probably come to mind are tango-dancing in Buenos Aires, the wild landscapes of Patagonia, or sipping Malbec in the world-famous Mendoza wine region. Yet nestled in the mountainous north-west is one of the most over-looked and beautiful regions in the country.
Salta and the Andean Northwest is a true hidden gem and the perfect destination for a once-in-a-lifetime road-trip. The scenery between Salta and Cafayate – Argentina’s alternative wine region – is simply spectacular. Vast red rock canyons, fields of towering cacti, lunar landscapes, and endless vineyards are just a few of the reasons this destination should be on your bucket list (not to mention what comes out of those vineyards but we’ll circle back to that!)
With dirt roads and switchbacks a-plenty, this is not a road-trip for the faint-hearted. But don’t let that put you off. This is off-the-beaten-track travel at its best and a great way to experience a more wild and wonderful side to Argentina.
A quick look at our itinerary:
We spent 5 nights in total in Northwest Argentina, splitting our time as follows:
1 night on arrival in Salta
1 night in Cachi
2 nights in Cafayate
1 night in Salta
We drove from Salta to Cafayate via Cachi, along Routes 33 and 40, and then back to Salta via Route 68, but you can choose to complete this trip in reverse. The whole circular route spans 500 miles and 4 days/5 nights was the perfect amount of time to explore. We even managed to squeeze in a day of relaxation (a.k.a wine by the pool-side), which was much needed, half-way through our month-long backpacking trip. If you’re short on time, you could skip the R&R and spend just one night in Cafayate instead.
Top tips to know before setting off:
You’ll need to learn some basic Spanish before you go: We travelled for a month around South America and found that English was widely spoken in most tourist destinations. Northwest Argentina was the exception to this rule. Even in the city of Salta, we found that locals understood very little English, so we were able to put our Spanish lessons to good use! Have a phrase-book handy and be sure to learn some basic phrases before you arrive.
You may be stopped at police check-points, so be prepared: Police check-points are a routine part of driving around Argentina. This is nothing to be alarmed about – just make sure you have your passport, driving license and vehicle registration documents to hand.
Get your head around the driving laws before you hit the road: It’s always a good idea to get acquainted with the basic rules of the road when you’re driving in any new country. For example, did you know it’s the law in Argentina for vehicles to have their headlights on at all times? Do your research before you go or ask your car rental company for information, if you’re unsure about the driving laws.
Be prepared for poor road conditions: Large sections of this driving route (especially Route 40) are unpaved, so be prepared for dirt and gravel tracks most of the way. I’d read horror stories about cars overheating and tyres bursting but it was nowhere near as bad as we were expecting. Still, make sure your car is fit for purpose and that you have breakdown cover included in your rental agreement. We travelled in May and had no problems in our Volkswagen hatchback rental. However, if you’re travelling in rainy season, it’s strongly advised that you hire a 4WD, as the roads can flood quickly.
A self-drive itinerary from Salta to Cafayate (via Cachi)
I found it really difficult finding information to prepare for our road-trip, so I hope this tailored itinerary helps! This guide is based on our exact 5-day route from Salta to Cafayate via Cachi, returning back to Salta.
Day 1: Arrive into Salta
We arrived into Salta, in the early evening, after a 9-hour bus journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We travelled with Geminis bus company, who were absolutely brilliant. The company were quick to respond to our enquiries on Facebook and we were able to pre-book our seats through their website (buses from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta are pretty irregular, so I’d recommend booking your tickets in advance to avoid being stranded in the desert for days!) The buses were comfortable, with reclining seats and snacks provided, and the route itself was incredibly scenic, passing through the rainbow-coloured mountains of Purmamarca and the breath-taking Jujuy province.
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in South America, Salta has an international airport (Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport) serving major destinations, such as Lima, Buenos Aires, Panama City and Iguaza Falls.
On arrival into Salta, we headed straight to Viracocha for dinner – a traditional South American restaurant, serving up great-value food, artisan beers, and the best pisco sours I’d had outside of Peru.
Where to stay in Salta?
I recommend…. Prisamata Suites
We stayed for 2 nights (at the beginning and end of our road-trip) in this charming, boutique hotel, located right in the heart of Salta. The hotel has a zen vibe, with relaxing water features and pretty gardens – a little oasis of calm in the centre of the city.
Day 2: Salta to Cachi
Total distance: 155km/96 miles
Total driving time: 3-4 hours (including stops)
Driving route: Route 68/Route 33/Route 40
We’d be returning to Salta at the end of our trip, so we wasted no time in hitting the road today. We picked up our rental car from Cactus Hire and took Route 68 straight out of Salta. The first hour was mainly highway but as soon as we turned on to Route 33, at El Carril, the landscape started to change and became more and more scenic as we went.
We passed through dense rainforest valleys, before climbing higher and higher along the famous “Bishop’s Slope” or Cuesta del Obispo. The clouds clung to the mountains as we made our ascent, so that soon we were cruising high above them.
As we neared the top, we came across a tiny little church, marked with a signpost for Capilla San Rafael. We paused for a moment to admire the jaw-dropping views and the dramatic mountain scenery that surrounded us. There was not a soul in sight, except for a friendly stray dog, who was keeping careful watch over the church.
We continued up the hill, navigating one switchback after the other, until we finally reached the summit at around 11,000 feet. The views were absolutely phenomenal and we could see just how far we’d zig-zagged our way to the top. There were still no cars or people in sight, so we had this idyllic scene all to ourselves.
From here, the road flattened out and we could start to see the mountains changing colour ahead of us. The road surface also transformed and we found ourselves back on smooth tarmac (for a while at least!)
We soon came to the second famous stretch along this route, known as the Tin Tin Straight Line. This completely straight path, built during the Incan Empire, runs for 12 miles through the arid landscape of Los Cardones National Park. As we neared Cachi, the cacti got taller and taller, until there were whole fields of them towering around us.
Before we knew it, we’d arrived at the sleepy, little village of Cachi. This is your typical, traditional Argentinean “pueblo”, with white-washed buildings, a cobbled plaza, and historic church at the centre. There’s not a lot to see here – in fact, we managed to walk around the entire village in about 15 minutes! But this isn’t somewhere you come to sight-see. This is the sort of place where you “do as the locals do”. In other words: relax, eat empanadas and drink wine. No complaints from me!
We found a little restaurant, called Resto Bar Oliver, off the main square, where we ordered a selection of traditional empanadas (amazing fried pasties stuffed with cheese) and ate them out in the sun. We then stopped at Viracocha to try the famous local Torrentes – a delicious white wine produced in the foothills of nearby Cafayate. This was the first of many, many glasses we enjoyed during our tour of the Northwest!
Where to stay in Cachi?
I recommend… El Cortijo Hotel Boutique
Because of its size, there are very few hotels or hostels in Cachi, so I’d recommend pre-booking your accommodation. I instantly fell in love with the bright, stylish interiors and sunny courtyards of El Cortijo Hotel Boutique and would highly recommend this gorgeous spot. Dining can be a bit of a challenge in Cachi, so this boutique hotel also benefits from having its own excellent restaurant on-site – Catalino, serving up traditional Andean cuisine and local wine at £5 a bottle!
Day 3: Cachi to Cafayate
Total distance: 157 km/98 miles
Total driving time: 4-5 hours (including stops)
Driving route: Route 40
The next morning, we hit the road again; this time along the iconic Route 40. We passed all sorts of unforgettable and slightly peculiar sights on our way out of Cachi – from flocks of wild horses to marching funeral processions!
As we made our way through the Calchaquí River Valley, the landscape morphed into surreal jagged rock formations and giant sandstone cliffs. It looked like we’d landed on the Moon. In fact, we’d arrived at Quebrada de las Flechas – a national monument and one of the show-stopper attractions along Route 40. This was definitely the hairiest stretch of road we encountered, with gravel tracks most of the way. Taking it slow turned out to be no bad thing, once we saw how incredible the scenery was!
On reaching the tiny town of San Carlos, the road suddenly became paved again and it wasn’t much longer until we reached Cafayate – our home for the next 2 nights.
Cafayate is nestled in the foothills of the Andean mountains, located at the perfect altitude for producing some seriously good vino. Visiting a winery was at the top of our must-do list but, with just a couple of hours left to explore today, we stuck to the main plaza, where the beautiful ‘Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary’ is the star attraction.
We couldn’t leave the main square without trying some of Cafayate’s famous wine ice-cream. Yes, you heard me correctly – ice-cream parlours in Cafayate serve up wine-flavoured sorbets (and they are every bit as delicious as they sound!)
We made a beeline for Heladeria Miranda, where the craze originally started, only to find it closed. Fortunately, the whole square is dotted with ice-cream parlours, so we didn’t have to look too far to find this boozy delight. Honestly, ice cream and wine – what a way to win my heart, Cafayate.
Where to stay in Cafayate?
I recommend… Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort
It would be a crime to travel all the way to Cafayate and not stay in a wine resort! Viñas de Cafayate is a great mid-range option, located in the most magnificent mountain setting, just 10 minutes from town. We paid a bit extra for a room with a vineyard view and it was worth every peso. Sitting out on the terrace, watching the sunset with a glass of wine in hand, was simply unforgettable.
Day 4: Cafayate
This day was all about R&R… and wine. Lots and lots of wine. Because, when in Rome and all.
Our visit happened to fall on my husband’s 30th birthday, so we celebrated by booking on to a wine and cheese-tasting experience in the local Piatelli Vineyards. Cafayate is full of fantastic wineries and some even offer free tours, such as Vasijas Secreta (Cafayate’s oldest vineyard) and Bodega Nanni. But it was the picture-perfect setting of the Piatelli winery that won us over: a gorgeous hillside bodega, set in acres of colourful vineyards.
We were taken on a 30-minute “grape-to-glass” tour, before sitting down to taste 6 locally-produced wines. The cheese and wine pairings were superb but my only disappointment was that the tasting took place inside a pretty standard room, so we didn’t get to enjoy the incredible views we’d come for. If I was to visit again, I’d probably opt for lunch in the restaurant, instead, which has glowing reviews and offers up the best views in Cafayate.
Feeling rather merry after our first wine-tasting experience (a big tick off my 30-before-30 bucket list!), we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool at Vinas de Cafayate, before heading out for dinner at Bad Brothers – a lovely little restaurant and wine bar, serving up a selection of small plates with great veggie options.
Day 5: Cafayate to Salta
Total distance: 196km/122 miles
Total driving time: 4-4.5 hours (including stops and key attractions)
Driving route: Route 68
After giving our tyres a break for 24 hours, we were straight back on the road today and headed back to Salta – this time via Route 68.
I thought it would be impossible to top the scenery we’d experienced over the past few days but this stretch, known as the Quebrada de Las Conchas, was on another level. Within 20 minutes of leaving Cafayate, the rocks turned a rusty-red colour and started to rise up around us. The unearthly scenery reminded me a lot of the USA – particularly Sedona and the beautiful red-rock regions of Arizona. I had to restrain myself from pulling over every 30 seconds to take a photo, as it was all so jaw-droppingly beautiful.
There are several must-see attractions along Route 68 – all within a few minutes’ walk from the roadside and all completely free. The first we came to was The Obelisk (about 25 minutes from Cafayate), an unusual pyramid of stone, worthy of a quick photo stop.
A further 20 minutes along, we arrived at the most impressive view-point of all: Las Tres Cruces (or ‘The Three Crosses’). A short walk up from the parking area and we were greeted with the most breath-taking 360-degree views of the Calchaqui Valley below us.
A few minutes down the road, we arrived at El Anfiteatro – a natural ampitheatre, known for its incredible acoustics. If you’re lucky, you can catch guitarists, panpipe players, and even choirs demonstrating this natural wonder. Sadly, there were no performances for us but it was still awe-inspiring to stand at the bottom of the giant canyon – I suddenly felt very small and insignificant, surrounded by all that natural beauty!
A few more minutes down the road and we arrived at Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – another interesting rock formation that creates an optical illusion when you step inside.
There was plenty more to see, along the way, and we were pulling in constantly to take it all in. We also came across some cute little crafts stores and traditional road-side convenience stops, with wild horses and cattle grazing out-front. There was no mistaking that we were in Argentina now!
About halfway between Cafayate and Salta, we stopped for lunch at a little roadside hostel and restaurant, called Parador Posta de Las Cabras, before arriving back where we started – in the city of Salta.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city – the second largest in Northwest Argentina. The shopping malls and pedestrianised high streets were a bit of a shock to the system, after weeks of travelling around the natural landscapes of South America! But we enjoyed taking in some of the main sights, including the Cathedral and the beautiful Church of Saint Francis.
And thus concluded our epic road-trip around Northwest Argentina. I still can’t get over how untouched and overlooked this beautiful region is. Part of me hopes the secret never gets out, while the other part of me desperately wants to tell anyone who will listen to visit this spectacular place immediately!
At the end of our trip, we flew out of Salta to Iguazu Falls. For more information and top tips on exploring this natural wonder of the world, check out my ultimate guide to visiting Iguaza Falls.