Buenos Aires was our first stop in South America. The city was lively, busy, and cold! We had our first taste of empanadas and tango. After a few days in the big city, we decided to escape on a ferry to Uruguay. Our time was split between Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo. Both cities were beautiful, but we really felt a lack of culture and connection to Uruguay. Our minds had painted a picture of gauchos, night dancing, red wine, and vibrancy in our minds before arriving in South America. Not to say that we didn't like Uruguay, but we definitely recommend visiting in the summer! We did take a day trip to Casa Pueblo, a white castle of sorts, built into the cliffside by famous artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. From a design and architectural standpoint, this was one of the most inspiring places we've seen thus far.
After 18 days of freezing our butts off, we hopped on a flight to Salta, Argentina. We were met with sunshine, mountains, and smiling faces. Growing up in Colorado, it's easy to forget just how important sunshine is. We felt like we were home. We didn't realize that Salta and Jujuy are not only the names of cities in Northern Argentina, but actually the names of large provinces. We learned that the destinations we'd researched and wanted to see were actually very far from the cities themselves. This required a little bit more planning, renting a car, and some long travel days.
how to get there
We opted to take a flight from Buenos Aires through Bondi Airlines because the flight cost nearly the same as the bus and saved us 20 hours of travel. We had a sunrise flight descending into Salta and sat glued to the window in awe of the mountains and canyons below. We hoped in the first metered taxi right outside the airport (Uber doesn't operate here) and reached our neighborhood within 15 minutes. The taxi cost us about $15 USD because the airport is nowhere near town. Tip: make sure you know the exact address of where you are staying! The house/business address numbers aren't in numerical order, so our taxi driver pretended that he didn't have a navigation system and dropped us off in the middle of the street "close to" our house. We spent the next hour walking up and down and up and down and up the street, luggage in tow, trying to find our Airbnb.
what to do
Use the town of Salta as a hub to explore the area. We took many day trips around the area using Salta as our home base. The city offers nice affordable accommodation, good internet connection, is very walkable, and has great restaurants.
MAAM (High Mountain Museum of Archaeology): we had an educational experience here and thoroughly enjoyed the museum's displays. As the name suggests, the museum focuses largely on Northern Argentina's archaeology. In particular, we learned a lot about the Inca people and the discovery of the three Llullaillaco children. The three children were killed in a sacrificial manner and buried 22,000 feet above sea level (and frozen) in the Andes mountains for nearly 500 years. Their bodies were discovered by a team in 1999 along with many other archaeological pieces that we saw in the museum. The most interesting, and very eerie, part of the museum was seeing their preserved bodies at the end of the museum. These mummies are the most well-preserved mummies ever discovered. Every detail was perfectly intact, from the children's eyelashes to the draping of their wardrobe. The cost to get into the museum is 200 pesos ($6.50 USD) per person and it's located right on the main square of Salta. We spent about two hours at the museum and had plenty of time to see everything, including the informational videos.
Wander around: we spent a whole day just walking around the city and exploring the main square. There are a couple of beautiful catholic churches that we went inside of to admire their architecture. The square provides plenty of locations to sit and enjoy the sunshine, eat ice cream, and people watch. We weaved in and out of the shops which have a lot of nice regional textiles and souvenirs.
where to eat & drink
We actually cooked quite a bit in our Airbnb and this is partly because, unlike traveling Southeast Asia, it's cheaper to buy groceries and cook than it is to go out. So we found ourselves a supermercado and stocked up on some ingredients. We did find two really delicious restaurants that we highly recommend. However, we didn't even scratch the surface of Salta's restaurant scene.
Aires Caseros: this is right off the main square and has some of the best vegetarian empanadas we had in Argentina. We also enjoyed their delicious veggie burger made with beets and quinoa. Quinoa is commonly grown and consumed in this region, which made our vegetarian hearts happy after consuming copious amounts of bread in South America. Aires Caseros has a large menu and different cuisines that will please anyone. It's not the cheapest place for budget travelers, so we recommend cooking most of your meals at home and splurging a bit on this restaurant.
Viracocha Restaurant Salta: this restaurant has a cozy vibe, craft beer, and delicious food. One afternoon, we stumbled in here and spent hours playing cards and relaxing.
what to do
This section would be more appropriately called "what not to do" because we had a major fail in JuJuy. One day, we drove four hours north of Salta (practically into Bolivia) in search of the Serranía de Hornocal mountain range. These mountains showcase layers upon layers of various "rainbow" colors. From the photos we'd seen, this mountain range looks like pure magic. As we finally reached Humahuaca after a pretty desolate but beautiful drive, we pulled into the Visitor's Center to ask for directions since we couldn't immediately find any signs to the mountains. The man in the office gave us a hand-drawn map and said it would take 90 minutes to get there (only about 5 km away). As it was already 3 PM, we were worried about the minimal daylight we had left and took off in our car. His hand-drawn map turned out to be less than helpful, and there weren't any signs marking the way. Needless to say, we got lost on some gravel road and never saw the Serranía de Hornocal mountains. Instead, we wandered around the cute town of Humahuaca eating delicious tortillas and took our time driving back to Salta. Once we got back to our Airbnb and had wifi again, we researched the route. Everyone said it only took 20-30 minutes to drive there from the town of Humahuaca. We then realized that the man in the Visitor's Center must've said we needed 90 minutes to drive there, enjoy the views, and drive back. Lesson learned: we need to work on our Spanish.
As for the town of Jujuy, it was much bigger and busier than we expected. There's a historic part of town that looks adorable, but unfortunately we did not get to see it.
how to get there
If you take one piece of advice from us, let it be this: rent a car and drive to Cafayate! The drive to and from Cafayate blew our minds and lit our souls on fire. Traveling long-term can be tiring at times, but this scenery provided us with a new-found energy. On the way to Cafayate, we opted to drive the shorter route on Highway 68. This drive took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few stops. As we got closer to Cafayate, we entered a red-rock canyon on a one-lane road. We stopped more times than we care to admit, as the mountain landscape demanded to be photographed. Our favorite stop was at a slot canyon right off the highway called Garganta del Diablo Salta. Although it was prohibited to hike in too far, this was a stunning sight. This entire canyon was reminiscent of Arizona or Utah, but with more diversity.
how to get back to salta
After a few glorious days in Cafayate, we headed out early in the morning in our rental car back to Salta. We'd heard that it was worth the extra 4 hours to head back the long way. We weren't expecting to be driving on gravel roads for the majority of the trip. At first, we were a bit hesitant with no cell phone service and an old car. However, we stuck with it and are so glad we did! The road winded up and down valleys, through cacti gardens, and eventually led us to Cachi. Cachi is a small town with colonial Spanish style mud buildings and cobblestone streets. We kicked around town for a couple of hours and enjoyed lunch in an outdoor garden. Knowing we had a long drive ahead of us still, we hit the road again for Salta. We didn't know that 30 minutes later, we'd be sitting in Los Cardones National Park on top of a mountain at 15,000 feet. Daniel stopped the car every 5 minutes because we couldn't set the camera down. As the sun began to drop, the mountain range lit up into a purple yellow haze. From there, we wove down a very, very steep canyon (with no guardrails) until we finally exited the canyon and arrived back in Salta.
where to stay
Options are somewhat limited in Cafayate since it isn't a large tourist destination. There are basically two choices: luxurious, and very expensive wine resorts or basic hostels. We stayed at Hostal del Suri and had a great experience. Since we teach English online, we were worried about the wifi situation, but it worked well for us. Breakfast was included and the owner was incredibly helpful.
what to do
Hiking is the most obvious outdoor activity to do while in Cafayate. The endless rock formations and vast valleys make for some incredible hikes. Not many of the trails are marked, so it was more of a 'go our own way' kind of day. We hiked around Los Castillos, Las Ventaras, Quebrada de las Conchas, and up a giant sand dune off the side of the road. Make sure you take lots of water and a full camera battery. Another more difficult option that a lot of people opt for is renting bikes and riding from the town center up into the canyon.
Cafayate has been named one of the top wine destinations in the world. With its high altitude, sunshine, and cool nights, the wine flows endlessly here. A few of the vineyards are even located 10,000 feet above sea level! One afternoon, we visited Bodega Domingo Molina for a wine tasting. We tried many types of wine, our favorites being the Malbec, Tannat, and the famous Torrontés. We had planned to visit another winery, but we couldn't force ourselves to leave the sunny patio or endless bowl of cheese we were munching on. The six tastings costs 150 pesos/person ($4.96 USD), but the tasting fee is waved if you buy a bottle of wine. Our bottles cost 180 pesos each. A win-win situation in our eyes!
Argentina's other famous wine destination, Mendoza, is far more developed than Cafayate. In Cafayate, you won't see parking lots or tour buses. In fact, you likely won't hear a word of English. It's more likely that you'll see gauchos on horseback and kids playing in the plaza. For these reasons, we loved exploring the small town. Sitting in the sun observing locals was relaxing and enjoyable. We recommend setting aside one day to kick around town and visit the artisanal art shops.
where to eat & drink Bierhaus Cafayate: a great place for some craft beer and pizza. The bar has brick walls, moody twinkle lights, and a younger crowd. A fair warning: their beer is strong!
La Casa de las Empanadas: we ate here maybe more times than we can count. They have 3-4 different vegetarian options and are roughly 20 pesos each ($.66 each). We found
these a great snack to take with us hiking.
Street food: there is an adorable man who sells tortillas rellenas right on the street in Cafayate. He can be found a block or two north of the main square. What are tortillas rellenas? They are basically fresh tortillas stuffed with cheese. Seriously mouthwatering!
Heladeria Miranda: famous for its wine ice cream! This isn't wine-flavored ice cream though. It's actual frozen wine that will give you a buzz if you're not careful. The acidity tore our mouths up for a few days, but it was so worth it! We each got a scoop of red wine and a
scoop of white wine.