Exploring Argentina’s Colorful Northwest

Argentina is known for its diversity and the strong influence of European immigration all over the country. But if you’re looking for a region that still keeps its native roots alive, that’s El norte.

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Catamarca Province

A journey to the north starts in Catamarca, where the thermal baths of Fiambalá have become both a travel and a health destination for people looking to relieve pain or stress. A short distance away is Antofagasta de la Sierra, a vast expanse of rocks and desert until you reach a few huge lakes filled with crystal water and hundreds of flamingos.

Lake in Catamarca. Photo credit: iStock/Dmitry Saparov

Tucuman Province

In the arid north, the lush hill town of Tafi del Valle feels like an oasis, surrounded by rolling green mountains and fields. The city center is lined with little shops selling artisan products, including local cheese and wool sweaters. Another worthwhile stop on the road towards Salta is the Ruinas de Quilmes, a fortified citadel built around 850 AD by the pre-Columbian Quilmes people.

Salta Province

Once in Salta, the mountains of the Calchaqui Valley take on hues of red and gold. Your first stop should be the village of La Poma, home to El Puente del Diablo: caves formed by the erosion of volcanic stones that display stunning colors thanks to the minerals in the earth. You’ll find small geysers and beautiful formations of stalagmites and stalactites.

The area is also famous for the UNESCO-listed Graneros Incaicos, 24 roofed structures of mud and straw, built 900 years ago by the Inca to store grain and ears of corn. They’re held inside a huge natural cavern 115ft (35m) long. Inside, you’ll see measurements carved in stone, and cave paintings thought to be instructions on how to use the granaries: when a group passed through, they left the silos full of grain for the next group that arrived.

Not far from La Poma is Cachi, a handsome little town built of white adobe buildings in the classic northern style. Cachi is surrounded by organic plantations of red pepper, the main local crop. The peppers are used to produce high-quality paprika, as its flavor is quite intense.

Church in Cachi. Photo credit: iStock/FotografiaBasica

Salta is the main city of the province, known for its ornate colonial buildings, lively peñas (folklore concerts), and excellent regional cuisine. It’s well worth a day or two of exploration.

Your last destination before heading to Jujuy is the mountain town of Iruya. Here, at the Mirador del Condor, you might get a glimpse of the majestic Andean condor, one of the largest birds in the world.

Jujuy Province

Visit the spectacular Quebrada de Humahuaca, a UNESCO-listed valley that undulates in colorful waves along the Rio Grande; the lovely village of Purmamarca, just below the famous Hill of Seven Colors; and Pucara de Tilcara, a strategically located pre-Inca fortification.

Pucara de Tilcara. Photo credit: iStock/Solage Z

Stop for a glass of api (a purple, corn-based drink), some humitas (savory corn cakes), or tamales made with charqui (dried meat), followed by anchi, a dessert made with cornmeal. And don’t forget to try the various types of potatoes from the Humahuaca valley.

Almost to the border with Bolivia is the Cerro Huancar, a high mountain covered with sand dunes. Huancar is popular with sand-boarding fans but best known for its lively Carnival (February-March). If you drive here during the celebration, you’ll often see groups of people on the side of the road dancing, drinking, and wearing a devil disguise – the party can continue for up to a month.

Though people from the northwest are Catholic (and particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary), they also maintain many of their aboriginal beliefs. For example, on August 1 it’s customary to say “thank you” to Mother Earth, and ask for blessings by making a hole on the ground and dropping in beer, wine, cigarettes, and food to “feed” the Pachamama (Mother Earth). During Day of the Dead (October 31- November 2), it’s common to see women cooking pastries. The belief is that while the soul is in purgatory, it gets hungry and thirsty, so cooking and praying for the departed can help them on their long journey.

Carnival in Jujuy. Photo credit: iStock/Skarrafone

Want to know more about Argentina? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. How drinking mate defines Argentinians, how to kiss properly when you greet someone, and meet Popi, the scientist who's saving penguins.

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