This article has been updated on February 10, 2021
North West of Argentina and its neighbouring natural attractions of Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia as well as Atacama desert in Chile are known for their uncommon, surreal beauty. The whole area is rather different if compared to pretty much any other place I’ve ever seen. Is it because of the combination of rich cultural heritage, high altitude and vibrant colours? It’s hard to pin down such complex uniqueness of this area in few words but I will elaborate on that further in this article, together with listing the popular attractions and other useful travel tips about Salta and Jujuy regions. Explore Salta and Jujuy, the two stunning provinces in Northern Argentina. Places to see, where to stay, general travel tips and more…
Salta is a classic colonial city of 620 thousand people and it also serves as a regional capital of the eponymous province. Founded in 1582 as a strategic trade route point between Lima and Buenos Aires, the city played a major role in the process of Argentinian independence as it was here, where General Manuel Belgrano defeated and forced the Spanish forces into capitulation in 1813. During its vibrant history, city was hit by several devastating earthquakes. Particularly severe earthquake from 1692 is still being commemorated in present-day each September by holding a religious festival Fiesta del Milagro (Miracle Fiesta).
Many colonial buildings have however survived the quakes and now they co-create the pleasant atmosphere of the city. Salta comes with the usual colonial grid-system historical centre as well as with the classic “Spanish Square”, one can find in pretty much every colonial town in Latin America. Most of those squares, including Salta‘s Plaza 9 de Julio, contain a cathedral, a representative municipal house and a statue of a historical war figure on the horse. Anyway, when it comes to Salta, overall we’re talking about quite a pretty colonial city with friendly people, a rich café and restaurant scene as well as rather vibrant nightlife.
Places to see in and around Salta
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into "want to go", once you arrive to the destination, it could make things easier for you to orientate yourself in the area, not to mention the (sometimes) helpful and informative reviews or the fact that it might also help you to determine your itinerary ;)
In the city
While Salta province is mostly on the travellers’ map because of the country that surrounds its capital, there are also few interesting places to check out in the city itself. For instance, one of the most popular places in Salta is the viewpoint Cerro San Bernardo, which you can reach by a cable car, to get rewarded by great views of the city (see the pic above). There are also various colonial churches as well as the cathedral (Catedral Basílica de Salta) as well as the usual indoor market (Mercado Municipal San Miguel).
Museum-wise, I’d say that an archaeology fan should not miss out on Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña) that contains many well preserved Inca artefacts, including 3 Inca children mummies, which I personally find a little bizarre (“pedo-archaeological“) and disrespectful but I get it if not everyone shares my view. Another museum to consider is the History Museum of the North (Cabildo Histórico de Salta), which displays a wide variety of art, archaeological or religious objects from the pre-Inca period up to pretty much present day.
Train to the Clouds
As I’ve mentioned above, the majority of the attractions this area offers are located outside the city in the eponymous Salta province. Among the most popular of them is the “Train to the Clouds” (Tren a las Nubes), which is a ride on the historical railway. The train reaches a height of 4220m above sea level so you will be literally in the clouds, hence the name. The railway that includes zigzags because of steep elevations was originally built in the 19th century for the mining industry that was booming in the area back then.
Due to safety reasons, the whole train journey has been limited to about 1 hour of a train ride between the village of San Antonio de los Cobres and the impressive engineering highlight of the attraction Viaduct Polvorilla, while the remaining part of the original journey from Salta is served by buses. Also because of this limited “train time”, I have personally found the $150 per ticket a bit steep for my long-term traveller’s budget. However, in case you’ve had a little more positive wallet, the tickets could be booked here.
The train ride, well, the bus-train-bus ride, from Salta cuts through a gorge called Quebrada del Toro, yet another popular tourist attraction in the area that is offering impressive trekking options, that’s if you are feeling fit enough to tackle the condition and a rather high altitude. The local agencies also offer bike tours, multiple day hikes and so on.
Salinas Grandes and wineries of Cafayate
Another popular place to visit in the region appears to be Salinas Grandes Salt Flats. I’m afraid that I’ve skipped it because I was about to visit their bigger and more famous sibling Salar Uyuni in Bolivia soon. But in case you were contemplating a visit to the Argentinian Salt Flats, here‘s a rather informative piece about the place on Turismo Ruta 40 site.
Instead of Salinas Grandes, I’ve opted to take a tour around wineries in Cafayate, yet another popular tourist attraction in the area. To get there from Salta, the road cuts through a picturesque Calchaquí Valley, which has multiple stops of interest to please one’s eyes, such as Garganta del Diablo or various viewpoints, one of which you could see in the feature picture.
Cafayate itself is a charming little town with plenty of restaurants and bars. Unlike in Argentina’s “wine-capital” Mendoza which is famous for its gorgeous Malbec wines, Cafayate is known for a grape variety called Torrontés. We’re talking about a native variety that is happy to grow in drier conditions at higher altitudes, as the whole area is located at about 1700m above sea level. For wine lovers, there are more details here, together with the list of the best wineries in town as compiled by Along Came an Elephant.
Only a few hours north of Salta, there’s the most northern Argentinian provincial capital San Salvador de Jujuy. Similarly like with Salta, this city is also on the tourist map mainly because of the nature that surrounds it. The city itself (pop 260 thousand) has a rather pretty historical centre that traditionally comes with some cafés, peñas, restaurants and bars, come nice, well preserved historical buildings, cathedral and churches to check out but IMHO and with all due respect, the rest of the town can’t be exactly called a Pearl of Northern Argentina.
Things to do and/or see in Jujuy region
San Salvador de Jujuy
There are however few spots in the historical centre, I believe are worth mentioning, in case the weather was against your planned trips to the stunning Jujuy province. Except for the pedestrian zone with street vendors and the usual great terrace coffee drinking options, if you’re in town, don’t skip the central Plaza Belgrano to soak the local downtown atmosphere.
For handicrafts and various quirky little things, check out the Artists’ passage (Paseo de los Artesanos). If you’re interested in local history, there are two museums to consider: Museo Historico J.G. Lavalle and few blocks away there’s a local archaeological museum (Museo Arqueológico Provincial de Jujuy).
The highlight of the province is the nearby Humahuaca Ravine (Quebrada de Humahuaca). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about a 155 km (96 miles) long valley formed by Río Grande. From its south end, you’ll enter the valley just north of San Salvador de Jujuy while it ends at the gate to Antiplano plateau in the border town of La Quiaca (3442 metres above sea level), which makes it 2180 metres of elevation from the provincial capital. We’re therefore talking about a rather steep and narrow mountainous valley.
Quebrada de Humahuaca follows the line of a historical route, the Camino Inca, but there’s evidence that suggests the valley’s trade route history goes as far as 10 thousand years back to the prehistoric hunter/gatherer communities. The cultural heritage is still present, in fact, Jujuy is the most native part of Argentina. Even for a spectator with low observational talents, the increased occurrence of the colourful Inca outfits would be striking if compared to any other part of Argentina.
So what’s so great about Humahuaca Valley for a visitor? I guess that there are two major things to mention here. Up in the valley, there are some really picturesque and charming little towns such as Humahuaca, Tilcara, Purmamarca or Iruya, where you’d like to walk around, sit and have a coffee, glass of wine or a pint in nearly every terrace you’ll see. And there’s a lot of them 🙂 Those towns furthermore benefit from the intercultural Argentinian-Inca connection and incredible friendly hospitality, all while being surrounded by the beautiful colourful mountains.
Those surrounding mountains would be obviously the other major reason for the visitors to come here, to explore some of the numerous breathtaking trekking options this area has to provide. Please note that the accent is on the term “breathtaking”, as the trekking in such high altitudes and the consequent lack of oxygen might make this otherwise metaphorical descriptive term to be taken rather literally, especially after reaching the altitude of 3000m. The variety of trekking difficulty range/options is therefore wide to accommodate trekkers of all levels of fitness and/or reactions to the high altitude.
Multiday treking Calilegua National Park to Tilcara
If you fancy a proper physical challenge, you could consider this 4-6 day hike between Calilegua National Park and Tilcara. The trail cuts through Yunga forest and Quebrada Humahuaca. There’s also a shorter, but also challenging 3-day trek “Trail to the Clouds” which would take you around the beautiful nature, this area is blessed with. Internet might give you a hint of what are those treks about but if I were you, I’d double-check the “menu” with the local agencies, once you arrive at Tilcara.
Please note that I don’t have experience with Tilcara Trekking company, I’ve only uploaded the link to give you an idea of what are those treks about. Unfortunately, I was caught by certain symptoms of altitude sickness and it prevented me from doing any major trekking in the area, instead of which, I’ve explored some short treks, Tilcara‘s terraces and local beverages. I can’t complain but at the same time, I feel that I can’t stress the altitude warning well enough, because it can alter your plans.
So please bear in mind that trekking around here is rather challenging, often even for fit people. Make sure that you are adjusted to the altitude because for instance on those multiple treks mentioned above, you’ll be hiking 6 to 8 hours a day, with rather significant altitude changes up to 1000 metres, sometimes reaching over 4000 metres above the sea level. It is therefore recommended to do this with the tour for your safety as well as because there’s not much infrastructure on the way and you might have difficulties finding water (and oxygen) 😉
Go out and events in Salta and Jujuy regions
In case you have wanted to experience the local nightlife, in Salta I’d certainly recommend heading to the upper parts of Balcarce, which is the city’s party street, meaning that it pretty much comprises of bars and restaurants, most of which come with terraces that are great for observing the vibrancy of the place as well as for people-watching. You could pick between the more modern genres and traditional folklore music venues/bars called peñas with poncho-wearing gauchos and handkerchief-waving ladies.
There also appears to be a lot of live street music/dancing performances going on in the area. San Salvador de Jujuy, copies this trend accordingly and in the centre, there’s also quite a few peñas as well as reggaeton-blasting bars as well as the street performers. The same scheme, only on a smaller scale applies to the mountain towns of Humahuaca, Tilcara, Purmamarca up in the valley, although it doesn’t run so late and the folklore’s presence is more dominant up there, plus you feel more mountains holiday-like and after a trek, drinks go down very nicely 🙂
Safety in Salta and Jujuy
Both cities are considered pretty safe and normal city precautions should be sufficient to deal with your safety when it comes to crime. You know the drill: don’t advertise your valuables to attract potential interest, don’t wander into dark alleys in the middle of the night alone, watch your back and don’t be a dick 😉
Then there’s potential danger that comes from mother nature. As mentioned above, the combination of high altitude and mountains could be potentially dangerous, especially if you overestimate your fitness levels and trekking abilities. Disease-wise, Malaria and Dengue Fever risks are apparently low but it does still exist so make sure you’re protected against mosquitoes. More details, tips and tricks about general safety while travelling in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
Get around and how to get there
Both cities have International Airports with multiple connections mostly internally. The flights are rather cheap if you book in advance. In Salta, you can take an 8A bus from the airport to the centre, otherwise, it’s an inexpensive €3-4 taxi ride. In Jujuy, the taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost you about €10.
Once you are in the city, most attractions are pretty much walkable. If you need to move around, except the usual taxis and ubers, both cities have quite extensive public transport system in place. While the SUBE card works in Jujuy, it is unfortunately not accepted in Salta. You still need a local card but you can pay cash someone on the bus and they will swipe their card for you, which could be quite fun if you’re a foreigner and have no clue what’s going on 🙂
Inter-city buses are also boasting of an extensive comfortable and safe network, although the Bus Terminals are a bit out of the way, especially in Jujuy, which is often the case in many Latin American cities. You could however use the public transport of the ever-present taxis to get to your hotel from the Bus Terminal. People will be very happy to point you to the right bus 😉
When to visit Salta nad Jujuy regions?
The rainy season hits the region from December to March. I can confirm that the season isn’t called “rainy” for no reason. However, unless you’re planning the multi-day trekking, it shouldn’t concern you much. I mean that I’ve been there in January and yes, the skies were grey but I’ve managed to get around the area and see most of the highlights.
Plus, on a rainy day, I could still wander around the city and conduct dedicated field research on the local restaurant, coffee and nightlife scene 😉 But if you’ve managed to come here between January and April or September and December, you should be able to enjoy much more pleasant weather conditions for outdoor activities 😉
Both Salta and Jujuy regions boast well developed and functioning tourism infrastructure that include a whole wide range from cheap hostels up to 5-star hotels. Make sure that you check all major platforms (Booking, Airbnb and/or Hostelworls) to get the best deal. As for myself, following the high expenses in Patagonia, I’ve decided to save few bucks by taking a bed in a dormitory.
I’ve spent the first part of my NYE in Hostelworld‘s Ferienhaus Hostel Salta. It’s a huge clean and well-managed place located only a few blocks away from the main square. There’s nothing to complain about at all. A bunk bed for $8,-US exceeded my expectations. And there’s a simple classic hostel breakfast included in the price. Not bad. Hostelworld‘s D-Gira Hostel Jujuy almost looked like a flat-turned hostel. It was clean, the staff was friendly, there was a garden and at $7.50US for a bunk bed, there’s nothing to complain about. The hood was a bit shitty but it was only a few blocks from the city’s centre.
In Tilcara I have stayed at Alta Montaña Hostel. I loved nearly everything about Tilcara and this place wasn’t an exception to that feeling. The hostel is a renovated old posh house with beautiful features. There was a huge garden with llamas, terrace, really good breakfast (included in the price), ping pong table and a friendly crowd. A bunk bed in a dormitory for $11.50,-US came across as a bargain within such surroundings and atmosphere.
Sort of epilogue
As I’ve mentioned above, in Salta and Jujuy regions, we’re talking about unique natural surroundings combined with the strong cultural heritage of both provinces. Your possible visit to the region would be therefore boosted by the extraordinary combination of classic Argentinian hospitality and the local native friendliness, which adds an amazing value to the already insane natural beauty in the region.
Personally, I can only recommend Humahuaca Valley as it certainly belongs among the highlights of my trip around Latin America. The whole experience is rather well described here in NY Times by Paola Singer, in case you were interested in a different angle with more insights. Another amazing bonus for the whole area is that you’ll be close to other attractions, such as Atacama Desert and Uyuni Salt Flats that are certainly worth your attention, in case you are keen on unusual natural beauty.
Possible further reading:
- History of Salta: Encyclopedia Britannica page on the city of Salta and the region
- Train to the Clouds: Wiki‘s page on Tren a las Nubes
- Train to the Clouds booking website
- Cafayate Wine Lovers’ Guide: Cafayate‘s website with events, news, wine info and so on
- History of Jujuy: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on Jujuy
- Humahuaca Valley: UNESCO‘s page on Quebrada de Humahuaca
- An Argentine Gem Hidden No More: Paola Singer experience written for The New York Times
Other interesting destinations near by
Depending on your travel plans, you have several options here. You could enter Bolivia from the top of Humahuaca Valley and head to Uyuni Salt Flats tour from here. Your other option is crossing the Andes from Jujuy to Chile to visit San Pedro de Atacama, from where you can also take the Uyuni Salt Flats tour. So it’s a question of doing this mini-tour of the region clockwise or anticlockwise.
What works in favour of the first option is the fact that it is cheaper to get the Uyuni tours from Bolivia. However, if you planned to travel further north, it wouldn’t make sense to go back to San Pedro de Atacama from Uyuni, unless you wanted to go through Chile’s worthwhile diverse Antofagasta region. So this is one of the “fork” dilemmas on the so-called Gringo Trail, you need to work out for yourself.
La Quiaca, Yavi Chico and Villazón
At the top of Humahuaca Valley, you would reach the town of La Quiaca right at the Bolivian border. Except being a southern gate to the Altiplano plateau, the town claims to be the exact antipode to Hong Kong. If you have a bit of spare time, I’d recommend considering a day tour to check out the tiny picturesque village Yavi Chico. I mean, after all, you’ll be at 3400 metres above sea level and it would be useful to adjust to the altitude.
La Quiaca‘s Bolivian counterpart Villazón is nearly 3 times larger but like La Quianca, but both towns are pretty much transport and trade hubs. What’s great about Villazón from this perspective is that you can grab a train, which is btw a rare mode of transportation in Latin America, right to the next popular destination, which is the Bolivian Salt Flats’ hubs of Tupiza or Uyuni. The station is about 1/2hr walk from the border uphill, which is a potential test of how the altitude works on your physical abilities. I however personally recommend taking a taxi 😉
Uyuni Salt Flats
As I’ve mentioned above, the most visited attraction in the whole region as well as one of the most surreal and incredible places I’ve ever visited is Uyuni Salt Flats, the world’s largest salt flat with an enormous area of about 10 000 km2 (3 900 square miles). More details about a 3-day tour around Salar Uyuni from Chilean San Pedro de Atacama could be found here.
San Pedro de Atacama
A 12-13hrs bus journey from Jujuy across the Andes would get you to yet another popular destination in the area: Desierto de Atacama, the driest non-polar desert in the world that comes with many mind-blowing attractions, plus the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama also comes with a certain charm, if you manage to ignore the usual and rather predatory tourism scam that all popular travellers’ hotspots come with. Read more about Atacama Desert here, in case you were interested.
Please be aware that this otherwise truly stunning and comfortable bus journey from Jujuy cuts through the mountain pass at about 4000metres above sea level, where you’d have to stop and get your bags and passports checked. Such an altitude doesn’t help much to withstand the multiple cues to pass through the border controls. The first cue to get stamped out of Argentina, then you need to get stamped into Chile and then to go through the useless luggage check, where you open your luggage and they look in. Btw, make sure that you’re not bringing any seeds into Chile. Check the requirements are listed here.
Except for the Atacama Desert, the northern Chilean region Antofagasta has plenty of attractions for a wide variety of activities. Whether you want to spend some time on the local beaches, climb the second highest peak outside Asia Nevado Ojos del Salado (6 893m), check out some of the region’s deserts of National Parks, there’s a lot to explore in this diverse province. For more details, please see Wikivoyage‘s page here, in case you were interested.
Republic of Argentina
Well, and your fourth alternative is a radical change of scenery because the International Airport in Salta can get you pretty much anywhere in the country in no time for few bucks (literally). So whether it’s the charm of Buenos Aires, the mind-blowing Iguazú Falls, or even Patagonia, the choice is yours…
Traveller’s Guides to Chile and Argentina
For more complex information about both countries that include basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit, please click here for Argentina and here for Chile.