Taking a bus from San Pedro to Puerto de Iguazu takes around 31 hours with 3 changes, which we were not interested in. So we decided it was a good opportunity to see a bit of Argentina to wedge in a few stops between, but we needed to figure out how to manage it without spending too much money or adding more hours onto the trip. Luckily the Juyjuy region in Northern Argentina is home to the most colourful and interesting mountains, beautiful quaint clay brick villages, delicious red wine and mouthwatering steaks, this part of the world would be somewhere I could stay for a while… If it wasn’t so cold!
San Pedro to Tilcara: 3 days in the north of Argentina exploring the painted mountains of Juyjuy
Set at at over 2,200 metres above sea level the landscape of this region is a mixture of dry stoney desert and volcanic mountains all dotted with huge cactuses, hardy shrubs, tall poplar and weeping willows who’d all dropped their leaves in the cold. In this part of Argentina, being so close to Bolivia, there is a large native Ando-Indian community and the traditions from the Andes are still felt. What’s completely different from Bolivia, however, is the standard and quality of the food, which is also reflected in the price. Meat in Bolivia was like a tough old shoe, practically inedible. Here the steak is as good as they say, it melts in your mouth and comes medium to well done “punto”, or you can order it pink “juguso”. The red wine is also amazing, the most popular regional grape is the malbec but the tempranillo is found a bit lower and is still very cheap; and is my personal favourite! While in the Jujuy region we visited 3 small towns, because the small towns are all built using the clay from the mountains they look as though every building has been painted using the backdrop as its pallet. This is truly a spectacular part of the world and I would highly recommend a stop here for at least 3 or 4 days.
We decided to base ourselves in Tilcara, a dusty dramatic mixture of traditional desert farm life fused with the new school artsy hotels and delectable restaurants, making it a popular choice as a spot to crash while exploring the region. The choice to stay here was made easier when we found a lovely Airbnb complete with a kind and friendly host for 340 Argentinian Pesos ($33aud) per night including traditional Argentinian breakfast (which was a great deal). From here it is easy to catch local buses to explore the surrounding towns and sumptuous burnt terracotta landscapes.
To get here however, the bus from San Pedro to Purmamarca was a bum numbing 7 hours. Leaving at 9.45am (45 minutes late) and arriving at 5.30pm Chilean time (+1hr to Argentinian time) including one freezing cold, high altitude border crossing thrown in for good measure. The journey can only be done during the day and bus companies alternate days so there is only one bus per day. Although it was long the journey is very beautiful, taking in blue ice lakes and passing through large salt flats. I’d definitely reached my limit of bus hours by the time we arrived… then we ended up waiting for over an hour in Purmamarca in the freezing cold for the next bus to Tilcara.
Luckily, we arrived to a warm home and a friendly smile, our Airbnb host Mika had even called the bus company to make sure we hadn’t been snowed in. After defrosting in a hot shower we decided to call it a night and enjoy tomorrow refreshed instead of battling back out to find dinner. We spent a couple of days exploring Tilcara, there is an old native settlement you can visit called the Pucara de Tilcara. We walked to get there and enjoyed the path, through the wild west feeling town and crossing a fabulous old iron bridge. We managed to make friends with a charismatic black dog who kept asking us to throw stones for her to fetch and joined us to wander through the Pucara. Dogs in Argentina are left to do their own thing during the day even though they have owners, it’s good in some ways but can also be a little intimidating when you run into a territorial pack.
The Pucara is a pre-Inca settlement and is thought to have been inhabited from 10,000 years ago. Strategically placed to defend the area the village mainly consisted of little houses with doors and no windows as well as corals for the animals and multiple ceremony areas. Excavations began as early as 1908 by pioneering archeologists Juan Bautista Ambrosetti (1865–1917) and his student, Salvador Debenedetti (1884–1930).
While we had a nice day wandering in the winter sun we thought the site itself was a little over priced at 60 pesos ($5.30aud) for entry. Perhaps this is because we had been spoilt for ruins in Peru, but also because the archeologists who were working here had decided to rebuild everything, and there was actually a monument built over the top of the original town square in a style un-related to the site, honouring the original archeologists. But I guess it could also be experienced in a positive light as a nice example of the evolution of archeology.
We also took a walk to the Gargantua del Diablo which is another beautiful wander and takes a couple of hours round trip, or longer if you take a picnic to enjoy at the bottom of the canyon. The walk takes you up through the picturesque mountains and past little houses, then at the top you are treated to a view down a deep, dark canyon. From here you can take the steps down into “The Devils Throat” and wander through the gorge to find a small waterfall. It’s especially serene around dusk.
We eventually went back to Purmamarca after a couple of days because it can’t be missed. This picturesque little village is famed for its “cerro de la siete colores” Or hill of seven colours, and in fact it sits nestled at its foot. The reds and oranges smeared through the hill lend their shades to the adobe mud houses, giving the entire pueblo an orange tinted Neapolitan ice cream appearance. We really loved wandering up through the village, taking the track around behind the hill amongst the cacti and other beautiful painted mountains.
Purmamarca has become very popular with tourists so there are plenty of craft stalls brimming with brightly coloured textiles and hand painted pottery. A lot of the stuff on the street is the same we’d seen in Bolivia only more expensive, but inside the shops were more unique (and even more expensive) pieces. There are also a few nice restaurants, we ordered a 50 peso ($5aud) menu of the day from a little restaurant tucked in an open shopping court and ended up with a delicious meat ball stew and vegetable soup. Argentina is heavily influenced by the Italian settlers so pastas and gnocchi are common place on most menus through the country.
Another day we took a bus to Cahamarca, which is another town a bit bigger than Humahuarca and Tilcara, but no less pretty. It has a fantastic monument to the native indians who fought in the war of independence against the conquistadors. One of the guide books dubbed it “invasive” which I suppose has something to do with the fact it’s a giant scene of muscled naked men on horse back.
There is also a cute church in the town square who puts on a little show at 1pm. Although it’s not very exciting it’s a big crowd puller, a little figurine of a priest comes out holding a cross to a lovely little tune. There is also a market here along with other restaurants selling delicious regional cuisine. We ate at a little traditional Inca influenced restaurant, I had the malinesa de queso (crumbed cheese steak) and Steve had the Llama stew. Both were very warming and flavoursome and the total bill came to 350 pesos ($34aud) for both of us including tips and drinks.
Tilcara to Salta: One night in the big smoke
Salta is only 4.5 hours from Tilcara on a bus costing 170pesos ($16aud) Buses leave 3 times a day 3am, 12pm and 3pm. We felt that Salta was really just another city, it has a pretty main square as well as a few lovely colonial buildings. One thing I noticed was how nostalgic it was to see shop windows with organised displays for the 1st time since leaving home but that’s about it. We were hoping to visit the MAAM – Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana de Salta but we were there on a Monday, the day the museum is closed. Apparently it’s home to 2 of the best preserved frozen child mummies in the world.
Instead we rode the teleferico to the lookout for 75 pesos ($7.50aud) each. At the top you are treated to a view out over the city, they have a lovely water feature you can wander around and it’s a very popular spot for groups of school kids to visit. We wandered back down the hill along the beautiful forested path.
Afterwards we found an amazing vegan restaurant called Chirimoya (Espana 211, Salta 4400) and ate ourselves sick. The best Lasagne and banana cacao smoothies I’ve ever had! Presentation was an 11/10 and the service was on point and only cost 175 pesos ($17aud) each. This for me was the highlight of our Salta trip! We also had our shoes shined by a young man I thought was lovely, until his homophobia and obsession with guns became apparent. As it turned out by the tender age of 23 he’d already managed to have 3 kids and had served time in the clink. So we paid him the 70 pesos ($7aud) for the 2 shoe shines and got outta there. It’s always interesting the people you meet. We chose to stay at the Hostel la Posta, which was lovely.
Salta to Corrientes: Chillaxin’ by the river
Corrientes is the capital of the Corrientes region and to get here we took an overnight bus from Salta which left at 8pm and arrived at 8am and cost 1000 pesos each ($97aud). Our ticket said Resistencia, which was a little confusing until we realised that this is the twin city and is literally across the river. When researching accomodation options for Corrientes everything came up super expensive so we decided to wing it and figure it out when we got there. This was a massive fail as we ended up choosing the worst possible hostel across the road from the bus terminal. This place was by far the worst and most expensive place we have stayed yet! The sheets were ripped, the toilet was broken, it was dark and the walls were stained… The place was literally falling apart and set us back a whopping 400 pesos ($39aud) which is amongst the more expensive places we’ve stayed!
We dropped our bags and took a bus into town which is very easy as the buses say centro on them. However once on the bus the drivers don’t take cash so you need someone that has a card to buy your ticket. We didn’t have any problems with this, everyone was very friendly and we had the 5 pesos each in correct change. The town is quite nice, there is not a lot here and we struggled to find a restaurant that opened before 9pm but the Plaza 25 de Mayo is lovely. We also later popped into the Hostel Corrientes (Buenos Aires 508, Corrientes) which would have been our 1st choice. The place was only 450 pesos per night for a double room with wifi, private bathroom and breakfast, so that really rubbed in the fail of choice on accomodation! The best part about Corrientes is the river, there are little food trucks set up along the walkway selling burgers and beers so this is where we hung out for the majority of our time here. Eating bad food and sipping beers while watching the locals exercising off their “Media Luna”. In Argentina the eating habits are very hard to get used to. They don’t eat dinner until around 10pm so at 6pm when we are getting hungry for our supper they are having their mid evening snack. This means the only food spots you’ll find open at our dinner time are cafes selling pastries and buttery toasted sandwiches (which are pretty tasty). It was interesting crossing over into Brazil how the body types changed so dramatically, from round to slim and toned just by crossing an imaginary line!
From Corrientes the bus to Puerto de Iquazu cost 745 pesos ($72aud) each, leaving at 9pm and arriving at around 6am. So, all in all, we really enjoyed Tilcara and Juyjuy. Salta was OK and Corrientes was OK. I wouldn’t recommend more than a night at each of those cities, but we much preferred that over taking a 20+ hour bus in one hit!