Read my travelogue from the region here.
Camping in Salta and Jujuy, the two northernmost provinces of Argentina, is a great way to experience the region’s colourful rocky scenery and save your budget. Besides the natural beauty the region is famous for its rich history as part of the Inca Trail and the first colonized corner what was later to become Argentina. In Cafayate, southern Salta, Jesuit missionaries established Argentina’s first vineyard with cuttings from Chile and the small town remains famous for its torrontés, a sweet white wine that you can also enjoy as an ice cream sorbet. But we’ll get to all of that in a bit.
This is not a comprehensive and/or objective guide to the region – the lovely people at Rough Guide have got that pretty much covered. Rather, it’s a collection of random bits and bobs that you might find handy, especially now that Argentina’s skyrocketing prices pushed the “budget” section of most guidebooks firmly into midrange territory. Think of it as an online version of those scribbled notes you exchange with fellow travellers who are heading in the opposite direction.
Before we move on to the nitty-gritty logistics I will tell you the most important tip I have for you, and you should probably write it down: as soon as you find yourself in a supermarket in Salta, make sure to buy Dulce de Leche Campo Quijano and treat your tastebuds to a moment in heaven. It’s hands-down one of my favourite brands (and I’ve tried pretty much every brand I come across), and very difficult to get outside of Salta. You’re welcome.
Ok, now let’s move to the practicalities….
Most Argentinian cities have municipal campsites (camping municipal) and there are usually a number of private-owned ones (camping privado) to choose from as well. While these campsites (especially the municipal ones) used to be very cheap or even free, the steep price increase in all aspects of life in Argentina is now reflected here as well – expect to pay 100-150 ARS per night for two people. Even so, it is much more affordable than hostels, and you’ll get to meet a lot of Argentinians on a weekend escape and overland travellers in camper vans or on bicycles.
The quality differs widely, so make sure your camping ground has all the amenities you need before settling down for the night – all the camping sites mentioned here have shared toilets, hot showers and an overabundance of asados (grills), without which camping in Argentina is inconceivable.
If you want to do a lot of camping in Argentina the Solo Campings website is really useful, with listings of campsites organized by region.
For checking bus connections head over to http://www.omnilineas.com.ar/
Even though you can book long-distance buses online, I always find it’s a good idea to go to the station in person, since you can get special promotions that are not available online. This way we saved 700 ARS per person on the bus from Buenos Aires to Salta and got a hefty upgrade on the ride from Tucuman back to Buenos Aires.
If you’re studying at an Argentinian university you are entitled by law to a 20% discount on long-distance busses, though the procedure for getting it differs widely from place to place. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport and a photocopy of your Libreta universitaria or certificado de alumno regular, whatever those are. My university only ever gave me a student card, which had about a 50% success rate.
Once in Jujuy, there are many cheap local buses running the length of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, as well as the long-distance rides heading down to Salta or up to Bolivia.
If you’re heading from Salta to Cafayate keep in mind that the second half of the 4-hour ride goes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Argentina, so make sure you still have enough daylight! Our long day in transit meant that we drove the last hour in darkness, which was incredibly frustrating.
Once out of the big cities you can try hitch-hiking, though we didn’t have much luck with that – thought probably because we got to the side of the road too late and missed early-morning rush hour, after which there is very little traffic heading south of Cafayate. Other travellers we met on the way reported more luck.
Our 10-day itinerary – mostly made up as we went along – was as follows:
1: BsAs to Salta (night bus)
2: Salta (Cerra San Bernardo, eating lots of empanadas)
3: Bus to Purmamarca (via Jujuy)
4: Purmamarca – Paseo de los Colorados with lots of detours
5: Tilcara – Garganta del Diablo
6: Tilcara – day trip to Humahuaca
7: Tilcara – Jujuy – Salta – Cafayate (looong day of busses)
8: Cafayate – wine, strolling around, lazing about
9: Cafayate – see previous
10: Cafayate – Tucuman – night bus to Buenos Aires
As you can see it was a pretty relaxed trip – Originally we wanted to squeeze Mendoza in at the end, only realizing later that “just down south” in a country the size of Argentina means a full day in transit. (Coming from a country that’s three hours’ drive across the widest part still screws with my perception of distance sometimes)
If I were doing the same route again I would take the first night bus all the way to Jujuy and go straight to Tilcara from there. I would base myself in Tilcara (more below) for the entire stay in the area and visit Purmamarca on a day trip – it is only a half-hour/15 ARS ride on the local bus. I would then stop in Salta for a day on the way south to Cafayate and time my bus so Cafayate so I would see the beautiful Quebrada de Cafayate in the afternoon sun, rather than passing through some of the most beautiful countryside in Argentina in darkness (aghhh I’m still mad at myself for that).
Salta is the biggest city in the eponymous region. It’s a pleasant town for a day of sightseeing, but its main draw is as the jumping off-point to the surrounding areas. Many tourists who don’t fancy slumming it in tiny tents or local guesthouses base themselves in Salta and visit the region on day trips with a car. We spent a groggy afternoon there stretching our legs after the 23-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires and I reckon that was about enough.
Hostel 7 Duendes (Calle San Juan 189, Salta)
Dorm $130, breakfast included (with decent coffee!), hot showers, WiFi, close to the bus station.
There is a Camping Municipal in Salta on the south side of town, but after 23 hours on a bus we simply couldn’t face the thought of dragging ourselves to the edge of town, setting up our tent and then trudging back into the city centre for sightseeing.
Mercado Municipal San Miguel (San Martin 780, closed for siesta between 1:30 and 17h)
Public markets are always my first stop in the hunt for food, and this one doesn’t disappoint: there is a number of cheap eateries in the back, serving the usual array of empanadas, humitas, tamales, pizzas, soups (even a vegetable soup with no meat floating around, a real rarity in Argentina!)
There are also a couple of old ladies in the market selling cow and goat cheese at very good prices, and you can get fresh bread and the usual assortment of veggies and fruits.
Salta is famous for its empanadas, so if you feel like going for a long ramble around town with regular empanada feeding stops this blog’s got you covered.
If you want to clamber up Cerra San Bernardo for bragging rights and some decent views, walk to the statue of General Guemes and take the stairs behind it. After the chronic flatness of Buenos Aires province walking uphill can feel like a real treat. It’s a 40-minute walk up 1070 stone steps, with small chapels depicting the passion of Christ along the way. If you don’t think walking uphill feels like a real treat or you just ate too many empanadas you can also take the gondola to the top, for 150 ARS there and back (but then you don’t get the bragging rights).
Salta also boasts the most famous museum in the region, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM,) where the exhibition includes the three mummified Incan children.
Displaying dead children in fancy refrigerators is an ethically sticky undertaking at the best of times, and triggered protest and controversy at the opening of the exhibition, but since the museum is closed on Mondays the decision of not visiting the museum was made for me.
(Ditto for the Anthropological Museum, which was closed for renovation but is supposed to have a very interesting – and less controversial – exhibition on the indigenous cultures of the region)
QUEBRADA DE HUMAHUACA
Quebrada de Humahuaca is a narrow valley snaking towards Bolivia, carved out through the millennia by the Rio Grande which is little more than an ambitious stream in this stark rocky place. The Quebrada is famous for its colourful striped mountains fringed by cardón cacti and a rich cultural history as part of the Incan Trail. Being right next-door to Bolivia, it is the only area with a sizeable indigenous population in a country ethnically defined by European immigration.
Purmamarca is deservedly famous for its stunning surroundings, but the quaint little village caters almost exclusively to tourists, most of whom arrive by the busload in the morning on organized tours. That having been said, few of the day-trippers venture out of the village, and you can still spend a wonderful day exploring the craggy mountains around the Paseo de los Colorados.
Camping Casa Encantada de Bebo Vilte
75 ARS pp/night, just north of the church and south of the graveyard – it’s only creepy if you think about it too much. There is WiFi and hot water showers.
It’s a guesthouse that rents out rooms and relegates the campers to a small gravel courtyard. The owner is an extremely cantankerous old man who likes to skulk around looking for someone to tell off, and campers are not allowed to sit in the vast empty reception area or use the power outlets there. On the bright side, getting into passive-aggressive arguments with the man really motivated me to improve my Spanish!
The food prices reflect Purmamarca’s tourist-oriented economy. There is no local market and the best bet we found was a restaurant on Libertad that offered the daily menu for 65 ARS with very generous portions.
VIEWPOINT for Cerro de los Siete Colores is a little hill at the western edge of town with a 5ARS entrance fee.
PASEO DE LOS COLORADOS: follow the gravel road past the viewpoint. The loop takes perhaps an hour, but
there are many detours you can take if you have an adventurous spirit, sturdy shoes and enough water. If you’re staying in Purmamarca overnight it’s worth taking the walk in the morning and in the evening, to see the mountains in different light. At night the starry sky is spectacular if you walk a little out of the village.
The local bus from Purmamarca to Tilcara runs regularly from the early morning, costs 15ARS and takes about half an hour. Try sitting on the left side if you’re going in the early morning so you can see the first rays lighting up the mountains.
We got to Tilcara so early in the morning that everything was still closed, except for a small restaurant at the corner of the bus terminal (another couple of minutes’ walk from the road where the local bus will drop you off). I highly recommend going there for cheap drinkable coffee (an achievement in Argentina) and the company of what must be the furriest, cuddliest cat in the southern hemisphere.
Camping el Jardin (Belgrano 181 – the location on Google maps is wrong)
right by the (mostly dry) river and surprisingly green, with the added bonus of the friendly horses that are let out of their enclosure every afternoon to graze in the campsite. There are power plugs on all the lampposts, but no WiFi. (the el Jardin Hotel is right next-door, so you might be able to use their Wifi if you charm the staff)
Town market: There are plenty of supermarkets and restaurants in the centre of town, but as usual my favourite feeding spot was the town market, right by the main square.
There are a couple of food stalls to the left of the entrance – one lovely couple with steaming vats of home-cooked soups, stews, and the occasional pascualina (vegetarian spinach and egg quiche) and a stall selling delicious empanadas for 7ARS (make sure to try the cheese and quinoa option!).
The market closes in the early afternoon and turns into a basketball court/skate park/local hangout spot.
GARGANTA DEL DIABLO
The afternoon spent walking to the Garganta del Diablo and back was one of my favourite on this trip, so while you can drive to the viewpoint I would really recommend letting your legs propel you there instead.
Walk to the southern edge of town, where a large iron bridge crosses the river towards the Pucará de Tilcara (more on that later). Instead of crossing the bridge turn left and follow the gravel road. Soon you’ll get to a fork in the road with a sign for the Garganta del Diablo, and after that all you have to do is follow the trail and the occasional sign.
It takes around 1,5h to reach the viewpoint, where you pay a 15ARS entry fee and register into a visitor’s log before descending into the gorge and walking another 20 minutes to the waterfall. It could be that the waterfall is more impressive at other times of the year, but in October it was definitely the walk, rather than the waterfall at the end of it, that made this a nice day-trip.
Just below the viewpoint is what must be the best-maintained public toilet in Argentina (soap! Hand towals!) and besides the obvious toilet-related activities you can (and should! Altitude and hydration and all that) re-fill your water bottle there.
Pucará de Tilcara
Tilcara’s main tourist attraction is the pre-Incan fortification, or PUKARA, on a hill south side of town. It’s the only accessible archaeological site in Quebrada de Humahuaca, but it was swarming with people when we were there, so we skipped the visit. The entrance fee for foreigners is 100 ARS.
If you’re camping the shady green El Jardin camping is a better option than any of the campsites I saw in Humahuaca, so you can stay based there and visit for a day. It’s the biggest town in the area and an important trading centre for the people living there, but I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the place. It’s a 2 kilometre walk to Peñas Blancas (White Cliffs) for a nice view of the city and the surrounding area.
The biggest tourist attraction is the noontime appearance of San Francisco Solano’s statue from the clock tower of the city hall, though I watching the Argentine tourists watching it was more interesting than the saint’s half-hearted blessing itself.
Luz y Fuerza camping (Walk south down the main street, Av. General Güemes, past the city centre and past the Domingo Hermanos winery)
30 ARS per person + 50 ARS per tent
Run by the Luz y Fuerza worker’s syndicate, this was the cheapest and the best camping ground on this trip. Friendly staff, plenty of power plugs, little gazebos with tables and benches, and of course the omnipresent grills. There is even a tennis court and swimming pool, though both were closed when we were there, and a football pitch next-door with endless matches and re-matches every evening. It was all kept very clean, and the showers were piping hot. Once you pay for the night you’re covered till around 7pm the next day, so there’s no rush to get out in the morning.
And this is the view right across the street:
EAT (and drink!):
I’ve got three words for you: wine ice cream!
There are a couple of shops serving this glorious concoction on the main street, bu the original inventor is Miranda, who still sells her cabernet and Torrontes sorbets on Av. Gral. Güemes, just north of the city centre. Two scoops will get you nicely tipsy on a hot day and an empty stomach.
Just up the street from the camping ground is the winery Domingos Hermanos, where you can drop by for a wine-tasting. A cheaper option is el Transito in town, where a small tasting will set you back 20 ARS.
If you’re there in mulberry season you can feast on them as you stroll around town, just watch out for the tell-tale dark stains on the ground under the trees.
The market area is the best place to stock up on fruit, veggies and goat cheese. There you can also find one of the best-stocked supermarkets in town, with relatively fresh bread.
If you’re looking for a really cheap meal on the way to/from the bus station, look out for the red coca-cola wall on Güemes, opposite the petrol station – the small no-frills family restaurant serves daily menus for 45 ARS, but keep very unusual opening hours.
Activities in Cafayate include wine, wine, and more wine. Head over here for a list of wineries in easy walking distance from the city.
You can rent bicycles at a hostel at Güemes 178 for 250 ARS a day, or 200 ARS for half a day. There are a couple of other places around town, all with similar prices.
If you decide to rent bikes and are still sober enough to not drive them into a ditch you could cycle a part of the Quebrada de las Conchas or cycle/hike to a nearby waterfall. I spent most of my time in Cafayate lazing around and contemplating studying for midterms, but head over to this blog for all the info you need for a more adventurous experience of Cafayate.
(Or you can be a shameless hedonist like me and devote the time not spent swinging in a hammock with a book to hoarding snacks, and then eating them. Yum!)
I hope this was helpful, if you have any more questions or tips of your own let me know in the comment section!