Quebrada de Humahuaca
North of Jujuy, the memorable Quebrada de Humahuaca snakes its way upward toward Bolivia. It’s a harsh but vivid landscape, a dry yet river-scoured canyon overlooked by mountainsides whose sedimentary strata have been eroded into spectacular scalloped formations revealing a spectrum of colors in undulating waves.
Argentina’s second center for quality wine production, Cafayate is a popular tourist destination but still has a tranquil small-town feel. It’s spectacularly scenic, with the green of the vines backed by soaring mountains beyond, and is one of northwest Argentina’s most seductive destinations.
Of the trinity of northwestern cities, San Salvador de Jujuy (or simply Jujuy) lacks Salta's colonial sophistication or Tucuman's urban vibe and is often bypassed by travelers. Nevertheless, it has a livable feel, enticing restaurants and is the most culturally indigenous of any of Argentina’s cities.
Truly the end of the line, La Quiaca is 5171km north of Ushuaia, and a major crossing point to Bolivia. It’s a cold, windy place that has decent places to stay, but little to detain you. After leaving the Quebrada de Humahuaca, paved RN 9 passes through Abra Pampa, a forlorn windy town 90km north of Humahuaca, and climbs through picturesque and typical altiplano landscapes.
Little Purmamarca, 3km west of the highway, sits under celebrated Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), a spectacular, jagged formation resembling the marzipan fantasy of a megalomaniac pastry chef. The village is postcard-pretty, with ochre adobe houses and ancient algarrobo trees by the bijou 17th-century church.
Parque Nacional Calilegua
This accessible, beautiful, biodiverse park stretches up the Serranía de Calilegua range to peaks offering boundless views above the forest and across the Chaco to the east. The spectacular 22km road through the park ascends from 550m to 1700m, taking you through the three types of forest that characterize the park's different altitude layers and offering spectacular views.
Tren a las Nubes
The Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), Argentina’s most famous railtrip, heads from Salta down the Lerma Valley before ascending multicolored Quebrada del Toro, continuing past Tastil ruins and San Antonio de los Cobres, before reaching the trip’s highlight – a stunning viaduct spanning a desert canyon at La Polvorilla, 4220m above sea level.
San Antonio de los Cobres
This dusty mining town is on the puna 168km west of Salta, and over 2600m above it. It’s suffered since the deterioration of the region’s mining and associated railway, but is a typical highland settlement, with adobe houses, near-deserted streets and a serious temperature drop after sundown. It’s worth stopping in to get the feel of this facet of Andean life.
If you thought Cachi was laid-back, wait until you see Molinos, a lovely backwater with a collection of striking colonial buildings and beautiful adobe houses; a stroll through the streets will reveal some real gems. Molinos takes its name from the still-operational flour mill on the Río Calchaquí; its picturesque appeal is augmented by shady streets and good accommodations.
It’s not often that you imagine the heavenly hosts armed with muzzle-loading weapons, but in this roadside village’s fabulous 17th-century church that’s just what you see. A restored collection of Cuzco-school paintings – the ángeles arcabuceros (arquebus-wielding angels) – features Gabriel, Uriel et al putting their trust in God but keeping their powder dry.
There’s something magical about Iruya, a remote village just 50km from the main road but a world away in other respects. It makes a great destination for a few days for proper appreciation of the Quebrada de Humahuaca region away from the highway. There's some epic hiking around the town. The journey is worthwhile in itself.