The Painter's Palette: road trip from Salta to the Quebrada de Humahuaca
Over one week, we road tripped from the city of Salta into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a mountainous landscape located in the Jujuy region of northern Argentina. We packed our worn-out suitcases into a worn-out Chevy and drove up into the Argentinian Andes, following the Paleta del Pintor—the painter’s palette. Its name couldn’t be more perfect, as the small towns along the way are surrounded by enormous mountains with the most unbelievable strokes of colour.
The scenic ravine also follows a significant cultural route, the Camino Inca. The route has been recognised with UNESCO world heritage status as a crucial passage for the transport of people and ideas from the high Andean lands to the plains over many centuries.
The landscapes and towns lining our drive were unlike anything we’d seen before, and were some of the highlights of the 6 months that we’d been travelling.
This post includes information and driving routes for 7 of the best destinations in the area: Salta, Tilcara, Purmamarca, Humahuaca, Iruya, Cafayate and Cachi. While there are some public transport options available, these are best explored by car.
Starting in Salta
The easiest way to reach many areas of northern Argentina is to take a direct flight from Buenos Aires to Salta, which takes roughly 2 hours. You can then hire a car in Salta and start the road trip from there, with many interesting destinations within driving distance of both the north and south of the city.
Salta is a colourful city of 2 million people and possibly just as many neo-classical churches. Before heading up into the mountains, we’d really recommend spending a few days in the city itself, taking in its elaborate architecture and visiting the Museum of High Altitude and Archaeology.
The exhibit in Salta’s Museum of High Altitude took eight years to prepare and now houses Incan artifacts from the highest archaeological site in the world. It’s centred around the burial sanctuaries of Los Niños—the Children of Llullaillaco.
In 1999, the remains of three children were found near the summit of a 6,739m volcano in the Andes between Chile and Argentina. They are believed to have been ritually sacrificed 500 years ago (c. 1500), and, as a result of the extreme dry and cold conditions on the Atacama mountainside, have been perfectly preserved ever since.
If you have time while in Salta, you can also take the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds). The trains take a full day to travel up into the Andes, ascending to 4,220 metres before crossing La Polvorilla, a huge viaduct which spans across a desert canyon. Unfortunately the track wasn’t running while we were there, but in certain conditions the bridge literally looks as though it is suspended above the clouds.
Leaving the city, we followed a desert road lined with cacti to our favourite place in the area, Purmamarca. This town has long been an economic and cultural crossroad, and is still home to a large group of artisans. The adobe buildings are surrounded by the most vibrant mountain range, and filled with equally as colourful textiles and pottery in Plaza 9 de Julio.
Legend has it that when Purmamarca was first built, it was surrounded by a dull, unimpressive landscape. The children decided to decorate the mountains one week, disappearing each night to add a new colour. Now, the town is wrapped in a hill of seven colours—the Cerro de los Siete Colores. The first glimpse of these hills is unforgettable, and we found ourselves coming back several times as the light changed throughout the day.
We’d recommend driving into Purmamarca in the morning when the sun is directly on the hills. Then, follow a 3km hiking trail, the Camino de los Colorados, to watch the colours change at every turn.
Only half an hours’ drive north of Purmamarca is the dusty town of Tilcara, where you’ll find a botanical garden filled with huge native cacti. We hired an Airbnb in Tilcara and used the town as a base to explore the northern area over several days.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca region still shows major trade routes that have been used for the past 10,000 years, including traces of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities, of the Inca Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, and of the fight for independence through the 19th and 20th centuries.
Tilcara is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Argentina, and just outside of the town is Purcará de Tilcara, a pre-Inca fortification (or pukara) and an Andean culture museum. The ancient ruins were built in the 12th century by the Omaguaca tribe, and were strategically positioned on the hills.
Humahuaca is located around three and a half hours’ drive north of Salta. One of the highlights in the area is the El Hornocal Peak (maps: Mirador Hornocal o Cerro De 14 Colores). There are some places in that seem to take your breath away, but this one very literally did.
Even though we’d been driving vertically for around 2 hours, we were so focused on the narrow and jagged road that we didn’t realise it had climbed to 4700m. Making our way back to the car from this lookout was tough. The low oxygen and steep hill had us heaving for air, and we didn’t do ourselves any favours by trying to race the setting sun. But it was worth every second we were there.
We had planned to stay in Iruya for a few nights, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it because of the rain. The road to Iruya is probably the most dangerous in the area. It’s a long, windy, dirt road on the side of a mountain, about 50km long, with rivers flowing over some sections. When it rains, it becomes impassable as the water is too risky to drive through.
It’s a good idea to check the road conditions with the local information centres in Tilcara or Humahuaca before starting the 2.5hr drive from Humahuaca to Iruya. There is also a bus you can take from Humahuaca to Iruya that is able to pass the rivers (even in the rain) if you are concerned with driving.
The drive offers some of the most spectacular views in the area, with the town itself placed on a dramatic mountainside.
Cafayate and Cachi
There is a circuit to the south of Salta which loops through the towns of Cafayate and Cachi. It’s at least 10 hours of driving (detailed in the section below), so we recommend taking at least 2 days to properly enjoy the sites.
The first two hours of the drive from Salta to Cafayate are not as scenic as the painter’s palette in the north, however afterwards, you will find some incredible rock formations such as El Anfiteatro (the Ampitheatre) and El Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat). The rest of the drive to Cafayate through the Qubrada de las Conchas ravine is filled with rich reds, and you can also stop at Los Castillos (the Castles), a unique cliff face that is particularly dramatic at sunset.
Cachi is a town known for its wine, and on your way back to Salta you can visit the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a vast national park filled with giant cacti and condors.
Driving in Argentina’S Quebrada de Humahuaca
Hiring a car
You can hire a car either at the airport or in downtown Salta. We used the Rentalcars website to make a booking with O’carrol, and they were great with us, especially given the language barrier. You can also find the usual car rental companies like Hertz, Avis and Budget in the city.
We drove a Chevrolet Prisma and it worked out well, even on the off-road terrain. It cost USD$430.17 for a 7 day hire. If you want a cheaper car, driving a manual is your best shot—an automatic will set you back almost double because the fleets are often more modern cars and in better condition than the manuals.
You should do a thorough check of the condition of your car and make note of all damages with the rental representative, including a check of the spare tyre. If you’re driving north, the nice, paved roads will eventually disappear and turn to loose rock, so it’s no surprise that we popped two tyres in the course of a week.
The painter’s palette driving route
You can use one of the three main towns, Purmamarca, Humahuaca or Tilcara, as a base to explore the region. Driving to them from Salta is fairly straightforward. There are two options, either:
follow RN 9 the whole way (about 3.5 hrs); or
leave Salta on the RN 9, turn onto RN 34, then onto 66, and follow 66 until it rejoins with RN 9 (about 2hrs 45 mins).
The southern driving route
The Salta, Cafayate, Cachi loop is best explored over at least 2 days:
From Salta, follow RN 68 to Cafayate (about 3 hours);
drive from Cafayte to Cachi via RN 40 (about 3.5 hours);
loop back to Salta from Cachi via RN 33 (just over 3 hours).
The roads leading up to the towns are completely paved, though not always sealed. The roads in towns themselves are sometimes paved, but other times gravel or uneven rocks, and the roads going up into the mountains are basically just loose rock.
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