Aside from the deep love of yerba mate that steeps within the hearts of all who live on the Río de la Plata Basin, the remote northwesterly corner of Argentina seems to share little else in common with the rest of the country. The tall stacks of explosively bright textiles on display in every village market and terra cotta cazuelas of simmering llama stew all hint at Jujuy’s closer connection to bordering Bolivia than to the distant avenidas of Buenos Aires.
European immigrants never flocked en masse to this part of the continent, preferring instead the coastlines and windswept plains to the east and south of Argentina. Perhaps it’s because at first glance, Jujuy looks inhospitable. Shades of scarlet, crimson, amber, and carmine dominate the horizons as far as the eyes can see. But drive along the Quebrada de Humahuaca—the narrow mountain valley carving down the length of the province—and bit by bit, stunning hues of emerald, aquamarine, and life will begin to show themselves. Jujuy is a land forged by four forces: yungas, valles, puna, and quebrada. Hiding hot springs, rainbow mountains, and slithering trails underneath a vast, red cloak, it has all the ingredients needed to inspire the next great South American road novel.
Take the waters at the hot springs of the yungas
At the gateway of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, hidden away in the lush cloud forests of the subtropical ecoregion known as the yungas, the hotel and spa of Termas de Reyes have certainly seen more glamorous times. With faded upholstery and the conservative aesthetics of a Soviet-era sanatorium, the mountain retreat feels like an old spirit wistfully clutching on to bygone memories of glitzy banquets and grandiose guests. The antiquated establishment would most likely be all but forgotten if not for its hyperthermal springs. Emerging from the ground at temperatures of over 40°C, the mineral-rich water is drawn into twelve private bathing rooms, each with an intimate panoramic view of sloping hillsides. Along with the heated turquoise oasis of the Río Jordán, the natural hot springs of Termas de Reyes are one of Jujuy’s lesser-known but most beatific wonders.
Explore the terrene villages of the valles
Leaving the fertile canopies of the yungas behind, new environs loom into view. The dried-out riverbed of the Río Grande begins to blend into a dun-colored backdrop. The mist, and along with it its hazy magic, banished by an effervescent sun. Wherever a little water flows, fluvial strokes of green liven up the valley with a brush of cottonwood or Peruvian pepper, although they too eventually become more and more sparse.
This area, the valles, once part of a vast Inca Empire, is today one of only a handful of places in Argentina still hanging on to an indigenous identity. Just like the name Jujuy—itself derived from the Quechuan xuxuyoc, a title conferred upon selected Incan functionaries—many of the surrounding towns and villages bear names of local origin. There is touristy pit stop Purmamarca—from the Aymara words purma, meaning “desert”; and marca, meaning “city”—where sun-dried mountains and windy corridors make their home and where the Route 52 splits from the Río Grande and speeds off toward the heights of the salt flats. Further upriver is minute Maimará, meaning “falling star” in the extinct Omaguacan language. Here, the multicolored layers of the Paleta del Pintor watch over the village’s mystical pueblo-like cemetery like an ossified ether.
Out of all the settlements along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, laid-back Tilcara is perhaps the most charming of them all. Complemented by a convenient location in the middle of the valley, the town makes for an ideal stepping stone to exploring the cultural heritage and wild beauty of northwestern Argentina.
Just a few paces outside of town is the partially reconstructed Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Hispanic fortress that offers a rare peek into ancient American civilization. By the entrance, vendors sell a gamut of street foods and souvenirs: grilled tortillas stuffed with ham and cheese, sweaters knitted from the softest alpaca fleece, and maté gourds lined with nickel silver—confusingly also called “alpaca” in Spanish. In place of the traditional mighty cuts and barbecues that have put Buenos Aires on the culinary map, typical dishes from Jujuy’s cuisine remain true to the region’s resources and topography. Husk-wrapped humitas of sweet maize, onion, and tallow along with tamales jujeños filled with shredded meat and chili are simple but ever-popular choices on the dining tables. Platters of chuños, coal-tinted potatoes from the high plateaux, look as they’ve just been harvested from the freezing sub-zero grounds of the night before. Every restaurant boasts its own version of locro, a soul-stirring hominy and squash stew that has become part of Argentina’s national fare; in the Northwest, it is served with strips of llama meat. And not be left out is the beloved picante de pollo, a hearty and spicy chicken recipe passed down from the lakes and plains of Bolivia.
Climb the airy heights of the puna
Venture beyond the safety of civilization in the valles and Jujuy’s raw beauty will quickly captivate all attention. The hour-long drive from Purmamarca up to the salt flats of Salinas Grandes is nothing short of breathtaking—in every sense of the word. Tackling the winding curves of Cuesta de Lipán, every turn reveals a scenery more spectacular than the previous. But drivers be warned: at heights of over 4,000 meters, oxygen is thin. Stepping over a molehill can feel like scaling a mountain, and lightheadedness may come as a swift surprise to unsuspecting travelers.
It is advised by some, that those planning the spectacular journey out of the crevice of the quebrada should sip on a cup of coca tea before setting off. With none of the potent effects of its notorious derivative, the leaves of the coca plant are openly sold and consumed in transparent ivy satchels across Jujuy. Indigenous communities have been chewing coca for centuries. In addition to warding off the symptoms of altitude sickness, the leaves’ stimulating and numbing properties are used to overcome fatigue, hunger, thirst, and even pain. Whereas many countries prohibit the possession of coca, in this part of the world, it is as common as coffee. Many a jujeño can be seen carrying about his daily business while sucking on a golf-sized ball of coca pinched against the side of one cheek.
The arid highlands of Jujuy is known by many names. Locals refer to it simply as the puna, a treeless desert and extension of the Puna de Atacama. Others call it the Altiplano, Spanish for “high plain.” A landscape that epitomizes the middle of nowhere, the puna is a place of extremes. In an environment that seems hostile to life, it is a surprise to encounter the docile doe-eyed vicuña. With long necks, slender legs, and a calf-like curiosity, they are one of several camelids which call the High Plains home.
A less elusive resident and the star of the puna is the Salinas Grandes. Eclipsed by only Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, it is the world’s second largest salt flat. There used to be a lake where the great salt pan now rests, but that was eons ago. Long periods without rain led to the Salinas’ current incarnation: a sprawling honeycomb of chalky white, endlessly baking under the sun. The Qolla, an indigenous people of Jujuy, were the first to make use of the salt, which they transported over the hills to Tilcara on the backs of llamas. A journey which used to take three days, the same distance can now be covered in less than two hours by car.
Gaze at the fiery peaks of the quebrada
Driving further into the quebrada, a sequence of Venusian terrains mark the miles. Jagged rocks resembling devilish claws cede to tumbling desertscapes of Argentine saguaros. Between El Perchel and Huacalera, a band of green denotes the viñedos de altura, or high-altitude vineyards. By the congested streets of the colonial Humahuaca which gave the quebrada its name, the wrinkled crust of the earth hints at an inconceivable ancientness. And where road finally ends, twenty-five kilometers east, the pleated ridges of the Serranía de Hornocal wave back at its admirers in a bold display of copper, turmeric, and bile.
How to get to Jujuy
Direct flights to Jujuy (JUJ) depart weekly from Buenos Aires (AEP) with Norwegian Air and Aerolineas Argentinas. A one-way journey takes 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Where to stay in Jujuy
On Tilcara’s central Belgrano street, the rustic retreat of Gaia Habitaciones promises a good night’s sleep under the gaze of a giant centennial tree. Each of its five rooms is decorated after an element of nature and provides an ambient space to unwind after a long day on the road. Doubles start from approximately US $45 per night.
What to do in Jujuy
The Argentine Northwest is, without a doubt, best explored on wheels. However, there are a few things to keep in mind while driving around Jujuy in a rental car.
- Always keep headlights on: it is law in this part of Argentina, and cars driving without headlights will incur a hefty fine, or multa.
- Be prepared for a flat tire: car rental companies supply a spare wheel in the trunk; it’s best to brush up on how to replace a flat using a jack. Flat tires are frequent occurrences due to the rough conditions on some roads.
- Drive slowly when needed: roads leading to off-the-beaten-track destinations such as Serranía de Hornocal, Lagunas de Yala, and the Gargantuan del Diablo falls near Tilcara are mostly unpaved, which means driving long stretches over small rocks and sharp gravel. At times, cars will be reduced to 20-km per hour crawls.