Backpacking in Salta and Jujuy Argentina

Posted By Brie Austin In Category: In Search Of , Travel

Backpacking in Salta and Jujuy Argentina was Kena’s idea.  She was a young, beautiful, adventurous Colombian that I had met when I first moved to Business Aires in April 2004.  It was now August and she and I became roommates; sharing a turn of the century three bedroom apartment in the old neighborhood of Monserrat.  When she said “let’s go for a travel,” we decided on the northwest of the country — Salta, Jujuy and Cafayate.  I said I would check the airfares. “Noooo, we go by omnibus!” she snapped.

Kena and Brie in Salta

Growing up in New York in the 1960s, the word bus conjured up visions of Greyhound, and the thought of traveling twenty-plus hours overland did not inspire me.

“Are you sure? I asked.  “Absolumente!” she replied.

She had been traveling on her own since she was fifteen, and at the ripe old age of twenty-one had become a seasoned backpacker; traveling light and on the cheap.

I too had traveled as a kid, but only by car with my parents until at sixteen made my first overseas trip to Italy and Austria — accompanied by a gaggle of chaperons and my high school ski club.

By the time I started traveling on my own I was in my twenties, married, and going to exotic locations like Acapulco and an assortment of Caribbean destinations, but always staying in four and five star accommodations.  I had never even considered traveling by bus, ever!

Backpacking in Salta and Jujuy Argentina

Not only were we going to travel by bus, she insisted, but also informed me that I needed a proper backpack after watching me — in disbelief — begin packing my rolling suitcase.

“What is that?”

“My suitcase.”

“Not with me it’s not.”

We departed from the Omnibus terminal in Retiro,  neighborhood of Buenos Aires; the one-way ticket was $30 each.  The over-the-road buses in Argentina were not what I expected: they were spacious, comfortable and accommodating (I’ve since traveled to many places in the country via bus).  Also, the overland bus system in Argentina, I would soon discover, is about the only thing that actually runs on time.

Al & Kena on the stone-stepped trail to the summit in Salta, Argentina

We reserved seats with Flecha Bus. It was categorized as a semi-cama (semi-bed) bus. It didn’t open in a fully horizontal bed, but was comfortable enough,, and we would be stopping for food breaks along the way and able to stretch.  .

In the mid-twentieth century, before the completion of the U.S. Interstate highway system, most overland buses in the United States took travelers through a myriad of small towns and depot stops along the way.   Our trip to Salta was reminiscent of that; large portions of the Interstate highway — that ran north to south in Argentina — was still under construction, requiring the buses to travel hours on small paved, and dirt, roads.Our bus snaked through small villages along the way, yielding an interesting and unexpected look at rural life in Argentina.

During our first dinner stop at a cafeteria-styled roadside restaurant outside of Rosario, Kena and I befriended Al, an English soldier that had just retired from the army after a 10-year tour of duty in Ireland. We hit it off, and he and I chatted the remainder of the ride to Salta.

But like any good adventure, the unexpected happened: the bus broke down. We were stranded on the side of the road without heat, enduring the cool early-morning hour air. A replacement bus arrived, five hours later.

Unlike Buenos Aires, which is an integrated first-world cosmopolitan city of thirteen million, Salta is just the opposite; a second-world city of half a million, with well-preserved colonial Spanish architecture, a culture that was regionally-driven, and its indigenous roots clearly on display.

Dancers in Salta restuarant

like every town in Central or South America, there was a town square adorned by a large Church. We passed by walking  along Avenida Buenos Aires in search of a place to stay. We had no reservations, but found a clean charming hostel/ hotel owned by a nice woman from Spain. They had a room with three beds. We took it.  It cost us $10 peso (about US$2.50) each, per night.

The square was electric with excitement and entertainment that night. It was Pachamama, an annual celebration of Mother Earth that begins on August 1st, and then continues every weekend during the month.

After watching some of the performers, we turned left and walked along Caseros —  about four blocks, made a right turn and walked another four or so until we stumbled upon a sort of restaurant row for locals; they didn’t seem to be catering to tourists, though I’m sure that some, like us, found their way there too.

We chose a rustic place with a live band; it had a strong Bolivian influence in its decor, as well as folk dancers that performed at

Locals providing us a ride, food and blankets

scheduled times throughout the night.

We ordered regional dishes; Kena and Al ordered Locro (a hearty thick stew popular among the Andes mountain range), while I ordered a baby goat stew called Cazuela de Cabrito, and we all shared empanadas (small meat pies) and a few bottles of white wine: it was all amazingly good; the Salta province is well known for its white wine production.

There is a small mountain at the edge of town, and the next day we decided to explore it. There was a gondola that ran between the base and summit, but we opted instead to hike up the stoned-step trail.

It took about an hour, but wasn’t too rigorous. The summit provided a restaurant with a view of the city, as well as a grouping of tables selling an assortment of local arts and crafts. We all bought something small and easy to carry.

For our descent, we again opted to forgo the gondola and followed the long winding road.   We attempted to hitch-hike, but the only vehicle that passed was going up.  He stopped.

The driver inquired where we were headed. Kena, our designated Spanish-speaker, told them “To the nature reserve.”

The village of Humahuaca

It was only a few miles from the base, and the driver said that  “My son and I are going to the summit for a coffee, and then heading back to town; if you want to have a quick coffee with us, we’d be happy to drop you at the reserve on the way back.”

So we piled into the back seat of the expensive pickup, had coffee at the summit, engaged in conversation; we learned about the wealthy cattle ranchers of Salta, some regional history and points of interest.

Thirty minutes later we were standing at the entrance of the reserve waving as they drove off.  There was a rustic wooden restaurant that straddled a running brook. It was peaceful and serene; we ate lunch surrounded the quiet of nature.

As the sun began to set and the cool night air began to move in, we paid our check, and headed to the bus depot in the park.  The last bus out of the park had left!

We were told that if we walked two kilometers we could catch a city bus.  We didn’t walk far when it occurred to us that we had a young, pretty, Colombian girl with us, who promptly stuck out her thumb.

When a pickup stopped, we climbed into the back. The mother, father and their youngest child sat in the cab; their daughter — about twelve years old –, her friend, her brother — about fifteen –, and his friend sat in the pickup bed with us.

The truck started to move and the cold air became chillingly apparent (see photo further above). Within seconds the generosity of the teenagers was overwhelming; they began offering us blankets and food.  It was one of those great moments you can only experience when your travel is dictated by spontaneity instead of a stringent itinerary.

Salta is well-known for the El Tren a las nubes (Train to the clouds,  see photos), a 217 kilometer trip that ascends to 4,200 kilometers above sea-level; crossing 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 2 spirals, and 2 zigzags. Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t operating while we were there. So we rented a car instead and headed north into Jujuy Province, the most northwestern province in Argentina. It borders both Chile to the west and Bolivia to the north, and is known for having many indigenous villages along the desert roads.

I drove the Pugoet 205 with urgency through the mountains that had hair-pin curves without guardrails; so narrow in places that all I could do was lean on the horn and listen for a response, hoping not to hear one.

Our plan was to travel to the furthest point first and then work our way back.  Humahuaca, which took hours to reach, was a cultural shock to first-world westerners; immediately revealing all that we have and take for granted, while at the same time equally humbling: the kids were happy, engaged and content. It’s a village of 11,000 people, though one gets the impression that there were much less: I would have guessed 1-2,000.

We walked throughout the village, though the only point of interest was the large church in the town square, and with the desert heat making us dizzy, it was time to head back to the car.  The village was interesting, but I would suggest a bit far for the total experience of it.

Along the desert road back we next stopped at Tilcara, which again was small, yet had almost an artsy-bohemian air about it. The crafts fair at the center of the village was enjoyable, though it didn’t take long to see everything there too, and again we were on our way.

As the sun set, the desert road was dark.  We pulled to the shoulder and shut the lights, amazed at the unending array of stars that can rarely, if ever, be seen from the major cities of the world anymore.  Breathtaking!

Driving further I decided to stop for two hitchhikers I spotted on the road: it was a ‘good-Karma’ thing I explained to Al and Kena. Our riders were from Spain, obvious from the “th” sound when they said “Graci(th)as upon getting in.

Mountain (or Hill) of the Seven Colors

They were headed to Purmamarca,which in Aymara (a language of the Andes peoples) means ‘desert city’, or ‘town of the virgin land.’ It was about two kilometers off the main main road, with the turn off about five kilometers ahead.  We agreed to drop them there.

The detour was the most profound of our travel: Purmamarca is the location of El Montana de los Siete Coloras (Mountain of the Seven Colors).  As we rounded the bend it was starring us in the face and was one of the most majestic sights I’d ever seen (the photo does it no justice).

Another spontaneous detour with a great result!  Of the several places we visited in Jujuy, this is the one I’d recommend: it’s got indigenous culture, the mountain for spectacle, and is hours closer to Salta than the others.

I was starting to really dig this free-form traveling thing!

(See more photos here)

Next, onto to Cafayate >>


About Brie Austin

Co-author of I'd Do It Again, he is a columnist/reporter for a variety of magazines in the areas of music, lifestyle, nightlife, travel and business. He also writes business documents and creates copy for websites.

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