Travellers to South America often overlook North West Argentina, but it’s a place that richly rewards the traveller. It’s a cliché to describe scenery as stunning and rainbow-hued, so forgive me for labelling it as such. For once, though, the description is accurate. Travel north from Jujuy to the Bolivian border and you pass through the UNESCO-listed Quebrada de Humahuaca. The road snakes through a cleft in the landscape flanked with hills. Each slope is pleated into the kind of shapes that wouldn’t look out of place in a fabric warehouse, albeit one messed up at the end of sale day.
North West Argentina – Stunning Scenery
An artist’s palette of colours
The faulted hills that characterise North West Argentina occur as the result of ancient tectonic shifts in the rock. Over the centuries they’ve been weathered and eroded into the shapes you see today. The soft sedimentary rock is easily eaten away during the rare storms that hit this part of the country. But it’s the colours of the different strata that draw the crowds, from creamy white to rich burgundy and everything in between – ochres, terracottas, chestnut and charcoal.
Hike the Hill of Seven Colours
As the light changes, so too does the intensity of colour, rewarding those who devote more than a fleeting stop. One of the most charming places in North West Argentina is without question the village of Purmamarca. It nestles beneath the Cerro de los Siete Colores, or the Hill of Seven Colours. If you can drag yourself away from the delightful main square with its whitewashed adobe chapel and artisan market, there’s a wonderful loop hike to be had. A few kilometres in length, the Paseo de los Colorados is best walked in the morning. By lunchtime, strong winds can detract from your enjoyment of the view. If you wish to see the salt flats at Salinas Grandes, this is the point where you’ll leave the main highway and head over the mountains to reach them.
Base yourself in Tilcara
Further north, amidst arid landscapes punctuated by giant cacti you’ll pass the distinctive zig zag formations of the rocks at Maimará. A short distance further on, you reach the town of Tilcara. This is most people’s base in the area, with more restaurants and accommodation options than elsewhere along the route. On the edge of town you’ll find the ruined Pucará de Tilcara, one of the pre-Inca fortifications that litter the valley. As late as the 1950’s, archaeologists rebuilt structures without accurate knowledge of how they would have looked in the past. Despite this, it’s still worth exploring and the botanical garden at the foot of the hill is a reminder of the aridity of the landscape in which it sits.
The spectacular Serrania de Hornocal
Humahuaca’s also a popular stopping off point on this route through North West Argentina. Crowds flock to its main square at noon when a figure emerges from inside the tower atop the cabildo. San Francisco Solano makes the sign of the cross before retreating back inside his town hall abode. The crowd disperses quickly, melting away into the town’s atmospheric cobbled streets. Not far from the town you’ll find the jagged “teeth” of the Serranía de Hornocal, another spectacularly faulted rock formation. Its colours are most vivid in the late afternoon, leaving you with plenty of time for a long leisurely lunch in Humahuaca before you depart.