3 impressive scenic routes around Salta in Argentina
After 3 weeks in San Salvador de Jujuy, we decided it was time to move again. Our goal was Cafayate, because we had discovered a Spanish school there where we thought to improve our language skills. As usual we were planning to avoid the highways and began with the Ruta 9 from Jujuy to Salta. From Salta we would drive first to Cachi along the provincial Ruta 33, and then follow the Ruta 40 to Cafayate.
One of the great things about the way we travel is that we often have no idea about the route we are taking. During our previous South American trip we had been to Salta and taken a round trip to Cafayate at that time – south to Cafayate then north to Cachi and from there back across to Salta – so we had actually travelled that part of Ruta 40 and the RP 33 before, but in the opposite direction.
Ruta Nacional 9
It was a much longer trip than we had thought, but totally stunning. It’s easy to forget, because of the altitude, that we are very close to the Tropic of Capricorn. Ruta 9 is a narrow road (some Dutch friends commented, when seeing a photo, that the road looked like a bike path in Holland!) which winds up to around 2500m through subtropical rainforest – it looked and smelt like home.
Initially, it was a pleasant drive with little traffic, but after we stopped for lunch the traffic increased. Unfortunately the drivers were typical of city people who head out to the country on a Saturday afternoon. They drive too fast and cut corners with no thought of who might be coming in the opposite direction. Sometimes they didn’t even slow down when they could see us approaching. It became quite stressful at times, and Juergen was exhausted at the end of the day because of it, but it was a truly delightful road. If we ever do it again, we would avoid the weekend!
As it descends towards Salta, the lushness vanishes somewhat. Salta provoked some memories, and we think it is a much more pleasant city than Jujuy. We did some shopping, and checked out the municipal campground where we had stayed last time. There were very few people there and we remembered the local discos from last time, so we filled with fuel on our way out of town towards the south. As it was getting late when we reached El Carril, the turnoff to Cachi, we pulled into a subdivision ‘wannabe’ and parked for the night.
Ruta Provincial 33
The next day we took the turn-off. At first we drove up into the rainforest again, and enjoyed the green. But, after a while we kept climbing up and up and got past the forest to be surrounded by more beautifully coloured mountains. The road through the Cuesta del Obispo was as serpentine as any we’ve driven, but thankfully, we were mostly driving with the drop on the driver’s side! The other drivers were very careful coming around blind corners, often stopping as soon as they saw us to give way.
As we got closer to the top, we found a place to stop and look back the way we had come. It continues to amaze me that roads like that are carved out of the mountains! It rose to 3400m, but we had little effect from the altitude. Either we are getting used to it, or it was because it was such a slow climb. The sky was blue and the views magnificent. Even though we had driven this road last time, it all seemed new to us. When we reached maximum height we drove across a plateau which is part of Parque Nacional Los Cardones and the landscape is full of cacti. We drove down again towards Payogasta and Ruta 40. This town is famous for drying capsicums to make sweet Paprika.
Ruta Nacional 40
This road passes through the Valles Calchaquies, mostly following the Rio Calchaqui. From Payogasta it is only about 20 Km to Cachi and the road is mostly populated with farms in the river valley. We had stayed a few days in Cachi last trip and didn’t find it necessary to stay around again, beautiful though it is.
The road is very narrow in places, with the river valley on one side and, on the other, often rocky cliffs that the road has been carved into. It’s not high like some we’ve travelled but we were certainly wary of sharp bends and Berta blew her horn at each of them to warn possible oncoming vehicles. The scenery is beautiful and constantly changing. Mostly it follows the river valley with some very intensive agriculture, although occasionally it veers away through amazing mountain scenery. The Quebrada de Las Flechas, so called because of the sharp arrow shapes formed by the passage of a glacier, is a particularly interesting change in the scenery. This area was declared the Natural Monument Angastaco in 1995.
We passed through many small villages, all with a with adobe churches, and past derelict adobe buildings that showed signs of former glory. At one point we spied a town with a beautiful church across the river and decided to take the turn off to visit it. Once we arrived we both realised that we had visited it on our last trip – it was Molinos, and certainly worth a second visit. We also revisited the small town of Santa Rosa whose cemetery we had discovered last trip. The town also has a nice church and has made some effort to create a town plaza, with rock-edged walkways between young, struggling trees and playground equipment.
We finally reached pavement a couple of kilometres before San Carlos, which is a quiet and pretty town, great for a short walk after a long drive. It was our last stop before reaching Cafayate.
If you are driving a large vehicle (like our Berta) the direction we took on all three roads will make for a little more relaxing drive, as for the majority of the way you will have the mountain side of the road to your right, the (often steep) drops and soft road edges to your left = the lane for oncoming traffic.
RN9 from Jujuy to Salta: as mentioned we would recommend to drive this on weekdays; we would expect less traffic. There are numerous camping options along the way, paid and free. Below the wall of the Dique La Cienaga (north end) is an enormous municipal campground with swimming pool.
RP33: this road, despite all its curves, is relatively easy to drive. We found most drivers very cautious (unusually so for Argentina). You will find free camping options along the way, and there are a couple of hospedajes.
RN40 from Cachi to Cafayate: you can probably do this stretch in half a day, but then you’ll miss many scenic photo opportunities. Better take it slowly, get out of your vehicle, take some walks, visit towns like Molinos, and possibly camp once along the way… Towns like Molinos also offer accommodation.