This is another Argentina altogether. From desert plains to cloudforest, cities of architectural splendour to quaint oasis villages, you’ll find constantly changing landscapes of inexhaustible beauty. You could travel here for a month and still have more to explore.
The Spanish occupation of Argentina started here 400 years ago, and the colonial cities of Salta and Jujuy boast grand buildings, palm-filled plazas and fascinating museums. Salta is the more romantic of the pair and better set-up for tourism, with good restaurants and abundant tour operators. But the most staggering sights lie beyond the urban centres: the Quebrada del Toro, home to the ruined pre-Incan city of Santa Rosa de Tastil; the shimmering salt flats of the Salinas Grandes; the long, wide gorge of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the beautiful Valles Calchaquíes, which lie in the shadow of snow-capped Andean peaks.
Far from Europeanised Buenos Aires, it’s the indigenous culture which makes the northwest so distinctive. Look out for colourful weavings, haunting baguala music, and festivals such as the August Pachamama fiesta and the Easter pilgrimage of panpipe musicians in Tilcara. Go hiking from Iruya, Cachi or Purmamarca and you'll find peaceful village life still carries on much as it did before the conquistadores arrived.
The capital of Salta province, this is one of Argentina's most beautiful cities, and the best place to start your visit to the region. Colonial buildings enclose atmospheric plazas, and the pink stuccoed cathedral is wonderful. Don't miss the 2 fascinating museums - the ancient Cabildo, and the Museum of High Mountain Archaeology, which contains the remains of mummified Inca children - or the cable car up Cerro San Bernardo for sweeping views. Salta is also famous for its peñas (folk-music clubs), which are centered around Calle Balcarce; one of the best is La Vieja Estación - traditional and a bit touristy, but still great fun. Alternatively, La Casona de Molino at Caseros 2500 is where the musicians go.
Reaching this long chain of valleys, which stretches alongside the Andes to the southwest of Salta, is a breathtaking journey in itself. Leave the city via colonial Chicoana and the road snakes up a dramatic gorge to a spectacular mountain pass, before streaking across a plateau strewn with giant cacti (the Parque Nacional de Los Cardones) and descending to the quaint town of Cachi. Here, you can explore the archaeological ruins at Las Pailas, and walk into the mountains with local guides; all around you'll see fields of red, where peppers are left to dry in the sun. Afterwards, set off via Seclantás, with its roadside poncho weavers, to Molinos. This village has a stunning church and an ancient feel, with a vicuña farm selling the softest woven scarves.
The Valles Calchaquíes are home to numerous vineyards. Bodegas here are famous for torrontés, a grape producing aromatic white wines, but there are also fine reds such as cabernet sauvignon, malbec and tannat. Head south from Cachi on the iconic Ruta 40 and you'll reach the wine-growing centre at Cafayate, sampling wines along the way (try the winery museum at Estancia Colome), and marvelling at the arrow-shaped rock formations of the Quebrada de las Flechas. Once you arrive in Cafayate, San Pedro de Yacochuya and El Esteco are recommended.
Since this grand gorge of terracotta-coloured rock, marbled with streaks of bright reds and greens, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, some of its quiet villages have become overrun with visitors. Purmamarca, however, remains one of our favourite places to stay, where you can still feel village life rolling along, and see the amazing ‘Hill of Seven Colours’ as you walk through the adobe houses. It's also a good base for heading north to Tilcara (home of the Easter pilgrimage), Uquía (with its astonishing church full of paintings), Humahuaca, and the remote hamlet of Iruya.
Purmamarca market is notoriously inauthentic, but try the Regionales el Cardón (a large shop facing the church) for weavings, silver and wooden bowls. You'll find more authentic ware in Iruya, including medicinal plants and organic teas, and at Tilcara's market (the superb homemade goats' cheese is highly recommended).
Strangest of all landscapes, La Puna is the desert fringing the tallest Andean peaks - and also the name of the illness you get at altitude before your body has adjusted! It's almost mystical in its appeal. Remote and silent, it has miniscule hamlets with show-off colonial churches at Casabindo and Susques, a turquoise lake covered in flamingoes at Laguna de los Pozuelos, and llamas roaming free wherever you look. The shimmering white stretches of the salt flats at Salinas Grandes in particular have to be seen to be believed, yet they're easily reached from Purmamarca, or from the mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres. One of the best ways to explore is on a guided 4x4 expedition with Socompa, run by the co-owner of Finca Valentina.
There are 3 national parks in the northwest's cloudforest jungles, known here as Yungas ('y' pronounced with a voiced 'sh', as in measure). Created to protect rare eco-systems filled with diverse wildlife, they're sadly difficult to access. El Rey in Salta province is best reached with an expert guide such as Federico Norte or Ricardo Clark. Calilegua National Park in Jujuy is reached from the town of Libertador General San Martín, and Baritú is almost inaccessible - you have to go via Bolivia. However, you can sample something of the same wildlife by staying at Finca Santa Anita, south of Salta at Coronel Moldes, where host Carlos Lewis will take you on long horse rides into forested mountains.