NWA : practical information

(Trip through North West Argentina - June 17/ July 20 2010)



Do not expect to find accurate road maps of the area : they do not exist...
(the map on the right was copied from the map "Argentina" by Freytag & Berndt, scale 1:1 900 000 : it is not worse than any other...)

Furthermore, the maps you will find are all different...

- all the roads are not mentioned,
- the roads are different on each map
- the road numbers are not the same on the map and on the road signs...

Practically, the only way is to inquire at the local police station (the officers have always been very helpful, and accurate).
(Be careful : the Tourist Offices have frequently provided wrong informations...)

On the enclosed map, the numbers in blue are the places where we have spent one or several nights. The roads we have followed are pale green.


A few practical comments on our trip (see also the guidebook "le Routard" 2010, in French) :

In the first place, we would like to thank all the Argentinians we have met for their kindness and availability !
We have always been surprised by the interest they show for France, and the knowledge they have of our country (and of its politics !)
If we have already been 5 times to Argentina, it is mostly because of this warm welcome.
(not speaking of the fantastic landscapes, of the memorable steaks and the excellent wines...).

North West Argentina (NWA) is still not much visited by tourists... Yet, the landscapes may well be compared to those of the american West... We have greatly appreciated this solitude...

In the first place, we must underline the dates we were there (June 17 to July 20) : conditions vary considerably depending on the season (climate) and on the number of local tourists (we were there during the low season, as the winter school vacations start around July 8)

- In the Buenos Aires Airport, change only the minimum, to pay for the taxi or bus : the exchange rate is 15% higher than what you can obtain in town...
- We could not exchange paper money in the Salta banks : in all the banks we tried, we were told that they were allowed to change money only for their own customers. We had to go to a "casa de cambio" (there are only two - and we had to wait in line for one hour, on the day we were there...).
- In the Salta ATM's, the limit was 300 pesos per withdrawal (but you may make several successive withdrawals - paying the fixed commission every time...). This limit was not applicable when we withdrew money in Abra Pampa (no explanation ??)
- It seems that argentinians use ATM's a lot, and it may happen that they are empty (week-end...) : beware.

We followed recommendations from a Salta resident, found on a travel forum, who said that AVIS cars are the best, in Salta. So, we rented from the downtown office of AVIS (cheaper than at the airport). The car was in perfect conditions, and we had no problem at all. No problem either to get the documents allowing the border crossing into Chile (free with AVIS, when other agencies charged a fee of 400 pesos). These documents having to be renewed on July 1st, a driver from AVIS brought them to us in Payogasta, where we were at the time, free of charge... Nice, hey ?
We met a couple of French tourists, who rented from Europcar in Salta : they had a lot of technical problems with their car...
Another good point with AVIS : the rate depended on the number of km per day. Since we were not planning on driving more than 200 km on an average, we took that fare, much lower than the fare for unlimited mileage. It was amply sufficient : we drove 3355 km.

Be careful : if you like meat (if you don't, don't go to Argentina !), ask what is the weight of the piece of meat, before ordering : a 600 g steak may be a bit too much, even if the meat is succulent ! If you like your meat to be lightly cooked, ask for "volta e volta" : argentinians like their meat to be well done. And don't forget to try cordeiro (lamb) and cabrito (kid goat) cooked on a wood grill, of course.

The best restaurants (also the cheapest) are usually those which are not aimed at tourists. The only problem is that they open at the standard argentinian dinner time : 9 pm...

- Hotel on arrival : "Petit Hôtel". Quiet, comfortable, very clean, with a very nice patio (flowers and small pool) and an excellent breakfast. The landlady is French : that might help french-speaking visitors. A little expensive (240 pesos).
- Hotel before leaving : Tobias. The room is small, but clean. A very good value for the price (120 pesos)
- Restaurant "Viejo Jack" : excellent !

2- Dique del Corral
- Hôtel Terrazo del Lago : very nice, but more expensive that the "Routard" says (200 pesos, low season)

- Hotel : El Portal de las Vinas. Excellent. Very friendly. Very nice little yard.
- The Tourist Office told us there was no footpath into the Quebrada de Las Conchas : this is not true. There are actually many paths, which lead to fantastic places. Not to be missed, allowing plenty of time.

- Hosteria Angastaco, on the main square. Not quite as good as described in the "Routard" : the former owner, who was very nice, died, and the new owner was away... But the price is right.
- Do not miss dinner at the Rincon Florido : the owner is very nice - he sings and plays the guitar.
- Do not miss the walk (3h return) to the Cerro Colorado.
- I was expecting the Quebrada de Las Flechas to be nicer : the rock shapes are quite unusual, but the colors are far from being as beautiful as those of Las Conchas.

- Dirt road after San Rafael, in good conditions.
- We were very lucky to visit during the low season, and we could sleep in the nicest room of the Sala de Payogasta hotel, for the very reasonable sum of 200 pesos (half the normal price) : open fire in the room, view on the Nevado de Cachi from the room, excellent breakfast... A dream !
- Dinner in the hotel : excellent and very reasonable.

- The road from Payogasta to San Antonio de los Cobres may be perilous : ask for road conditions before starting. Many river crossings, sometimes a bit deep (and frozen !), and ascent to the pass Abra El Acay (4859 m !) may be difficult with a 2-wheel-drive car ! Superb scenery ! Watch for mountain sickness !
- I did not take any picture in San Antonio de los Cobres, an industrial town from which we fled as soon as we could...
- The Hosteria de las Nubes, in San Antonio, seems a bit expensive (approx. 300 pesos), and we drove on.
- Salinas Grandes : access is easy from the road Purmamarca-Susques (but quite a few tourists are there too !). We looked for another access, from the road San Antonio - Tres Montes, without luck. Salinas Grandes is the only salar in Argentina where we saw the famous salt polygons similar to those of Uyuni.
- In Susques, two hotels seem to be OK - but both were full, as all the rooms were rented to technicians working in the mines, in full activity during the dry season. Other hospedajes are available, but they are more fit for the truck drivers going to Chile... Eventually, we had to spend the night in the car (we were glad we had warm sleeping bags : it got very very cold...)

- Fantastic drive by the Jama pass : gorgeous scenery (many vicunas), frozen salars, and superb view towards Chile and Atacama
. Watch for mountain sickness : 2 passes above 4000 m
- No problem on crossing the border (a short distance before the Jama pass, on the Argentina side, and at San Pedro on the Chilean side). Don't forget to get rid of perishable foods before reaching the border : that is not allowed.
- SPA is a small town with some charm, but its only objective is to accomodate the tourists : hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and curio shops...
- Valle de la Muerte : worth a short visit, no more...
- Valle de la Luna at sundown : very beautiful, but you have to share with hundreds of onlookers...
- Laguna Chaixa : very nice. You see may pink flamengos - from a distance : don't forget the tele lens !
- Laguna Miscanti : The Tourist Office in SPA told us that it was impossible (and prohibited) to go there in a 2-wheel-drive car. This is not true. The dirt road is excellent. And the lagunas are very well worth the trip : superb !
- Takha-Takha hotel, which offers also camping places, but a bit narrow : we rented a hut - very comfortable, but a bit expensive... Note that in Chile, hotels will give a 19% rebate to the foreigners who pay cash (chilean pesos, dollars or euros).
- as a rule, Chile was much more expensive than Argentina...
- Finally, we were very glad we went to SPA - but one time is enough : we will not go back...

- Next to the border station, on the Argentina side, a brand new motel, annex to a YPF gas station. Perfectly clean. Very comfortable. Very reasonable price (4 rooms only). Only problem : nothing but sandwiches for dinner.

- We were there in 2001 : things have changed a lot ! Purmamarca is now a tourist place, very much like San Padro de Atacama...
- The Tourist Office sent us to the "Paseo de los Colorados" hotel, still under construction (as most of the village...). 120 pesos : very reasonable.
- I did not quite understand why all the tourists walk or drive on a dirt road through the Cerro de los Siete Colores, when it is so easy to walk away from the road and enter the Cerro : I did the walk twice, at sundown and at sunrise, and I was totally alone...
- Many, many curio shops - goods mostly imported from Bolivia. Prices are very low.

- The dirt road is excellent (many buses use it). A few river crossings, which may be impassable for regular cars, in the rainy season. Superb drive down to Iruya.
- The village itself is quite picturesque (narrow and very steep paved streets), but... In my opinion, not worth more than a couple of hours.
- Two very nice hosterias offer rooms at an absurdly high price...
- We did not like the fact that the village is built at the bottom of a deep valley - and looks like a construction site.
- Conclusion : too many tourists - without any real justification.

- An excellent small hotel : le Cesarito, clean and reasonably priced.
- A little town not without interest (many indians, dressed in colourfull dressing).

- Ever since we camped there in 2001, we were dreaming of going back - and camp there again ! The "camping" is a model of simplicity : a "restroom", a table, and an open room where one can protect himself from the wind. Dry wood is available for a fire - or a barbecue... The camping is next to the ranger house. The warden was away when we were there : we were absolutely alone, for 2 days and 3 nights. Of course, camping there is free of charge...
- At night, the cold is intense (-20°C outside, and -8°C inside the tent, water freezes in the bottles, inside the tent...) and the wind does not help... Fortunatelly, the suns warms up rapidly, during the day (a fleece coat is still recommended). But what a quiet place ! What a light ! And it is nice to see vicunas, nandus, and of course lots of birds !

13- YAVI
- A good dirt road (llamas and vicunas) to go directly from the Laguna to La Quiaca, then a few km of paved road to reach Yavi.
- A little village with a nice church and museum.
- Hostal El Aborigen, very nice. We had a long discussion with the owner, very curious about the outside world. Very reasonable price.
- Short walk in an adjacent valley (towards Yavi Chico).
- Conclusion : we preferred Yavi to Iruya, as it is more authentic.

Back to Purmamarca, where we experienced a snow storm : yes, this is rare (the last one was 10 years ago), but it happens ! Be careful then, before going on isolated roads.

Snow is an occasion to rejoice !
Drivers decorate their cars with snow men...

BUENOS AIRES : (we have been to BA before, and we stayed only 2 days, on the way back to France, under a permanent rain : there are better times than July to visit BA !)
- Hi Recoleta Hostel (hirecoletohotel.com.ar). An excellent value for the price, in a nice part of town.
- Restaurant The Grant's (Riobamba 1068) : all you can eat for a fixed price. Quality is excellent.


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