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Discover Northern Argentina

Audley Travel
25th September 2017

Vast glaciers tumbling into lakes and lasso-swinging gauchos herding cattle are what spring to mind for many people when they think about Argentina. These depictions are well known for good reason but are mostly found in the south of the country. Head north and you’ll find many little-known places, arguably more fulfilling than their southern counterparts. The north is where the indigenous populations have strong influence. This is where the Calchaqui, Kolla and Ava Guarani peoples resisted the Hispanic advances making the area a culturally unique region.

Experience the Culture

A typical place to start a tour of the north is Salta which can be described as a miniature Buenos Aires with colonial architecture and a striking pink cathedral. From here you can visit the pre-Hispanic village of Purmamarca either as a day trip or as part of a multi-day tour of the region. The village sits in the far north of the country with the unusual backdrop of the Hill of Seven Colours, as the name suggests, the rock features seven colours from burnt orange and dusty red to hushed tones of grey. This remarkable complexion was caused over thousands of years by marine, lake and river sediments uplifted by tectonic plates. The origin of the village can be traced back to the 16th century when it was part of the Inca Road, for a taste of culture head to the daily handicraft market held in the square by the Church of Saint Rose.

After a couple of days, your body will get used to the altitude (Purmamarca is at 2,325m above sea level).  The UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Humahuaca Gorge by following the old Inca road. The rocks of this area feature a similar polychromatic marble effect to that of Purmamarca due to a change in minerals over the centuries. On route to the gorge you can stop at some of the indigenous villages dotted along the way, you’ll see coca tea and alpaca jumpers being sold which often feels closer to a market experience in Peru or Bolivia.

Sample Argentina Wine

The next stop is Cafayate, along the route the road which leads to Cachi runs through the Valley of Arrows. This is a sandy stretch dotted with unusual horizontal rock strata giving the illusion they were fired into the Earth from above. After spending time in such barren landscapes, the green views over the vineyards of Cafayate are a welcome sight.

Cafayate lies in the Calchaqui Valleys of northwest Argentina and is known for its interesting red rock formations and delicious wine, often made using unusual grapes such as the Pedro Gimenez or Torrontes varietals. The handsome landscape provides the perfect backdrop to spend a lazy day enjoying the produce. You can also take a guided tour at one of the many vineyards such as Bodega Piattelli which is run by the fourth generation of famous Mendozan Winemakers. The pleasant climate makes the area one of the best in the world for winemaking and the altitude makes it a lot drier and stronger.

Uncover Dinosaur Remains

As you travel through epic landscapes of rocks, gorges, peaks and bright red rocks caused by iron oxide, your mind may wander to prehistoric times. The landscape appears devoid of human existence and straight from the Mesozoic Era. If you are interested in this period of history, visiting the Talampaya and Ischigualasto National Parks is a must. Both of the parks are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and together they contain the most complete fossils of dinosaurs, mammals and plants from the Triassic Period (dating back approximately 245 million years).

Featuring a blazing red sandstone canyon Talampaya is covered in surreal rock formations such as hoodoos (tall, thin spires). One of the formations is called ‘the Cathedral’ as its shape resembles the soaring piers of a cathedral’s nave. A guided tour around the area offers a fascinating insight to the landscape. In contrast, Ischigualasto is a dusty grey moonscape aptly named Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon). Here you’ll find enchanting petroglyphs and fossil sites which have been instrumental in allowing us to trace evolution. This park was also home to one of the oldest specimens ever found - Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis – a theropod-like carnivore traced back to the end of the Triassic Period. You can literally walk alongside fossils in the ground around the park and some are exhibited in the palaeontology centre.

Go in Search of Wildlife

With such vast, dry landscapes, there are only certain areas in Argentina to find life. The Esteros de Iberá is a protected wetland area rivalling the Pantanal in Brazil for wildlife opportunities, yet much lesser-known. The wetlands are boggy and low and full of minerals transported from the Iguazu Falls allowing wildlife to thrive. You’ll have the chance to see howler monkeys, marsh deer, caiman, capybara, many bird species including heron and if you are really lucky, jaguar.

Despite being very little-known there are some great accommodation options. Puerto Valle is a spacious and very comfortable hotel on the banks of the Parana River and although it feels very secluded it is easily accessible from Posadas airport. Their experienced guides will help you to explore the wetlands and spot the wildlife. You can go on a sunset boat tour which starts when the wildlife is making the most of the cooler temperatures and ends with amazing shades of orange and gold across the water.