From Tilcara to Mendoza, between deserts and vineyards 

Reading time: 12 minutes

Summary in pictures of our 10 days roadtrip in the Argentine Northwest, from Tilcara to Mendoza!

We leave San Pedro de Atacama early in the morning and head for Argentina. It will take us 6 hours of winding road in the heart of the Andes Cordillera to reach Tilcara, the first stage of our 10 days roadtrip in the Argentine Northwest, along the mythical Ruta 40.

Good to know: economy and cost of living in Argentina

As usual, we indicate in this article the prices of our accommodation and activities... We prefer to warn you: depending on the date you read this, they may have changed completely! We understand on arrival that Argentina is going through a particularly difficult economic period. In a few years, the Argentine Peso (ARS) has lost more than half its value against the Dollar and the Euro! Depending on the results of the presidential elections held a few weeks later, it is predicted to be worth around 90 ARS by the end of the year. If nothing is certain, the degree of confidence remains a good indicator of the volatility of the monetary value in the country...

To cope with these variations, the Argentines adapt: prices therefore vary considerably from one year to the next! We are surprised to discover that all our guidebooks, even though they are recent, give wrong prices, sometimes doubling them... Although we are not happy about it (the situation shows real economic difficulties for the Argentinians), these depreciations make our stay in this country very cheap...

Stage 1: Tilcara (2 days, 2 nights): a walk through the ages

In the heart of the desert mountains of the Jujuy region, Tilcara is a lively and welcoming village, ideally located for exploring the surrounding area!

Practical information

Where to sleep?

Despite its size (about 2,000 inhabitants), Tilcara offers many accommodationsoften simple (hostels, hostels, cabañas...) but comfortable!

We choose the Lo de Lili accommodation, which has the advantage of having a wheelchair accessible room (although not fitted out)... The only one in the city as far as we could see! A very comfortable hotel and a great welcome from our hostess, we liked a lot (for a very reasonable price: 25€ per night, without breakfast)! Only drawback: it is located on top of the hill overlooking the village... It climbs!

Where to eat?

We had a gastronomic coup de coeur in Tilcara: Arumi !
Excellent meats, Argentine specialities and a wide choice of wines to accompany the dishes... We loved the Amalaya, a Saltenian Malbec!

El Hornocal
We recommend

The village of Tilcara itself is rather small, and its centre even smaller! Once you've visited the market in the central square, you'll have to move away to enjoy the rest...

  • La Pucará de Tilcara (2 to 3 hours)

The Pucará de Tilcara is a fortress housing a village, all built about a thousand years ago! A large part of these ruins have been restored and the site is as beautiful as it is instructive: we loved it! We recommend you to go in the morning: from 1pm onwards, many visitors arrive by bus on the site... We enjoy it less! The entrance fee is 300 pesos (free for PRMs and their companions if necessary).

  • The Mountain of 14 colours (1/2 day)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, El Hornocal is a mountain range with different sedimentary layers that give it exceptional colours! Nicknamed the "Mountains of 14 colours", a viewpoint can be reached by car, a little more than an hour from Tilcara (plan to go there by 4×4 or by minibus via an excursion: the track is steep and punctures are not rare... We can testify to that!)

For the more courageous, it is possible to walk to a closer viewpoint below the car park. Be careful on the way up: at an altitude of over 4,000 metres, the slope is steep and you run out of steam quickly! It is better to go gradually... An ambulance is waiting for the most impatient at the top of the slope: let's hear it...

On the road, a stopover in the village of Humahuaca is a must for its cobbled streets and white facades covered with frescos... A nice discovery!

The village of Humahuaca
Stage 2: Salta (2 days, 3 nights): between nature and architecture

We leave Tilcara in direction of Salta (3h30 drive) where we will spend two days. Famous for its colonial architecture which earned it the nickname of "Salta la Belle", the city is full of activity (except between 1pm and 4pm when many shops are closed...). Seduced by its warm side and its numerous cafés where you can taste empañadas on the terrace, we are nevertheless a bit nervous about the idea of getting back to the traffic and the noise of the big cities after more than three weeks in the great spaces...

Practical information

Where to sleep?

There is no shortage of accommodation in this city of 500,000 inhabitants, which has become one of the most visited in Argentina: you can book the one you want here !

We stay at the Posada del Sol (48€ per night for two, breakfast included), which has the advantage of being located a stone's throw from Plaza 9 de Julio, in the heart of the city.

Accessibility is claimed but not very convincing in our opinion (old-fashioned lifts with narrow cabins and manual closing of the doors, bathroom door too narrow to enter in a wheelchair...), but an ideal starting point for a walk in the city!

Where to eat?

There are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from, and you'll have no trouble finding places that serve local food for very attractive prices! Here are our favourites:

  • The patio of the empañada The patio de la empañada: nothing more than its name suggests... But delicious! In this unpretentious building built around an inner courtyard, there are a succession of empañada stands: no need to choose one in particular, they all serve a variety of this typically Saltenian dish, fried or baked...
  • La Tacita La Tacita: always for empañadas (we can't get enough of them)! An address that doesn't look like much but that you shouldn't miss, at the foot of the Basílica San Francisco
  • Aires Caseros for traditional Argentine cuisine: dishes that are as good as they are hearty!
Salta and its region
We recommend
  • Getting lost in the streets of the centre (1/2 to 1 day)

Strolling through the streets of Salta is already a nice walk! Between white facades and coloured buildings, take the time to get lost: you won't regret it!

  • Cross the Cerro Malcante to Cachi (1 to 2 days)

To the southwest of Salta, we take a track that allows us to cross the Cerro Malcante: a magnificent road in the heart of the mountains bordered by clouds! Continuing our way, we arrive in the Parque Nacional los Cardones. The road continues in the middle of its immense plains covered with cactus to arrive at Cachi, a small town whose white houses stand in the middle of nothing.

Although it only takes three to four hours to reach Cachi from Salta, the numerous stops to enjoy the scenery and the visit to the city itself are well worth spending a night there...

Parque Nacional Los Cardones
Stage 3: Cafayate (2 days, 2 nights): on the edge of the vineyards

Three hours drive south of Salta, Cafayate is a small town known for its vineyards and bodegas! You can taste Torrontés, a typical white wine of the region...

Practical information

Where to sleep?

We find a warm accommodation in the Antigal Hostal (45€ per night, breakfast included), which welcomes us for two nights with a hostess who takes care of us and a comfortable room... And perfectly accessible! A real good surprise!

Where to eat?

Many bodegas allow you to have lunch before or after a visit... But most of them require a reservation! We are a bit late and have the chance to have lunch at the Bodega Nanni, in the centre of Cafayate: an excellent address!

Quebrada de las conchas
We recommend

If Cafayate is a charming town, you'll quickly get the hang of it! Besides visiting the vineyards, we strongly recommend spending half a day - or even a full day - in the Quebrada de las Conchas (you'll cross it on your way to Cafayate if you come from Salta). Along the Rio Las Conchas, rock formations all more spectacular than the others follow one another in red, ochre and green tones!

There is no shortage of walks, but we recommend that you get there early... For several reasons:

  • The sunrise over the rocks is breathtaking (that's if you like to get up very early),
  • From 9.00 - 9.30 am, the site is very busy... And whole coaches pour into the main viewpoints! If you arrive before 8am, you can therefore quietly see all the viewpoints and then take advantage of the many paths away from the road, which the excursionists do not venture onto... An ideal calm to admire the landscapes at their best!
In a wheelchair 

The Quebrada de las Conchas can be done almost entirely by car! If the viewpoints are not equipped, some are accessible by wheelchair (el Anfiteatro, el Obelisco and el Sapo in particular), provided that you have a third wheel and possibly extra arms to push... The off-road paths can only be done at the price of great efforts and a strong will... A few hundred meters are already expensive because of the relief, the sandy ground and the temperature! The colours of the Yesera convince us to venture to the end of the path, but it will take us about an hour to do the two kilometres that separate us from the mountain... An unforgettable memory!

Quebrada de las conchas
Stage 4: Villa Union (1 day, 2 nights): on the trail of the dinosaurs

We leave Cafayate with only one regret: not to have spent a few more hours there! But time passes and it takes us 8 hours to cover the 570 km that separate us from our next stop : Villa Union.

Practical information

Where to sleep?

We were looking for a quiet hotel to enjoy the nature... And so we chose the Cabañas Cañones del Triasico (45€ per night, breakfast included)! A small paradise away from the city where only the neighing of the horses disturbs the calm of a sunset on the mountain... Not to mention the warm welcome and the availability of our hosts: a joy!

If you want to book, you'd better do it early: there are only two cottages and they are very popular!

Where to eat?

We are still looking for a good address... If you find one, let us know!

Parque Ischigualasto
We recommend

Villa Union is close to two natural parks: Talampaya National Park, in the province of La Rioja (45 minutes to 1 hour drive) and Ischigualasto Provincial Park, in the province of San Juan (about 1 hour 45 minutes drive).

In both cases, there is a lack of freedom to visit them... In Talampaya, you cannot enter with your own vehicle: bus tours are organised. For Ischigualasto, you have to have your own vehicle or go through an agency. In both cases, the vehicle used will have to be part of a convoy (8 to 20 vehicles depending on the period and time) to go around the park at the rhythm of the viewpoints commented by the guide.

We only have one day and visiting both parks in such a short time is impossible if we want to enjoy them: we therefore opt for Ischigualasto (entrance fee: 450 ARS per person; free for PRM and accompanying persons if necessary).

The park has several interests in our opinion: its atypical rock formations which make it a magnificent place on the one hand, and a historical-scientific aspect on the other hand, since a few million years ago dinosaurs still lived there and several fossils have been found. A museum has therefore been set up on the site, where explanations of the palaeontological excavations that were carried out there, a presentation of the current fauna and flora and various geological information are combined... A complete visit!

A convoy leaves every hour or so from the park entrance and makes five stops for a three-hour visit (40km of track, 4×4 preferable) to admire the various rock formations with meaningful names: the valley of the moon, the petanque court, the submarine, the hammer... and the museum.

We recommend that you arrive in the early afternoon to visit the first part of the museum at the entrance to the park and join the 3.30 pm convoy, which allows you to enjoy the park to the full, with the light and the sunset on the way back... An exceptional moment!

In a wheelchair

The building at the entrance to the park hosting the first part of the museum is new and perfectly accessible (including toilets). The visit is done by car and requires getting out of the car 5 times. All the viewpoints were fitted out in 2018 with wooden footbridges, over distances ranging from 150 to 500 metres maximum: everything can therefore be done in a wheelchair despite the sometimes steep slopes that the guide can help you climb! The only drawback is that the "petanque ground" footbridge does not start at the point where the cars park. To get there, you have to cross a dry, sandy stream with significant relief. For this passage, however, we were overwhelmed by the offers of help from the guide and other visitors... So the problem was quickly solved!

Parque Ischigualasto
Stage 5: Mendoza (1 day, 2 nights): vineyards at the foot of the Cordillera

We leave Villa Union behind and head for Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina, which we reach 6 hours later. In the middle of the desert, the city of Mendoza looks like an oasis! With its many irrigation canals, it is a green city with a surprising architecture, closer to an American city than to the other cities we have seen in Argentina... And for good reason! Almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1861, the city was rebuilt in an anti-seismic way: low buildings and wide avenues!

Practical information

Where to sleep?

We choose to sleep at theIbis Mendozawhich, although far from the centre, has the advantage of being completely accessible...

Where to eat?

Just a stone's throw from the centre of Mendoza, the restaurant Anna Bistrot serves varied and hearty dishes in a warm atmosphere!

We leave the centre towards Luján de Cuyo: an unmissable address for a gargantuan lunch around an Asado (Argentine barbecue)! Impossible to find if you don't have the address, La Cocina del Oso welcomes its customers in the garden or in its large convivial dining room. You can enjoy a menu as hearty as it is delicious for a very low price, to the sound of the waiter's and the cook's laughter... Just writing it down makes you want to go back there!

Sunrise in the desert
We recommend

Even if many activities are possible in Mendoza (hiking in the Cordillera, horse riding, visits to the city...), it is unthinkable to pass through this region without visiting one (or more) bodegas!

We choose one: Bodega CarinaE. Run by Brigitte and Philippe, two Frenchmen who have been living in Argentina since the end of the 1990s, this bodega has everything to please us!

We were won over by the warm welcome of our hosts, a fascinating visit told by passionate people and a tasting of excellent wines in a friendly setting... A dream!

Allow 2 hours for the visit and tasting (the bodega is about 30 minutes drive from the centre of Mendoza). For less crowds, don't hesitate to arrive late in the morning (11-11:30): the doors open at 10am, a quiet visit will only allow you to enjoy it better...

The cellar of the Bodega Carinae
In our next article

Leaving Mendoza, we cross the Andes at the foot of Aconcagua (America's highest peak) to Santiago. Temperatures drop dramatically and we narrowly avoid a snowstorm on our way back down to Chile! We spend a few days between the capital and Valparaíso, somewhat disturbed by the political situation and the violence that starts...

Aconcagua summit in the clouds

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.

Go to main content