1 | Salta - San Antonio de los Cobres - Susques
Departing from Salta we gradually ascend in curves the Quebrada
del Toro (Bull's Gorge), mostly paralleling the "Train to
the Clouds" and visiting the ruined city of Santa Rosa de
Tastil, an enormous pre-columbian settlement, superbly set atop
a hillside with overlooking views. Past the town of San Antonio
de los Cobres (3,775 masl) we reach the mighty La Polvorilla viaduct,
the last and highest station of the Train, to pass underneath
and to continue northwards on the newly redesigned Route 40 in
the midst of the expansive, barren Andean high plateau, called
Puna in Argentina. This stretch features a river valley, gigantic
boulders scattered alongside the road and the huge Tuzgle volcano
(5,520 m), and goes through the earth-coloured villages Sey, Pastos
Chicos and Huancar, camouflaged in the open plain. By the end
of the day we arrive in Susques (3,896 m), a small town with a
lovely church dating from 1598 - one of the oldest churches in
the country. Overnight stay outside Susques in a nice hotel.
DAY 2 | Susques - Lagoons Vilama - Cusi Cusi
Still heading north and after passing through solitary adobe settlements,
the route branches off onto a stony track and meanders into the
northwestern extremity of Argentina, where the Vilama Nature Reserve
extends over 1,500 ha comprising a series of lagoons. The largest
one, the ample and turquoise Vilama, is home for many species
of birds, and completes the majestic scenery of a remote open
space framed by the towering Andes sitting in the distance. It
is well worth a rest on the shore of the lake, after which we
continue following a curvier, clearly more mountainous and colourful
road until we feast our eyes on the red-white-yellow Valley of
the Moon, unfolding below us in an enormous hollow. We hike down
and wander among the wavy and pyramidal sandstone hills, warmly
lit by the afternoon sun. In the nearby quiet oasis of Cusi Cusi
(3,790 m) we spend the night in a modest lodging.
DAY 3 | Cusi Cusi - R40 - El Angosto - Santa Catalina
Today we travel along the final segment of Route 40, also passing
by km 5,000. Churches standing alone on a vast landscape, peaceful
little villages, bare-rock pastel-coloured hillsides, a riverbed
in a deeply carved canyon and a slowly ascending road lead to
4,000 m altitude, where we enjoy stupendous views as we wind along
a ridge paralleling a red mountain chain. After corkscrewing down
we reach Argentina's northernmost hamlet, El Angosto (3,581 m),
set in a green river valley and richly surrounded by brick-red
gorges neighbouring Bolivia. Heading back to the east, a final
undulating stretch of road brings us to the seldom visited puna-town
Santa Catalina (3,770 m), housing a delightful 17th-century church
and the highest library in Argentina. Overnight stay in a cosy
hosteria on a tree-lined street.
DAY 4 | Santa Catalina - Lagoon Pozuelos - La Quiaca
After traveling alongside the bolivian border, at the village
of Cieneguillas, known for the excellent llama fiber they produce,
we head southwards into Laguna de los Pozuelos, a nature reserve
covering 380 km2 on a wide plain, at about 3,600 m altitude. The
salty lagoon it encircles provides a perfect habitat not only
for more than 40 species of birds, but also for thousands of flamingos,
which in summer cover the lake like a pink cloud. We can get nearer
by accessing the reserve at its southern end and after a walk
over the salted wetland areas of the lakesides. Now bordering
the reserve to the north, the road takes us past a more inhabited
region rapidly to La Quiaca. This larger town lies facing the
bolivian Villazón, both separated by a river and joint
by a bridge. We settle to our hotel and have the rest of the afternoon
free to spend at leisure.
DAY 5 | La Quiaca - Yavi - Nazareno - Abra Pampa
Nearby La Quiaca to the east we visit the mudbrick-village of
Yavi and its notable church, a colonial treasure with gold decorations
and onyx windows, and continue heading south, winding gently before
steadily climbing up into a deserted, impressive mountainscape.
The higher it goes, the more breathtaking and distant the views.
At 4,720 m altitude the road traverses the Cerro Fundición
pass and leads over countless narrow serpentines 1,500 m down
to the village of Nazareno, stunningly nestled in nature, its
farmhouses spreading out on the hillsides. After a nice walk round
the town, we drive back over the pass and down in western direction
to the transitional plains and towards the main route, reaching
Abra Pampa (3,484 m), "the Capital of the Puna", about
30 km further ahead. We overnight in a typical guesthouse.
DAY 6 | Abrapampa - Iruya
Passing by some unusual rock formations with colours layered together
we drive south for a short distance before veering off east. Here
a curvy gravel road winds up the twisting grass-covered mountainsides
until crossing a pass at altitude 4,000 m, where we enjoy fantastic
bird's eye views of an endless mountain river valley below us.
We zigzag down through deeply cut slopes and, further ahead, into
a magnificent colourful gorge, where Iruya is perched on top of
a cliff, at a height of 2,780 m. This enchanting village is dotted
with a remarkable church and with steep, narrow cobblestoned streets,
and the inhabitants still maintain numerous ancient traditions.
In the afternoon we can trekk up to the viewpoint or alongside
the river to explore the splendid surroundings. We spend the night
in a friendly local guesthouse.
DAY 7 | Iruya - Salta
We head back south along the Quebrada de Humahuaca and pass by
the city of Jujuy. To reach Salta we either can follow the old
connection road meandering through a lush jungle, or we can drive
on a highway, a longer, but faster stretch. End of trip.
Or, a few additional days in Quebrada de Humahuaca will nicely
complement this itinerary !