argentina deserts road

The Road to the Deserts – from Mendoza to Salta

Idea of itinerary travel in Argentina in 13 days.

This journey starts in the wineries of Mendoza at the feet of the Aconcagua, and takes you all the way up north to Salta. The carved rocky landscapes almost feel like another planet in the Talampaya National Park or in the Quebrada de las Flechas. The ochre and multicoloured mineral valleys contrast against the blue skies and the green cacti and dense forests around Cachi. Land of Andes indigenous communities, pre-inca ruins and bright fabrics, this is a trip into the ancestral traditions of Argentina. Cover your eyes and keep them open to soak up the incredible contrasts of the Northwest.

Length of stay: 13 days

Kind: Our Roadtrips

Fix: For all public

Countries visited: Argentina

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Day 1 : Mendoza

Rental car – 4×4 category such as Amarok or similar.

GPS included.

Free day in Mendoza.

Suggested itinerary:

Mendoza is a town at the foothills of the Andes, neighboring Chile to the west. It was founded in 1561 by the Spanish Pedro del Castillo. It has 1.5 million inhabitants but enjoys a relatively quiet and a peaceful atmosphere. In the city centre, walk on the leafy main avenues, or enjoying a drink in one of the many terraces cafes and wine bars.

You can visit the main squares: Plaza España with its ceramics, Plaza Italia where the Piazza festival is celebrated each February with typical dishes and dances, Plaza Chile, Plaza San Martin with the General’s monument.. With its 900 hectares including wooded areas, this park is an oasis in the middle of Mendoza and the pride of mendocinos; and finally, Plaza Independencia, the busiest park.

Then head to the pedestrian street Sarmiento, with its many cafés, where every mendocino has lunch before the siesta (nap time).

You can climb the traditional Cerro de la Gloria, where the imposing statue of General San Martín stands, overlooking the city. On the way back, you can see the Frank Romero Day amphitheatre, where the Grape Harvest National Festival takes place the first week of March since 1936.

Night at the Bohemia Hotel Boutique in standard room.


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Day 2 : Mendoza - Vineyards

Suggested itinerary

Visit Valle de Uco’s bodegas : from modern bodegas with a modern architecture such as Clos de los Sietes to small family-owned wineries, the delicious wines pair beautifully with the view on the Andes and the green leafy vineyards.

170km – 2h15

Night at the Bohemia Hotel Boutique in standard room.


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Day 3 : Mendoza - Inca's Bridge (2725m) - Barreal

Suggested itinerary

Morning departure towards the Andes. Start with a stop by the Potrerillos Dam, an impressive structure which provides water for the surrounding vineyards of Mendoza throughout the year.

Drive on the National Road No. 7 until Uspallata, last town before beginning the drive up the mountain.

This charming “oasis” still preserves the remains of the Inca Trail – all along this ancient road, control stations called Tamberías (supply place) were built to develop trade between local tribes and the Incas tribes of northern countries. Uspallata is also known as one of the filming location of “Seven Years in Tibet”.

Leave the town behind as the landscape gradually changes to admire the Tupungato volcano.

Drive on until the Inca Bridge. This small hamlet was famous for its spa hotel destroyed in 1965 by an avalanche, with the exception of its chapel and spa rooms.

After a stop at the Inca Bridge you drive into the Aconcagua Provincial Park.

Take in the view ofthe Aconcagua (6962 masl) before driving down to Barreal, a small farming village.

Nights skies there are among the clearest in the world, hence its two astronomical observatories. We advise you to visit one of them (open by day only). Another attraction is the “White Barreal”, a dried up lagoon that looks like a sand desert.

05h30 drive, 380km.

Night at the Posada Paso de los Patos in standard room.


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Day 4 : Barreal - Villa Union

Suggested itinerary

After breakfast, continue your journey with the mountains as your only witness!

For lunch, stop in the Iglesia town where you can visit a trout farm.

Continue to the Pico de los Vientos Lake, and the slope of Huaco.

In the afternoon you arrive at Villa Union, which specialises in roasted goat, called chivito in Spanish.

400km, 5h30 Night at the Cañon de Talampaya hotel in standard room.

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Day 5 : Villa Union - Talampaya - Belén

Suggested itinerary

Early morning departure to reach the beautiful Talampaya National Park.

Talampaya National Park, with its 215,000 hectares, was created in 1975 to preserve the archaeological and paleontological resources present in this beautiful environment. The Talampaya River Canyon, with its gigantic walls which shelter the nests of condors, are one of Argentina’s greatest natural wonders. Grey foxes or Southern vizcachas hide behind the old carob trees and arum lilies. Board the park-habilitated vehicle, driven by an official guide, for a 3 hours loop ride in a magical ochre-coloured setting that contrast with the intense blue sky.

After the visit, drive on to Belen, a pretty little town and capital of the poncho . Aproximately 5h30 drive, 387km.

Note 1: Talampaya is operated by the National Park: you cannot visit the site in your own vehicle. The classic tour costs around 52 USD.

Note 2: Talampaya National Park is open from 8:30am to 7:30pm (October to April) and from 9am to 6:30pm (May to September).

Note 3 : Entrance not included – aprox. 16 USD cost. Night at El Belen hotel .

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Day 6 : Belén - Tafi del Valle

Suggested Itinerary

Departure for Tafí del Valle, a little town located in the middle of ochre and green mountains depending on rainfalls.

247km, around 4h drive on roads and dirt tracks. Night at the Estancia Las Carreras in standard room.

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Day 7 : Tafi del Valle - Quilmes - Quebrada de las Conchas

Suggested itinerary

Leave Tafi del Valle to reach Amaicha and its carved landscape, an important historical and archaeological heritage site and one of the best microclimates in the world – visit the Archaeological Museum.

Continue north until the archaeological ruins of Quilmes, former fortified stronghold of the Inca era; at its peak, it gave shelter to over 3,000 people resisting Spanish evangelization and military conquest. The town and its intricate structure were built by terracing the hill slopes. Tour the site.

After the visit, drive on to Cafayate, renowned for its Andean vineyards, and visit a wine cellar to taste the local grape varieties.

129km – 2h30 drive. Suggested itinerary

Leave Cafayate to reach the “Quebrada de las Conchas” which undoubtedly offers the visitor one of the most spectacular landscapes of Northwestern Argentina, with its imposing semi-desert mountains featuring multi-colored rock formations sculpted by hundreds of years of erosion.

Drive back to Cafayate.

40km – 40min Night at Viñas de Cafayate hotel in superior room.

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Day 8 : Cafayate

Suggested itinerary

Leave Cafayate and enter the Calchaqui Valley and its vineyards. Gradually, the greener views give place to a desert-like landscape as you cross the “Quebrada de las Flechas”, a geological formation featuring soaring arrow-shaped rocks.

You reach Molinos, colonial village founded in 1659 – look for the 18th century church and the Isasmendi farm, that belonged to the last governor of Salta. Carry on until reaching the colonial town of Cachi, which lies at 2,200masl. Cachi is a small, quiet Andean village featuring low-whitewashed houses and the San José Church with its sculpted roof of cactus-wood dating back to the 18th century. Visit the small archaeological museum, which has a wonderful collection of pre-Inca and Inca ceramics, especially those pertaining to the Santa María culture.

165km, aprox 5h drive with 138 km on dirt tracks. Night at El Cortijo hotel in superior Room.

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Day 9 : Cachi - Quebrada de Escoipe - Chicoana

Suggested itinerary

Leave Cachi and drive through spectacular landscapes such as the Piedra del Molino mountain pass at 3,600 masl, the Quebrada de Escoipe, a deep gorge where the green of the woods contrasts with the ochre of the soil on the bare mountains of “Cuesta del Obispo” and Los Cardones National Park. Stark expanses of land are scattered with candelabrum-shaped cacti… You reach Chicoana.

140km – 3h Night at Finca las Margaritas.

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Day 10 : Chicoana - Salinas Grandes

Suggested itinerary

Drive along the railway tracks of the famous “Tren de las Nubes” and head first for Salinas Grandes and then for Purmamarca.

Leave Salta (1,200 masl) – after a 166km ride you reach San Antonio de los Cobres at 3,774 masl. Stop by Santa Rosa de Tastil (3,200 masl) on the way to visit the pre-Inca site which dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries (half-hour walk, approximately).

Drive on until San Antonio de los Cobres. Nestled in desertic mountains with no vegetation, this wind swept village and its low buildings give an impression of remoteness. Visit the small museum dedicated to the highest railway-track in the world. Countless pictures narrate its construction in the 1930s.

Drive on: you now reach a vast white expanse of land which contrasts against the pure blue sky – you are in the middle of one of Argentina’s largest salt deserts (1,200 sq. km), Salinas Grandes.

Drive along a winding dirt track for a few miles to reach the Lipán Mountain Pass, located at 4,170 masl and later the last stop of the day’s tour: Purmamarca, “the Holy Land” in Aymara language. This little town is renowned for its seven-colored mountain, “Cerro de los Siete Colores”, a mineral rainbow.

Note 1: a 347km (216mi) trip with some delicate mountain tracks lasting approximately 6h30 min.

Note 2: during the rainy season, between November and March, the access to the Salinas Grandes might be impossible. Night at Los Colorados Cabins in Bungalow Premium.

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Day 11 : Purmamarca - Tilcara - Humahuaca

Suggested itinerary

Start with a 20km drive until the village of Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Hispanic Omaguaca village founded over 900 years ago. Visit the village and the remarkable collections of the museum including mummies, funeral vases, jewellery and other artefacts found in archaeological sites in the Northwest of Argentina.

Continue north to Humahuaca, located at 2940masl, a major trading hub at the time of the Vice Regency of Peru.

Finally, reach Hornocal to take in the view over the 14-colours mountain – best at dusk or dawn when the sunlight enhances the contrasts.

Return to Purmamarca.

190km, 3h30 roundtrip. Night at Los Colorados Cabins in Bungalow Premium.

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Day 12 : Purmamarca - Salta

Suggested Itinerary

Leave Purmamarca – after about 180km, you reach the town of Salta.

Aproximately 3h drive. Night at the Inkai hotel (ex Patios de Lerma) in standard room.

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Day 13 : Salta

Drop off your vehicle at the airport.

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