A ROADTRIP THROUGH ARGENTINA’S SALTA PROVINCE AND THE NOTORIOUS RUTA 40

[SALTA, ARGENTINA] –You probably haven’t heard much about Salta, in the far northwest quadrant of Argentina and its famed Ruta 40 highway, but word is starting to spread. This is one of the great roadtrips in the world. While everyone knows of Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Patagonia, it seems like Salta has just barely opened up. You take a two hour flight from Buenos Aires to the city of Salta which you can use as a base, driving around the region — there are a number of road tours you can take from there — driving north to Jujuy province and the salt flats of Bolivia or West into the mountains and high altitude altiplano, or South through the red canyons to the Salteño wine town of Cafayate.  No matter which way you go, each road trip as amazing as the other.

This post will be about a circular roadtrip driving from Salta to the dusty Andean town of Cachi, down south via the notorious Ruta 40 to Cafayate, then back up to Salta. I split my trip into multiple days to stay in some cool hotels in the mountains (detailed in a companion post), but the route can be done in two days, or one if you’re brutal and have a strong vehicle.

[This post is an upgraded post from years ago, with better pictures, info and directions.]

Map of road trip through Salta province

You cover almost all five ecosystems in this crazy drive. From rainforest to altiplano to bone dry desert.

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In the few guidebooks in English, you read: “a four wheel drive is best,” but I balked after they wanted over a thousand bucks rent for a 4WD truck, so I parsimoniously rented a small crossover 4WD Peugeot mini SUV.  It was a surprising billygoat of a car, but after many harrowing close calls with washed out roads and fording rain-swollen rivers through the mountains, I would have paid five thousand dollars for a real 4WD.  You need a 4WD.  Your knuckles will be less white.

I’d pick an overnight destination, in nearly everything you read, every place is “a couple of hours” but I found the travel times to be much longer, the roads more arduous, the scenery beckoning you to stop every 10 kilometers.  Definitely don’t rush through this incredible scenery.

I left great green plains of Salta in the early morning, zig-zagging up the surprisingly scary rainforest canyons of the Cuesta de Obispo, crossing fallen boulders, pounding rains, slow moving trucks and narrow bridges that nearly washed me off a thousand foot cliff. I call this the “Salta Loop” and it’s a common exploration route. I planned to break up the journey with stops at the isolate Estancia Colomé outside of Molinos, then overnight in Cafayate on the southern tip, before journeying up the red rocks canyons of the Quebrada de las Conchas, returning to my hotel in Salta.

A Roadtrip From Rainforest to High Desert — Driving From Salta to Cachi

road trip Cuesta del Obispo Salta to Cachi

What’s amazing about Salta is the incredible diversity of geology — you can see the entire development of the Earth in just a few hours. Starting from Salta, you can head up through rain forests and roaring river gorges, riding along a varying road with overhangs, washouts and dramatic stream fording (pay attention to the rains, definitely)

Climbing from the lush plains of Salta city, you instantly are thrust into a rainforest, with curvy, crazy roads dodging up the canyons, crossing thin bridges and going against the roaring ruddy river. Zig. Zag. Cross. Stop. Take off your white knuckles. Catch breath. Continue on….

Then as you rise, you start to get into more canyons, rich and lush from the constant rains coming down from the clouds crossing the steep Andes.

driving through Cuesta de Obispo valley

This looks more like Ireland or Scotland, not Argentina.

 

route of driving through Cuesto del Obispo

This gives you an idea of the insane topography of the first leg of this journey. It’s lush and green, following a narrow, curving one lane road that zigzags up the canyon. Count how many switchbacks there are. You’ll be able to compare this lushness with the arid dry high desert of the altiplano in upcoming photos, just an hour or two later.

 

Dangerous pass Cuesto del Obispo

This is why it’s good to have a 4WD in Salta — which I didn’t, unfortunately. When it rains, it roars. Especially in the rainforesty parts of Ruta 33 and the Cuesta del Obispo (“The Bishop’s Slope”) valley. The drive is the adventure. And the views amazing. Ruta 33 follows a roaring river, winding up the lush, dripping green canyons to the pass, in the direction of Cachi. As you ascend, the road conditions descend. This is me crossing one nasty, intruding river. You have to get a running start, gun it, and hope for the best. You can’t see the straight-down 1,500 ft drop off to the left. Nor feel the rear end of my car sliding in the raging current. Nor can you see the road grader with a shovel standing by, ready to push stuck cars out of the muck before they get washed over the edge… for a tip, of course. There’s a change-of-shorts stop about 1km up the road…..

 

Here’s what it was like, in my stupid-to-do one-handed video shot going through the rushing washed out road. I just had to because it was so frightening, nobody would believe me. You can’t tell, but my meek car started sliding with the current, just feet from the thousand foot drop on the left:

 

Map driving Cafayete to Salta

You can see how radically the scenery changes from this view. From lush wet valleys into stark arid plains, surrounded by yawing mountains on all sides.

 

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As soon as you reach the top of the pass on Ruta 33 and the Cuesta del Obispo valley  (“The Bishop’s Slope”)  you suddenly hit the vast altiplano high desert of Salta, Argentina.  At over 12,000ft in elevation, with endless views to the horizon, it literally and figuratively takes your breath away. it’s like a whole different situation from the lush tropical rainforest you just came through. And within minutes, from zig-zag and harrowing washouts on dirt roads, to straight as an arrow highway that looks like the deserts in Death Valley. Dry as a bone.

 

straight road altiplano Salta province

 

Goats on the Altiplano in Salta

Rush Hour on the altiplano. Not much else going on but a long straight roads, cacti, scrub and distant mountains. And hardly anybody else. I stopped here for ten minutes and no cars came from ahead or behind.

 

 

Altiplano aerial view around Cachi

It’s just amazing that this vast, stark altiplano is at 12,000 feet and higher.

 

Views of the Altiplano Salta Argentina

Views so vast, it takes your breath away.

 

Driving the Notorious Ruta 40 from Cachi to Cafayate

Mountain views from Ruta 40 Salta

 

In the northwest corner of Salta along the Chilean and Andean border, you run into the famed Ruta 40 — one of the longest, gnarliest highways in the world. It runs the entire length of Argentina, over 5,000km from tip to tail, from Bolivia down to the sea in Patagonia.

It’s at some of its wildest in Salta, where it’s less a highway than a rutted road, running through dusty Andes towns, fording rivers and scant gas stations. I hooked up with it in Cachi on my way to Molinos and it’s a slow ride, not just because of the rocky roads and bridgeless rivers to cross, but because there’s something amazing to stop and see nearly every other kilometer. Bring cheese.

Google Ruta 40 and you’ll read all sorts of stories, some of them horror stories, about this famous long road down the spine of Argentina. I’ve heard they’ve started to pave and straighten some parts of Ruta 40 in recent years, but haven’t seen where or how far.

I’ve heard they’ve paved some sections recently, perhaps the gnarliest parts, but I’m not sure where or how far.  These photos are from my visit there in March of 2011.If you have info, please send it to me.

 

Here’s what it’s like to drive Ruta 40 from Cachi to Cafayate.

At the end of Ruta 33 is the dusty town of Cachi. I mean it is a dusty Andean town. There are a couple of decent places to stay there, but I kept pressing on toward Estancia Colomé. From Cachi, you turn south and join up with the famous Ruta 40. You drive through dusty mountain towns like from a Spaghetti Western, and then go south along the Andes, fording rivers along the way. My goal was the Estancia Colome, many kilometers outside the small town of Molinos, stay a few days at this magical place and it’s James Turrell Museum and then head south to the wine town of Cafayate.

 

Fording a river on Ruta 40 Salta

Up in Salta on Ruta 40 sometimes “highway” is just an expression. “Route” seems to work. I had to drive through here.

Here’s what it was like in person:

 

Rambling Through the Moonscape of Quebrada de Las Flechas

Bridge approaching Quebrada de las Flechas

As you drive south on Ruta 40 towards Cafayate, you come upon the aptly named Quebrada de las Flechas, “Canyon of Arrows.”  Like driving into a storm front.

Driving through Quebrada de las Flechas was the most scenic and moonscape-y part of the trip. Giant thrusts of stone pointing to the sky in the aptly named “Canyon of the Arrows”.  Plan to spend some time in this section as the views are so good you’ll want to stop you car and get out every 1/2 kilometer.

Road hazard Salta

Says to self whilst crossing roaring river: “Huh. I wonder what those silly branches are doing out in the middle of the bridge?…”

 

Quebrada de las Flechas curvy road

 

 

It’s just so crazy how much the landscape changes from one ecosystem to the next in the span of an hour. From lush steep canyons, to flat high deserts to the jagged maw of rock of the Quebrada de las Flechas.

rough road trip Ruta 40 Salta

 

 

Location of Quebrada de los Flechas

 

Star Wars in salta

You’ve probably seen this in a Star Wars movie.

tall rocks along Ruta 40 Quebrada de las Flechas

 

Church off Ruta 40 Salta

You pass this near-perfect colonial church along the way. Perfect sandwich stop.

Then the land starts to flatten out, with squat valleys surrounded by jagged mountain ridges. Wineries pop up here and there, strangling water from the craggy ground to make high-altitude Malbec.

Gascon vineyard Salta

The famous Gascon vineyard. You can see why these high altitude wines are so treasured. A green oasis in a sea of rocks.

 

As you near Cafayate, the valleys get broader, the muddy river, wider.  The colors shockingly redder.

red mountains river Calchaqui Valley

You just have to stop and rub your eyes, the colors are so overwhelming.Count how many colors are in these hills.

Driving from Cafayate to Salta through the Quebrada de las Conchas

Red rock canyons Cafayate to Salta

After an overnight in Cafayate, you head north through the canyons of the Calchaquí Valleyand the stunning Quebrada de las Conchas (Shell’s Gorge) (click that link for an awesome overview)  where suddenly, everything is deep red. One thousand shades of red, changing around every corner. You can see it from space… this is not an infrared photo, it’s the real thing:

Location of Quebrada de las Conchas

Look for the small wooden sign for the Amphitheater and pull off. It’s a naturally formed, wind-carved canyon that soars 200 feet on all sides.  Like swimming in red water.  The acoustics are so good, they hold concerts here.. and there will invariably be a Salteño music group strumming in the perfect acoustics for tips.

Musicians in The Amphitheater Quebrada de las Conchas

The acoustics are perfect. Often there are Salteño musicians crooning for pesos.

 

Canyon wall along river Quebrada de las Conchas

The rushy muddy river gouges at the red rock.  All these saturated colors, you almost have to wipe your eyes it’s so overwhelming.

 

Red rock valley driving Ruta 40 Cafayete to Salta

This is not doctored. The reds really are like this. The colors so saturated you almost have to rub your eyes to see. 

 

Count on this drive back to Salta to be about four hours with multiple stops along the way.

 

Here’s an overview of the entire multi-day round trip through the incredible Salta landscape:

 

More Information on Touring Salta Province

Here’s an interactive Google Map I built that shows you were everything in this story is. You should be able to bookmark and use on your trip or to explore from your armchair. https://drive.google.com/open?id=1z940FNYCppg7LATaWynIIdxkeA0&usp=sharing

 

Here’s a great article from Travel & Leisure. Here’s a great article in Conde Nast Traveler, and another on Salta City, and another Conde Nast Article that’s a great summary. Here’s an older NYTimes article on Salta The Beautiful, and here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal covering this exact route below.  Here’s a great overview of road trips in Salta from Culture Trip.  And a great article on the Salta wine region in Forbes. And a great article featuring Salta’s wines in Vogue.

Check out my other post on where to stay in Salta Province.

Here’s a great article on driving through Salta from Travel & Leisure. And a perfect outline of nearly the same roadtrip itinerary. Another story in Rough Guide. And from Dangerous Roads website. And Popular Mechanic’s Top 20 Best Driving Roads in the world.  Here’s a great article on where to stay in Salta from The Hotel Guru. And another article on where to stay in Salta from Vogue.

If you subscribe to National Geographic, here’s a great photo gallery. (Paywall)

Last Visited March 2011, Post Updated December 2019

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“A ROADTRIP THROUGH ARGENTINA’S SALTA PROVINCE AND THE NOTORIOUS RUTA 40”

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