No Argentina itinerary is complete without a road trip through Salta. The city in the northwest region of Argentina is home to Argentina’s desert region, and full of beauty and adventure!
Protests broke out in Bolivia as we were planning our trip through South America. Seeing the great Bolivian salt flats is on my travel bucket list, and deciding to skip this incredible place was very difficult. Who knows when we’d get back to this region?
One thing made me feel better about missing Bolivia: later in our trip we’d be going through Argentina, which happens to be home to some salt flats of their own!
The great South American salt region actually extend from Bolivia into northwest Argentina. There’s even better news: Salta, the region’s largest city, is home to a lot more than just the salt flats!
We flew from Buenos Aires to Salta and spent a few days exploring this incredibly rich, diverse landscape and loved every minute of it. Here are all the details on planing the best Salta road trip so you can fall in love with Argentina, too!
By following this 3-day itinerary you’ll not only see the beautiful salinas grandes, you’ll also get to hike a 7-color mountain, see a cactus reserve, go to the Cafayate wine region, and more beautiful, interesting things!
The best Salta, Argentina, 3-day road trip itinerary
This itinerary is dependent on two things:
- An early arrival in Salta and afternoon departure, and
- Being willing to rent a car.
As long as you have at least 3.5 days and a willingness to drive on windy desert roads you can have an amazing trip to northwest Argentina!
Reserve a hotel in Salta for nights 1 and 2 and a hotel in Purmamarca or Tilcara for night 3. You’ll be driving from this second hotel to the airport before your flight on day 4, so make sure you’ll have enough time to get there!
Day 1: Arrive and tour Salta City
Morning flights leaving Buenos Aires daily will get you to Salta between 12:00 – 2:00 pm. This is more than enough time to get into the city and explore some of the main sights on foot for the rest of the afternoon.
- Pro Tip: Uber does not work in Salta. You can rent a car from one of many offices in the airport, or catch a taxi outside. You don’t need a car to explore Salta on Day 1 and there are plenty of car agencies in town for your trips on Day 2, so the cheaper, easier option is to get a taxi into town from the airport. Expect the 20-minute ride into the city to cost a staggering 400 ARS.
Once in Salta you’ll want to check into your hotel. We recommend a hotel near Plaza 9 de Julio in the center of town. This way you can avoid renting a car on your first day, as you can walk to many sights!
We carefully chose to stay at the Colonia hotel, which is on the corner of Plaza 9 de Julio, comfortable, and within a budget. Your money can really spread here!
Here are some of the best things to do in Salta to finish Day 1:
1. Pink Cathedral:
The two saints of Salta have been worshiped at Salta’s pink cathedral since 1844, and local catholics are serviced by multiple masses and confession times per day.
Once inside you will be treated to one of the most artistic and detailed cathedrals in small town South America. Gorgeous hand cut tri-colored geometric tile flooring, an intricately painted ceiling, chandeliers, and gold leaf covered cherubim cover the cathedral. Just remember to be respectful- local parishioners are constantly flowing in and out.
2. MAAM Museum:
This museum is not for the faint of heart!
While you’ll find textiles and, jewelry, and household products of pre and post Incan era, the MAAM is most popular for displaying the mummified remains of Incan children sacrificed to the mountain gods. 50 mountains containing the remains of human sacrifices exist in the Salta region, and a few have been controversially exhumed and studied.
The MAAM owns and studies 3 mummies, and 1 is rotated for public viewing each day. The bodies are incredibly well-preserved with hair, body, features, and clothing in tact.
3. Francisco Cathedral:
Though smaller and simpler than the pink cathedral, this cathedral is arguably more quiet and peaceful. It still features beautifully artistic details, with the added benefit of soft choir music and fewer people. You can even visit a religious museum on site!
St. Fransisco is just down the street from Plaza 9 de Julio. Stop in to some of the cute souvenir stores along the sidewalks as you walk there!
4. Buy Local Alfajores at La Pachamama:
This corner store down the street from St Francisco cathedral is the place to go for the Argentinian treat alfajores. La Pachamama carries 7 different flavors of alfajores freshly made in a bakery next door. Try free samples of different flavors, stock up on local wines, and observe the work from a large window bedside the bakery!
Day 2: Day trip South of Salta to Cafayate or Cachi
After breakfast at your hotel head out to collect your rental car in town for your first road trip!
Rental Car Pro Tip: We recommend FIT for your Salta car rental. I contacted 3 different rental agencies by WhatsApp and email before our trip, and FIT was the only one to talk to me long enough to make an offer. They gave us a brand-new sedan for just $1600 ARS/ day, and we were able to pick up the car in the center of town. It was so easy, inexpensive, and convenient! Note that you don’t need a passport to rent the vehicle, but you will if stopped by police, so bring it with you, anyway.
We have two great Salta road trip options for Day 2 in Salta. Choose which of these two best works for your group, or extend your time to a Salta 4-day itinerary and do both!
Option 1: Los Cordones National Park (best for families with kids):
Los Cordones National Park, set outside the picturesque town of Cachi, is named after the common cactus it protects. You’ll drive windy, desert roads leading to incredible views of verdant valleys, red rock formations, and huge cacti for 2.5 hours to get there from Salta. (Follow Google Maps for precise instructions.)
Once in Los Cordones National Park plan to spend 1-2 hours walking around. You aren’t greeted by a ticket booth or gate. A simple sign will indicate you’ve reached the park, and it’s free to wander around at your leisure. You’ll find a long driving route through the park with views of the cacti fields set against a backdrop of mountains and a picturesque river.
One of the main reasons to make the drive to this beautiful region is to cross the park into it’s nearby town, Cachi. Cachi is a historic pueblo where you’ll find stucco buildings and even a few wineries to tour. Getting all the way to Cachi and back to your hotel in Salta will take a full day of driving, so be prepared for a lot of time in the car!
Option 2: Cafayate (best for couples):
This region is known as the wine country of northwest Argentina, and popular for visitors to take vineyard tours and winery tastings. We don’t drink and can’t personally review any wineries, but the area is beautiful and worth a trip even just to drive through!
Taking a drive to Cafayate is a great option for nature and wine lovers who can’t arrange a separate trip to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital. Cafayate is smaller and less touristy than Mendoza while producing some of the best products, which makes it a great alternative without taking another flight! It takes 3.5 hours to drive there directly from Salta following directions on Google Maps.
Day 3: Day trip North to Salinas Grandes, the Salta Salt Flats
Check out of your hotel in Salta this morning for a long drive north.
You have two driving options when leaving Salta: Route 9 or 68. Route 68, the auto option with Google Maps, is faster, but route 9 is a more picturesque drive along the mountains and only slightly slower. We recommend Route 9 for it’s beauty as long as you can stand an extra 30 minutes in the car!
Either way, you’ll drive past Jujuy and Purmamarca (don’t worry, you’ll go back to Purmamarca and the 7 Color Mountain later.) Since there are more small and large towns on your route today, you can plan to stop in Jujuy or Purmarca for lunch (as long as you arrive before restaurants stop for siesta around 2 pm or so).
You’ll want to make sure you have 1/2-3/4 tank of gas once you pass Jujuy and to eat lunch there or in Purmamarca. The next gas station or restaurant is in Tilcara, 20 minutes north of Purmamarca (and you won’t get there until after your 2-3 hour trip to the Salinas Grandes).
Getting to Salinas Grandes
Around an hour past Purmamarca on Rt 52 is the great salt flats, Salinas Grandes. The two lane road is well paved, fast, and leads to spectacular views of the mountains and valley as it winds up and over the range.
You’ll find a tourist parking lot on the left as you approach the salt fields. This parking lot features multiple craft stalls selling the exact same hand made carvings from salt blocks and grills offering freshly made filled tortillas rellenos. These trinkets are a pretty fun souvenir and cost $100-500 ARS, getting more expensive the smaller (and more detailed) they are.
You can park here and walk around the fringe of the salt field, but you are not permitted to go very far onto the salt field without a guide. Follow signs for hiring a guide, who will jump in your car and give you instructions on where to safely drive on the salt field. She will teach you about the salt fields as you drive and indicate 2-3 stops to show you different stages of the collection process.
I admit I was a little frustrated to hire a babysitter, but her value far outweighed any minor inconvenience. She was an excellent photographer and expertly used my DSLR to instruct us on great poses for awesome pictures! The tour takes around 45 minutes and only costs $400 ARS (consider leaving a tip. Our guide travels 2 hours by bike each way to work each day!)
It will take 2-4 hours to drive to Salinas Grandes, take a tour and drive back. Plan your afternoon accordingly so you still have time to see the Humahuaca hornocal and make it to your hotel in Purmamarca!
See the Humahuaca Hornocal
Humahuaca is a fun Pueblo north of Purmamarca. It takes around 1 hour on Rt 9 to get there from Purmamarca (two hours if driving directly from the salt flats). The town is colorful, fun and even listed as a UNESCO world heritage site!
Alternately, it is possible to skip Humahuaca altogether. You may have found yourself so overtaken by the beauty of the salt fields that you’ve run out of daylight hours to make the trip to Humahuaca, and, ultimately, that’s ok. It’s a beautiful little pueblo and a great mirador, but if it doesn’t work in your schedule then don’t stress out. You can either go to the Purmamarca 7 color mountain mirador for a similar view tonight or tomorrow morning!
Spend the night in Purmamarca or Tilcara
After many hours of driving from Salta to the salt flats and Humahuaca, you’re going to be tired of being in the car. It’s much, much easier to stay the night in the pueblos north of Salta and wake up for a morning drive back to the airport on Day 4!
Purmamarca and Tilcara are both small towns centered around tourism. You’ll find small hotels and hostels, restaurants, and souvenir shops along the walkable roads. The one you choose to stay in should be completely dependant on where you get find an open hotel!
Day 4: Purmamarca 7 Color Mountain and drive to airport
You’ll want to get an early start from your hotel in Tilcara or Purmamarca to catch a view of the 7 Color Mountain and get back To Salta in time for your flight!
7 Color Mountain mirador:
The town of Purmamarca is set against a 7 color mountain. This brightly colored mountain stands out among it’s solid color neighbors, making it an eye-catching spectacle.
If you aren’t up to the drive to the Humahuaca Hornocal the evening of Day 3, it’s possible to head to Purmamarca, instead. Early morning is the best time of day to see the view, however, as the lighting is bright and beautiful without being too strong. The brightness of the red mountain in the morning light set against the brown and green hills is striking and gorgeous!
There are two options to view Purmamarca’s 7 Color Mountain:
- 1st route: Drive or walk to the Cerro el Porto once in Purmamarca (search for it on Google Maps.) this is a viewpoint in the back of Purmamara of the mountain up close. You’ll find a sign and set of stairs leading to a small path in the right. This view is much closer of the mountain, and closed during inclimate weather. You also have the option to take a short hike around the mountain from this starting point, which will cost you $20 ARS.
- 2nd route: across Rt 9 From Purmamarca you’ll find a riverbed and dark hill with a red building. There is a gap in the guard rail on the side of the riverbed and a sign indicating a trail. Walk across the dry riverbed and follow spray painted arrows to catch the trail up the hill. It takes 5-10 minutes to walk up the rocky trail to a great viewpoint of the entire colorful mountain with the town in the foreground. You can continue hiking up and around the hill for extra fun! A small donation box is available asking for money to help maintain the path.
Back to Salta
After your quick departing activity get back on the road to Salta. This is a great opportunity to take the picturesque drive along Rt. 9 if you weren’t able to on the way up!
It will take you 2-3 hours to arrive at the Salta airport. Your rental car agency is able to accept the car at the airport’s departure entrance. Just park is along the edge and an employee will be over quickly to take care of you!
You don’t need much time to make it through security in this small airport, so as long as you’ve checked in before your flight an hour’s notice is plenty to spend at the airport.
Adjusting this for a 4- or 5-day Salta Itinerary:
You can easily adjust this 3 day Salta itinerary for a 4- or 5-day trip by taking both suggested day trips south of Salta. Spend an extra night at your Salta hotel and do Los Cordones National Park and Cachi on Day 2 and Cafayate on Day 3 before heading north to Purmarca on day 4!
Alternately, you could keep to the one road trip south plan and spend an extra day in the northern region. Extend Day 3 into a longer road trip to the towns beyond the salt flats, return to Purmamarca for the night, and spend time in Humahuaca and hike the Hornocal on Day 4.
Either way, there is lots and lots to do in this region and you won’t regret the extra time!
Adjusting this for a 2-3 day Salta Itinerary:
This is an easy one! Since the main thing to do in Salta is visit the incredible salt flats, you’ll want to head straight there.
If you only have 2 days in Salta plan to rent your car from the airport and drive straight to Purmamarca. See the 7 Color Mountain and stay the night in Purmamarca, then head straight to the Salinas Grandes in the morning.
You could also spend the remainder of Day 1 in Salta city as suggested, then skip a day trip south and follow this itinerary heading straight north on Day 2. Arrange your time in Purmamarca’s 7 Color Mountain, the Salinas Grandes, and Humahuaca and the Hornocal between Days 2 and 3 to have a little more flexibility in your driving schedule.
Even if all you have time to see is the small pueblos north of Salta and the incredible salt fields you won’t be disappointed in your quick trip to Salta from Buenos Aires!