Quebrada de Humahuaca is a narrow mountain valley located in the province of Jujuy in the extreme northwest of Argentina, having border with two countries: Bolivia and Chile. Pre-Columbian inhabitants, as the Omaguacas and Ocloyas, lived in this area until being conquered by the Incas during their expansion period in the 15th century. After that, they were conquered by the Spanish until the Independence days in the 19th century. It is one of the poorest provinces of Argentina with a GDP per capita 40% below the country national average.
It is also one of the most authentic provinces in the country with several well-conserved Inca ruins and strong aboriginal roots where cultures like Aymará and Quechua still coexist. According to the UNESCO World Heritage site, this place "shows substantial evidence of its use as a major trade route over the past 10,000 years. It features visible traces of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities, of the Inca Empire (15th to 16th centuries) and of the fight for independence in the 19th and 20th centuries".
The capital city of the province is San Salvador de Jujuy, but it is commonly known as Jujuy. The city has a small colonial center but there aren't many things to do, except to admire a few historical buildings, including the Cathedral, the Government Palace, the Belgrano Square and the Cabildo. The city was originally founded in 1593 as a trade route between the silver mines of Potosí (Bolivia) and San Miguel de Tucumán (Argentina).
We spent just a few hours in the city since it was completely crowded with people and cars. We found a nice vegetarian restaurant in the city center (finally vegetarian food!) called "Madre Tierra" and we enjoyed the fresh and tasty daily menu with natural juices. We also had time to visit the "Museo de Maquetas" (Models Museum), with approximately 70 models representing life and habits of the indigenous people that inhabited the country and the province. The models are actually really good and the museum is completely free!
But this region has many things to offer, specially for nature lovers... Here we list the top 7 things to visit in the area:
1. Cerro Hornocal
Most people come to this region to visit the picturesque Cerro Hornocal, a vivid and colorful rock formation (similar to waves) surrounded by spectacular mountains and a dry river-scoured canyon (Rio Grande). This area is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and some people claim that is possible to see about 30 different colors. These colors represent different periods in History and the most ancient has about 75 million of years (Age of dinosaurs)! The colors and the contrast deserve to be seen closer and it's relatively easy if you have a car - 25km from Humahuaca town (40m driving) until the viewpoint (4,300m above sea level).
Cerro Hornocal is also very close to the Humahuaca town, so don't miss the opportunity to visit it. The atmosphere is great, full of indigenous people selling handmade products, several terraces and plazas, and old adobe houses.
2. Tres Cruces: Espinazo del diablo
A little bit farther away, 118km from San Salvador de Jujuy, and just before arriving into the Tres Cruces town, it is possible to admire the Espinazo del Diablo ("Devil's Backbone"), another spectacular rock formation. This can be seen from route 9 but you can also go inside the town and see an old train station that brings you back to the Wild West period.
3. Purmamarca and Cierro de los Siete Colores
Purmamarca is probably the most famous town inside the Quebrada de Humahuaca (it distances 65km from San Salvador de Jujuy and only 22km from Tilcara) and also the most touristic. It is a beautiful town indeed, surrounded by the colorful mountains and maintaining an old colonial style architecture. It is also a great place to buy handcrafts due to its big local market in and around the main plaza.
The famous trekking "Paseo de los Colorados" can be done driving or walking (it's only 3km!). We did a mix of both things and seeing the valley colors and contrasts closer than in the Purmamarca town was well worth it.
4. Maimará and Paleta del Pintor
Maimará is the closest town to Tilcara (only 5km) and it is also part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Paleta del Pintor ("Painter's Palette") is the name given to the magnificent geographical feature just opposite the small town. The mountains are as colorful as if they had been painted on purpose! Another thing to visit in Maimará is the cemetery that can be seen on Route 9 - it is a very unusual one, laying around the hill with crosses and sculptures.
5. Tilcara and the Pucará
Tilcara (84 km from San Salvador de Jujuy) was our base to explore the region. It is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of Argentina with traces of humans that back more than 10,000 years. The biggest attractions in Tilcara are the Pucará (a partially reconstructed ruins of a Pre-Inca town) and the Devil's Throat (an hike that can be done close to the town where it is possible to see a small waterfall and the canyon). We visited both and they were not our favorite things in the area: the first one was too touristic and the second one didn't offer anything different from other things we've seen around.
Nonetheless, we enjoyed Tilcara town! There's several accommodations, very good restaurants and tons of places to buy handcrafts and souvenirs.
6. Salinas Grandes
Salinas Grandes is a large salt flat located 190 km from San Salvador de Jujuy and around 90 km from Purmamarca. This route, between Purmamarca and Salinas Grandes, has terrific landscapes and you should not miss it! Colorful mountains, deep canyons, wild animals (vicuñas and llamas specially) and, of course, high altitudes (aprox. 4,000m above sea level).
The salt flat it also a beautiful place! The road to Chile (Paso de Jama) crosses it so it is impossible to miss this place if visiting the area. Although it covers 6,000 km2 it is relatively small when compared to Uyuni salt flat (Bolívia), for example.
7. Tropico de Capricornio
Tropic of Capricorn is just a landmark but can be seen close to Huacalera town in route 9. There is also a sun watch which makes it perfect for a couple of pictures!
Next stop: Atacama (Chile!)
- For better and cheaper accommodation stay at Tilcara and use it as your base to explore the region.
- Tilcara has also very good restaurants. Make sure you go to El Nuevo Progreso, one of the best restaurants we've been in all country
- Cerro Hornocal: 30$ARG per car | Devil's Throat: 10$ARG per person - all other attractions are free to visit if you have your own car/transport
- If you are planning to cross the border to Chile (Paso de Jama) check if it is open before. It happened to us that the 3 or 4 days before we planned to cross the border it was closed. The best is to check the official web of Chile or their Twitter account (this last one is very efficient!)