How to go on an Argentina road trip when you have no car? Well, in many parts of the world, it’s as easy as standing on the side of the road with your thumb out. Argentina is certainly one of them. The friendliness of the people in Argentina makes hitchhiking not only easy, but highly recommended. It’s a great way to meet people and learn a few things about the country. We also fell in love with the authenticity of the towns and villages in the Salta and Jujuy regions. Read how we went hitchhiking in Argentina and discovered the dry beauty of the northwest. Let’s hit the road!
Ain’t it funny? Only a week ago we were shivering in our alpaca jumpers, freezing our bones by the snow-capped mountains on a Patagonia road. And here we are now, sweating our guts off under the blinding sun of northern Argentina. A few night busses and several pit stops away, and it feels like another world.
Of course, it’s what people feel all the time when they take the plane to cross a country. As for us, we don’t take the plane when we can take the bus. It’s a matter of principles, you know?
Hitchhiking in South America
We often dreamt of hitchhiking our whole way through South America, and read several stories of people who did. Stories of travellers hitchhiking Patagonia, hitchhiking El Chaltén to Bariloche, or even further south, left us dreaming.
We were never put off by fear. If we know what to do and are clever enough to avoid the wrong places, we know nothing should happen. We were rather put off by the time wasted on the side of the road. The vastness of South America was calling us, and we didn’t want to spend our time standing there!
We did try a few times though, and succeeded most of them. When we didn’t, it was probably due to our lack of patience. Our short Brazil road trip from Ouro Preto to Rio stopped near the nondescript town of Conselheiro Lafaiete. Our Lake District road trip was done entirely by thumb; and we spent several days trekking around Bariloche without taking the bus once. That’s also how we explored the whole Chiloé archipelago, hopping from one island to another.
We found it easier and less time-consuming to hitchhike within one region rather than from one region to another. That’s why we tried again here, on this road trip in the northwest of Argentina; from village to city, crossing the puna and vast cacti deserts.
Arrival in Cafayate
Our bus trip to Cafayate, our first stop in the northwest of Argentina, was a funny experience. Let’s call it ‘funny’ for now. Coming from Santiago, Chile, we wanted to avoid the almost 30 hours sitting on a bus. So we did it in 3 times, stopping during the day in Mendoza and La Rioja, and travelling by night.
We wrote our musings about that trip
So we’re not exactly fresh when we arrive early morning in Cafayate; a small backpackers hub surrounded by a dry desert at the threshold of the Altiplano. Not so dry though, as it’s famous for its vineyards of the sweet, white torrontés wine.
It’s a town full of tourists and inflated accommodation online prices. But we did as per usual and waited until we got to town to find a dorm. And as per usual, it was easier than petting a llama without getting spat at; a delegation from several hostels was waiting for us at the bus station, more eager to find customers than we were to find a bed. Short discussion, little price reduction (about 3 times less than if booked online) and off we went. We never book hotels in advance.
Quebrada de Cafayate
There’s not much to do in town, except getting drunk on sweet wine and craft beer. But the main attraction is the surroundings – they are marvellous!
The most popular tour is a half-day circuit visiting the amazing, wind-created rock formations of the Quebrada de las Conchas (the ‘Canyon of the Shells’, also called Quebrada de Cafayate). The tour starts early afternoon and goes through several spots with spectacular shapes and colours. We take a couple of short hikes and end up for sunset at the most famous, Garganta del Diablo, an impressive chimney-like hole within the cliff.
Since the tour has several stops on the road and significant distance between them, we decided not to hitchhike it. There again, our fear of wasting time.
Apart from this tour there are other day-trip options from the small town of Cafayate:
- the Calchaquí Valley to Cachi (the road we took on the day after)
- several waterfalls, like the ones on the Rio Colorado, a 1,5 hour-walk from town
- Quilmes, the ruins of an indigenous fort, which is easy to visit independently
- a wine tour in one of the vineyards
- the sand dunes of Los Médanos for a perfect sunset
Altitude in the northwest of Argentina
At less than 1,700 m (5,500 ft), we’re not very high in altitude yet, but we know we will soon be. The “puna“, they call it here, the high plateaus of northwestern Argentina. It’s a word we will often hear together with “soroche” – the altitude sickness in the Andean world. They say you start feeling it at 2,500 m (8,200 ft) and above. And with the soroche comes the “coca“, its direct remedy.
Therefore we must get ready. We’ll buy at the market a pack of those terribly bitter leaves that we’re supposed to let sit on a side of our mouth. The thing costs peanuts but certainly doesn’t taste as good. (If only we could keep peanuts in our cheeks like chipmunks and be immune to the altitude sickness.)
Honestly, there’s an easier way, that only needs a bit of preparation: soak them in boiled water and drink that as an infusion. We’ll certainly do that.
The main cities of Salta and Jujuy aren’t high either, with respectively 1,150 m (3,770 ft) and 1,260 m (4,130 ft). The roads we take though are sometimes winding at impressive heights. This is the altitude of the villages we went to:
- Cachi: 2,530 m (8,300 ft)
- Purmamarca: 2,324 m (7,625 ft)
- Tilcara: 2,465 m (8,090 ft)
- Humahuaca: 3,010 m (9,875 ft)
We’ve learnt that there are 4 types of camelids in the Andean mountains, and not just llamas, like we used to say in a rough-and-ready way. There are llamas, guanacos, vicuñas and alpacas, all with their peculiarities.
Leaving Cafayate – Argentina Route 40
So off we went at last, on our hitchhiking road trip in the northwest of Argentina. One (not so early) morning, we stood on the side of the road at the exit of Cafayate.
There are 2 roads from Cafayate to Salta:
- the quicker Route 68 that we took on the day before as part of the Quebrada de las Conchas tour
- the longer, more scenic but less frequented National Route 40, along the Calchaquí Valley.
The Route 40 in Argentina crosses the whole country from Rio Gallegos to the border with Bolivia at La Quiaca. It’s probably the most scenic South America road trip route, crossing a plethora of landscapes throughout Argentina and allowing to visit Patagonia and the Perito Moreno glacier, several Lake District scenic drives (like the famous Camino de los siete lagos), to do a very cool Mendoza road trip to its best vineyards, and to cross the Andean northwest like we’re doing now. All this in just one long 5,194 km (3,227 mi) ribbon of asphalt… well, there isn’t asphalt everywhere on Ruta 40, as we were about to realise.
The dusty road to Cachi
As I said, we stood right outside of Cafayate, after the northern bridge but before the road parts into two. Near that tree, where the branch bends like an elbow, you see? Our plan was to let destiny decide which way we would go and therefore what we would discover.
Destiny took the shape of John and Niah, two US American tourists in their rented car. They were on their way to what’s probably the most remote contemporary art museum in the world, outside of Molinos. A quick check at where Molinos was: so we were taking Route 40. Woohoo!
And how spectacular that part of our Argentina road trip was! We crossed sleepy villages that looked like ghost towns; and their cemeteries, almost frozen in time. We stopped at viewpoints overlooking the whole valley from high up in the puna. We explored a forest of tall rocks, split, shaped and folded by the hands of time.
Getting picked up by other tourists when you’re visiting a region is the best thing that can happen to you. Local people can pick you up, truck drivers can give you a long ride; but tourists share your curiosity and stop where you also want to stop.
From Molinos we got picked up by another couple of tourists, Italian and filming the whole route with their GoPro. Anna and I are probably documented too. It was a rough desert ride and Cachi had the effect of a mirage when we arrived. We grabbed a delicious grilled tortilla filled with cheese and rested on the wide, leafy square.
It’s a cute, tiny, atmospheric village right at the feet of the Nevado de Cachi mountains. The main square and the few streets around are of white houses, and cactus wood is heavily used here as a building material. Cactus wood is from dead “cardones” cactus: it looks like there are linear narrow holes in the wood. Cutting down a cactus to make your own lamp is prohibited, but there’s no shortage of the stuff in the nearby Cardones National Park.
Although our goal was to arrive in Salta on the same day, it didn’t go as planned. After a short waiting time on the road, we decided to stay the night and found an accommodation easily. While we were sorting our stuff in the dorm, who came in but Niah and John!
The Andes mountains roads down to Salta are winding and nauseating. Luckily, we were comfortably sitting at the table of a motorhome; the Argentine couple who picked us up had a lot of travel stories to tell. They stopped at a mountain top to show us the view and the place for Indigenous offering to the Pachamama, the mother earth.
We arrived in Salta with dizziness in our bellies, and were happy to meet Elias and rest at his place; thanks to Couchsurfing, it would be our home for 3 days. Hitchhiking and Couchsurfing are 2 ingredients to travel in Argentina on a budget.
The region’s capital is a beautiful town with colonial architecture. The main square is surrounded by gorgeous buildings; and the San Francisco church, which looks rather like a theatre with its stone curtains on the facade, is just one block away.
The local hero that gives his name to countless public places (streets, halls, squares, etc.) here is Güemes: a general in the war of independence who was born in Salta. It’s a very authentic town with the most folklore performances I’ve seen at one place. At the colourful market one can buy fruits and veggies, colourful artefacts and eat at a very local food court.
Salta & the Salta province are part of our 2-week Argentina itinerary
Day trips from Salta, Argentina
- Cachi and the Valle del Calchaquí, where we come from
- Quebrada de Cafayate, easily accessible from Salta too
- wine tasting in Cafayate
- Purmamarca, Tilcara & Humahuaca with El Hornocal, where we’re going next
- Salinas Grandes, smaller than the Uyuni salt flats but just as fascinating
- trekking in the Andes
There are here again 2 roads connecting Salta to Jujuy. Route 9 to the north is a scenic drive along the Caldera river, a great hiking spot with little traffic. We took Route 34 to the east, which is longer and nothing special, but gets much more traffic.
The capital of the Jujuy region really has a funny-sounding name. It doesn’t attract tourists like Cafayate, but it’s a comfortable stop on the way north. The local hero is Belgrano, who created and used the national flag for the first time here.
The town hall houses this flag in an exquisite room – it’s free to visit. Downtown is ending along the wide riverbed of Rio Chico (“small river”). The space is used smartly: a cute park was created in the part of the riverbed which is not under water; it’s popular with locals who meet up to drink mate…
Hold on a sec! Want to know what mate is?
The cacophony of the dirty local market reminds us that we are very close to Bolivia. This is made obvious by the local meals and the indigenous faces coquear-ing (yes, there’s a verb meaning ‘chewing coca leaves’).
We had to take a bus to leave town because the main road (Route 9) doesn’t go through. A short hop until Villa Jardín was enough; and there we went again, happily holding our thumb out. We never waited long during our whole hitchhiking road trip in Argentina: probably no more than 20-30 minutes on average.
There are 3 famous villages in the north of Jujuy with amazing landscapes right at their doorstep. They are quite touristy but the views they offer are certainly worth the crowd.
The man who picked us up from Villa Jardín was driving all the way to the border, so we made the most of it and let him drop us at Humahuaca, the village that is the furthest to the north. It’s a small hamlet that seems 1/3 Indigenous locals and 2/3 stinking backpackers.
Near Humahuaca is El Hornocal that is also called the 14 colours mountain. It’s an amazing mountain with symmetric triangle shapes in several colours. It looks like it’s been folded, as a result of the erosion. The different colours are caused by different minerals in the rocks; for example red comes from iron, violet from copper and green from sulphur. In my opinion this is the most beautiful and extraordinary sight around the 3 villages.
The site is a 40-min drive uphill from Humahuaca. We could either take a tour (cost 300 ARS in 2019) or rent a car. As usual, we took the 3rd option and hitchhiked. Stepping out of the hostel, walking to the path and getting picked up by a Polish couple took us less than 30 minutes altogether. Who wants to worry about anything when everything happens so smoothly?
Note that el Hornocal is at 4,350 m (14,270 ft) in altitude. So breathlessness and slight headache can affect people who haven’t got used to the height yet.
Hitchhiking in this part of Argentina really seems like the easiest thing in the world. We started wondering why there was public transportation in the first place. There was even a time when we were told that the bus would pass by 5 minutes later. We stuck our thumb out anyway to try our luck… and got picked up before the bus came.
Tilcara is the biggest and most touristic village of the 3, but the village centre still manages to keep its charm. For those who missed Quilmes near Cafayate, here’s an opportunity to see the ruins of a pre-inca fort; Pucará de Tilcara (pucará means ‘fort’) is a few minutes drive from the village.
Purmamarca is the smallest pueblo of them all, literally encased at the foot of the mountains. It consists only of a handful of streets which are flooded with tourist goods and grilled tortilla rellena, the folded flat bread filled with cheese that we first encountered in Cachi. It’s a delicacy typical to the northwest of Argentina and a most satisfying street food indeed.
Surprisingly short is the walk to the 7 colours mountain, the main village attraction. In fact, the whole hamlet is surrounded with dry colourful mountains, literally at the end of every street. I don’t think there’s space enough to build one more house — quite a bizarre location to settle a village.
We’re at the end of our northwest Argentina itinerary and we’ve loved hitchhiking in those beautiful landscapes. Our day on the road was long and our night was short; at 3 am, our bus picked us up from Purmamarca and brought us to the otherworldly Atacama planet in Chile.
Keep on reading: How to visit the Atacama with no stress
Folklore in the north of Argentina
The population of Salta and Jujuy is the most rooted in traditions that we saw while travelling in Argentina. In these regions, folklore is pretty much alive, much more than in the rest of the country. We often saw live music and dancing events on the streets of Salta; performed by both old and young, in costume or not, as a show or just an informal gathering. Instead of discos, the evening entertainment is at peñas, folklore dancing parties.
Read more: The folklore dances of North Argentina
Tips to hitchhike in Argentina
Hitchhiking is legal everywhere in Argentina and is even practised by locals in several regions where public transport is scarce.
Outside of Buenos Aires, few people speak English in Argentina. Therefore speaking some rudimentary Spanish can definitely help you on your travels. Otherwise, you’ll surely be able to get where you want, but you’ll miss out on so many captivating stories! First lesson: ‘hitchhiking’ is called in Argentina “hacer dedo” or “ir a dedo“.
Learn more: Beginner’s Guide to Argentine Spanish
Don’t be shy and ask people. We’ve never had any problem getting lifts in the northwest, just by smiling on the side of the road. But asking drivers at gas stations or truck stops will get you en route to travel the world.
Argentina is divided into provinces. Some place names are very common in the country and repeat themselves in several provinces. So if you plan on travelling long distances, it can be helpful to have a sign stating which province you’re going too.
Because of the immensity of the territory, driving around South America requires a lot of time on your hands; so hitchhiking even more so. Carrying a tent or any sleeping option could be a good idea. For the same reason, always carry enough food for a couple of days.
Is hitchhiking in Argentina safe? Yes. But it’s up to you to get into trouble if that’s what you want. The best way for that is to completely ignore common sense.
Ah, the freedom of driving a camping car and stopping wherever you please! If you’ve done that anywhere in Latin America, we’d love to hear from you!
Other Argentina road trip options
While writing this post and reminiscing about our beautiful time in the Northwest of Argentina, the wanderlust caught us again. As it happens. We started remembering the other places where we had road trips; and the places where we would have liked to but didn’t make it.
We’ve already mentioned the Lake District in Argentina, which is a perfect place for a hitchhiking road trip. A Patagonia trip, wilder and more remote, requires a car — although many backpackers explore it by thumb.
A north-south road trip Salta to Mendoza is probably a beautiful option; stopping on the way at the Talampaya National Park and the Ischigualasto Provincial Park, both only accessible by car. A stunning journey from the desert to what used to be a desert and is now the country’s wine cellar.
We would love to have a long road trip through Chile and Argentina, exploring all the diverse landscapes of those 2 gigantic countries. Stories from trips down the Carretera Austral sound both fascinating and a bit mythical. Hitchhiking El Calafate to Puerto Natales is on our dream list! And you, what road trip is on yours?
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Are you ready for your own Argentina road trip?
If you did one, tell us how it went in the comments below!