Northwest Salta and the Quebrada del Toro

The landscapes of northwestern Salta province are utterly spectacular. In one simple, unforgettable journey up the Quebrada del Toro from Salta city to the town of San Antonio de los Cobres, you'll travel through an extraordinary spectrum from dense forest, gorges of brightly coloured rock strewn with cactus, to the silent expanses of high-altitude desert in the puna. This is the route of Argentina's famous narrow-gauge railway, Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), but it's a long, frustrating and very touristy experience. Far better to take a minibus tour or hire a car, and take time to pause and explore on the way. You might stay a night in the forested weekend resort of Campo Quijano, and don't miss the superb ruined city of Santa Rosa de Tastil, one of Argentina's archaeological gems. Set in stunning rocky landscapes, there's fascinating evidence of ancient pre-Inca and Inca civilizations here, and a local guide will bring it all alive. At the top of the gorge, the quiet mining town San Antonio de los Cobres is at its best for the Fiesta de la Pachamama in August, and a good stopping point before setting off into the puna. To offset altitude sickness, stop off for coca tea with typical punafamily Sandro Yampa at el Mojón, and then be dazzled by the shimmering white expanse of the Salinas Grandes salt flats. From here you could drop to Purmamarca in the Quebrada de Humahuaca down the thrilling Cuesta de Lipán road. Or head west, further into the punato discover tranquil isolation at Tolar Grande.

Ins and outs

This part of Salta has traditionally been the sole preserve of the Tren a las Nubes, but in the last few years, another tour operator Movitracki, has run very successful tours along the same route which actually allow you to see far more of the impressive engineering of the train track, and certainly absorb more of the landscape. Inevitably, other tour operators followed, and along Salta's Calle Buenos Aires, you'll find plenty of tours on offer, though Movitrack is the only company to have pressurized oxygen pumped vehicles to counter the inevitable effects of altitude. It's well worth hiring a car to explore the Quebrada del Toro, and to make time to see Santa Rosa de Tastil, which few agencies include in any detail. Ask the tourist office for latest information on local guides at the site, since there is a new project to put trained locals in place. There is comfortable accommodation at San Antonio de los Cobres, but very little on the way. If cycling, note that much of the road is ripio, that there is no shade, and it's extremely cold at night. However you travel, the effects of altitude are not to be underestimated, since you'll be climbing to nearly 4000 m. You must take time for your body to adjust if you're going to exert yourself beyond a gentle stroll. Drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol and don't over-eat. Take it easy and you should feel fine.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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