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I Zigzagged Through Northern Argentina in a ’90s Land Cruiser

Seven days of salt flats, horseback riding, and mountain views.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Aidan Klimenko
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Aidan Klimenko

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations and itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

When Jenny Olson, a freelance brand marketer, decided to join her photographer boyfriend, Aidan Klimenko, on a six-month photography project through South America along the Pan-American Highway, she thought living in their 70 Series Land Cruiser with a converted camper would be a challenge. “But once I learned the ropes and established a routine, I found it to be an incredible way to explore new places off the normal travel path,” Olson says. After making their way through Peru and Bolivia, the pair crossed into northern Argentina, where they spent a week road-tripping from Salta to Mendoza. Among her favorite parts of the trip were tasting local wines from the region, horseback riding, and waking up to views of the Andes. The first hotel they stayed in even became the venue for their impromptu wedding: “We liked it so much, we went back a month later to get married!”

Day 1

8 a.m.: Arrive in Salta

After a 17-hour drive from Atacama, Chile, we arrived in Salta on a bright, sunny morning, anxious to explore the capital of Argentina’s northern region, known for its Spanish Colonial architecture and Andean roots. If you’re flying, the best way is through Buenos Aires’s Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) and then hopping on a two-hour Argentinas Aerolíneas flight to Salta’s Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport (SLA).

Noon: Check into a farmhouse hotel

Though we already have a mode of transportation, many people we met rented cars at the Salta airport to travel south and ultimately drop off the rental car at Mendoza El Plumerillo International Airport (MDZ). We suggest choosing a 4x4 vehicle to allow for any chance of unpaved roads and a little bit of off-roading. While we usually slept in the camper on the back of our truck, every so often we found a hotel to give us a break from our home on wheels. We drove along the dusty roads lined with mom-and-pop empanada shops with hand-painted signs, finally reaching the House of Jasmines (Ruta Nacional N 51 km 6 La Merced Chica), a quiet farmhouse hotel, or estancia, located just outside town at the foothills of the lush Andes Mountains. Canopied by 100-year-old eucalyptus trees, the property transports you back centuries, with horses roaming freely and classic whitewashed adobe structures.

4 p.m.: Go horseback riding

After checking in to the hotel and taking a moment to rest, we took a horseback ride around the 100-acre property. Our guide, Diego, gave us beginner lessons on how to ride a horse and regaled us with the history of the area. It’s also a beautiful opportunity to bird-watch; we spotted burrowing owls and southern crested caracaras. The ride was exceptionally leisurely, as my horse, Gordo, took every opportunity to graze on greenery during the ride!

7 p.m.: Have empanadas for dinner, then hit the spa

After our late-afternoon horseback ride, we made our way to dinner at La Table (Ruta Nacional N 51 km 6 La Merced Chica), the hotel’s restaurant, known for its northern Argentinian dishes and homegrown fruits, vegetables, and spices raised in the garden on the property. Argentina is known for its empanadas and steak, and the chef did not disappoint; the meat empanada here is still my favorite Argentine empanada to date. After dinner, we moseyed over to the spa to enjoy hour-long massages followed by a visit to the Turkish steam bath and sauna — a perfect respite after all that driving. Don’t forget to say hi to the resident spa kitty, Gringa!

Day 2

6 a.m.: Check out the salt flats

After hearing how many swoon-worthy day trips there are from Salta, we decided to get exploring. We hopped in the truck and headed three and a half hours northwest to the Salinas Grandes, expansive salt flats with a crystalized surface that feels like you’re on a different planet.

11 a.m.: Drive winding mountain roads to lunch

We then ventured an hour east toward the Cuesta de Lipán, a steep, winding road we heard has incredible mountain views. Fully paved, the road is about 17 kilometers long and extends from the Salinas Grandes to the village of Purmamarca. (If you like to bike and are up for a physical challenge, we saw many riders on this route.) After stopping to gaze at the magnificent view from one of the miradors, we had lunch in Purmamarca, a touristy but charming town set at the base of a striking mountain range with bright hues of red and orange. We ate at El Mesón (Belgrano s/n, Y4618 Purmamarca), known for its amazing wines and cuisine. We ordered the three-course set menu, which includes homemade pasta and incredible flan.

3 p.m.: Visit the Serranía de Hornocal mountain range

As a final stop in this sightseeing-packed day, we drove an hour north to the village of Humahuaca to spend the afternoon taking in the unique panorama of Serranía de Hornocal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its multicolor mountain range in a V-shaped geometric form. Wild vicuña, relatives of the llama and alpaca known for their extremely long necks and slender legs, grazed peacefully nearby.

Day 3

7 a.m.: Head to Cafayate, the ‘Tuscany of Argentina’

We woke up early, checked out of the hotel, and started to drive south on Route 68 to our next city destination, Cafayate. Sometimes referred to as the “Tuscany of Argentina,” Cafayate is famous in Argentina for its dramatic red-rock formations and around the world for its picturesque vineyards and crisp white grape, the Torrontés (which is grown only in this area).

Noon: Check into a hotel on a vineyard

We checked into Patios de Cafayate (RN40 Km 4343 Cafayate, A4427), a Spanish Colonial hotel located on a 17th-century estate that shares a property with the sun-soaked vineyard of Bodega El Esteco (RN40 km 4343, A4427 Cafayate). Originally built as a manor house next to a sprawling cattle ranch, the hotel opened two centuries later with just five rooms. Keeping authentic architecture and craftsmanship in mind, the hotel was eventually built out into 32 spacious rooms featuring local artwork, handwoven upholstery, and a quaint chapel that is original to the estate. We spent the day hanging by the pool with views of the Calchaquí Valley and swapped travel stories with other guests.

3 p.m.: Buy espadrilles and wine in Cafayate

We walked around the romantic town of Cafayate, meandering through the central plaza to take in some local music and look for souvenirs. We found many artisanal shops around the main square, featuring maté (the national drink of Argentina), alpargatas (Spanish espadrilles), dulce de leche (sweet caramelized milk, Argentina’s most popular treat), and, you guessed it, vino. One of the many wineshops, Vinoteca Vinos de Cafayate (San Martín N°65), introduced us to our new favorite Malbec from the Cafayate vineyard of Domingo Molina, with blended grapes from the Rupestre and Yacochuya valleys. We loaded up on meats and cheese in town to have a picnic the next day in the Calchaquí Valley.

Day 4

9 a.m.: Drive through the Quebrada de las Conchas

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we hopped back on Route 68 for a 20-minute drive to the Calchaqui Valley to continue exploring the spectacular landscape. We found the Quebrada de las Conchas (or Shell Ravine) to be one of the most impressive stretches of road we have ever driven. This natural preserve includes majestic red-rock formations like Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), Los Castillos (the Castles), and the famous El Anfiteatro, a large, semi-open natural amphitheater. Even if you sing only in the shower, you need to test out your pipes to hear the incredible acoustics here!

Noon: Stop for a scenic picnic

With a setting this picturesque, we pulled off to the side of the road and enjoyed our packed picnic by the Conchos River and watched as locals fished along its sandy banks.

3 p.m.: Hike along Quebrada de las Conchas

After a restorative lunch by the river, we got our bodies moving by hiking the Quebrada de las Conchas via El Paso. It feels spiritual walking amid such large beautiful structures, which only get better as the sun begins to set. I took the opportunity to find a canyon all to myself and have a solo dance party.

Day 5

8 a.m.: Embark on a 13-hour drive on Ruta 40 to Mendoza

Sad to check out of Patios hotel and leave Cafayate but excited for our next stop in Mendoza, we took the famous Ruta 40, Argentina’s longest route and one of the longest in the world at around 5,000 kilometers. Running parallel with the Andes, this passage is known for its remote and rugged terrain, though it’s pretty well maintained throughout this northern section. This is a big driving day as Mendoza is 13 hours from Cafayate. If a 13-hour drive isn’t your thing, head three hours north back to Salta and take an easy one-hour, 45-minute flight from Salta to Mendoza. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for my favorite meal: pescado a la plancha y arroz (grilled fish and rice).

7 p.m.: Camp along the Rio Jáchal

If you have an inkling to car camp, we used the app iOverlander to find the most idyllic spot on the Jáchal River (look for the one named Rio Jáchal Wild Camping, near Niquivil). With the whole valley to ourselves, we had a swim in the crystal-clear river and took in the neon sunset. If car camping isn’t your thing, there are a few spots we noticed along the way to rest our heads, including Chañarmuyo Wine and Guest House in La Rioja Province (five and a half hours from Cafayate) and Tres Cruces Wine Lodge in Villa Unión (seven and a half hours from Cafayate).

Day 6

8 a.m: Make a brief pit stop in Mendoza 

While we were paused at a stoplight in Mendoza, a stranger welcomed us to the city with a box of grapes and a smile. With more than 1,000 vineyards, Mendoza produces about 70 percent of Argentina’s wines, making it the sixth-largest wine producer in the world (wine is a big deal in Argentina, if you haven’t picked up on that already). We walked around the city, visiting the Plaza Independencia (Gral. Espejo 300), a landscaped square in the center of town, before getting lunch at Anna Bistró (Avenida Juan B. Justo 161). This upscale casual restaurant had lovely outdoor seating, and the housemade pasta was incredible.

3 p.m.: Check in to a wine lodge

And now, what we came here for: the vineyards! We checked in to Cavas Wine Lodge (C. Costa Flores s/n), a luxury property located outside the city and nestled into a 55-acre vineyard. You walk through grapevines to reach your private adobe villa, with each room featuring a personal plunge pool and rooftop to look over the vines and enjoy the sunset.

Day 7

9 a.m.: Bike around the vineyards

We woke up and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of freshly squeezed juices and a pastry spread made for royalty at the hotel. Don’t forget to try the dulce de leche on your morning toast — a true delight! We then biked around the 35-acre vineyard property, exploring rows and rows of grapes, from Malbec and Bonarda to Cabernet and Cabernet Sauvignon. Each section has a QR code for you to learn more about the variety you’re seeing.

Noon: Taste some wines

A trip to Mendoza isn’t complete without a vineyard tour and wine tasting. While Cavas sells most of its grapes and keeps only enough to make 8,000 bottles a year, it sets up tastings at neighboring venues. We had lunch at Bodega Lagarde (San Martín 1745), one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, then opted for tastings at small family-owned wineries like De Angeles (Roque Sáenz Peña 1635) and Viña Alicia (Terrada, Anchorena &, Mayor Drummond). It’s worth noting that the Ruca Malen winery is reopening soon with chef Mariano Gallego from the well-known Brindillas restaurant running the kitchen.

7 p.m.: Have one last dinner, followed by a wine bath 

We ended the day with dinner at the hotel’s restaurant (chef Lucas Gonzalez uses fresh veggies and ingredients from the garden) and enjoyed the hotel spa’s signature vinotherapy, which uses various parts of the grape, such as the stem and seeds, as part of a treatment. The Bonarda wine bath is an excellent excuse to kick back and relax while soaking in the benefits of the detoxifying grape extracts. It was the perfect way to end this leg of the trip before heading back to Buenos Aires the next day.

Jenny’s Northern Argentina packing list

Aidan gifted me a Yashica T4 35mm camera for my birthday, and I love how easy it is to shoot. I use Portra 400 film (when I can find it) and have been really happy with the results. They don’t make this camera anymore, but you can find a few on eBay!

The Away F.A.R convertible backpack has been my go-to for weekend trips and hotel or hostel stays. We also rely on Away’s packing cubes to keep us organized both in and out of the truck.

Bombas’ merino-wool socks are hands down my favorites to have while traveling. They are supersoft and keep my feet warm and cozy while hiking.

I love Alex Mill’s men’s clothing. This jacket has been a versatile option for this road trip (and it pairs with everything).

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I Zigzagged Through Argentina in a ’90s Land Cruiser