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Shadows fall from mountain ridges to a green valley in Salta, Argentina.

Photograph by Image Broker/Alamy

5 Hidden Adventures in Argentina's Rugged Northwest

Head to this secluded South American region for fewer crowds and greater thrills.

While most travelers land in the country’s capital of Buenos Aires and head straight to Mendoza's wine country and the impressive glacial ranges of Patagonia, there’s much more to discover in this adventurous South American country.

Just a two-hour flight north of Buenos Aires is the colonial town of Salta, a provincial, Wild West capital rife with neoclassical churches and café-lined squares. Head to the region to llama trek along ancient cultural routes, horseback ride at historic cattle farms, and hike to the country's most prominent rock art galleries.

To experience the rainbow hills, colorful canyons, and miles of rolling vineyards in Argentina’s jaw-dropping northwest, try one of these five under-the-radar adventures.

Hike to Hidden Rock Art Galleries in Guachipas

Two hours southwest of Salta is the arid Lerma Valley, home to the idyllic historic town of Guachipas. Often regarded as an energetic, spiritually connected destination, the area features a network of hidden rock art galleries. The newly discovered paintings reveal indigenous customs believed to be nearly 1,000 years old. The paintings are sprinkled throughout the hills of the valley as an offering to the sun and Mother Earth, called Pachamama, through depictions of traditional offerings and rites of initiation.

With local operator Autentica Salta, depart Guachipas for a three-hour circuit hike to discover the pinturas (paintings), which usually require maneuvering to view their majesty beneath the rock face. Known as the Cerro Cuevas Pintadas de Guachipas, the central gallery area is formed by 33 eaves, where drawings and abstract forms create perfectly preserved visual stories of the civilization’s earliest beliefs and ways of life.

Predominant figures include llamas, guanacos, and vivid shield men, the latter drawn in mask-like form and believed to symbolize sorcerers or shamans with a direct connection to the supernatural world of the gods. Although rare, paintings of jaguars, spiders, birds, scorpions, foxes, and felines have been spotted, forming one of the finest—albeit lesser-known—archaeological sites in Argentina.

Cycle the Wine Region of Cafayate

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Grapevines grow at a winery in Cafayate, Argentina.

Three hours south of Salta is the desert town of Cafayate, home to red-rock canyons and flush with stunning hikes to natural monuments. Be sure to glimpse Cafayate’s towering rock formations at Quebrada de las Conchas, and slip into the narrow slit that reveals the giant amphitheater of Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat).

It’s hard to leave town without tasting the valley’s prized torrontes, one of Argentina’s fastest growing wine varietals. This crisp and refreshing white wine flourishes in its high-altitude home, landing Cafayate on the radar of oenophiles everywhere.

Upend typical cycling holidays for a ride through Cafayate, a town flanked by the Argentine Andes. Packed with short, friendly hills and close to tough mountain climbs, the area will appease both novice riders and experienced cyclists. In the fall of 2020, TDA Cycling will launch its annual South American Epic, a continent-spanning journey split into 9 sections. For 14 days and across approximately 965 miles, cyclists will ride from Salta to Cafayate, weaving along historic Ruta 68 through the Calchaquí Valleys, where it’s not uncommon to ride past Argentine gauchos herding horses beneath the snowcapped Andes range. Before reaching Mendoza and crossing into Chile, riders will venture south through Talampaya National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site containing the most complete continental fossil record from the Triassic period.

Llama Trek in Purmamarca and Tilcara

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A hiker looks over Quebrada de Humahuaca while trekking Argentina's Camino de los Colorados trail.

In the Jujuy Province, nearly three hours north of Salta, Quebrada de Humahuaca dominates the horizon. This valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and traces the ancient Camino Inca cultural route, a path weaving from the high desert plateau in the Andean highlands to the fertile valley of the Rio Grande. Begin your journey in the town of Purmamarca, which rests at Cerro Siete Colores’ colorful base. The site is even more remarkable at sunset, when the hill’s colors appear to undulate in waves.

To learn more about the region’s long-standing traditions, join Say Hueque on a trek with a local family and their prized llamas. Together you’ll depart nearby Tilcara for a six-hour hike to the settlement of Zanjas—a remote locale only reachable by foot. Once you arrive at the mountaintop, you’ll begin a memorable homestay in an area blanketed with hundreds of archaeological and architectural sites. Connecting the region’s nearly 10,000-year history to the present, this harsh landscape is best traversed with llamas, as the animals are equipped to carry gear up and over water-worn canyons and scalloped rock formations.

Horseback Ride at Historic Estancias

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Horses gather in a valley in Salta, Argentina.

It’s true. There are many estancias, or large cattle ranches, near Salta, but few have the history of Estancia El Bordo de las Lanzas. Located an hour east of downtown Salta, this ranch is one of the oldest in all of Argentina. The Cornejo family’s deed dates back to 1609, and the property’s mission remains true to the gaucho’s philosophy of freedom: that life is best lived on your own terms, on horseback, in the solitude of the Andean mountains.

Still operating an authentic working estate, Estancia El Bordo de las Lanzas swapped tobacco production in favor of crops like chia, sesame seeds, quinoa, and mung beans—feeding the increased demand for healthy food. Merging Spanish and Andean customs, the estancia resides on a former battlefield, used during the region’s wars for independence. While staying in one of the estancia’s 12 boutique rooms, you can get acquainted with the Salta lifestyle, which is best enjoyed outside, beneath the shade of a fruitful jabuticaba tree.

Visit the stables where José Gallardo has been tending to horses for nearly 30 years. Under his guidance, you’ll quickly learn the ropes of a traditional Salta ride. You’ll be galloping through forested hills to the base of the Andes in no time at all.

Overland to Tolar Grande and the Puna

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The sun shines over rolling hills in Argentina's Puna plateau.

Almost a nine-hour drive south of Salta, beyond the canyons of Cafayate, Argentina’s high-altitude Puna begins. An elevated region marked by extreme scenery of the central Andes, the Puna is bound by a volcanic chain to the west and the immense Western Cordillera belt to the east, creating a landscape where creamy dunes rest next to icy peaks. The region so wild and unmatched, NASA scientists use it to mimic terrain found on Mars.

To venture where no roads lead, book a bespoke journey with local operator Socompa. It’s almost guaranteed you won’t cross another 4x4 vehicle during your expedition into the Puna, although you may need to pause for the occasional herd of wild vicuñas crossing the plateau. During your journey, venture deep into the Salta province to El Peñón, an area flanked by the Campo de Piedra Pómez pumice stone fields and Laguna Grande, a pool attracting nearly 20,000 flamingos between late September and early May.

Drive beyond the province into the wilds of neighboring Catamarca to the village of Tolar Grande. There you can marvel at formations like the 10-million-year-old fossil dunes of the Labyrinth Desert, the stark onyx Arita cone within the Salar de Arizaro, and the trifecta of turquoise pools of Los Ojos del Mar.

Michaela Trimble is a travel writer and photographer based out of southern Florida. Follow her on Instagram @MichaelaTrimble or Twitter @Mich_Trimble.