Seven Days in the Northern Deserts of Argentina and Chile

In the Spring of 2020, we traveled through several cities in the northern deserts of Argentina and Chile. The landscape and climate were so delightfully different from the areas we previously explored in southern Chile and Argentina; we loved it! It felt very much like the southwest region of the United States.

There are so many ways to travel this region. Many people rent cars and drive themselves around. If you have more time, we would definitely suggest this option!

For ideas on where to visit before this region, read our blog: Eight Days in Valparaiso, Santiago, and Mendoza.

  1. In the Salta and San Pedro de Atacama regions, you will encounter high altitudes and may experience high altitude sickness. To prepare, plan for slow adjustments, buy altitude sickness medication (no prescription needed in Santiago), and chew coca leaves.
  2. IVA Tax: In both Argentina and Chile, foreigners do not pay the IVA tax on hotels IF they pay with a foreign credit card. However, we have found that you must DEMAND that you not pay the IVA. Most hostels and hotels, no matter how friendly, will try to boost their rate by not mentioning it. Additionally, if you pay with a card, expect that they will offer their own made up conversion rate to boost the cost as well. We have usually found it impossible to argue against this one…
  3. Exchange Rates: In Argentina, Western Union continued to have the best exchange rate (see previous posts for explanation of the blue dollar); however, in Chile, your best bet will be to use a no foreign transaction fee credit card when possible. ATMs are plentiful, but they all charge a hefty fee for each withdrawal and limit you to 200,000 pesos (~$250 US). Note that many hostels will only accept cash, especially in smaller towns, so you should always have some cash.
  4. Uber works in all three cities referenced here. However, note that Uber is technically illegal in Chile. So, ride at your own risk. If you get pulled over, you’ll need to pretend to be friends with your driver….so brush up that Spanish!
  5. Border Crossing: Some people have been surprised at how often we’ve chosen to cross the border thinking it would be difficult. It is not; the bus drivers are all helpful and will guide passengers swiftly through the process (unlike in Paraguay!). The only major downside is getting your passport filled too quickly. Transitioning to Chile is usually more difficult as they do not allow any produce, meat, or cheese across their border, so choose your bus snacks wisely. Additionally, they will give you a slip of paper labeled “PDI.” You need to keep this and turn it in when you exit the country.
  6. In Argentina, Spanish speakers use the “sh” sound for “y” and “ll.” In Chile, they use the “y” sound for “y” and “ll.” When traveling back and forth, it can become confusing to code switch this linguistic difference.
  7. In Argentina and Chile, you will need a power converter. We travel with a Universal Converter and have found it helpful everywhere.

DIY Walking Tour of La Rioja!

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La Rioja was kind of an adventure for us in terms of it being off the beaten turista path. There aren’t many websites with tourism or travel information, but we knew it made sense to stop here to break up the long bus between Mendoza and Salta. 

Other options to break up the distance could include Cordoba or San Juan. In our case, we really wanted to visit Talampaya National Park and we were tired of cities. Cordoba looked like a typical medium sized Argentine city and was too far from Talampaya. San Juan would have put us closer to Talampaya and offered more rental car opportunities, but was too far from Salta to really break up the distance.

Online resources mentioned that La Rioja was blah and locals asked us why we would visit, so we began to doubt our decision to just show up and figure it out, but we basically fell in LOVE with La Rioja and are so glad we stopped there!

At the time of our visit, we were looking for a bit of relaxation after a lot of moving and shaking. We arrived in the dark morning, took a cheap taxi to our $39/night room at the fairly fancy Plaza Hotel with rooftop pool overlooking the Cathedral. The hotel offered us our room right away with breakfast…and the Wifi was so good! 

  

Within blocks of our hotel was the free Museo de la Ciudad that explained the cultural importance of the weird lifesize dolls we saw everywhere called pujllay (part of the Chaya festivities we missed by a week). 

    

But also, just walking around town was a delight with several pedestrian streets, street art exhibits, and old churches.

 

We also rented a car to drive out to Talampaya National Park the next day and ate a delicious cheese plate dinner at Temple Bar Craft Beer right in the square. 

 

After all the touristy towns, the low prices and lack of other tourists here was amazing! We just relaxed…

6:00am Leave for Talampaya Region in Rental Car

8:00am Explore Ischigualasto Provincial Park

1:00pm Explore Talampaya National Park

5:00pm Return to City/Return Car/Dinner

8:30pm Taxi to Bus Station

9:20pm Night Bus to Salta

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We started early, but still managed to snag breakfast at our favorite hotel in a while. Our goal was to visit the two major parks in the area and were rewarded immediately with sunrise greetings in our rental car. 

 

Rental Car Tip: While it ultimately worked out for us to rent a car in La Rioja, we do not recommend it. There are supposedly tour companies in town that will take you to both parks in one day if available, though we couldn’t secure a spot at the last minute and they are quite expensive. Alternatively, you can rent a car from Mendoza or San Juan to visit the parks. The only rental car company in town only had an over priced car with no air conditioning for cash only, which means you can’t rely on your credit card for car rental insurance.

If you have enough time, we do suggest that you plan one day for each park. It was a bit of a rush to get to visit both in one day!

First, we visited Valle de la Luna, AKA Ischigualasto Provincial Park. All of the park activities must be guided but the website doesn’t provide times for the activities, which changes daily. In our case, for our time slot, we had the choice between trekking to a mountain overlook or driving a 40 km circuit. We chose hiking, though we had really wanted to do the biking circuit. Regardless, we were so excited to see cacti! The trek wasn’t particularly difficult, but you’ll have to walk at the pace of the group, which was slow, but the guide offered us (Spanish only) explanations of the area and plant life.

    

After the hike, we booked it to Talampaya National Park in time for a circuit tour of the canyon and hoodoos. It’s soooo much like the Southwest US here…hot as hades too!! There are multiple touring opportunities in the park and they need to be guided. The website also does not provide times, but we learned that the (barely air conditioned) bus circuit tour leaves about every hour until closing (see picture of schedule).

 

The basic tour includes a stop for wine in the impressive canyon and an Spanish only guide to explain the history and geography of the area; however, there are signs along the path in English and they will let you walk at your own pace at each stop. Some of the best features are the well preserved petroglyphs, the steep walls, and the hoodoos.

    

After our touring, we drove back to La Rioja and dropped off our rental car before a delightful pizza dinner and a night bus to Salta!

 

DIY Walking Tour of Salta!

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Salta deserves its nickname Salta la Linda (Salta the Cute). 

We arrived early on a not so great night bus from La Rioja (no blankets, pillows, or snacks, even in Cama Ejecutivo!) watching the terrain change from dry desert to lush mountains. Upon arrival in the city, we walked to our nearby hostel, enjoying San Martin Park en route. 

We were DELIGHTED that our hostel room was ready at 8am and they even gave us breakfast (with eggs!). 

Afterwards, we immediately headed out to climb Cerro Bernardo’s 1000 steps. The trail entrance is easily accessible near the Museum of Anthropology and Monument of General San Martin.

  

At the top, we enjoyed the views, had coffee, then took the cable car down. You do have to buy a round trip ticket for the cable car. Since we only took it one way, we offered our extra tickets to someone in line at the bottom.

    

Next, we proceeded to the main plaza, where the cathedral and many museums are located…as well as MANY pigeons! 

    

We chose to visit the Cabildo Museo (extensive and free but donation requested)…

  

…the American Cultural Center (free and tiny)…

…and the Archaeological Museum of High Mountain, probably the most interesting museum of our entire visit to South America. We learned that for important events, the ancient Incans would sacrifice children by first ceremonially marrying them, getting them drunk, and burying them alive. Some such children were preserved as mummies in the Andes near Salta and are on display in the Museum of High Mountain.

  

Next, we found a delightful restaurant, open since 1857, with seating on the balcony overlooking the plaza while we listened to the sounds of jazz saxophone wafting through the air, and dined on fish, veggies, and a local Torrentes wine.

 

After a long night bus, we spent an early evening in our delightful hostel.

Day Trip to Quebrada de Humahuaca

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Today we took a very long tour north of Salta to see the famous multicolored hills of the desert, limestone region. The majority of the people we met tended to spend a few days in this region with a rental car (there are many companies in Salta), but we opted for the intense package!

On the whole, we recommend the tour. Our guide was fantastic and spoke very good English; we stopped in SO many places; and the tour was very inexpensive. The major downside was that, like many South American tours, we arrived back in town 2.5 hours later than expected. Additionally, expect to spend a lot of time sitting in a bus looking at scenes like this:

  

Over the course of the day, we visited: Volcan, Purmamarca, Seven Colored Hill, Maimara, Pucara de Tilcara, Humahuaca, and a monument marking the Tropic of Capricorn. It was a busy day!

        

The most exciting part was getting up to about 14000 feet in Hornocal, site of the 14 colored hills. To achieve the altitude, we bought and were taught how to suck on Coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness. 

  

In the evening, we actually reserved our hostel room for a second night so we’d have a place to relax before heading to the bus station for our latest night bus departure yet… 1:00am… with a border crossing. We were anxious after our last experience, but the bus was very comfortable, left on time, and crossed the border the following morning, so we got plenty of sleep!

1:00am Bus to San Pedro de Atacama

11:30am Arrive in San Pedro de Atacama/Drop Luggage at Hostal Kirckir

12:00pm Explore the City/Meteorite Museum/Lunch

4:00pm Moon Valley Tour

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We awoke on our night bus to San Pedro de Atacama to stunning views of desert mountains, llamas, and flamingos, surprised that we were at about 13000 feet as we crossed the mountains. The Atacama Desert is the driest in the world, receiving only 15mm of rain on average a year. 

  

San Pedro is a town that seems to exist only for tourism with hundreds of tour companies lining the streets hawking their “wares.” Some complained about the town being too touristy, but…we were, in fact, tourists…and the town offers a great deal of services that we very much appreciated during our time there! 

  

We arrived in San Pedro around noon, ate lunch, and checked into our cute hostel near the bus station to relax a little after a long night on a bus. Pro Tip: Our hostel was less expensive than others because it was on the outskirts of town, but close to the bus station. Even though you have to walk further to get to your tours (15 minutes), it’s nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of the center.

 

Next we took a tour to Valle de la Luna, a desert valley resembling the moon. Pro Tip: The VAST number of tour companies in San Pedro is OVERWHELMING and most of them will only take cash. We opted to organize our tours in advance through Denomades.com. They have comparable prices and you can pay online. All our tours were organized with the same company, Turisma Layana. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience!

In the Valle de la Luna, we took some stunning photos, enjoyed a sunset, then returned to the city for a light dinner and early night before another early tour in the morning! Pro Tip: Most of the day tours in San Pedro will leave early!

      

6:30am Altiplanic Lagoons Tour (Breakfast Included)

2:00pm Return/Rest/Eat

4:00pm Cejar Lagoon Tour

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There are three types of flamingoes in Chile: Chilean, Andean, and James. We saw Chilean Flamingoes in Bariloche and saw Andean Flamingoes in San Pedro. One to go! (Preview: we saw James Flamingoes in the Bolivian Salt Flats). 

 

Today was a lagooniful! One thing people love to visit in the desert is water, so many of the tours here revolve around visiting…water. We were picked up around 6:30am for a morning tour to several lagoons.

    

Additionally, we visited a couple of small towns to view historic sites and were offered a delicious breakfast.

    

I actually woke up with some mild Altitude Sickness (headache, nausea, etc) so wasn’t in the best state as we climbed up to about 14000 feet for the morning tour, but I hydrated, used coca, and began taking some Diamox I bought in Santiago and felt pretty okay during the tour and right as rain by the time we returned to San Pedro at about 8000 feet. We’ve been up and down so much the past few days, it must have finally caught up to me! Pro Tip: Your body prefers carbs at altitude, so eating some sugary snacks also helped me feel better!


In between tours, we stopped for a “quick” lunch at what turned out to be a pretty fancy restaurant, though not expensive. We ordered a 3 course menu of the day and were blown away by the beautiful and tasty dishes!

  

In the afternoon (staying around 9000 feet this time), we visited more lagoons! This time, however, we got to swim in one that was 25% salt…so we actually floated! It was so cool! 

 

Then, after washing the significant amount of ashy salt residue off our bodies, we enjoyed more lagoon views with Pisco Sours and snacks as the sun set. 

    

4:30am El Tatio Geysers Tour

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The thermal area we visited today, El Tatio, is the third largest in the world with it’s geysers, sprouts, and thermal baths. Yellowstone and another in Russia are the only ones that have it beat!

  

We had another early tour pickup at 4:30am in order to see the sunrise at El Tatio. Our wonderful tour guide from Turisma Layana of three days now impressed us with her linguistic skills, presenting in three languages, Spanish, English, and French! 

    

After a lovely breakfast, we walked through the geysers and then headed to the thermal bath to take a dip.

  

Next, the tour headed to a small village called Machuca to have some llama borchetta, which was mm mm good.

  

In the evening, we rested and prepared for our Bolivian Salt Flats tour that would begin the following morning. We had originally planned to take an Astronomical Tour, but decided we wanted to catch up on sleep instead. However, everyone we spoke to that attended one of these star gazing adventures really loved it!

Pro Tip: If you’re planning to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats after San Pedro, know that no matter what the companies in San Pedro tell you, they all contract with Bolivian Companies. Some charge twice as much saying that their cars are newer or their guides are better. It’s all a sales ploy. When you show up to the border, it’s a crap shoot as to which car and driver you get! We bought our tour from Stars Travel and the tour was great! Read more about it in our next blog post!

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