La Quebrada de Humahuaca: a valley of color & culture in northwestern Argentina

Argentina has stolen my heart many years ago. From Lakes and Glaciers in Patagonia, to tropical rain forest at Iguazu Falls, you won’t find a place in the “Country of 6 Continents” that isn’t stunningly beautiful. But my favorite spot lies in the northwestern province of Jujuy. A place so colorful and culturally rich, it seems completely unreal.

La Quebrada de Humahuaca: a place so colorful and culturally rich it almost seems unreal

I first set foot in Argentina back in 2006. A lucky draw from a batch of all too eager students at Tilburg University to spend six months of their lives as an exchange student in the impressive metropolitan city of Buenos Aires.

Little did I know this opportunity would change my life forever.

For starters, I firmly believe there isn’t a city in the world that can beat the beauty and bedazzling vibe of Buenos Aires. I promise I will tell you all about that some other time.

For now, I’d like to show you an amazing valley of color and culture in northwestern Argentina.

La Quebrada de Humahuaca

La Quebrada de Humahuaca: colorful mountains and rock formations everywhere you look
La Quebrada de Humahuaca: colorful rocks and mountains everywhere you look

I will do my best to give you all the reasons why this place is so unbelievably unreal that of the thousands of places I have been to around the world, “La Quebrada” might actually be my all-time favorite spot. Alright, I’ll be fully honest: a shared no. 1 with la Quebrada de Cafayate in Salta.

Although I seriously doubt you’ll need much explanation after seeing the pictures in this post, here’s an overview of the towns, markets, and mountains you must visit in La Quebrada de Humahuaca. :)

Jujuy: the most northern province of Argentina

Located in the province of Jujuy in northwestern Argentina, La Quebrada De Humahuaca has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years by different hunter-gatherer tribes. From the 15th century onward, the valley turned into an important region for the Inca Empire as well as a busy trade route to and from Rio de la Plata. La Quebrada de Humahuaca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003, and very rightfully so.

La Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy province: Color and Culture in Northwestern Argentina
La Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy province: color & culture in northwestern Argentina

When to visit Jujuy & Northwestern Argentina?

With a dry and hot climate for most of the year, the region of northwestern Argentina is a great destination during the somewhat cooler months of the southern winter (June – September), when temperatures are around 20 – 25 degrees Celcius.

Traveling from Buenos Aires to Jujuy by bus takes approx. 28 hours
For the adventurous: a bus trip from Buenos Aires to Jujuy “only” takes about 28 hours…

What to see in la Quebrada de Humahuaca?

The short answer? Lots of natural beauty in an impressive river valley with an endless display of brightly colored mountains, inhabited by indigenous Argentinian tribes showcasing their unique culture, authentic northwestern cuisine, and other colorful traditions such as fabric weaving, pottery, and furniture making.

[Keep reading if you are interested in the long answer 😉 ]

Traditional Dishes in Northwestern Argentina
Traditional northern dishes include humita, empanadas (see the empty plates 😉 ), tamales, and locro, as well as other types of meat stews
Pottery, fabric weaving, and furniture construction with cactus wood are common crafts in La Quebrada de Humahuaca
Pottery, fabric weaving, and furniture construction with cactus wood are common crafts

San Salvador de Jujuy

A common starting point for valley tours and the capital of Argentina’s most northwestern province of Jujuy, San Salvador de Jujuy presents quite the cultural change from modern-day cities, including Argentina’s very own metropolis of Buenos Aires. Not an actual part of la Quebrada de Humahuaca, or the most interesting of cities for that matter, but being the closest actual city to the valley makes San Salvador a convenient location from which to visit la Quebrada.

Snowy mountain tops in La Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Due to its high altitude, snowy mountain tops can be spotted year-round in the valley

For a more authentic Quebrada experience, I would very much recommend staying in a hotel, hostel, or “posada” – as accommodations are often called in northern Argentina – in one of the indigenous villages along Ruta 9.

Many hotels, hostels, and posadas to be found in la Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Many local hotels, hostels, and posadas to be found in la Quebrada de Humahuaca

[If you are looking for a larger and more lively city to stay the night, however, and you wouldn’t mind the few extra hours driving to and from the valley, you might want to check out the capital of the Salta province, also called Salta, but often referred to as “Salta la Linda” meaning “Salta the Beautiful”. What’s in a name… 😉 ]

Purmamarca

Historic, indigenous, colonial, picturesque… Words can’t quite begin to describe the wonderful atmosphere and interesting architecture – not to mention the gorgeous natural surroundings! – of the friendly towns in La Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Starting your route from S.S. de Jujuy, the first town you will hit is Volcán. You will notice that both the mountains and the river bedding are quite green up until the town of Tumbaya, after which your surroundings quickly become more barren.

Driving north from Salta, the scenery gradually changes from lush and green to barren and VERY colorful
Driving north from Salta, the scenery gradually changes from lush and green to barren and VERY colorful…

The lack of fertility and the relative dryness of the soil does not mean the environment has now become less interesting. Quite the opposite actually! On your way up to Purmamarca, you will catch the first glances of rock formations, pinnacles, and other “sculptures” ever so artistically cut out by the Rio Grande.

Purmamarca, one of the most famous towns in la Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Purmamarca, one of the most famous towns in la Quebrada de Humahuaca

And once you hit the town of Purmamarca, you will be surprised to find a huge and amazingly colorful market run by artisans selling anything from tapestries, hand-knitted clothing, artwork, sculptures, and pottery, to musical instruments, picture frames, jewelry, and even hair accessories.

Colorful Artisan Shop in Purmamarca, Argentina
One of many colorful artisan shops in the pretty town of Purmamarca
Typical street in the mountainous towns of La Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Typical street in the mountainous towns of La Quebrada de Humahuaca

Cerro de los Siete Colores

Standing just outside Purmamarca, the “Cerro de los Siete Colores” is without a doubt the most famous mountain in La Quebrada de Humahuaca. Excuse me? A mountain with seven colors?!

Indeed. The “Cerro de los Siete Colores” is exactly what the name indicates: a hill of seven colors. Seven layers of different types of rock to be precise, ranging anywhere from 1 to 600 million years of age.

And she’s a real beauty.
Seeing is believing, so I will let the photos speak for themselves. Enjoy.

Mirador Geologico in the Quebrada de Humahuaca at Purmamarca, Argentina
Cerro de los Siete Colores: culturiously my favorite place in the world?
Cerro de los Siete Colores, the most famous mountain in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Cerro de los Siete Colores | Hill of Seven Colors

Maimará

Paleta del Pintor

The town of Maimara is famous for its orogenic formation called Paleta del Pintor, or the “Painter’s Palette”. Orogenic belts like the Painter’s Palette come to life with the clash of different tectonic plates, in a process causing a continental plate to crumple and be pushed upward to form a mountain range.

"Paleta del Pintor" or Painter's Palette, behind the famous cemetery of Maimará, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
“Paleta del Pintor” or Painter’s Palette, behind the famous cemetery of Maimará

Cementerio de Altura de Maimará

Also seen in the picture above is the famous cemetery of Maimará, “el Cementerio Nuestra Señora del Carmen”. Built on a hill, against such a magnificent background, this characteristic cemetery with its many colorful tombs and graves is a clear indication of how much respect the indigenous peoples of la Quebrada de Humahuaca have for the dead.

Pucará de Tilcara

Entrance gate to Pucará de Tilcara, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Entrance gate to Pucará de Tilcara, Quebrada de Humahuaca

Pucará de Tilcara is a fortification built by the Tilcaras, a faction of the Omaguaca tribe, who inhabited this area around the 12th century. This “pucara” or fortress is located at a strategic point in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, on a hill near the town of Tilcara. The two main rivers of the region, Rio Grande and Rio Guasamayo, flowing at an altitude of 2500 meters above sea level at this point, meet just at the foot of the mountain.

Pucara de Tilcara, a pre-Incan fortress in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Incan fortress and town built in the 12th century

The characteristics described above made Pucara de Tilcara an ideal place from which to defend against attacks from other tribes. Re-discovered in 1908 by a researcher from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the remaining constructions have since then been renovated or (partially) rebuilt. The Pucara covers an area of approximately 12 hectares and is the only publicly accessible archaeological site in the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Pucará de Tilcara, the only publicly accessible archeological site in the Quebrada de Humahuaca
The ruins of Pucará de Tilcara bathed in stunning morning light

But even for those who are not too interested in pre-Incan towns and fortresses, Pucará de Tilcara is very much worth a visit. There is a unique botanical garden showcasing native cactus species next to the ruins, and the top of the hill offers its visitors the most spectacular views of the valley.

View of the Rio Grande valley from Pucará de Tilcara, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
View of the Rio Grande valley from Pucará de Tilcara
Spectacular cardon cactus with the Hill of Seven Colors in the background
Spectacular cardon cactus with the Hill of Seven Colors in the background…

Tropico de Capricornio

Passing approximately 1 km south of the town of Huacalera, the Tropic of Capricorn has its own monument in la Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Every December 21, the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere, around noon visitors will be able to see a perfect shadow projected in a perpendicular position on the monolith.

Tropic of Capricorn Monument, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Trópico de Capricornio | Tropic of Capricorn

On the contrary, June 20, the night before the shortest day of the year, different indigenous communities inhabiting La Quebrada get together at the Tropic of Capricorn to celebrate “Inti Raymi”: an ancient ritual of Inca origin. Also known as the “Festival of the Sun”, Inti Raymi is an ancient celebration to say goodbye to the longest night of the year and to welcome the new solar year.

Sun monument at the Tropic of Capricorn, northwestern Argentina
Together, the monuments at the Tropic of Capricorn form a huge sun clock

During this meeting of the valley peoples, one can enjoy bonfires, clothes, dances, and typical food of each village or specific tribe.

Uquía

Colorful artisan market in the town of Uquia, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Colorful artisan market in the town of Uquía, Quebrada de Humahuaca

Like Purmamarca, the small town of Uquía is a wonderful place to wander (read: shop) around, while taking photos of the displayed goods, the friendly locals, or the cute colonial constructions serving as shops and residences. All against a backdrop of unbelievably colorful mountains.

Artisan shop on the main square of Uquía, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Artisan shop on the main square of Uquía

Humahuaca

Humahuaca is the most northern town in the Quebrada, its name deriving from the original inhabitants of the Omaguaca tribe. In the center of town stands the charming San Francisco Solano de la Bendición church, particularly noteworthy because of its special midday chimes. As the clock strikes 12, a miniature figure of Saint Francisco Solano steps out of his tiny tower doors to make the sign of the cross.

San Francisco Solano de la Bendición church in the center of Humahuaca, Argentina
San Francisco Solano de la Bendición church in the center of Humahuaca
Clock tower of the San Francisco Solano church in Humahuaca, Argentina
Clock tower with the green doors from which San Francisco Solano greets the town

Humahuaca is usually visited about half way through the day tours from Salta or San Salvador de Jujuy. Luckily, or possibly for that exact reason, one can find many local bakeries and restaurants around town, serving traditional northern Argentinian cuisine and delicious sweet treats.

El Humahuaceño bakery: home of traditional alfajores and other sweets, Humahuaca, Argentina
El Humahuaceño bakery: home of traditional alfajores and other artisan sweets

But the food in Humahuaca is not the only thing worth your while. Often times, you will be spontaneously entertained by local musicians and bands playing indigenous instruments such as the Bombo Legüero, an Argentine drum, the Erkencho, folk clarinet of northwestern Argentina, the Peruvian pendant, or the Zampoña, a traditional Andean pan flute.

Many restaurants entertain guests with live music and shows, Humahuaca, Argentina
Many restaurants entertain guests with traditional live music and folklore shows

Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia

Also in town, and one of the main tourist attractions of Humahuaca, is the enormous “Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia” or Monument to the Heroes of our Independence.

Monumento a los Heroes de la Independencia, Humahuaca, Argentina
The stairs leading up to this huge monument take up most of “downtown” Humahuaca

The bronze monument weighing just about 70 metric tons supposedly represents the indigenous messenger Pedro Socompa about to deliver the message of independence. I say supposedly, as there are also theories that the figure at the top of the monument is actually Diego Viltipoco, an Omaguacan chief who helped General Belgrano in the fight for Argentinian independence.

Monument to the heroes of the Independence, Humahuaca, Argentina
Bronze monument weighing 70 tons honoring the heroes of Argentina’s independence
Town of Humahuaca and surroundings as seen from the Monument, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Town of Humahuaca and surroundings as seen from the Monument

Serranía de Hornocal

A mere 25 kilometers east of Humahuaca, one can find the lesser-known mountain range of Hornocal, or “Serranía de Hornocal”. Where the Hill of Seven Colors and the Painter’s Palette are quite famous sights on the road to Humahuaca, many visitors end up missing out on what is possibly the most spectacular display of fascinating geology in the Quebrada. And that, my dear readers, is nothing shy of a crying shame.

The reason for this unfortunate situation? Most likely the road leading up to La Serranía. Situated at an altitude of approximately 4500 meters above sea level, along a mostly unpaved road, this mountain range can only be reached by regular car or 4×4, therefore leaving big touring cars and other buses out of the game.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca is best explored by 4x4
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is best explored by 4×4

My best guess is that local tour companies try to keep the word from coming out, while spreading warnings about potential risks or inaccessibility, in an attempt to prevent tourists from making their own arrangements and/or demanding a trip to this stunning mountainous mineral painting.

La Serranía de Hornocal is part of a limestone formation called Yacoraite that extends from Salta all the way up to Peru. And for those of you who do want to make it up to the viewing point, I will let you in on a little secret: it’s actually a pretty easy-going path… 😉

La Serranía del Hornocal, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
La Serranía del Hornocal: the secret gem of La Quebrada de Humahuaca

 

Have you ever been to La Quebrada de Humahuaca?

If so, what’s your favorite town, market, mountain, or viewpoint? Why?

If not, did I convince you to most definitely put this valley on your bucket list? (Please say yes, as I worked on this post for 3 whole days!! 😉 )

 

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