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Self-drive Argentina: Highlights of the hidden northwest

Day 1

Arrive in Buenos Aires. Transfer to hotel close to colonial centre and commercial district of the capital.
Buenos Aires

You will be met at the airport and escorted to your hotel on the edge of the arty district of San Telmo by one of our local representatives.

Buenos Aires is an elegant, cultured and cosmopolitan city famed for its interesting museums and the fascinating port district of La Boca, with its cobbled streets and brightly painted houses. It was here that the tango was born, and Diego Maradona honed his footballing skills. The centre of town is home to the colonial heartland, government buildings and churches, as well as chic shopping districts, which have a nostalgic Parisian feel. The bohemian quarter of San Telmo is full of quaint old houses interspersed with antiques shops, tango bars and classy restaurants. Slightly further out of the centre is the Recoleta district, even more evocative of French or Italian influences, where Evita Perón was laid to rest. During the winter months, wealthy female residents parade the streets in their fur coats and improbable, towering hairstyles, and take afternoon tea in the city’s ornate salons.

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Buenos Aires

Day 2

Walking tour along the Avenida de Mayo.

Take a guided walking tour along Avenida del Mayo, one of Buenos Aires' principal stately arteries, linking the capital's colonial and political heart at Plaza de Mayo with the Plaza de Congreso, crossing the even more grandiose Avenida 9 de Julio.

Built in the 1880s and often compared with similar boulevards in European capitals, it has a definite Old World ambiance, with art deco, art nouveau and neo-classical façades, shaded by leafy trees, lining the route.

The guided walk includes a stop at the world famous Café Tortoni, crammed with memorabilia, the barber's shop attached, and one of the first metro stations outside the USA and Europe, preserved in its original state as a museum. Visit the very ornate Barolo Palace, designed in accordance with the cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy with floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell.

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Day 3

Fly to Puerto Iguazú. Visit the Brazilian side of Iguazú Falls.
Iguazu Falls

Transfer to the airport and fly to Puerto Iguazú in the subtropical northeast corner of Argentina (2 hrs). It’s just a short drive to the national park wherein flow the Iguazú Falls.

The Iguazú Falls are unquestionably one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena in the world. A total of 275 falls thunder over a rust-coloured cliff surrounded by dense tropical forest. The U-shaped Devil’s Throat is the most dramatic sight, here the frothing water of the Iguazú River crashes over a 1.5km wide precipice and columns of vapour are thrown skyward. Elsewhere the river flows decorously through the rainforest breaking up into dozens of smaller cascades. You can usually spot colourful toucans and many other exotic birds perched in the foliage above the tumultuous waters.

This afternoon you'll be taken on a memorable excursion to the Brazilian side of the falls. Cross the bridge which spans the Iguazú river and links the cities of Puerto Iguazú in Argentina and Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil. You'll board a (shared) national park service here and continue by road for the final stretch to the falls themselves. There's a walkway of about a kilometre, with viewpoints at strategic intervals - you get a panoramic view of the whole sweep of the cataracts - an entirely different experience from the Argentine side. Towards the end of the walk, there's an observation tower adjacent to the falls, and a walkway at the bottom takes you out for a closer and much wetter (plastic macs on sale) experience.

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Iguazu Falls

Day 4

Guided excursion to the Argentine side of the falls.
Iguazu Falls

There’s a guided excursion to the Argentine side of the falls. Start at the National Park Visitor Centre, where there is a display illustrating the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest. From here, a little natural-gas-powered train transfers you to Cataratas station where the Upper Walk begins.

This sequence of causeways and passerelles links dozens of tiny, basalt islands at the top of the rock face. These walkways cross the myriad streams of the Río Iguazú as they cascade over the lip of the precipice. A succession of lookout points allows your gaze to follow the water, as it plunges onto the rocks below.

You can then continue to the Lower Walk, which involves stairs, and gives you a totally different view of these falls. Climb back up to the train and continue to Devil's Throat Station. From here, a kilometre-long walkway leads you across the river to the thunderous Garganta del Diablo, which offers a spectacular vantage point peering into the thundering vortex below. This is a full day tour (around 6hrs) and there's about 3km of walking.

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Iguazu Falls

Day 5

Fly to Salta in the northwest. Collect your hire car.

Fly to Salta (1,500km) in the far northwest. The city is renowned for its colonial architecture, friendly population and elegant claret-red ponchos. It lies in a fertile plain at the foot of the arid foothills of the Andes, the only Argentine region where vestiges of indian heritage are still visible. Collect your medium-size 2WD rental vehicle.

Depending on when you arrive in Salta, you will either be taken to pick up your rental car on the way to the hotel, or you will pick it up the following day. You will receive a Fly and Drive kit with maps and useful information about the area and highlights to visit. The vehicle is a GM Corsa (or similar) and includes an allowance of 1,200 km travel, but not fuel. A tax of around US$10-15 will be payable locally upon collection. GPS rental is possible in Salta for approx £12 per day (please request in advance).

You will need to return the car to the same office at the end of the rental period. If you are leaving on a morning flight from Salta, we advise you to do this the day before you depart.

From Salta you’ll set off on an adventurous 5 day circuit starting with an exploration of the Calchaquies Valleys – one of Argentina’s memorable road trips across a cactus-strewn altiplano, gorges lined with improbable rock formations and some of Argentina’s finest vineyards. You’ll continue your discovery following the road north to the Humahuaca gorge whose ancient villages have a distinctly Andean flavour as you approach neighbouring Bolivia.

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Day 6

Drive to Molinos in your hire car.

Today’s high-altitude 210km drive is a fine introduction to the north-west. With a stop for lunch en route at the very attractive historic village of Cachi you can easily spend much of the day making your way to tonight’s lodgings. Once out of Salta city the road (route 33) winds and climbs continuously to the Cuesta del Obispo, reaching its highest point at Piedra del Molino (3,340m). If there’s no fog, you’ll get dramatic views across the mountains.

Once up on the altiplano, the Recta del Tin Tin is an almost completely straight 14-km stretch of highway which slices its way across the Los Cardones National Park, renowned for its giant cacti. It should take 3-4 hours to reach Cachi (160km, altitude 2,280m) and the onward 50km stretch to Molinos within 2hrs, joining Argentina’s iconic north to south highway Route 40, essentially a gravel road. Take your time and enjoy the day.

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Day 7

Self-drive to Cafayate in the wine district.
Quebrada de Cafayate

The arid 120km stretch along the Route 40 to Cafayate is a famously scenic journey with the multi-coloured rock formations at their most astonishing in the Quebrada de las Flechas. The gravel road is slow going and it’ll take at least 3hrs.

Sunny Cafayate has some first class eateries and a thriving arts and handicrafts scene. While the surrounding bodegas produce some excellent reds, the town is best known for its torrontés, an aromatic dry white wine. Many bodegas wineries welcome visitors and offer tasting sessions. Upon arrival you have time to park up at your hotel and relax with a glass of one of these highly regarded wines.

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Quebrada de Cafayate

Day 8

Drive to Purmamarca in the northern canyons by hire car.
Seven Colour Hill

This in an all-day (370km) drive and you may find the surfaced highway a welcome relief after the last couple of days. The first stage brings you back to Salta on Route 68 (192km) taking 3hrs with a fascinating stretch along the Rio Conchas gorge through the Quebrada de Cafayate.

Beyond the urban corridor of Salta and Jujuy (Route 9) the landscapes take on a more mountainous, Andean aspect as you approach the timeless small towns and villages of the dramatic Humahuaca gorge, a long canyon of intensely coloured rock dotted with outsized cacti. You have a couple of nights based in Purmamarca, where adobe and stone dwellings blend effortlessly with the arid mountain backdrop as they have done for centuries. The little town is a dozy place in spite of its popularity among visitors: it sits at the foot of the extraordinary palette of the Cerro de Siete Colores (hill of 7 colours) where an almost psychedelic rainbow of colours from white to burgundy and gold to jade, stain the naked rock. Culturally the area is fascinating too: there are vestiges of pre-Columbian indigenous civilisations, and some colourful fiestas associated with the catholic calendar.

This extraordinary region is just a few hours’ drive from the border with Bolivia, and has plenty in common with its traditional Andean neighbour.

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Seven Colour Hill

Day 9

At leisure to explore the Humahuaca Gorge independently.

You have a full day at leisure, based in Purmamarca. It’s well worth exploring the road further north, continuing along the Humahuaca gorge. The little town of Tilcara, with its squat adobe houses and crisp-white baroque church, is close to the partially reconstructed ruins of a pre-Inca "pucará" (fortress) and has an archaeological museum.

Continuing north, and passing the villages of Huacalera and Uquía, you arrive at the picturesque town of Humahuaca which once had a station on the now defunct railway which connected Bolivia to Buenos Aires. The ornate church here is stuffed with paintings from the colonial era. The town’s wild west aspect is reminiscent of settlements in Arizona or New Mexico, with narrow cobbled streets and adobe colonial buildings. It’s an hour’s drive back to Purmamarca from here (70km), all on paved road.

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Day 10

Return to Salta; overnight.

Drive back to Salta (4hrs); overnight.

Day 11

Drop off car. Fly to Córdoba. Transfer to estancia.
Dos Lunas

Drop off your car and transfer to the airport for your flight south to Córdoba,Argentina's colonial capital and a picturesque city of a million inhabitants on the edge of a mountain range known as the Sierras Chicas.

It's a just under 2hrs’ drive from the airport to the Estancia Dos Lunas, travelling through increasingly remote-feeling hilly landscapes following valleys and mountain roads. The landscapes resemble the Yorkshire dales, with treeless landscapes and stone walling. The last 16km are along a dirt track.

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Dos Lunas

Days 12-13

At leisure to enjoy the facilities at the ranch.
Dos Lunas

The countryside in the foothills of the Andes is ruggedly beautiful, with range after range of rocky, crinkled moor-covered hills cut through with diamond clear rivers and steep cliffs. Set in Alto Ongamira, this homely ranch is very much country-cottage with a nod towards the contemporary. Antiques and rural artefacts are scattered around the property adding to the homely feel.

The lodge specialises in horse riding. Riders will be assessed for their skills and then may take part in two guided rides a day, each about 2hrs long. Beginner riders are well catered for and will proceed at a sedate pace. If you don't want to ride, there are pretty walks on the property, both short and long, one of which leads to some caves. During the walks you may spot condors, peregrine falcons and eagles.

Alternatively, you can laze beside the ranch's large pool. There is no TV and no mobile phone reception at the property: you are really cut off from the world, and can just relax in an ambience of rural tranquillity.

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Dos Lunas

Day 14

Fly to Buenos Aires.

Transfer to Córdoba and fly back to Buenos Aires.

Day 15

At leisure in the capital.
Colourful houses in La Boca, Buenos Aires

At leisure in the capital.

Stroll round Puerto Madero, the refurbished port district where former dock installations and other nautical features have been preserved alongside a string of excellent restaurants and loft conversions. Beyond the city limits, you might consider a trip across the River Plate to Colonia in Uruguay. Travel along a forest-fringed estuary, dotted with upmarket residences, to this peaceful little port, where you can wander among cobbled streets lined by colonial houses, or have a meal or drink in the yacht club.

Alternatively, venture into the watery delta to the small town of Tigre, set on the banks of the Luján river. Have lunch at one of the restaurants on the shores of the Río Paraná, while watching fishermen at work and river-craft gliding by.

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Colourful houses in La Boca, Buenos Aires

Day 16

Transfer to airport for your international flight home.

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Self-drive Argentina: Highlights of the hidden northwest

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