I always wondered how Patagonia became Patagonia. The historical answer is that Magellan in 1520 used the word patagón to describe the Indians of the region. But more than just the history, I wondered how this region became so popular among travelers. It’s a unique region that spans two countries and seems to maintain an image all it’s own. In fact the region of Patagonia is know probably better than other countries in South America like Paraguay. This region that joins countries and absorbs boundaries sort of defies understanding for me.
Most everyone I know has Patagonia on their travel wish list and they hop between Chile and Argentina sort of obliviously simply connecting with the fact that they are in Patagonia. However, Patagonia isn’t the only stunning landscapes shared by the two countries. I want to introduce you to a new, shared region in Argentina and Chile, a region that has no name, but to me is just as beautiful. It’s a region that isn’t well known yet and has yet to be discovered by the masses.
As you know, I love the underdog areas in a country or city and last fall I found the underdog that I was looking for. Just opposite of Patagonia at the far northern reaches of Argentina and Chile lays another incredibly beautiful mountainous region. However it doesn’t have an image or a simple name that bonds it together. There is no mass marketing and it tends to get overshadowed by Patagonia.
Northern Argentina and Chile
Northern Argentina and Chile also has mountains as it’s Patagonian cousin does, but the landscapes up north are completely different. It’s made up of high altitude desert (the puna) and peppered with grand salt flats with turquoise lakes and salt pools. You’ll find lush green valleys in lower altitudes, pink flamingos, and golden hillsides. It’s a tough environment, barren but beautiful. I wish it had a name that bonded it together. In fact I might just have to make one up – Saltgonia? Desertopia? NACland (Northern Argentina Chile Land)? Clearly I am no Magellan. But this area that spans countries and is sliced in half by the Andes Mountains is a little gem that few people know about.
My newly named region, let’s go with ‘NACland’, is made up of the Jujuy and Salta provinces in Argentina and the El Loa province in Chile. Actually I would say that the Chilean side of ‘NACland’ is well known; home of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet. But the other side of the equation, the Salta and Jujuy Provinces in Argentina are a complete unknown to most travelers. You could easily spend a couple of weeks in the entire area and be happy with numerous outdoor adventures and wowed by the unique landscapes. But ‘NACland’ as a whole is quite a stunning region, see for yourself.
Jujuy Province Northern Argentina
Jujuy, a province in Argentina’s remote northwest, is defined by the dramatic rock formations and multi-colored hills of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. The Humahuaca Valley is one of Argentina’s UNESCO sites as it was an important caravan road for the Inca Empire in the 15th century.
Salta Province Northern Argentina
The landscapes in this region are diverse thanks to the variation in altitude and the orientation of the Andes which influences precipitation. You’ll find dry plains peppered with 500 year old cacti on your way to Cochi and then drive into a lush, green river valley perfect for growing grapes n Cafayate. However on the complete opposite spectrum you’ll also find 3200 miles of impressive salt desert that stretches across borders.
Salinas Grandes and the little remote mining town of Tolar Grande are places few people go.
It’s not an easy place to get to; it’s high altitude (11,500 ft), and about 5 hours of off-road driving. There’s absolutely nothing commercial here, it’s pure, and that’s probably why I loved it. You’ll find the Devil’s Desert glowing bright orange as the sun goes down, and you’ll also see pink flamingos in the spring, sanddunes, and the incredible Arita Cone that looks as if the Great Pyramid was dropped in the middle of the salt flat by Mother Nature herself.
El Loa Province Northern Chile
This is probably the best-known area in ‘NACland’ region and home of the Atacama Desert. Here you’ll find varied landscapes of sandstone canyons, flamingo-dotted salt flats, sand dunes, steaming geysers, hot springs, volcanic peaks and alien-looking rock formations. But here they have the infrastructure to back it up and you’ll find that San Pedro de Atacama is a tourist hot spot. However don’t be concerned – it’s still a relatively seldom-visited place compared to the towns in Patagonia!
Can a picture actually inspire you to go somewhere? I hope these have. While everyone else is going south to Patagonia, why not try out this lesser known region in Northern Argentina and Chile? Plan a two-week trip to see the entire region (and don’t forget your camera!) and tick ‘NACland’ off your wish list!
Travel Outfitters Who Will Show you Northern Argentina and Chile
Say Hueque – They organize travel through this entire region in Argentina and Chile. I did a day tour through Jujuy Province complete with a hike with lammas, as well as an overnight in Cafayate that included wine tasting. They also helped me arrange my bus from Argentina to Chile.
De Altura – This small family owned company operates out of Salta and will take you on a photographic adventure into the Salinas Grandes and Tolar Grande. This tour was very basic because the facilities in this part of the region were few, but our guide was was super and I enjoyed the isolation of the region!
Tierra Atacama – A luxury option in Northern Chile that will show you the unique landscapes and hikes of the Atacama Desert while wining and dining you in the evenings at the luxury diggs.
Hotel in Salta – Check out the Kkala Boutique Hotel as a nice central place to stay in Salta. Kkala is a charming boutique hotel combining tradition with unique antiques and regional craftsmanship.
I was a guest of Say Hueque, De Altura, and Tierra Hotels during my stay in Northern Argentina and Chile, however all opinions expressed here are my own.