Working-class traveler: Salta, Jujuy, and the Atacama Desert

Salta, Argentina

Most people who undergo a backpacking trip have saved up at least a few thousand dollars/euros or have a family that can bail them out if anything goes wrong. I don’t have any such privileges. I work as I go along and attempt to keep my costs to a minimum.

When I left San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina my small backpack broke. Plus, my headphones were in bad shape. I arrived at my friend’s home in Salta and my flip-flops also broke. Replacing these cost me some extra cash because items like this are expensive in Argentina. Plus, it turns out I forgot my towel, so I had to replace it. Thankfully none of these things prevent me from working and I did what I had to do.

I was able to stay in Salta for six days because a friend of mine told her family that I’d be arriving and they agreed to host me. The ticket from Tucumán to Salta (by bus) was roughly US$28 and was about 4 hours long.

The second day I arrived, my friend’s family took me to San Lorenzo, which is about 40 minutes by bus. The entrance is free but you have to pay about 5 pesos to use the bathrooms and 100 pesos to use the tables even if you don’t have a barbecue.


San Lorenzo (from my Instagram)

San Lorenzo is beautiful and reminded me very much of El Salvador, near where my grandfather used to live. In the next few days, I had the chance to check out the Mercado Central (Avenida Florida y San Martín). I highly recommend this place because arts, crafts, local wines, and food there are far cheaper than anywhere else.

Mercado Central (my original pics)

I recommend that travelers try locro (a national stew with meat, large white beans, and usually cooked with squash as its base, sometimes topped with olive oil and spices), humita (pictured on the top left), empanadas (the ones in Salta are different), tamales (they’re similar to the Mexican ones), cazuela de cabra (a goat stew, usually with potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers. The meat should fall off the bone), vino patero, and local wines as well.

Knowing that I’d go to places such as Cafayate and Cachi, I bought a small bag of coca leaves to help me prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness and motion sickness. It worked like a charm except that it can make your tongue go numb, and you need to drink as much water as your body permits. I also had the opportunity to take the cable care up to Cerro San Bernardo. You can hike up there but I recommend going in the morning so there will be less heat.

Garganta del Diablo, on the way to Cafayate

Although I’m normally against excursion type trips, I do have to work while traveling and used a company called Las Posadas, which is on Avenida Buenos Aires 94. Other companies do similar tours. Words don’t do enough justice to describe the relative peace I felt on the way to Cafayate. Once there, I recommend you stop by an ice cream shop and try the wine ice cream.

A few days later I left for San Salvador de Jujuy. This is two hours north of Salta and the bus trip is relatively cheap. Plus, there are plenty of busses to choose from. Jujuy is a lot smaller and is definitely cheaper. I stayed at D-GIRA hostel and had to take a taxi. I mostly cooked my meals except for a few empanadas because I had to spend so much in Salta replacing my broken things.

Humahuaca, Jujuy (from my Insta)

The town is beautiful but you want to see the surrounding areas you need to get there early (which I didn’t). So I hung around the town and just enjoyed how peaceful it was.

I took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The border crossing was a genteel affair, as Chile doesn’t have income or visa requirement for Americans at the moment and I had nothing to declare.

somewhere in San Pedro de Atacama (my own pic)

San Pedro de Atacama is a big tourist trap and tours are quite expensive. However, the town is great and has a lot to do considering its small size. It’s also surrounded by amazing landscapes. Since I couldn’t afford an excursion I rented a bike to Valle de Marte, which gets its name from literally looking like somewhere on Mars. It was a 14km ride (there and back) and perhaps going there at 5pm wasn’t the greatest idea. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that it was the only tour I could afford and I was spending 6500 Chilean pesos for the entire thing (3500 for the bike and 3000 to the entrance).

In the blazing hot sun on the way there I made about 4 stops because I wasn’t used to going uphill and needed water. Plus, San Pedro de Atacama is about 2400m above sea level. The way back was much better as there was a gentle breeze. I also had the chance to walk up a sand dune and threw myself down, and thankfully I didn’t wake up sore the next day or get any altitude sickness.

A few recommendations for Atacama:

  • I stayed at Pangea Norte hostel and met very cool people, but there other cool hostels too.
  • Bring a lot more money than what I had (less than $300 USD)
  • Definitely rent a bike and do what you can on it. I was already used to the altitude and to the coca leaves, so I suggest staying in town for a day or two and then riding a bike.
  • Drink mote con huesillo, a traditional Chilean drink with dried peaches and a type of grain, in peach-flavored juice.
  • Eat as many avocadoes as you can!
  • Beer recommendations: Salta beer in Argentina (the dark one is better, but try them both), Kunstmann torobayo and arándano, and Austral.

Tip: If you’re a coffee addict they mostly drink instant here, probably because it’s hard to get things up to the desert. You’ll either have to have that or do without.

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