As Tika and I reached the top of the hill, Eric had leaned his bike against a tree and was admiring the vast lake below. The clear blue sky reflected on the calm, equally-blue lake’s surface. It was early December, almost summer here in Argentina’s Patagonia Lakes District.
Eric and Tika knew each other from last year’s Chile Wine Tour, where Tika was one of the Tour Leaders.
“Last year Chile, this year Patagonia… next year you’ll have to come to Northern Argentina with me.” Tika smiled as he jumped off his bike.
“How does it compare to this?” Eric and I wanted to know.
“It just might be my favorite part of Argentina,” Tika admitted. “But it doesn’t always sell” he frowned.
“Boy, do I understand that!” I thought. Leading and developing tours for ExperiencePlus! for over a decade now, I’ve often commiserated with Tour Leaders about the hidden gems we know, but can’t sell because nobody’s heard of them. After all, that’s one of the highlights for us; we seek out new places, and hope to share them with our friends, families, and travelers. But unless somebody writes “A Year in Provence,” or “Under the Tuscan Sun” about them, they remain our secrets.
Northern Argentina is that secret place for Tika. He’s been leading tours with us for about six years now, and he’s one of the best guides I’ve met. Born in Germany, he’s lived in Argentina since he was three.
I asked him to tell me more about the Northern Argentina tour. He made me want to jump right back on the plane and do this tour in late April!
From Desert to Jungle
One of the things I loved about the Patagonia tour was the varied landscape, and Northern Argentina sounds similar. “On the day we go to Salta”, Tika explained, “we start in a very dry area with cactuses and dusty villages of adobe houses – we’re not so far from Atacama here you know, the world’s driest desert. But by the afternoon we’re pedaling through a thick rainforest – the trees arch over the road and sometimes you feel like you’re in a tunnel.”
Some people ask about the difficulty of the tour. After all, you’re starting out at over 7000 feet above sea level. “The air is thinner, there’s no doubt about that” Tika admits, “but the first three days of the tour are mostly downhill. My favorite day might be when we go to Juyjuy; we start at 2300 meters (7544′) and end up at 1300 (4260′). That’s over 3000 feet of downhill! The tour is less challenging than the one in Patagonia Lakes District.”
What do you eat?
I was surprised with how good the food was in Argentina. Most of the tours I’ve led are in France and Italy – unquestionably some of the best cuisine on the planet. And I have to admit, despite its reputation I didn’t believe Argentinian beef would be much different from what I know in Colorado, the famous Charolais beef of France, or Italy’s superb Fiorentina. The Argentinian beef was extraordinary! I have to say, the best I’ve ever had.
Another discovery was “empanadas.” These savory pockets were stuffed with meats, vegetables, and cheeses. With a dash of hot sauce they made for two of our best lunches along the way. “Northern Argentina has empanadas too” Tika says, “along with some local specialties, like tamales made with hand-ground corn, wrapped in the husks and steamed for about an hour. They’re so good; some vegetarian and some with meat.”
“And as we go south, we get into some of Argentina’s most famous wine country.” Tika told me about a day they visit two different wineries: “A large, major producer of excellent quality, and a tiny, family-run operation. It’s fascinating to experience (and taste!) the difference between these two approaches.” Tika smiled. “We also visit a goat farm to see the entire process from milking the goats to making the cheese. And of course we get to taste it too.”
Meet the locals
Meeting the locals is always a highlight for me. Tika told me about one of the dinners I’m sure I’d love. “We visit this tobacco museum to learn about its important history here. This guy lives next door in an old colonial house and we’re invited to dinner with him. He barbeques for us and we eat with him inside the family home. Delicious!”
Something to write home about
“You have to see the Mountain of Seven Colors too.” Tika continued. “You can choose between three different hikes on our rest day there. Intense greens, blues, yellows, reds… each of the seven colors is from a different geological period. You can do an extra ride this day too, but it’s pretty steep. Regardless, we all meet up in the afternoon to see the sun set on the salt flats. A local guide shows how the salt is extracted. And there’s a curiosity here: a schoolhouse made entirely out of salt. Well, except for the windows. But the walls, tables, chairs… everything else is salt!”
Thermal spas, indigenous cultures, the Inca Trail… Tika kept on going. So I asked him what his favorite part of the tour was. “Really hard to say, but there are probably two: I just love that little traffic-free road from JuJuy to Salta. And Cafayate is incredible. It’s like an oasis. You’re pedaling, pedaling, pedaling for like 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) through canyons and you don’t see a hint of civilization.
Then all of a sudden: Cafayate! How could Argentina’s most beautiful town be out here in the middle of nowhere?”
I loved the Patagonia tour, and now I have to go back for Northern Argentina. The variety of the landscape, the great food and wines, and some of the best Tour Leaders in the business sound hard to beat.
Curious to see some pictures from Argentina? Check out our gallery highlighting photos of Northern Argentina.