Martin Miguel de Güemes International Airport, located at the foothills of the Argentine Andes, is a very long name for a very small airport. The place is so modest you might confuse it for a bus station, if not for the duty-free shops selling vodka by the gallon. When I arrived, there was almost nobody there, unless you count a few stray dogs and my driver, Juan, a sturdy cowboy leaning against his truck, chewing on the kind of coca leaves that are ground up to make cocaine.
“Is that safe?” I asked in broken Spanish as he threw my bags into the truck’s cab. He shrugged. “You wouldn’t say, ‘I’m not going to eat grapes because it’ll make me drunk.’ ” He had a point. And so when he offered me a leaf, I obliged. And off we drove.
Welcome to Salta, a remote region in the northwest corner of Argentina and maybe the last place in the country that hasn’t blown up in some Insta-influencer’s social media feed. I’d come for a five-day road trip along Ruta 40, the country’s answer to Route 66, which runs the length of Argentina and is a national point of pride, despite long stretches where it has somehow never been paved. It’s a gaucho’s paradise, a sort of real-life Westworld.
Even better? I didn’t have to plan a thing, thanks to the folks at Black Tomato, the sleek U.K. travel firm specializing in custom itineraries—one of a wave of new operators offering adventures in remote corners of the world with just the right amount of hand-holding.
After sharing my interests with one of Black Tomato’s reps—medium-intensity physical strain and high-intensity alcohol—they plotted the route, arranged lodging at local hotels, hired hip guides to feed my brain in locations we visited, and contracted Juan to do the sometimes-perilous driving. Cómo se dice, giddyup?
What’s remarkable about the landscape in Salta was how quickly it changed—from flat, green fields to mountains made of angry red rocks. We had plenty of time in the car, and as I sipped yerba maté from Juan’s gourd, I caught up on some local politics with him. Halfway through the first day, we stopped at the Hill of Seven Colors, a geological wonder that some say is like a watercolor painting of a woman’s skirt. After I ate some llama, a local delicacy that tastes like gamy beef, I napped hard for an hour. When I finally came to and glanced out the window, it looked like I’d landed on the moon.
“Las Salinas Grandes,” Juan said, as if that somehow explained what I was staring at. I stepped out of the truck and threw on my sunglasses, trying to take in 2,300 square miles of blindingly white salt flats at the foot of the Sierras de Córdoba. The sky overhead was mythically blue and I dropped to my knees, running my finger across the flats to taste the salt. There was nobody—and I mean nobody—around for miles. Juan saw me and smiled as if to say: Just wait.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “we might see an ovni.” What the fuck’s an ovni? “Objecto volador no identificado,” he said, a flying object you can’t identify. Man, I thought, this country has everything.
After a night at Salta’s Legado Mitico, a boutique hotel installed in an 18th-century townhouse, we pressed farther along Ruta 40, at times just a dirt road. Local politicians often campaign on a promise to finally pave it. But what’s the rush? Hours turned to days—with stops at local inns—and it was sometimes hard to keep up with the fauna. We passed through a Dr. Seuss–like forest composed of cactus plants that stretched 25 feet into the air. Farther down the line, the forest gave way to a stretch of canyons known as Quebrada de las Conchas.
Juan, a surprisingly good amateur photographer, presented himself as the strong and silent type. But he’d offer wisdom if pressed. When I asked what American men should learn from Argentine gauchos, first he said, “How to work a grill.” Then he added, “How to date women.” By day four, though, he was the one cracking jokes. When we pulled off the road so I could go to the bathroom, he apparently called in to a local radio station and asked them to broadcast my name, warning listeners that there was a wild American on the loose. When we heard the announcement on air a few minutes later, he laughed so hard he nearly had to pull off the road.
On my fourth day we were scheduled to visit the Caves of Acsibi. In the morning we picked up our local guide, a handsome 20-something cowboy named Rene Aban. For the next hour, Juan drove us over impossible, rocky terrain before we finally came to the start of the hike. “It’s maybe two hours’ walk from here,” Rene said, as condors circled overhead. Knowing better, Juan got back into the truck and waved goodbye, and off went Rene and I.
The rock formations were so red they appeared elemental. While I was photographing the caves, which looked like Gaudí Gone Wild, Rene produced a picnic table from behind a rock and cracked open two cans of beer. The place didn’t just look like Westworld; it started to feel like it, too. Luxury travel, I realized, isn’t about finding the best craft cocktail in a foreign bar. It’s about becoming someone else for a few days.
Perhaps what I’ll remember most from the road trip was a casual lunch outside a rustic hotel called Sala de Payogasta, at the base of the Cafayate wine trail. The co-owner and vintner, Alejandro Alonso, a Gerard Depardieu look-alike, appeared when we arrived, promptly announced the internet wasn’t working, and quit for the day, pulling up a chair and opening a bottle of wine. He couldn’t know this, but his restaurant was impossibly on trend: The 10-table watering hole had glass casement windows and cornflower-blue chairs, like something out of Kinfolk magazine.
Plates of empanadas and perfectly seasoned roast chicken, flavored with sweet peppers grown on-site, appeared out of very thin air, as Alejandro explained that his grape fields rely on an irrigation system designed by the Incas, who ruled Argentina 600 years ago. The water is delivered to the crops by gravity, he said, as he opened a second bottle of wine.
I still hadn’t seen a UFO, though Juan had insisted this was the place. When I asked Alejandro to tell me when I might have luck spotting one, he smiled and muttered: “After the third bottle.”
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP ON YOUR OWN:
Fly into Buenos Aires, then take a two-hour regional flight to Salta. Rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle (you’ll need it), and head north on Ruta 9 until you reach Purmamarca and Ruta 40, to the west. Drive south to Cafayate, then back north into Salta for a 500-mile, five-day loop.
CUSTOM TRAVEL IN GAUCHO LAND
Three one-of-a-kind trips from the firms who know northern Argentina best.
1. Black Tomato
Black Tomato has mastered the high-end, turnkey experience: Before departure, a package arrives with your detailed itinerary, info on guides, plus curated reading for the plane. A nine-night itinerary, including time in Buenos Aires for a speakeasy tour, starts at $6,500.
2. Jacada Travel
Relative newcomer Jacada designs private journeys with the help of local guides. In Argentina, it offers a seven-night, off-road tour through the Salta Province—promising sightings of pre-Incan ruins and wild vicuña, a cousin of the llama—starting at $5,000.
3. Abercrombie & Kent
Founded in 1962, the British travel firm specializes in safaris, but in Salta the focus is on wine and craft spirits, with a five-day custom trip that includes a how-to on making wine in a high-altitude region and a horseback tour of the vineyards. From $3,750.