The Central Sierras are the highest mountain ranges in Argentina away from the Andean cordillera. Their pinkish-grey ridges and jagged outcrops alternate with fertile valleys, wooded with native carob trees, and barren moorlands, fringed with pampas grass – a patchwork that is one of Argentina’s most varied landscapes. Formed more than 400 million years before the Andes and gently sculpted by the wind and rain, the sierras stretch across some 100,000 square kilometres, peaking at Cerro Champaquí. Colonized at the end of the sixteenth century by settlers heading south and east from Tucumán and Mendoza, Córdoba was the region’s first city. The Society of Jesus and its missionaries played a pivotal part in its foundation, establishing it at a strategic point along the Camino Real (“Royal Way”), the Spanish route from Alto Perú to the Crown’s emerging Atlantic trading posts on the Río de la Plata.
From that point on, the Jesuits dominated every aspect of life in the city and its hinterland, until King Carlos III kicked them out of the colonies in 1767. You can still see their handsome temple in the city centre, among other examples of colonial architecture. Further vestiges of the Jesuits’ heyday, Santa Catalina and Jesús María, are two of Argentina’s best-preserved Jesuit estancias, located between Córdoba city and the province’s northern border. Slightly north of Santa Catalina is one of the country’s most beguiling archeological sites, Cerro Colorado, which has hundreds of pre-Columbian petroglyphs.
Northwest from Córdoba city is the picturesque Punilla Valley, along which are threaded some of the country’s most traditional holiday resorts, such as La Falda and Capilla del Monte. At the valley’s southern end, close to Córdoba city, are two nationally famous resorts: noisy, crowded Villa Carlos Paz and slightly quieter Cosquín. By contrast, the far north of the province, particularly a stunningly unspoilt area roughly between Capilla del Monte and Santa Catalina, remains little visited: the dramatic rock formations at Ongamira and the lovingly restored hamlet of Ischilín are just two of the highlights. South of Córdoba, the Calamuchita Valley is famed for its popular holiday spots, sedately Germanic Villa General Belgrano and rowdy Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. Alta Gracia, at the entrance to this increasingly urbanized valley, is home to an outstanding historical museum housed in an immaculately restored estancia; Che Guevara spent much of his adolescence in the town.
Southwest of Córdoba a high mountain pass cuts through the sierras, leading to the generally more placid resorts of the Traslasierra, a handsome valley in western Córdoba Province, and some stunning scenery in the lee of Cerro Champaquí, accessed from the pretty village of San Javier. Along this route lies the province’s only national park, the Quebrada del Condorito, whose dramatic ravines provide a breeding site for the magnificent condor.