The first 150km stretch of RN-9 that runs north from Córdoba city towards Santiago del Estero is promoted by the provincial tourist authority as the Camino de la Historia (“Historical Route”), as it coincides with part of the colonial Camino Real (“Royal Way”), the Spanish road from Lima and Potosí to present-day Argentina. This was the route taken, albeit in the opposite direction, by the region’s first European settlers – the founders of Córdoba city – and the Jesuit missionaries who quickly dominated the local economy and culture. Eastwards from the road stretch some of Argentina’s most fertile cattle ranches; to the west the unbroken ridge of the Sierra Chica runs parallel to the highway. One of the country’s finest Jesuit estancias, now host to the well-presented Museo Jesuítico Nacional, can be visited at Jesús María, while beautiful Santa Catalina, lying off the main road to the north in a bucolic hillside setting, is still inhabited by descendants of the family who moved here at the end of the eighteenth century. Further north, in Villa Tulumba, a timeless little place well off the beaten track, the nondescript parish church houses a masterpiece of Jesuit art, the altarpiece that once adorned the Jesuits’ temple and, later, Córdoba cathedral, until it was moved up here in the early nineteenth century. As they developed their intensive agriculture, the Jesuits all but wiped out the region’s pre-Hispanic civilizations, but some precious vestiges of their culture, namely intriguing rock paintings, can be seen in the far north of the province, just off RN-9 at Cerro Colorado, one of Argentina’s finest pre-Columbian sites.
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- Jesús María
Santa CatalinaWest of Jesús María, the RP-66 leads to Ascochinga, from where an easily passable trail heads north through thick forest to SANTA CATALINA 20km to the northwest. Almost completely hidden among the hills, Santa Catalina is the biggest, and undoubtedly the finest, Jesuit estancia in the region, an outstanding example of colonial architecture. A sprawling yet harmonious set of early eighteenth-century buildings, it is dominated by its church, whose elegant silhouette and symmetrical towers suddenly and unexpectedly appear as you emerge from the woods. Whitewashed to protect the porous stone from the elements, the brightness of the building almost dazzles you when you approach.
The church is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day is celebrated with pomp every November 25; the sternly imposing facade is reminiscent of the Baroque churches of southern Germany and Austria. Inside, the austere single nave, whitewashed like the exterior, is decorated with a gilded wooden retable that houses an image of St Catherine, and a fine carob-wood pulpit. On the right-hand flank of the church is an overgrown little cemetery, whose outer wall bears a plaque commemorating the Italian composer and organist Domenico Zípoli, who died here in 1726.
Reserva Cultural Natural Cerro Colorado
Reserva Cultural Natural Cerro ColoradoThe village of CERRO COLORADO, no more than a few houses dotted along a riverbank, nestles in a deep, picturesque valley, surrounded by three looming peaks, Cerro Colorado (830m), Cerro Veladero (810m) and Cerro Inti Huasi (772m), all of which are easily explored on foot and afford fine views of the countryside. The main attraction, though, is the Reserva Cultural Natural Cerro Colorado, home to one of Argentina’s finest collections of petroglyphs, several thousand drawings that were scraped and painted by the indigenous inhabitants onto the pink rock face at the base of the mountains and in caves higher up between 1000 and 1600 AD.
Some of the petroglyphs depict horses, cattle and European figures as well as native llamas, guanacos, condors, pumas and snakes, but few of the abstract figures have been satisfactorily or conclusively interpreted – though your guide will offer convincing theories. The deep depressions, or morteros, in the horizontal rock nearby were caused over the centuries by the grinding and mixing of paints. Of the different pigments used – chalk, ochre, charcoal, oils and vegetable extracts – the white and black stand out more than the rest, but climatic changes, especially increased humidity, are taking their toll, and many of the rock paintings are badly faded. The petroglyphs are best viewed very early in the morning or before dusk, when the rock takes on blazing red hues and the pigments’ contrasts are at their strongest.
There’s also a small, free archeological museum, next to the guard post, with photos of the petroglyphs and native flora.
The Jesuits in Córdoba Province
The Jesuits in Córdoba Province
Even today the city of Córdoba owes its importance largely to the Jesuits who founded a college here in 1613. It would later become South America’s second university, the Universidad San Carlos, in 1621, making Córdoba the de facto capital of the Americas south of Lima. In 1640, the Jesuits built a temple at the heart of the city, and for the next 120 years the Society of Jesus dominated life there. Their emphasis on education earned the city the nickname La Docta (“the Learned”), and even today Córdoba is still regarded as an erudite kind of place – albeit politically radical.
But while the Jesuits and other missionaries turned Córdoba into the cultural capital of this part of the empire, their presence elsewhere resulted in the decline in numbers of the native population. The indigenous Sanavirones, Comechingones and Abipones resolutely defended themselves from the invaders. Finally conquered, they thwarted attempts by the Spanish to “civilize” them under the system of encomiendas, a forced labour system in which indigenous populations were taught Catholicism and Spanish in ‘‘exchange’’ for their toil. Nonetheless, devastated by influenza and other imported ailments, the indigenous population dwindled from several thousand in the late sixteenth century to only a few hundred a century later. Apart from a few archeological finds, such as rock paintings, the only signs of their former presence are the names of villages, rivers and the mountain range to the south of the city, and discernible indigenous features in the serranos, or rural inhabitants of the sierras.
Despite their profound effect on the area’s original inhabitants, the Jesuits were relatively enlightened by colonial standards, educating their workforce and treating them comparatively humanely. In addition to various monuments in the city itself, you can still visit their estancias, whose produce sustained communities and boosted trade in the whole empire. The Jesuit buildings in Córdoba and four of the remaining estancias around the province – including Santa Catalina, Alta Gracia, Jesús María and Caroya, near Jesús María – are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.