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 four hundred 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 Peru 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 of Spain had them kicked 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, just off the Camino Real, promoted locally as the Camino de la Historia. Slightly north of Santa Catalina is one of the country’s most beguiling archeological sites, Cerro Colorado, where hundreds of pre-Columbian petroglyphs decorate open-air galleries of red sandstone at the foot of cave-riddled mountains.
Northwest from Córdoba city is the picturesque Punilla Valley, along which are threaded some of the oldest, most traditional holiday resorts in the country, such as La Falda and Capilla del Monte, sedate towns with genteel hotels. At the southern end of the valley, close to Córdoba city, are two nationally famous resorts: noisy, crowded Villa Carlos Paz and slightly quieter Cosquín, the latter known for its annual folk festival. By way of 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 secret marvels hereabouts. Directly south of Córdoba, the Calamuchita Valley is famed for its two popular holiday spots, sedately Germanic Villa General Belgrano and much rowdier Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, from where alpine trails climb into the nearby Comechingones range. 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. A high mountain pass cuts through the natural barrier of the sierras to the southwest of Córdoba. It leads 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, which is easily climbed from the pretty village of San Javier. Along this route lies Córdoba Province’s only national park, the Quebrada del Condorito, whose dramatic, often misty ravines provide an outstanding breeding site for the magnificent condor and a habitat for a number of endemic species.
Córdoba Province is well served by public transport, especially along the Punilla and Calamuchita valleys, but you can explore at your own pace by renting a car or even a mountain bike. Nearly everywhere is within striking distance of the city of Córdoba, which you could use as a base for day excursions, but it would be a shame to miss out staying at some of the estancias in the Central Sierras. The whole region gets overcrowded in the summer, especially in January, so you should try and go in the cooler, drier and quieter months; although night temperatures are low in winter (June–August), the days can be mild, sunny and extremely pleasant.Read More
Nature’s medicine in the Central Sierras
Nature’s medicine in the Central Sierras
A bewildering variety of vegetation grows on the mountainsides of the Central Sierras and is representative of three of the country’s principal phytogeographic zones – the Andes, the Pampas and the Chaco. Many of these plant species are reputed to possess remarkable medicinal properties. Perhaps best known is the peperina, of which there are two varieties: Mintostachys verticillata and Satureja parvifolia (the latter often known as peperina de la sierra). Both are highly aromatic and extremely digestive but, in men, diminish sexual potency. The yerba del pollo (Alternanthera pungens), on the other hand, is a natural cure for flatulence, while ephedrine, a tonic for heart ailments, is extracted industrially from tramontana (Ephedra triandra), a broom-like bush found all over the highlands at altitudes of 800–1300m. Anyone suffering from problems of the gall bladder might do well to drink an infusion of poleo (Lippia turbinata), a large shrub with silvery foliage and an unmistakable aroma. Appropriately enough, since Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the blind, the flor de Santa Lucia (Commelina erecta), whose intense blue or lilac blooms carpet the ground to astonishing effect, exudes a sticky substance that can be used as effective eye drops. The cola de caballo (Equisetum giganteum) – or “horsetail” – is used to control arterial pressure thanks to its diuretic powers; its ribbed, rush-like stems grow alongside streams and are crowned with hairy filaments that give it its popular name. Whatever you do, however, steer clear of revienta caballos (Solanum eleagnifolium or S. sisymbrifolium), a distant relative of the deadly nightshade. Its pretty violet flowers give way to deceptively attractive yellow berries, but the whole plant is highly toxic.
Obviously, you should seek expert advice before putting natural cures to the test, and they should not be used instead of conventional medicine for the severest of complaints. Pharmaceutical herbs, known as yuyos, are sold (usually in dried form) in pharmacies and in stores selling dietetic products throughout the region.