San Juan and La Rioja provinces share some memorable countryside, with range after range of lofty mountains alternating with green valleys of olive groves, onion fields and vineyards, but they’re the poorer cousins, in every sense, of Mendoza Province. The provinces’ bodegas, for example, continue to take a back seat to those of Mendoza and San Rafael, even though their wine can be just as good and they export much of their grape harvest to Mendoza’s wineries. Tourism has not fully got off the ground here, either, partly owing to poor transport services. To engineer tourist circuits you’ll need your own transport, preferably a 4WD.
Outside the capital, La Rioja’s population density barely reaches one inhabitant per square kilometre, while San Juan, where the equivalent ratio is around three, is on average half as densely populated as Mendoza Province. Leaving the cities behind to scout around the outback, you’ll experience a real sense of setting off into uncharted territory. Some unpaved roads peter out into tracks barely passable in the hardiest jeep, and the weather conditions can be inclement. However, this inhospitable nature does offer up fantastic opportunities for alternative tourism, such as 4WD trips or hiking.
Club-sandwiched between the pre-cordillera and the two rows of cordillera – known as main and frontal ranges, a geological phenomenon unique to this section of the Andes – are successive chains of valleys. The higher ones over 1500m above sea level are known as the valles altos, of which the Valle de Calingasta is an outstanding example. Between them the two provinces have four natural parks. The highly inaccessible Parque Nacional San Guillermo in San Juan Province adjoins the Reserva Provincial Las Vicuñas across the boundary in La Rioja; respectively, they give you a sporting chance of spotting wild pumas and vicuñas, along with a host of other Andean wildlife, amid unforgettable landscapes. Further east are the provinces’ star attractions: Parque Nacional Talampaya, with vertiginous red cliffs that make you feel totally insignificant and – only 70km south – its contiguous, unidentical twin, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, more commonly referred to as the Valle de la Luna, an important dinosaur graveyard in a highly photogenic site.Read More
Some 165km north of Mendoza, the city of SAN JUAN basks in the sun-drenched valley of the Río San Juan, which twists and turns between several steep mountain ranges. The city revels in its pet name, Residencia del Sol. In some of its barrios it has rained only a couple of times over the past decade, and the provincial average is less than 100mm a year. When it does rain, it’s usually in the form of violent storms, as savage as the zonda wind that occasionally stings the city. All this sunshine – more than nine hours a day on average – quickly ripens the sweetest imaginable grapes, melons and plums, irrigated by pre-Columbian canals, that have helped the city to prosper over the years. But nature is also a foe: periodic tremors remind Sanjuaninos that they live along one of the world’s most slippery seismic faults; the Big One is dreaded as much here as in California.
One of South America’s strongest-ever recorded earthquakes flattened the city in 1944 and as a result the city has hardly any buildings more than 70 years old. It’s modern and attractive, but San Juan is also quite conservative compared with its much bigger rival Mendoza. Around a third of a million people live in Greater San Juan, but in the compact microcentro everyone seems to know everyone else. Broad pavements, grand avenues and long boulevards shaded by rows of flaky-trunked plane trees lend the city a feeling of spaciousness and openness, making San Juan a comfortable starting-point for touring some of the country’s finest scenery.
The city was founded by the Spanish aristocrat Juan Jufré as San Juan de la Frontera on June 13, 1562, during an expedition from Santiago de Chile, and since then it has had a persistently troubled history. In 1594, the settlement was washed away by floods, and in 1632 it was again destroyed, this time in attacks by natives. The following year an uprising by the indigenous inhabitants was brutally put down; seventeen were hanged on the Plaza Mayor as an example. In the middle of the nineteenth century, San Juan found itself at the heart of the country’s civil war when its progressive leader, Dr Antonino Aberastain, was assassinated by federalist troops. In 1885 the arrival of the railways heralded a change to San Juan’s backwater status, as Basque, Galician and Andalucian immigrants began arriving.
Like Mendoza, the city has had terrible luck with seismic shocks: several violent earthquakes struck the city in the 1940s, but the strongest of all, reaching around 8.5 on the Richter scale, hit San Juan on January 15, 1944. It flattened the city and killed more than ten thousand people; during a gala held in Buenos Aires to raise funds for the victims shortly afterwards, an as yet relatively unknown army officer, Juan Domingo Perón, met an equally obscure actress, Eva Duarte.
- Valle de Calingasta
- Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and Parque Nacional Talampaya
LA RIOJA – or Todos los Santos de la Nueva Rioxa, as it was baptized at the end of the sixteenth century – is an indolent place, built in a flat-bottomed valley, watered by the Río Tajamar, 517km northeast of San Juan. It is not a sightseers’ city, but you can find enough to occupy a full day if passing through. Among the highlights are two of the country’s best museums of indigenous art, one archeological and the other with a folkloric slant. It is best visited in the spring (Oct–Nov), when the jacaranda trees are abloom, and the city is perfumed by the blossom of orange trees that have earned it the much-bandied sobriquet “Ciudad de los Naranjos”. In spite of the plentiful shade of this luxuriant vegetation, the blistering summer heat is refracted off the brutally arid mountains looming to the west and turns the city, notoriously one of the country’s hottest, virtually into a no-go zone. Whatever you do, avoid the midsummer, when temperatures can get up to 45°C.
La Rioja came into being on May 20, 1591, when the governor of Tucumán, Juan Ramírez de Velasco, a native of La Rioja in Castile, founded the city in its strategic valley location. Today’s main Plaza 25 de Mayo coincides exactly with the spot he chose. Ramírez de Velasco had set out on a major military expedition to populate the empty spaces of the Viceroyalty and subdue the native Diaguitas, who had farmed the fertile oasis for centuries. La Nueva Rioxa, the only colonial settlement for leagues around, soon flourished and Ramírez de Velasco felt justified in boasting in a letter that it was “one of the finest cities in the Indies”.
From it, mainly Franciscan missionaries set about fulfilling Ramírez de Velasco’s other aim of converting the indigenous peoples. Their convent and that of the Dominicans, one of the oldest in Argentina, both miraculously survived the earthquake that flattened most of the old colonial city in 1894. The whole city was rebuilt, largely in a Neocolonial style that was intended to restore its former glory, but long decades of neglect by the central government were to follow. La Rioja did not even benefit as much as it hoped it would when Carlos Menem, scion of a major La Rioja wine-producing family was elected president in 1990. There are signs that La Rioja is beginning to diversify away from its agricultural base, although the city, with a current population of about 150,000, is still regarded by most Argentines as a rather arid backwater.