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.
The zonda effect
The zonda effect
San Juan, like the rest of the Cuyo, though even more so, is prone to the zonda, a legendary dry wind that blows down from the Andes and blasts everything in its path like a blowtorch. It’s caused by a thermal inversion that arises when wet, cold air from the Pacific is thrust abruptly up over the cordillera and suddenly forced to dump its moisture, mostly in the form of snow, onto the skyscraper peaks before helter-skeltering down the other side into the deep chasm between the Cordillera Principal and the pre-cordillera, which acts like a very high brick wall. Forced to brake, the zonda rubs against the land like tyre-rubber against tarmac, and the resulting friction results in blistering temperatures and an atmosphere you can almost see. Mini-tornadoes can sometimes also occur, whipping sand and dust up in clearly visible spirals all along the region’s desert-like plains. The Cuyo’s answer to the Föhn, mistral or sirocco, ripping people’s nerves to shreds, the zonda is one of the world’s nastiest meteorological phenomena. Although it can blow at any time of year, the zonda is most frequent in the winter months, particularly August, when it can suddenly hike the temperature by ten to fifteen degrees in a matter of hours.