LA RIOJA – or Todos los Santos de la Nueva Rioxa, as it was baptized at the end of the sixteenth century – is an indolent kind of town, built in a flat-bottomed valley, watered by the Río Tajamar, and nearly 1200km northwest of Buenos Aires and 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 even for its hardy inhabitants. Whatever you do, avoid the midsummer, when temperatures can get up to 45°C. At all times the place has a rough and ready, Wild West edge to it, and the heat seems to make people tetchy even when they’ve had their institutional siesta – everything shuts down from 1pm to 5pm. Yet La Rioja is not without its fashionable boutiques and cafés, and the city’s chic business people in sharp suits love to strut along the tree-lined streets, clutching mobile phones that chirp in competition with the omnipresent and vociferous cicadas.
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”.