In the humid valley of the Río Salí, in the eastern lee of the high Sierra de Aconquija, SAN MIGUEL DE TUCUMÁN (or simply Tucumán) is Argentina’s fourth-largest city, 1190km northwest of Buenos Aires and nearly 300km south of Salta by the RN-9. It hasn’t changed much, it seems, since Paul Theroux was here in 1978 and wrote, in The Old Patagonian Express, that it “was thoroughly European in a rather old-fashioned way, from the pin-striped suits and black moustaches of the old men idling in the cafés or having their shoes shined in the plaza, to the baggy, shapeless school uniforms of the girls stopping on their way to the convent school to squeeze – it was an expression of piety – the knee of Christ on the cathedral crucifix”; it still looks a bit like a European city caught in a time warp.
The capital of a tiny but heavily populated sugar-rich province, known popularly as the Garden of the Nation, Tucumán is by far the biggest metropolis in the Northwest, the region’s undisputed commercial capital and one of the liveliest urban centres in the country, with a thriving business centre, a youthful population and even a slightly violent undercurrent, by Argentine standards. Tucumán certainly has a boisterous image, perhaps partly since it’s Argentina’s rugby capital, but its confidence has been trimmed over the past two or three decades by municipal political and economic crises – and the city seems to have taken longer than the rest of the country to recover from the turmoil of 2001.
Despite its narrow, traffic-clogged streets and the slightly down-at-heel pedestrianized shopping area northwest of the centre, Tucumán lends itself to a gentle stroll and you could easily spend a full day visiting its few sights, including a couple of decent museums.
Originally founded in 1565 by Diego de Villarroel, Tucumán’s first home was near the town of Monteros, 50km southwest of the present city, but mosquitoes proved an intolerable nuisance, and the settlement was moved to its current drier spot in 1685. The etymology of the name Tucumán is something of a mystery – it is probably a corruption of the Quichoa for “place where things finish”, a reference to the abrupt mountains that loom above the fertile plains, but may have been derived from the Kana word yukuman meaning “welling springs”. For a while, the city flourished and its name was applied to a whole region of Spanish America corresponding to southern Bolivia and the northwestern quarter of today’s Argentina. Soon, though, the city was eclipsed by Salta and Córdoba, whose climates were found to be more bearable.
Then came its moment of glory, on July 9, 1816, when the city hosted a historic Congress of Unitarist politicians at which Argentina’s independence from Spain was declared. British investment and climatic conditions favoured Tucumán’s sugar industry, and most of the city’s wealth, built up around the end of the nineteenth century, accrued from this “white gold”. A slump in international sugar prices and shortsighted over-farming have now forced local sugar growers to branch out into alternative money earners, such as tobacco and citrus fruit. Tucumán has become the world’s biggest lemon-producing area, but also grows mandarins, grapefruit and kumquats. With a climate similar to that around Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, much of the area has also been given over to growing blueberries and strawberries – with large numbers of Bolivian workers helping local farmers at harvest time.Read More
Tafí del Valle
Tafí del Valle
From the turn-off to Potrerillo, the RP-307 continues north to reach TAFÍ DEL VALLE, 128km west of Tucumán, favoured by locals and tourists alike as a day-trip destination or longer retreat from the provincial capital, especially in the summer when the city swelters. Tafí is a rather sprawling village located in a mountain-side valley (from which it takes its name) in the western lee of the Sierra del Aconquija, sandwiched between the Rio del Chusquí and the Río Blanquita, both of which flow into the Río Tafí and then into the Dique La Angostura. This is where Tucumanos come to escape the city – the average temperature is 12°C lower than in the city. Blue and sunny skies are virtually guaranteed year-round, though occasionally thick fog descends into the valley in the winter, making its alpine setting feel bleak and inhospitable.
Apart from relaxing, the main attraction is the opportunity to explore the beautiful mountain scenery and unspoilt riverbanks; the trekking hereabouts is very rewarding. Popular trails go up Cerro El Matadero (3050m; 5hr), Cerro Pabellón (3770m; 4hr), Cerro Muñoz (4437m; one day) and Mala-Mala (3500m; 8hr); go with a guide, as the weather is unpredictable.
The village’s main streets, lime-tree-lined Avenida San Martín, and avenidas Gobernador Critto and Diego de Rojas (Av Perón on some maps), converge on the semicircular plaza, around which most of the hotels, restaurants, cafés and shops are concentrated.
Famous for its delicious cow’s and goat’s cheese, available at small farms and stalls all around the town, Tafí holds a lively Fiesta Nacional del Queso, with folk music and dancing and rock bands, in early February.
QuilmesThe major pre-Inca archeological site of Quilmes is one of the most extensively restored in the country. Inhabited since the ninth century AD, the settlement of Quilmes had a population of over 3000 at its peak in the seventeenth century, but the whole Quilmes tribe was punished mercilessly by the Spanish colonizers for resisting evangelization and enslavement. Walls and many buildings in this terraced pukará, or pre-Columbian fortress, have been thoroughly, if not always expertly, excavated and reconstructed, and the overall effect is extremely impressive, especially in the morning light, when the mountains behind it are illuminated from the east and turn bright orange. The entrance fee also entitles you to visit the site museum, which contains some items found here, such as ceramics and stone tools, and displays more expensive modern crafts by local artist Héctor Cruz.