SAN SALVADOR DE JUJUY is a tranquil place and, at 1260m above sea level, enjoys an enviably temperate climate. Just over 90km north of Salta by the direct and scenic but rather slow RN-9, it is the capital of the country’s most remote mainland province, a small but intensely beautiful patch of land, ostensibly having more in common with next-door Chile and Bolivia than with the rest of Argentina, and little with Buenos Aires, nearly 1600km away. It is the most Andean of all Argentina’s cities: much of its population is descended from indigenous stock, either mestizos or recent Bolivian immigrants. A day or two will suffice to see the town’s modest attractions, and it does not have the tourist infrastructure that Salta enjoys, but it has an up-and-coming yet authentic feel, with an excellent spread of restaurants and a thriving cultural scene, that makes it a good stopover or possible base to visit the rich hinterland that surrounds it. Dramatically situated, the city (usually known as San Salvador, or, simply, Jujuy) lies in a fertile bowl, with the spectacular multicoloured gorge of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a major reason for heading in this direction, immediately north. The Cerro de Claros (1704m) and Cerro Chuquina (1987m) loom just to the southeast and southwest, and the city is wedged between two rivers, the Río Grande and Río Chico or Xibi Xibi, both bone dry for most of the year.
Though not a conventionally beautiful city, the central streets have a certain atmosphere – while the main Plaza Belgrano has a definite subtropical charm. Scratch the surface and you’ll unearth some real treasures, among them one of the finest pieces of sacred art to be seen in Argentina, the pulpit in the cathedral – and the interior of Iglesia San Francisco is almost as impressive.
Jujuy was founded, after a couple of early false starts, on April 19, 1593. Earthquakes, the plague and conflict all conspired to hamper the city’s growth during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have deprived it of any of its original buildings. General Belgrano ordered the Jujuy Exodus on August 23, 1812 – an event every Argentine schoolchild learns about – at the height of the Wars of Independence; the city’s entire population was evacuated and Jujuy was razed to the ground to prevent its capture. Jujuy continued to bear the brunt of conflict, sacked by the royalists in 1814 and 1818. It then remained a forgotten backwater throughout the nineteenth century, and the railway did not reach it until 1903. Since the 1930s, its outskirts have spilt across both rivers and begun to creep up the hillsides, and it now has a sizeable immigrant population, mostly from across the Bolivian border to the north. The province – and therefore the city, which lives off the province’s agricultural production – have traditionally grown rich on sugar and tobacco, but earnings have declined in recent years and forced farmers to diversify into other crops. Tourism has so far been exploited only half-heartedly, but is growing in importance.