Explore The Northwest
The region’s main settlement of BELÉN is squeezed between the Sierra de Belén and the river of the same name. Olive groves and plantations of capsicum – paprika-producing peppers (pimentones) – stretch across the fertile valley to the south. A convenient stopover, Belén offers the area’s best accommodation and a couple of restaurants, and it’s also a base for adventure tourism, including trekking and horse riding. And since Belén promotes itself as the Capital del Poncho you might like to visit the many excellent teleras, or textile workshops, dotted around the town; they also turn out beautiful blankets and sweaters made of llama, vicuña and sheep’s wool, mostly in natural colours. The wool is sometimes blended with walnut bark, to give the local cloth, known as belichas or belenistos, its typical rough texture. As for festivals, every January 6 a pilgrimage procession clambers to a huge statue of the Virgen de Belén, overlooking the town from its high vantage point to the west, the Cerro de la Virgen.
On the western flank of its main square, Plaza Presbítero Olmos de Aguilera, shaded by whitewashed orange trees and bushy palms and ringed by cafés and ice-cream parlours, stands the Italianate Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Belén, clearly inspired by the cathedral in Catamarca and designed and built by Italian immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its brickwork is bare, without plaster or decoration, lending it a rough-hewn but not displeasing look. Housed on the first floor of a rather grim commercial arcade, at San Martín and Belgrano, half a block from the main square, the Museo Provincial Cóndor Huasi has one of the country’s most important collections of Diaguita artefacts, but is poorly laid out. The huge number of ceramics, and some bronze and silver items, trace the Diaguita culture through all four archeological “periods”: the Initial Period, 300 BC–300 AD, is represented by simple but by no means primitive pieces, often in the shape of squashes or maize-cobs; in the Early Period (Cóndor Huasi and Ciénaga; 300–550 AD), anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ceramics dominate, including naive representations of llamas and pumas; the Middle or Aguada Period, 650–950 AD, produced some of the museum’s most prized pieces, such as a ceramic jaguar of astonishing finesse; and the Late Period, from 1000 AD onwards, includes the so-called Santa María culture, when craftsmen produced large urns, vases and amphoras decorated with complex, mostly abstract geometric patterns, with depictions of snakes, rheas and toads. There are a few Inca artefacts, too.