Fifteen kilometres west of Belén and even more charming, with partly crumbling adobe houses and pretty orchards, LONDRES lies 2km off the RN-40 along a winding road that joins its upper and lower towns, on either side of the Río Hondo, a usually dry river that peters out in the Salar de Pipanaco. Known as the Cuna de la Nuez, or Walnut Heartland, the town celebrates the Fiesta de la Nuez with folklore and crafts displays during the first few days of February. Londres de Abajo, the lower town, is centred on Plaza José Eusebio Colombres, where you’ll find the simple, whitewashed eighteenth-century Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, in front of which the walnut festival is held. The focal point for the rest of the year is Londres de Arriba’s Plaza Hipólito Yrigoyen, overlooked by the quaint Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, a once lovely church in a pitiful state of repair but noteworthy for a harmonious colonnade and its fine bells, said to be the country’s oldest. As yet, there’s no accommodation in the town, but ask around, just in case someone has a room to let.
Londres’ humble present-day aspect belies a long and prestigious history, including the fact that it’s Argentina’s second oldest “city” (ciudad), founded in 1558, only five years after Santiago del Estero. Diego de Almagro and his expedition from Cusco began scouring the area in the 1530s and founded a settlement which was named in honour of the marriage between Philip, heir to the Spanish throne, and Mary Tudor: hence the tribute to the English capital in the village’s name. Alongside the municipalidad, on the wall of which is a quaint fresco testifying to the town’s glorious past, is the small but interesting Museo Arqueológico, displaying ceramics and other finds from the impressive Shinkal ruins. The ruins themselves lie 5km west; just follow the well-signposted scenic road, next to the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción. Amazingly intact, though parts of it are over-restored in a zealous attempt to reconstruct the fortress, it was the site of a decisive battle in the Great Calchaquí Uprising. After Chief Chelemín cut off the water supplies to Londres and set fire to the town, forcing its inhabitants to flee to La Rioja, he was captured and had his body ripped apart by four horses. Shinkal gives you an insight into what Diaguita settlements in the region must have looked like: splendid steps lead to the top of high ceremonial mounds, with great views of the oasis and Sierra de Zapata.