Explore The Northwest
Some of the Northwest’s finest scenery is within easy reach of Tucumán. Nothing can provide a more startling contrast than the steep ascent from the steamy lowlands, through the tangled mossy jungle of the Selva Tucumana, up to Tafí del Valle amid the bare mountains of the Sierra del Aconquija. An unusual museum, at Amaicha, and a restored pre-Inca fortress, at Quilmes, are the two main attractions in the far west of Tucumán Province, at the southern end of the Valles Calchaquíes, on the other side of the sierra. While these can all be visited on classic day-trips from Tucumán, you may wish to stay over in Tafí.Read More
Tafí de Valle
Tafí de Valle
TAFÍ DEL VALLE, 128km west of Tucumán by the RP-307 – which turns off the RN-38 at Acheral, 42km southwest of the provincial capital – makes an ideal alternative stopover to Tucumán itself, especially in the summer when the city swelters, or a cool day-trip. The dramatic journey lifts you out of the moist lowlands of eastern Tucumán Province, emerald-green sugar plantations as far as the eye can see, up through the tangled mass of Selva Tucumana – ablaze with blossom from September to December – to the dry steppe of the highland valley that gives Tafí its name. As the RP-307 snakes up steep jungle-clad cliffs, it offers fewer and fewer glimpses of the subtropical plains way below, where the sugar fields look increasingly like paddyfields and the individual trees of the citrus orchards resemble the dots of a pointillist painting. At 2000m, the road levels off and skirts the eastern bank of Dique la Angostura, a large reservoir; the often-snowy peak of extinct volcano Cerro Pelao, 2680m, is mirrored in the lake’s still surface. If you head in a westerly direction towards Potrerillo along the RP-355, a signposted turning to El Mollar brings you to the Parque de los Menhires, where a number of engraved monoliths, deceptively Celtic-looking in appearance – but in fact the work of the Tafí tribes who farmed the area around two thousand years ago – have been planted haphazardly in a field. They used to be scattered decoratively on an exposed hill overlooking the lake at La Angostura, but weathering and graffiti led the authorities to move the historic standing stones to a safer, but not aesthetically pleasing, location.
From the turn-off to Potrerillo, the RP-307 continues north to reach Tafí del Valle itself, a sprawling village in the western lee of the Sierra del Aconquija, and sandwiched between the Rio del Chusquí and the Río Blanquita, both of which flow into the Río Tafí and then into the reservoir. Although blue and sunny skies are virtually guaranteed year-round, occasionally thick fog descends into the valley in the winter, making its alpine setting feel bleak and inhospitable. While Tafí is a favourite weekend and summer retreat for Tucumanos – the average temperature is 12°C lower than in the city – there’s very little to do here except explore the surrounding mountains and riverbanks, but the trekking 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 town’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. Across the Río Tafí, 1km from the Plaza, the Capilla Jesuítica de la Banda, is a late eighteenth-century Jesuit building now housing archeological finds, mostly ceramic urns, from nearby digs, plus some items of furniture and modest paintings from the colonial period. 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.
To get to the village of AMAICHA, take the RP-307, which zigzags northwards from Tafí, offering views of the embalse and the mountains – but be warned that low cloud often persists here, so you might be penetrating a blanket of thick fog instead – and heaves you over the wind swept pass at Abra del Infiernillo (3042m). From here, the road steeply winds back down, along the banks of the Río de Amaicha. It takes you through arid but impressive landscapes thickly covered with a forest of cardón cacti, with the Cumbres Calchaquíes to the east and the Sierra de Quilmes ahead of you, until you reach Amaicha itself. The peaceful, nondescript little place livens up during the Fiesta de la Pachamama in carnival week, when dancers and musicians lay on shows while locals put on a kind of pre-Columbian Passion Play, acting the roles of the different pagan deities, including Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Along with a number of small eateries serving delicious locro, the Casa de Piedra is open for meals year-round; it also sells local crafts.
Just 200m along the road from the village centre, near the junction with the RP-357, is the splendid Museo Pachamama. The brainchild of local artist Héctor Cruz, it’s actually several museums rolled into one, and it’s worth a look to see the structure itself, built around fabulous cactus gardens and incorporating eye-catching stone mosaics, depicting llamas, pre-Hispanic symbols and geometric patterns. Each large room in turn displays an impressive array of local archeological finds, the well-executed reconstruction of a mine along with impressive samples of various precious and semi-precious ores and minerals extracted in the area, plus paintings, tapestries and ceramics from Cruz’s own workshops, to modern designs inspired by pre-Columbian artistic traditions.
Beyond Amaicha, the RP-307 veers westwards before running south to Santa María, in Catamarca Province, from where you can travel down to Belén, whereas the RP-357, a straight well-surfaced road, takes you northwest for 15km to the RN-40, which heads north along the west bank of the Río Calchaquí towards Quilmes and Cafayate. The regular buses from Tafí to Quilmes and Cafayate will drop you off by Amaicha’s museum.
Just 3km north of the RP-357/RN-40 junction, 15km north of Amaicha, is the westward turn-off to the major pre-Inca archeological site of Quilmes, one of the most extensively restored in the country. Buses to Cafayate running along the RN-40 will drop you at the junction, leaving you with the 5km trek along the dusty side road to the site. 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.