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.