The altiplano of northwestern Catamarca Province, known as the Puna Catamarqueña (puna is the Quichoa word for altiplano, a word of Spanish coinage), stretches to the Chilean border and is one of the remotest and most deserted, but most outstandingly beautiful parts of the country. Antofagasta de la Sierra, a ghostly town of adobe-brick miners’ houses and whispering womenfolk, is far flung even from Catamarca city in this sparsely populated region, but the tiny archeological museum is worth seeing for its fantastic mummified infant. Dotted with majestic ebony volcanoes and scarred by recent lava-flows, with the Andean cordillera as a magnificent backdrop, the huge expanses of altiplano and their desiccated vegetation are grazed by hardy yet delicate-looking vicuñas while flamingoes valiantly survive on frozen lakes. This is staggeringly unspoilt country, with out-of-this-world landscapes, and a constantly surreal atmosphere, accentuated by the sheer remoteness and emptiness of it all; the trip out here is really more rewarding than the destination, Antofagasta, which is primarily a place to spend the night before forging on northwards, to San Antonio de los Cobres in Salta Province, or doubling back down to Belén. As you travel, look out for apachetas, little cairns of stones piled up at the roadside as an offering to the Mother Goddess, Pachamama, and the only visible signs of any human presence. Although a bus shuttles back and forth between Catamarca and Antofagasta twice a week, the surest way to get around is by 4WD, along the RP-43, one of the quietest roads in Argentina; it’s quite possible not to pass another vehicle all day. Take all the necessary precautions including plenty of fuel, and don’t forget warm clothing as the temperature can plummet several degrees below freezing at night in July. The best way to explore this difficult region is with the Salta-based Socompa tours, which also runs the hostería in El Peñón, a good alternative to staying in Antofagasta, where accommodation is limited.
In Hualfín, a tiny village where RP-43 branches northwestwards from the RN-40, 60km north of Belén, you can find rooms for rent, if you need accommodation, but most people use Hualfín as their last fuel stop before the long haul to Antofagasta de la Sierra; provisions can also be bought here. The village itself is famous for its paprika, often sprinkled on the delicious local goat’s cheeses, and a fine colonial church, dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Rosario and built in 1770; ask for the key at the municipalidad to see the pristine interior adorned with delicate frescoes. Hualfín was also the birthplace and stronghold of Chelemín, the Calchaquí leader who spearheaded the Great Uprising in the 1630s (see The Calchaquí wars). Thermal springs with rudimentary facilities, and slightly better ones 14km north at Villavil, are open from January to April only.Read More
Antofagasta de la Sierra
Antofagasta de la Sierra
Perched 3440m above sea level, 260km north of Belén, ANTOFAGASTA DE LA SIERRA lies at the northern end of a vast, arid plain hemmed in by volcanoes to the east and south, and by the cordillera, which soars to peaks of over 6000m, a mere 100km over to the west. With a population of under a thousand it exudes a feeling of utter remoteness, while still managing to exert a disarming fascination. It’s a bleak yet restful place, an oasis of tamarinds and green alfalfa fields in the middle of the meseta altiplánica – a harsh steppe that looms above the surrounding altiplano. Two rivers, Punilla and Las Paitas, meet just to the south, near the strange volcanic plug called El Torreón, adopted as the town’s symbol. Named after the Chilean port-city, this is a tough town with a harsh climate, where night temperatures in midwinter drop well below freezing, accompanied by biting winds and a relentless sun during the day: its name means “home of the Sun” in the language of the Diaguita. Salt, borax and various minerals and metals have been mined in the area for centuries and Antofagasta has the hardy feel of a mining town, but most of its people are now subsistence farmers and herdsmen, scraping a living from maize, potatoes, onions and beans or rearing llamas and alpacas, whose wool is made into textiles. The people here are introverted and placid, hospitable but seemingly indifferent to the outside world.
The best views of the immediate surroundings can be enjoyed from the top of the Cerro Amarillo and Cerro de la Cruz, two unsightly mounds of earth that look like part of a huge building-site and dominate the town’s humble streets of small mud-brick houses. The Cerro de la Cruz is the destination of processions held to honour Antofagasta’s patron saints, St Joseph and the Virgin of Loreto, from December 8 to 10. In another sombre ceremony, the town’s dead are remembered on November 1 and 2, when villagers file to and from the cemetery before a feast, talking in whispers so as not to disturb the spirits. And every March the town comes to life, for the Feria Artesanal y Ganadera de la Puna, a colourful event attended by craftspeople and herdsmen from all over the province. The only tourist attraction in the town is the beautifully presented Museo Arqueológico, recently created primarily to house a perfectly preserved, naturally mummified baby, found in the mountains nearby and believed to be nearly two thousand years old; surrounded with jewels and other signs of wealth, suggesting the child belonged to a ruling dynasty, it exerts a morbid fascination. The museum’s other exhibits, few in number but of extraordinary value, include an immaculately preserved pre-Hispanic basket, the pigment colouring and fine weave still intact.
The Calchaquí wars
The Calchaquí wars
After the European invasions of this region in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the indigenous tribes who lived along the Valles Calchaquíes, stretching from Salta Province in the north, down to central Catamarca Province, steadfastly refused to be evangelized by the Spanish invaders and generally to behave as their aggressors wanted; the region around Belén and Londres proved especially difficult to colonize. Even the Jesuits, usually so effective at bringing the “natives” under control, conceded defeat. The colonizers made do with a few encomiendas, and more often pueblos, reservations where the Indians were forced to live, leaving the colonizers to farm their “own” land in peace. After a number of skirmishes, things came to a head in 1630, when the so-called Great Calchaquí Uprising began. For two years, under the leadership of Juan Chelemín, the fierce cacique of Hualfín, natives waged a war of attrition against the invaders, sacking towns and burning crops, provoking ever more brutal reactions from the ambitious new governor of Tucumán, Francisco de Nieva y Castilla. Eventually Chelemín was caught, drawn and quartered, and various parts of his body were put on display in different villages to “teach the Calchaquíes a lesson”, but it took until 1643 for all resistance to be stamped out, and only after a network of fortresses was built in Andalgalá, Londres and elsewhere.
War broke out once more in 1657, when the Spanish decided to arrest “El Inca Falso”, also known as Pedro Chamijo, an impostor of European descent who claimed to be Hualpa Inca – or Inca emperor – under the nom de guerre of Bohórquez. Elected chief at an impressive ceremony attended by the new governor of Tucumán, Alonso Mercado y Villacorta, amid great pomp and circumstance, in Pomán, he soon led the Calchaquíes into battle, and Mercado y Villacorta, joined by his ruthless predecessor, Francisco de Nieva y Castilla, set about what today would be called ethnic cleansing. Bohórquez was captured, taken to Lima and eventually garrotted in 1667, and whole tribes fell victim to genocide: their only remains are the ruins of Batungasta, Hualfín and Shinkal, near Londres. Some tribes like the Quilmes, whose settlement is now an archeological site near Amaicha, were uprooted and forced to march to Buenos Aires. Out of seven thousand Quilmes who survived a long and distressing siege in their pukará, or fortress, despite having their food and water supplies cut off, before being led in chains to Buenos Aires, where they were employed as slaves, only a few hundred were left. These few remaining survivors, however, were sadly wiped out in a smallpox epidemic at the end of the eighteenth century.