Córdoba and the Central Sierras Travel Guide
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The Central Sierras are the highest mountain ranges in Argentina away from the Andean cordillera. Their pinkish-grey ridges and jagged outcrops alternate with fertile valleys, wooded with native carob trees, and barren moorlands, fringed with pampas grass – a patchwork that is one of Argentina’s most varied landscapes. Formed more than 400 million years before the Andes and gently sculpted by the wind and rain, the sierras stretch across some 100,000 square kilometres, peaking at Cerro Champaquí. Colonized at the end of the sixteenth century by settlers heading south and east from Tucumán and Mendoza, Córdoba was the region’s first city. The Society of Jesus and its missionaries played a pivotal part in its foundation, establishing it at a strategic point along the Camino Real (“Royal Way”), the Spanish route from Alto Perú to the Crown’s emerging Atlantic trading posts on the Río de la Plata.
From that point on, the Jesuits dominated every aspect of life in the city and its hinterland, until King Carlos III kicked them out of the colonies in 1767. You can still see their handsome temple in the city centre, among other examples of colonial architecture. Further vestiges of the Jesuits’ heyday, Santa Catalina and Jesús María, are two of Argentina’s best-preserved Jesuit estancias, located between Córdoba city and the province’s northern border. Slightly north of Santa Catalina is one of the country’s most beguiling archeological sites, Cerro Colorado, which has hundreds of pre-Columbian petroglyphs.
Northwest from Córdoba city is the picturesque Punilla Valley, along which are threaded some of the country’s most traditional holiday resorts, such as La Falda and Capilla del Monte. At the valley’s southern end, close to Córdoba city, are two nationally famous resorts: noisy, crowded Villa Carlos Paz and slightly quieter Cosquín. By contrast, the far north of the province, particularly a stunningly unspoilt area roughly between Capilla del Monte and Santa Catalina, remains little visited: the dramatic rock formations at Ongamira and the lovingly restored hamlet of Ischilín are just two of the highlights. South of Córdoba, the Calamuchita Valley is famed for its popular holiday spots, sedately Germanic Villa General Belgrano and rowdy Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. Alta Gracia, at the entrance to this increasingly urbanized valley, is home to an outstanding historical museum housed in an immaculately restored estancia; Che Guevara spent much of his adolescence in the town.
Southwest of Córdoba a high mountain pass cuts through the sierras, leading to the generally more placid resorts of the Traslasierra, a handsome valley in western Córdoba Province, and some stunning scenery in the lee of Cerro Champaquí, accessed from the pretty village of San Javier. Along this route lies the province’s only national park, the Quebrada del Condorito, whose dramatic ravines provide a breeding site for the magnificent condor.
The first 150km stretch of RN-9 that runs north from Córdoba city towards Santiago del Estero is promoted by the provincial tourist authority as the Camino de la Historia (“Historical Route”), as it coincides with part of the colonial Camino Real (“Royal Way”), the Spanish road from Lima and Potosí to present-day Argentina. This was the route taken, albeit in the opposite direction, by the region’s first European settlers – the founders of Córdoba city – and the Jesuit missionaries who quickly dominated the local economy and culture. Eastwards from the road stretch some of Argentina’s most fertile cattle ranches; to the west the unbroken ridge of the Sierra Chica runs parallel to the highway. One of the country’s finest Jesuit estancias, now host to the well-presented Museo Jesuítico Nacional, can be visited at Jesús María, while beautiful Santa Catalina, lying off the main road to the north in a bucolic hillside setting, is still inhabited by descendants of the family who moved here at the end of the eighteenth century. Further north, in Villa Tulumba, a timeless little place well off the beaten track, the nondescript parish church houses a masterpiece of Jesuit art, the altarpiece that once adorned the Jesuits’ temple and, later, Córdoba cathedral, until it was moved up here in the early nineteenth century. As they developed their intensive agriculture, the Jesuits all but wiped out the region’s pre-Hispanic civilizations, but some precious vestiges of their culture, namely intriguing rock paintings, can be seen in the far north of the province, just off RN-9 at Cerro Colorado, one of Argentina’s finest pre-Columbian sites.
The village of Cerro Colorado, no more than a few houses dotted along a riverbank, nestles in a deep, picturesque valley, surrounded by three looming peaks, Cerro Colorado (830m), Cerro Veladero (810m) and Cerro Inti Huasi (772m), all of which are easily explored on foot and afford fine views of the countryside. The main attraction, though, is the Reserva Cultural Natural Cerro Colorado, home to one of Argentina’s finest collections of petroglyphs, several thousand drawings that were scraped and painted by the indigenous inhabitants onto the pink rock face at the base of the mountains and in caves higher up between 1000 and 1600 AD.
Some of the petroglyphs depict horses, cattle and European figures as well as native llamas, guanacos, condors, pumas and snakes, but few of the abstract figures have been satisfactorily or conclusively interpreted – though your guide will offer convincing theories. The deep depressions, or morteros, in the horizontal rock nearby were caused over the centuries by the grinding and mixing of paints. Of the different pigments used – chalk, ochre, charcoal, oils and vegetable extracts – the white and black stand out more than the rest, but climatic changes, especially increased humidity, are taking their toll, and many of the rock paintings are badly faded. The petroglyphs are best viewed very early in the morning or before dusk, when the rock takes on blazing red hues and the pigments’ contrasts are at their strongest.
There’s also a small, free archeological museum, next to the guard post, with photos of the petroglyphs and native flora.
Lying just off the busy RN-9, 50km north of Córdoba, Jesús María is a sleepy little town that comes to life for the annual Festival Nacional de la Doma y el Folklore, a gaucho fiesta with lively entertainment held every evening during the first fortnight of January.
On the northern outskirts of Jesús María is the Museo Jesuítico Nacional, housed in the former residence and the bodega, or wineries, of a well-restored Jesuit estancia. Next to the missionaries’ living quarters and the adjoining eighteenth-century church are a colonial tajamar, or reservoir, and apple and peach orchards – all that remain of the estancia’s once extensive territory, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries covered more than a hundred square kilometres.
In contrast to the bare, rough-hewn granite of the outside walls of the complex, a whitewashed courtyard lies beyond a gateway to the right of the church. Its two storeys of simple arches on three sides set off the bright red roofs, which are capped with the original ceramic tiles, or musleros. These slightly convex tiles, taking their name from muslo, or thigh, because the tile-makers shaped the clay on their legs, are common to all the Jesuit estancias. The U-shaped residencia contains the former missionaries’ cells, storehouses and communal rooms, now used for temporary exhibits and various permanent displays of archeological finds, colonial furniture, sacred relics and religious artwork from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, along with farming and wine-making equipment. The local wine, Lagrimilla, is claimed to be the first colonial wine served in the Spanish court – Argentina’s earliest vineyards were planted here at the end of the sixteenth century.
West of Jesús María, the RP-66 leads to Ascochinga, from where an easily passable trail heads north through thick forest to Santa Catalina 20km to the northwest. Almost completely hidden among the hills, Santa Catalina is the biggest, and undoubtedly the finest, Jesuit estancia in the region, an outstanding example of colonial architecture. A sprawling yet harmonious set of early eighteenth-century buildings, it is dominated by its church, whose elegant silhouette and symmetrical towers suddenly and unexpectedly appear as you emerge from the woods. Whitewashed to protect the porous stone from the elements, the brightness of the building almost dazzles you when you approach.
The church is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day is celebrated with pomp every November 25; the sternly imposing facade is reminiscent of the Baroque churches of southern Germany and Austria. Inside, the austere single nave, whitewashed like the exterior, is decorated with a gilded wooden retable that houses an image of St Catherine, and a fine carob-wood pulpit. On the right-hand flank of the church is an overgrown little cemetery, whose outer wall bears a plaque commemorating the Italian composer and organist Domenico Zípoli, who died here in 1726.
Even today the city of Córdoba owes its importance largely to the Jesuits who founded a college here in 1613. It would later become South America’s second university, the Universidad San Carlos, in 1621, making Córdoba the de facto capital of the Americas south of Lima. In 1640, the Jesuits built a temple at the heart of the city, and for the next 120 years, the Society of Jesus dominated life there. Their emphasis on education earned the city the nickname La Docta (“the Learned”), and even today Córdoba is still regarded as an erudite kind of place – albeit politically radical.
But while the Jesuits and other missionaries turned Córdoba into the cultural capital of this part of the empire, their presence elsewhere resulted in the decline in numbers of the native population. The indigenous Sanavirones, Comechingones and Abipones resolutely defended themselves from the invaders. Finally conquered, they thwarted attempts by the Spanish to “civilize” them under the system of encomiendas, a forced labour system in which indigenous populations were taught Catholicism and Spanish in ‘‘exchange’’ for their toil. Nonetheless, devastated by influenza and other imported ailments, the indigenous population dwindled from several thousand in the late sixteenth century to only a few hundred a century later. Apart from a few archeological finds, such as rock paintings, the only signs of their former presence are the names of villages, rivers and the mountain range to the south of the city, and discernible indigenous features in the serranos, or rural inhabitants of the sierras.
Despite their profound effect on the area’s original inhabitants, the Jesuits were relatively enlightened by colonial standards, educating their workforce and treating them comparatively humanely. In addition to various monuments in the city itself, you can still visit their estancias, whose produce sustained communities and boosted trade in the whole empire. The Jesuit buildings in Córdoba and four of the remaining estancias around the province – including Santa Catalina, Alta Gracia, Jesús María and Caroya, near Jesús María – are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Squeezed between the continuous ridge of the Sierra Chica to the east, and the higher peaks of the Sierra Grande to the west, the peaceful Punilla Valley is Argentina’s longest-established inland tourist area, with idyllic mountain scenery and fresh air, family-friendly resorts and numerous top-class outdoor pursuits.
The RN-38 to La Rioja bisects the valley, which stretches northwards for about 100km from horrendously noisy Villa Carlos Paz, the self-styled “Gateway to the Punilla”, some 35km along the RP-34 west of Córdoba. Tens of thousands of Argentines migrate to this brash inland beach resort every summer in an insatiable quest for sun, sand and socializing – the town is renowned for its mega-clubs and crowded bars. Just north and overlooked by a sugar-loaf hill, El Pan de Azúcar, is Cosquín, a slightly calmer place with an annual folk festival. The further north you go, the more tranquil the resorts become: La Falda, La Cumbre and Capilla del Monte have all retained their slightly old-fashioned charm while offering a mixture of high-quality services and a propensity for New Age pursuits. Relatively less crowded, they make for better bases from which to explore the mountains on foot, on horseback or in a vehicle, or to try out some of the adventurous sports on offer. Anyone looking for remote locales to explore should head for the dirt roads between Capilla del Monte and Santa Catalina, where from Ongamira and Ischilín you can discover some of the region’s most remarkable landscapes.
Lively Capilla del Monte, 17km north of La Cumbre, sits at the confluence of the rivers Calabalumba and Dolores against the bare-sloped Cerro Uritorco, at 1979m the highest peak of the Sierra Chica. It was a resort for Argentina’s bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century, as testified by the many luxurious villas, some of them now very dilapidated. These days it attracts more alternative vacationers, as you can tell from the number of hotels and restaurants calling themselves naturista, or back to nature. The town has few sights, but serves as an appealing base for treks into the mountains or hang-gliding and other pursuits. The central Plaza San Martín lies only a couple of blocks east of the RN-38, which runs through the west of the town, parallel to the Río de Dolores. From the plaza, Diagonal Buenos Aires, the busy commercial pedestrian mall, runs southeast to the quaint former train station on Calle Pueyrredón; it’s claimed to be South America’s only roofed street, an assertion nowhere else has rushed to contend. A number of balnearios can be found along the Río Calabalumba, including Balneario Calabalumba, at the northern end of General Paz, and Balneario La Toma, at the eastern end of Sabattini.
In addition to the fresh air, unspoilt countryside and splendid opportunities for sports pursuits, such as trekking and fishing, many visitors are also drawn to the area by claims of UFO sightings, “energy centres” and numerous local legends. One such myth asserts that when Calabalumba, the young daughter of a witch doctor, eloped with Uritorco, the latter was turned into a mountain while she was condemned to eternal sorrow, her tears forming the river that flows from the mountainside.
Some 25km north of Villa Carlos Paz, and barely more appealing, the small but bustling town of Cosquín nestles in a sweep of the river of the same name and in the lee of the 1260m Pan de Azúcar. It’s one of the region’s oldest settlements – dating from colonial times – and has been a holiday resort since the end of the nineteenth century. The summit of the sugar-loaf mountain, which affords panoramic views of the valley and mountains beyond, can be reached by a chairlift (aerosilla) from the well-signposted Complejo Aerosilla, which sits about 8km north of town and also houses a bronze monument to Carlos Gardel, the legendary tango singer, as well as the inevitable confitería. Alternatively, you can skip the chairlift and use your legs – from the Complejo Aerosilla it’s about half an hour up a steep path. Cosquín has always been associated nationwide with the Festival Nacional de Folklore, held annually in the second half of January and attended by folk artists, ballet troupes and classical musicians from across the country, although it has declined in quality in recent years. The festival takes place in the so-called Plaza Nacional del Folklore (actually the Plaza Próspero Molina) just off RN-38, which threads through the centre of town.
Some 20km north of Ongamira, a dirt road snakes through mesmerizing rocky landscapes and past a polo ground to the once-abandoned village of Ischilín. Its spectacular Plaza de Armas, not unlike an English village green, is dominated by a venerable algarrobo tree, its gigantic gnarled trunk host to epiphytic cacti and skeins of moss, and by the early eighteenth-century Jesuit church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, with a mustard-yellow facade and a delightfully primitive interior, with a rickety choir balcony made of algarrobo wood.
Just east of the RN-38, 14km north of La Falda, La Cumbre is a small, leafy town, a great spot for fishing, exploring the mountains, participating in adventure pursuits or just relaxing. Over 1140m above sea level, it enjoys mild summers and cool winters, though is occasionally blanketed in snow. Several trout-rich streams run through town, among them the Río San Gerónimo, which runs past the central Plaza 25 de Mayo. A British community was established here when the railways were built in the nineteenth century, and La Cumbre’s prestigious golf club, its predominantly mock-Tudor villas and manicured lawns testify to a long-standing Anglo-Saxon presence. But despite the resort’s genteel appearance it has become synonymous with hang-gliding; every March international competitions are held here. Cerro Mirador, the cliff-top launching-point for hang-gliding and parasailing, is near the ruined colonial estancia and chapel of Cuchi Corral, 8km due west of La Cumbre and worth visiting for the views alone.
Twenty kilometres north of Cosquín and a little more peaceful still, La Falda serves as a base from which to explore the nearby mountains – a taste of the far finer scenery to come some way up the valley. Today the town is best known for its annual three-day tango festival in July.
A bewildering variety of vegetation grows on the mountainsides of the Central Sierras and is representative of three of the country’s principal phytogeographic zones – the Andes, the Pampas and the Chaco. Many of these plant species are reputed to possess remarkable medicinal properties. Perhaps best known is the peperina, of which there are two varieties: Mintostachys verticillata and Satureja parvifolia (the latter often known as peperina de la sierra). Both are highly aromatic and extremely digestive but, in men, diminish sexual potency. The yerba del pollo (Alternanthera pungens), on the other hand, is a natural cure for flatulence, while ephedrine, a tonic for heart ailments, is extracted industrially from tramontana (Ephedra triandra), a broom-like bush found all over the highlands at altitudes of 800–1300m.
Anyone suffering from problems of the gall bladder might do well to drink an infusion of poleo (Lippia turbinata), a large shrub with silvery foliage and an unmistakable aroma. Appropriately enough, since Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the blind, the flor de Santa Lucia (Commelina erecta), whose intense blue or lilac blooms carpet the ground to astonishing effect, exudes a sticky substance that can be used as effective eye drops. The cola de caballo (Equisetum giganteum) – or “horsetail” – is used to control arterial pressure thanks to its diuretic powers; its ribbed, rush-like stems grow alongside streams and are crowned with hairy filaments that give it its popular name. Whatever you do, however, steer clear of revienta caballos (Solanum eleagnifolium or S. sisymbrifolium), a distant relative of the deadly nightshade. Its pretty violet flowers give way to deceptively attractive yellow berries, but the whole plant is highly toxic.
Obviously, you should seek expert advice before putting natural cures to the test, and they should not be used instead of conventional medicine for the severest of complaints. Pharmaceutical herbs, known as yuyos, are sold (usually in dried form) in pharmacies and in stores selling dietetic products throughout the region.
Ongamira, 25km northeast of Capilla del Monte and 1400m above sea level, is a remote hamlet famed for its Grutas, strange caves amid rock formations sculpted by wind and rain in the reddish sandstone, and painted with black, yellow and white pigments by indigenous tribes some six hundred years ago. The drawings depict animals, human figures and abstract geometric patterns, and must be surveyed from a special viewpoint as the extremely fragile stone is gradually crumbling away and many of the paintings have already been lost.
The Parque Natural Ongamira is a privately owned reserve affording breathtaking views of the cerros Pajarillo, Áspero and Colchiquí; you can see condors, go on horseback rides and follow a 3km trail up to the top of Cerro Colchiquí.
Brash Villa Carlos Paz lies at the southern end of the Punilla Valley, on the southwestern banks of a large, dirty reservoir, the Lago San Roque. It sits at a major junction, that of the RP-34, which heads south to Mina Clavero, and the RN-38 toll road, which goes north through the valley towards Cruz del Eje and La Rioja. Nationally famous, but now spoilt by chaotic construction, pollution and overcrowding, the resort is frequently compared with Mar del Plata, only without the ocean. It started out in the 1930s as a holiday centre for well-off Cordobeses, with sandy beaches created along the lakeside. Nowadays people whiz around the lake in catamarans and motorboats, or on water skis. In the town centre, dozens of amusement arcades and theme parks blare music, while most of the bars and confiterías show video clips or offer karaoke. The town sprawls in a disorderly way around the lake – the western districts are generally greener, airier and more attractive. The local population of around 72,000 more than doubles at the height of summer.
Long established as one of Córdoba Province’s major holiday destinations, and where many city folk have weekend or summer homes, the green Calamuchita Valley begins 30km south of Córdoba city at the Jesuit estancia town of Alta Gracia – a popular day-trip destination from Córdoba – and stretches due south for over 100km, between the undulating Sierra Chica to the east and the steep Sierra de Comechingones to the west. The varied vegetation that covers the valley’s sides provides a perfect habitat for hundreds of species of birds and other fauna. Two large and very clean reservoirs, Embalse Los Molinos in the north and Embalse Río Tercero in the south, both dammed in the first half of the twentieth century for water supplies, electricity and recreational angling, give the valley its alternative name, sometimes used by the local tourist authority: Valle Azul de los Grandes Lagos (“Blue Valley of the Great Lakes”). It’s believed that the area’s climate has been altered by their creation, with noticeably wetter summers than in the past.
The valley’s two main towns could not be more different: Villa General Belgrano is a chocolate-box resort with a predominantly Germanic population, whereas Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, the valley’s rather brash capital, is youthful and dynamic but far less picturesque. Both, however, are good bases for exploring the beautiful Comechingones mountains, whose Camiare name means “mountains and many villages”. One of these villages, the quiet hamlet of La Cumbrecita, would not look out of place in the Swiss Alps, and is the starting-point for some fine highland walks. All the villages offer a wide range of accommodation and high-quality places to eat, making them ideal for anyone wanting to avoid big cities like Córdoba.
The historic Alta Gracia, less than 40km south of Córdoba and 3km west of busy RP-5, lies at the northern entrance of the Calamuchita Valley. It is now rather nondescript, but in the 1920s and 1930s its location made it popular with the wealthy bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires and Córdoba, who built holiday homes in the town – Che Guevara, spent some of his youth here, and revolutionary composer Manuel de Falla fled here from the Spanish Civil War. The original colonial settlement dates from the late sixteenth century, but in 1643 it was chosen as the site for a Jesuit estancia around which the town grew up. After the Jesuits’ expulsion in 1767, the estancia fell into ruin but was inhabited for a short time in 1810 by Viceroy Liniers, forced to leave Córdoba following the Argentine declaration of independence.
Despite being one of Argentina’s most famous sons, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is little celebrated in his homeland, with nothing like the number of monuments and museums you might expect for such an international icon. This is no doubt at least in part due to Che fighting his battles elsewhere – primarily, of course, in Cuba, where he is idolized, but also in places like the Congo and Bolivia. It is hard to know whether Argentine authorities ignore his legacy because he was, well, anti-authoritarian, or whether they feel offended that he had the cheek to go and instigate revolution outside of la gran Argentina. Whatever his claims to supra-nationality may be, though, Che was certainly Argentine – a fact reflected even in his nickname (“che” being a common interjection, more or less meaning “hey”, and very characteristic of the River Plate region).
Che was born to a middle-class family in Rosario in 1928, and moved to Alta Gracia with his family at the age of 5, going to Deán Funes college in Córdoba before moving on to the Universidad de Buenos Aires to study medicine. Three years later, he set off on his famous motorbike trip around South America, during which he was exposed to the continent’s poverty and inequalities, as well as the cultural similarities that led him to believe in the need to foster a sense of regional rather than national identity. He did return to Buenos Aires to finish his studies, but a month after graduating he was back on the road, this time heading to Guatemala and a meeting with local radicals which eventually led him to Fidel Castro, Cuba and his status as one of the great revolutionary figures of the twentieth century.
Che, however, saw the Cuban revolution as just the first step in a continent-wide revolt against US control, and in 1965 he formally resigned his Cuban citizenship, ministerial position and rank of comandante, and left the country. After an unsuccessful spell leading a Cuban guerrilla contingent supporting rebels in the Congo, Che set off with a small band of supporters for Bolivia in 1966 with the aim of fomenting a revolution that would spread throughout the neighbouring states, including Argentina. Bolivia, however, proved to be an exceptionally poor choice; it was the only South American country to have carried out radical land reform, and as such the revolutionary potential of its peasants was fairly low.
Che’s group attracted little local support, and soon found itself on the run. On October 8, following a series of gun battles, he was captured by US-trained Bolivian soldiers, and the following day executed in the remote hamlet of La Higuera. According to legend, Che’s last words were: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
The Museo Casa del Virrey Liniers is housed in the Residencia, the Jesuits’ original living quarters and workshops. Entered through an ornate Baroque doorway on Plaza Manuel Solares, the town’s main square, the beautifully restored Residencia, with its collonaded upper storey, forms two sides of a cloistered courtyard. Exhibits consist mainly of furniture and art dating from the early nineteenth century, but there are also some magnificent examples of colonial religious paintings and sculptures. Perhaps the most interesting sections of the museum are the painstakingly re-created kitchen and the herrería, or forge, the oldest part of the estancia. The church adjoining the Residencia, though in pitifully poor repair, is used regularly for Mass; it lies immediately to the south.
Some 35km south of Mina Clavero, the RP-148 branches off the RN-20 and heads due south towards San Javier, another 12km away. The tree-lined road takes you through some of the province’s most attractive scenery and settlements. If you’re driving, though, watch out for the often treacherous badenes, very deep fords that suddenly flood after storms; even when dry their abrupt drop and rough surface can damage a car’s undercarriage or tyres.
San Javier is a pretty little place, set amid peach orchards, and serves as a base for climbing to the 2884m summit of Cerro Champaquí, directly to the east. It has developed as an exclusive tourist centre in recent years, offering a variety of services including massages, reiki and even “solar shamanism”.
In 1700, a community of Dominicans built an estancia and a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the Americas, Santa Rosa of Lima, after which nothing much else happened in Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, 11km south of Villa General Belgrano, until the end of the nineteenth century. Then, thanks to its mountainside, riverbank location and its mild climate, the place suddenly took off as a holiday resort, an alternative to its more traditional neighbour to the north. Now it’s a highly popular destination, swamped by thousands of visitors from many parts of the country in the high season, and makes an excellent base for exploring the relatively unspoilt mountains nearby. Many of Santa Rosa de Calamuchita’s visitors use it as a springboard to experience all kinds of outdoor activities, from diving and kayaking to jet-skiing and flying, all located at Villa del Dique, 17km away. Noticeably less sedate than Villa General Belgrano but more bearable than Villa Carlos Paz, from Christmas until Easter Santa Rosa throbs with disco music blaring from convertibles packed with holiday-makers.
Easily the most rewarding route from Córdoba to San Luís, capital of the neighbouring province of the same name, is by the RP-34 and then the RN-20 beyond Villa Carlos Paz. The winding Nueva Ruta de las Altas Cumbres climbs past the Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito, a deep ravine where condors nest in cliffside niches, climbing over a high mountain-pass before winding back down a series of hairpin bends. The serene, sunny valleys to the west of the high Sierra Grande and Sierra de Achala, crisscrossed by streams and dotted with oases of bushy palm trees, are known collectively as the Traslasierra, literally “across the mountains”.
The self-appointed capital of the sub-region, Mina Clavero, is a popular little riverside resort. Near Nono, a tiny village at the foot of the northern Comechingones to the south of Mina Clavero, is the oddball Museo Rocsen. In a long valley parallel to the Sierra de Comechingones lies the picturesque village of San Javier, from where you can climb the highest summit in the Central Sierras, Cerro Champaquí.
The Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito takes its name from the Quebrada de los Condoritos, a misty canyon eroded into the mountains that, in turn, gets its name from the baby condors reared in its deep ravines.
To get to the park, take the RP-34 that sweeps across the Pampa de Achala, an eerily desolate landscape, ideal for solitary treks or horse rides. For the first 15km or so, this road, which starts southwest of Villa Carlos Paz, is quite narrow, but several viewpoints have been built at the roadside. From them, you have unobscured vistas of the Icho Cruz and Malambo valleys to the northwest, the distant peak of Cerro Los Gigantes (at 2374m the highest mountain in the Sierra Grande) to the north, and the Sierra de Achala to the south. Some 20km further on, are the bleak granite moorlands of the Pampa de Achala, reaching just over 2000m above sea level. Here condors, some with wingspans exceeding 3m, can be seen circling majestically overhead.
Hikes in the park take between two hours and several days, and there are designated areas where camping (free) is permitted. You should register at the Interpretation Centre (1.5km from the park entrance) before setting out; the centre is also a good place to get useful information about the park and the latest weather conditions. There’s little shade and currently no food or drink on sale within the park boundaries, so bring a hat, sun-cream and sustenance.
The hike route is clearly marked with numbered posts, getting steadily more difficult after you pass number ten, which takes you down steep and sometimes slippery paths towards the bottom of the canyon. Many kinds of trees, shrubs and ferns can be spotted, including some endemic species such as rare white gentians, while among the plentiful fauna are various wild cats, frogs, foxes and lizards. Birdlife is prolific but the stars are the condors themselves, especially their young; if you’re lucky you might see condors and their chicks bathing in the water at the bottom of the gorge.
Around 50km south of Alta Gracia and reached along attractive corniches skirting the blue waters of the Embalse Los Molinos is the demure resort of Villa General Belgrano. The unspoiled alpine scenery of its back country, the folksy architecture and decor and the Teutonic traditions of the local population all give the place a distinctly alpine feel. Many of the townspeople are of German, Swiss or Austrian origin, some of them descended from escapees from the Graf Spee, the pocket battleship scuttled by its captain off the Uruguayan coast on December 13, 1939, after it was surrounded by Allied cruisers during World War II’s landmark Battle of the River Plate. The older generations still converse in German, maintain a Lutheran outlook and read the local German-language newspaper, while souvenir shops sell cuckoo clocks, tapes of oompah music and other such curios.
Whether or not the place’s kitsch cosiness holds appeal, Villa General Belgrano is a decent base for the region if you’d rather avoid Córdoba, with plentiful and varied accommodation choices and easy access to the great Sierra de Comechingones. However, if adventure sports or nightclubs are what you’re after, you’re better off heading for nearby Santa Rosa de Calamuchita.
Essentially a sedate place favoured by families and older visitors attracted by its creature comforts and hearty food – especially welcome during winter snow – Villa General Belgrano shifts up a gear or two during one of its many festivals. While the Feria Navideña, or Christmas festival, the Fiesta de Chocolate Alpino, in July, and the Fiesta de la Masa Vienesa, a Holy Week binge of apple strudel and pastries, are all eagerly awaited, the annual climax, during ten days at the beginning of October, is the nationally famous Oktoberfest, Villa General Belgrano’s answer to Munich’s world-renowned beer festival. Stein after stein of foaming Pilsener is knocked back, after which merry revellers stagger down Villa Belgrano’s normally genteel streets to their hotels.