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.

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