Northwest Argentina (El Noroeste Argentino – often referred to as NOA or simply “El Norte”) is infinitely varied: ochre deserts where llamas roam, charcoal-grey lava flows, blindingly white salt flats, sooty-black volcanic cones and pristine limewashed colonial chapels set against striped mountainsides. The Northwest is also the birthplace of Argentina – a Spanish colony thrived here when Buenos Aires was still an unsteady trading post on the Atlantic coast and it remains a bastion of the nation’s large (but often forgotten) indigenous population. Salta is indisputably the region’s tourism capital, with some of the country’s best hotels, finest architecture and tastiest food. From here, you can experience the enchanting Quebrada del Toro from the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), one of the world’s highest railways, or head south, via the surreal canyon of the Quebrada de las Conchas, to visit some of the world’s highest vineyards at Cafayate.
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What to see in Northwest Argentina
To the far northwest huddles boot-shaped Jujuy Province, one of the federation’s poorest and most remote, shoved up into the corner of the country against Chile and Bolivia, where in the space of a few kilometres humid valleys and soothingly green jungles give way to the austere, parched altiplano (or puna), home to flocks of flamingos, herds of guanacos and very few people. San Salvador de Jujuy, the slightly oddball provincial capital, is the gateway to the many-hued Quebrada de Humahuaca.
South of Cafayate, attractions include impressive pre-Inca ruins at Quilmes, a quirky museum dedicated to Pachamama, or Earth Mother, at Amaicha, and dramatic trekking around Tafí del Valle, while the nearby city of San Miguel de Tucumán has an addictively lively atmosphere and a smattering of historic sights. Equally enticing are the eternally snowy peaks that give their name to the Nevados del Aconquija, the natural border between Tucumán and Catamarca Province, where a plethora of picturesque villages, each more isolated than the last, reward patient visitors with rural hospitality, wondrous natural settings and some fabulous handmade crafts: Belén and Londres stand out. Try and make it all the way to Antofagasta de la Sierra, an amazingly out-of-the-way market town set among rock and lava formations and reached via some of the emptiest roads in the country.
Advice for visiting Northwest Argentina
If you can, time your visit to the Northwest for the Argentine spring or autumn. Summers can be steamy in the valleys, making large cities like Tucumán unbearable, while heavy summer rains around Salta can wipe out roads and make exploring the area difficult. On the other hand, in July and August night-time temperatures at altitude are bitterly low, so your first purchase will probably be an alpaca-wool poncho. Salta and Jujuy are both well linked by public transport, as are the stops along the Quebrada de Humahuaca as far as Humahuaca town. Beyond this, transport is more sparse and you will have to plan in advance, or else rent a car or use tour agencies.
Top cultural attractions in Northwest Argentina
The 6 best cultural attractions Northwest Argentina has to offer.
- Inca mummies
Controversially displayed in high-tech fridges, three impeccably preserved Incan children, discovered on a lofty volcano, can be seen in the Northwest’s best museum, MAAM.
- Tren a las Nubes
The magical “Train to the Clouds” is now combined with a lengthy bus ride, but the remaining rail portion still takes in the iconic Polvorilla viaduct, over 4000 meters high in the altiplano.
You’ll find charming hotels, an abundance of arts and crafts, a massive colonial church and even a pre-Incan fortress in this village, the best base for visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca.
- Cuesta del Obispo
Spiral up (or down) a mind-boggling mountain road, zigzagging between the sultry plains of the Valle de Lerma and the rarefied air of Cachi and the Valles Calchaquíes.
- Vineyards of Cafayate
Try fruity cabernet sauvignons, earthy tannat and floral torrontés at the world’s highest wineries.
- Antofagasta de la Sierra
Far from anywhere, this high-altitude village huddles among out-of-this world volcanic landscapes.
Quebrada del Toro
Whether you travel up the magnificent Quebrada del Toro by train – along one of the highest railways in the world – in a tour operator’s jeep, in a rented car or, as the pioneers did centuries ago, on horseback, the experience will be unforgettable, thanks to the gorge’s constantly changing dramatic mountain scenery and multicoloured rocks. It is named after the Río Toro, normally a meandering trickle, but occasionally a raging torrent and as bullish as its name suggests, especially in the spring. The road and rail track swerve up from the tobacco fields of the Valle de Lerma, southwest of Salta, through dense thickets of ceibo, Argentina’s national tree, ablaze in October and November with their fuchsia-red spring blossom, and end at the dreary but strategic mining settlement of San Antonio de los Cobres.
San Antonio de los Cobres
RN-51 ends at San Antonio de los Cobres, some 60km beyond Santa Rosa de Tastil at a dizzying 3775m above sea level. It’s the small, windswept “capital” of an immense but mostly empty portion of the puna, rich in minerals, as its name (“of the coppers”) suggests, but little else, except some breathtaking scenery. The Tren a las Nubes is now based here, making its forays to La Polvorilla viaduct from the station (independent travellers can take the return trip from here, without taking the bus-train-bus package from Salta; page 291). The only other attraction is the Mercado Artesanal (daily 9am–9pm), a market selling cheap local and Bolivian arts and crafts.
The Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes)
Travelling through the Quebrada del Toro gorge on the Tren a las Nubes, or Train to the Clouds, is an unashamedly touristic experience. Clambering from the station in Salta (it never exceeds 35 km/hr) to the magnificent Meccano-like La Polvorilla viaduct, high in the altiplano, the smart train – with a leather-upholstered interior, shiny wooden fittings, spacious seats, a dining car, a post office and even altitude-sickness remedies – was originally built to service the borax mines in the salt flats of Pocitos and Arizaro, 300km beyond La Polvorilla. The viaduct lies 219km from Salta, and on the way the train crosses 29 bridges and twelve viaducts, threads through 21 tunnels, swoops round two gigantic 360° loops and chugs up two switchbacks. La Polvorilla, seen on many posters and in all the tour operators’ brochures, is 224m long, 64m high and weighs over 1600 tonnes; built in Italy, it was assembled here in 1930. The highest point of the whole line, just 13km west of the viaduct, is at Abra Chorrillos (4475m). Brief stopovers near La Polvorilla, where the train doubles back, and in San Antonio de los Cobres, allow you to stretch your legs and meet some locals, keen on selling you llama-wool scarves and posing for photos (for a fee). Folk groups and solo artists interspersed with people selling arts, crafts, cheese, honey and souvenirs galore help while the time away on the way down, when it’s dark for the most part.
The train leaves (and returns to) Salta’s Ferrocarril Belgrano station once or twice a week from late March to early December, with more frequent departures in July. It’s a long day – the train departs Salta at 7am and gets back just before midnight – though many people now take the speedier bus back.
San Salvador de Jujuy
San Salvador de Jujuy is a tranquil place and, at 1260m above sea level, enjoys an enviably temperate climate. Just over 90km north of Salta by the direct and scenic but rather slow RN-9, it is the capital of the country’s most remote mainland province, a small but intensely beautiful patch of land, ostensibly having more in common with next-door Chile and Bolivia than with the rest of Argentina, and little with Buenos Aires, nearly 1600km away. It is the most Andean of all Argentina’s cities: much of its population is descended from indigenous stock, either mestizos or recent Bolivian immigrants. A day or two will suffice to see the town’s modest attractions, and it does not have the tourist infrastructure that Salta enjoys, but it has an up-and-coming yet authentic feel, with an excellent spread of restaurants and a thriving cultural scene, that makes it a good stopover or possible base to visit the rich hinterland that surrounds it. Dramatically situated, the city (usually known as San Salvador, or, simply, Jujuy) lies in a fertile bowl, with the spectacular multicoloured gorge of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a major reason for heading in this direction, immediately north. The Cerro de Claros (1704m) and Cerro Chuquina (1987m) loom just to the southeast and southwest, and the city is wedged between two rivers, the Río Grande and Río Chico or Xibi Xibi, both bone dry for most of the year.
Though not a conventionally beautiful city, the central streets have a certain atmosphere – while the main Plaza Belgrano has a definite subtropical charm. Scratch the surface and you’ll unearth some real treasures, among them one of the finest pieces of sacred art to be seen in Argentina, the pulpit in the cathedral – and the interior of Iglesia San Francisco is almost as impressive.
Jujuy was founded, after a couple of early false starts, on April 19, 1593. Earthquakes, the plague and conflict all conspired to hamper the city’s growth during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have deprived it of any of its original buildings. General Belgrano ordered the Jujuy Exodus on August 23, 1812 – an event every Argentine schoolchild learns about – at the height of the Wars of Independence; the city’s entire population was evacuated and Jujuy was razed to the ground to prevent its capture. Jujuy continued to bear the brunt of conflict, sacked by the royalists in 1814 and 1818. It then remained a forgotten backwater throughout the nineteenth century, and the railway did not reach it until 1903. Since the 1930s, its outskirts have spilt across both rivers and begun to creep up the hillsides, and it now has a sizeable immigrant population, mostly from across the Bolivian border to the north. The province – and therefore the city, which lives off the province’s agricultural production – have traditionally grown rich on sugar and tobacco, but earnings have declined in recent years and forced farmers to diversify into other crops. Tourism has so far been exploited only half-heartedly, but is growing in importance.
Quebrada de Humahuaca
Although the intense beauty of the Quebrada de Humahuaca gorge features so often in tourist literature, posters and coffee-table books that some of the surprise element is taken away, a trip along it is nonetheless an unforgettable and moving experience. Stunning, varied scenery is on display all the way up from the valley bottom, just northwest of San Salvador de Jujuy, to the namesake town of Humahuaca, 125km north of the provincial capital. While most day-trips along the gorge from Jujuy and Salta take you up and down by the same route, the RN-9, you’re actually treated to two spectacles: you’ll have your attention fixed on the western side in the morning, and on the eastern flank in the afternoon, when the sun lights up each side respectively and picks out the amazing geological features: polychrome strata, buttes and mesas, pinnacles and eroded crags. What’s more, the two sides are quite different, the western mountains rising steeply, often striped with vivid colours, while the slightly lower, rounded range to the east is for the most part gentler, more mellow, but just as colourful.
Most (day) tours organized out of Jujuy and Salta only go as far as Humahuaca and then head back, but this still gets you two tracking-shot views of multicoloured mountains, the highlight of which is the photogenic Cerro de los Siete Colores, overhanging the picturesque village of Purmamarca. From Purmamarca a dramatic side road leads across splendid altiplano landscapes, via pretty little Susques, to the Chilean border at the Paso de Jama, high in the Andes. Purmamarca has enough accommodation options to make it a possible stopover, especially if you are forging on towards Chile. Two-thirds of the way to Humahuaca, the small town of Tilcara is another possible stopover; it boasts the best range of lodgings and eateries in the whole area, plus an interesting archeological museum and a beautiful pre-Inca fortress, or pukará. Beyond Humahuaca, the RN-9 crosses bleak but stunningly beautiful altiplano landscapes all the way up to La Quiaca on the Bolivian border, nearly 2000m higher yet only 150km further on. A side road off the RN-9 climbs to the incredibly isolated and highly picturesque hamlet of Iruya, if you really want to get off the beaten track.
The main town in the area, Humahuaca, 125km north of Jujuy, spills across the Río Grande from its picturesque centre on the west bank. Its enticing cobbled streets, lined with colonial-style or rustic adobe houses, lend themselves to gentle ambling – necessarily leisurely at this altitude, a touch below 3000m. Most organized tours arrive here for lunch and then double back to Jujuy or Salta, but you may like to stay over, and venture at least as far as the secluded village of Iruya; Humahuaca is also an excellent springboard for trips up into the desolate but hauntingly beautiful landscapes of the altiplano or Puna Jujeña.
Only 5km from Maimará along the RN-9 you are treated to your first glimpse of the great pre-Inca pukará, or fortress, of Tilcara. Just beyond it is the side road off to the village itself. At an altitude of just under 3000m and yet still dominated by the dramatic mountains that surround it, this is one of the biggest settlements along the Quebrada and the only one on the east bank; it lies just off the main road, where the Río Huasomayo runs into the Río Grande. The pleasant, easy-going village is always very lively, but even more so during Carnival. Like the rest of the Quebrada, it also celebrates El Enero Tilcareño, a procession and feast held during the latter half of January, Holy Week, and Pachamama, or the Mother Earth festival, in August. The festivities feature wild games, music, noisy processions and frenzied partying. If you dislike crowds and have not booked accommodation well ahead, though, then these times are best avoided.
The Puna Jujeña
Due north of Humahuaca and the turn-off to tiny Iruya, the RN-9 begins its long, winding haul up into the remote altiplano of northern Jujuy, known as the Puna Jujeña; this is a fabulously wild highland area of salt flats, lagoons speckled pink with flamingoes and tiny hamlets built of mud-bricks around surprisingly big Quebrada-style chapels. Some 30km north of Humahuaca, the RN-9 enters the Cuesta de Azul Pampa, a dramatic mountain pass peaking at 3730m and offering unobstructed views across to the huge peaks to the east. Past the bottleneck of the Abra de Azul Pampa, where fords along the road sometimes freeze, causing extra hazards, the road winds along to the bleak little mining town of Tres Cruces, where there’s a major gendarmería post – personal and vehicle papers are usually checked. Nearby, but out of sight, are some of the continent’s biggest deposits of lead and zinc, along with silver mines, while overlooking the village is one of the strangest rock formations in the region, the so-called Espinazo del Diablo, or “Devil’s Backbone”, a series of intriguingly beautiful stone burrows, clearly the result of violent tectonic activity millions of years ago, ridged like giant vertebrae. This road continues all the way to the Bolivian border at La Quiaca – an ideal base for visiting the remote corners of the province, such as Yavi, and its superb colonial church, and Laguna de los Pozuelos, with its sizeable wildfowl colony.
Casabindo and the Feast of the Assumption
If you have your own transport, and are looking to get well off the beaten track, you may want to take a diversion to the unspoilt village of Casabindo, particularly if you can time your visit to coincide with the August 15 Feast of the Assumption, among the most fascinating and colourful of all the Northwest’s festivals. Some 80km north of Humahuaca you pass through the crossroads village of Abra Pampa, a forlorn place of llama herdsmen living in adobe houses, from where the rough-surfaced RP-11 leads to Casabindo, 60km southwest. The tiny village is dwarfed by a huge church, the Iglesia de la Asunción, so large it’s nicknamed La Catedral de la Puna (“the cathedral of the puna”). It houses a collection of Altoperuvian paintings of ángeles militares, or angels in armour, similar to those in Uquía. Its several chapels are the theatre of major celebrations on the August 15 festival. Plume-hatted angels and a bull-headed demon lead a procession around the village, accompanied by drummers. The climax of the festival is a bloodless corrida, a colonial custom. The bull, representing the Devil, has a rosette hung with coins stuck on his horns and the Virgin’s “defenders” have to try and remove it. Coca leaves and fermented maize are buried in another ceremony on the same day, as an offering to Pachamama, the Earth Mother.
The cloudforest national parks
A trio of the Northwest’s cloudforests, or yungas – areas of dense jungle draped over high crags that thrust out of the flat, green plains of lowlands on either side of the Tropic of Capricorn – are protected by national park status. The microclimates of all three yungas are characterized by clearly distinct dry and wet seasons, winter and summer, but relatively high year-round precipitation. The peaks are often shrouded in cloud and mist, keeping most of the varied plant-life lush even in the drier, cooler months. They are difficult to access, and a visit requires time and planning, but they reward with dramatic scenery, though the incredibly varied fauna that live amid the dense vegetation are perhaps the main attraction.
The biggest of the three, the Parque Nacional Calilegua, is also the most accessible and best developed – it’s the pride and joy of Jujuy Province – and within easy reach of San Salvador de Jujuy. Parque Nacional El Rey, in Salta Province, is much closer to the provincial capital, but its access roads are sometimes impassable after the heavy seasonal rains. Parque Nacional Baritú, away to the north in a far-flung corner of Salta Province, is the hardest to get to, and therefore the least spoilt. The parks are best visited between May and October, as the summer months – December to March or April – can see sudden cloudbursts cut off access roads and make paths much too slippery for comfort. At all times bring insect repellent since mosquitoes and other nasty bugs are plentiful.
Trekking in the Parque Nacional Calilegua
You will need to walk off the beaten track, well away from noisy trucks, if you want to have the slightest chance of spotting any of the wildlife. Trekking around Calilegua takes time and it’s a very good idea to spend a night or two in the park. Morning and late afternoon are the best times to see animals and birds by streams and rivers. A number of trails of varying length and difficulty have been hacked through the dense vegetation; ask the rangers for guidance.
The summits of the Serranía de Calilegua, marking the park’s northwestern boundary, reach heights of over 3300m, beyond which lie grassland and rocky terrain. The trek to the summit of Cerro Amarillo (3320m) takes three days from the park entrance; the nearby shepherds’ hamlet, Alto Calilegua, is certainly worth a visit. From the tiny settlement of San Francisco within the park it’s even possible to link up with Tilcara, a four-day trek; some of the organized trips arranged in Salta and Tilcara itself, including horse rides, offer this amazing chance to witness the stark contrast between the verdant jungle and the desiccated uplands.
The Valles Calchaquíes
The Valles Calchaquíes are a series of beautiful highland valleys that enjoy over three hundred days of sunshine a year, a dry climate and much cooler summers than the lowland plains around Salta. The fertile land, irrigated with canals and ditches that capture the plentiful snowmelt from the high mountains to the west, is mostly given over to vineyards – among the world’s highest – that produce the characteristic Torrontés grape. The valleys are named after the Río Calchaquí, which has its source in the Nevado de Acay (at over 5000m) near San Antonio de los Cobres, and joins the Río de las Conchas, near Salta’s border with Tucumán.
Organized tours from Salta squeeze a visit into one day, stopping at the valleys’ main settlement, the airy village of Cafayate, for lunch. However, by far the most rewarding way to see the Valles Calchaquíes is under your own steam, by climbing the amazing Cuesta del Obispo, through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a protected forest of gigantic cardón cacti, to the picturesque village of Cachi; then follow the valley south through some memorable scenery via Molinos and San Carlos, on to Cafayate, where plentiful accommodation facilitates a stopover. The scenic road back down to Salta through the Quebrada de Cafayate, or Cuesta de las Conchas, snakes past some incredible rock formations, optimally seen in the late afternoon or early evening light. All along the valleys, you’ll see typical casas de galería: long, single-storey houses, some with a colonnade of rounded arches, others decorated with pointed ogival arches or straight pillars.
At the tiny village of Payogasta, where the RP-33 joins the RN-40, you have a choice of roads. You can either head north to explore the furthest reaches of the Valles Calchaquíes, with dramatic high mountains on either side and beguiling desert-like scenery accompanying you all along the rough track to La Poma, 40km north; or, especially if time is short or night is drawing in, you can head straight south for Cachi. This picturesque village, 2280m above sea level, is overshadowed by the permanently snowcapped Nevado del Cachi (6380m), whose peak looms only 15km to the west. Cachi is a pleasant place to wander, investigating the various local crafts, including ponchos and ceramics, or climbing to the cemetery for wonderful mountain views and a panorama of the pea-green valley, every arable patch of which is filled with vines, maize and capsicum plantations.
RN-40 from Cachi to Cafayate
The mostly unsealed RN-40 from Cachi to Cafayate takes you along some stupendous corniche roads that wind alongside the Río Calchaquí itself, offering views on either side of sheer mountainsides and snowcapped peaks. It’s only 180km from one town to the other, but allow plenty of time as the narrow track slows your progress and you’ll want to stop to admire the views, take photographs and visit the picturesque valley settlements en route, oases of greenery in an otherwise stark landscape. The last stretch of the road to Cafayate threads its way through extensive vineyards, affording views of the staggeringly high mountains – many of them over 4000m – to the west and east.
The self-appointed capital of the Valles Calchaquíes and the main settlement hereabouts, the sprawling village of Cafayate is the centre of the province’s wine industry and the main tourist base for the valleys, thanks to its plentiful, high-quality accommodation, and convenient location at a crossroads between Salta, Cachi and Amaicha. It’s a small but lively, modern place, originally founded by Franciscan missionaries who set up encomiendas, or Indian reservations with farms attached, in the region. Apart from exploring the surroundings on foot, by bike or on horseback, you can shop for artisan goods and learn all about wine making – trying out the final product – at an impressive wine museum and at numerous bodegas. The late nineteenth-century Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora del Rosario dominates the main plaza but is disappointingly nondescript inside; more interesting, perhaps, is the small daily crafts market that adjoins the northern side.
The Cafayate vineyards
While Mendoza and, increasingly, San Juan are the names most associated with wines from Argentina, supermarkets and wine shops around the world are selling more and more bottles with the name Cafayate on their labels. These vineyards, which at around 1700m are some of the highest in the world, are planted with the malbec and cabernet varieties for which Mendoza is justly famous, but the local speciality is a grape thought to have been brought across from Galicia: the torrontés. The delicate, flowery white wine it produces, with a slight acidity, is the perfect accompaniment for the regional cuisine, but also goes well with fish and seafood. You can try some excellent samples and see how the wine is made at one of the many bodegas in and around Cafayate, where tastings and wine sales round off each tour (Spanish only). Bodegas including Domingo Hermanos, Etchart, La Banda, Don David, Nanni, and Finca Las Nubes open their doors every weekday and sometimes at weekends too.
The Cuesta del Obispo
To get to the northern Calchaquí settlement of Cachi, 170km southwest of Salta, you go along the partly sealed RP-33, a scenic road that squeezes through the dank Quebrada de Escoipe, before climbing the dramatic mountain road known as the Cuesta del Obispo, 20km of hairpin bends, offering views of the rippling Sierra del Obispo. These beautiful mountains, blanketed in olive-green vegetation and heavily eroded by countless brooks, are at their best in the morning light; in summer, cloud and rain descends in the afternoon and evening storms can make the road impassable.
Reserva Natural Quebrada de las Conchas
The main, paved route between Salta and Cafayate is RN-68, which traverses the Reserva Natural Quebrada de las Conchas, one of the region’s most mesmerizing destinations. The road follows the gorge of the Río de las Conchas through a startling array of landscapes, which, apart from being a geologist’s dream, provide a technicolour spread of giant cliffs and bluffs that look like ancient castles one way, and marble cake another. The gorge starts around 21km south of the town of La Viña, where you should fill up – the next petrol station is at Cafayate (around 100km). The first major viewpoint is at around 32km from La Viña, a stunning panorama across the valley.
San Miguel de Tucumán
In the humid valley of the Río Salí, in the eastern lee of the high Sierra de Aconquija, San Miguel de Tucumán (or simply Tucumán) is Argentina’s fourth-largest city, 1190km northwest of Buenos Aires and nearly 300km south of Salta by the RN-9. It hasn’t changed much, it seems, since Paul Theroux was here in 1978 and wrote, in The Old Patagonian Express, that it “was thoroughly European in a rather old-fashioned way, from the pin-striped suits and black moustaches of the old men idling in the cafés or having their shoes shined in the plaza, to the baggy, shapeless school uniforms of the girls stopping on their way to the convent school to squeeze – it was an expression of piety – the knee of Christ on the cathedral crucifix”; it still looks a bit like a European city caught in a time warp.
The capital of a tiny but heavily populated sugar-rich province, known popularly as the Garden of the Nation, Tucumán is by far the biggest metropolis in the Northwest, the region’s undisputed commercial capital and one of the liveliest urban centres in the country, with a thriving business centre, a youthful population and even a slightly violent undercurrent, by Argentine standards. Tucumán certainly has a boisterous image, perhaps partly since it’s Argentina’s rugby capital, but its confidence has been trimmed over the past two or three decades by municipal political and economic crises – and the city seems to have taken longer than the rest of the country to recover from the turmoil of 2001.
Despite its narrow, traffic-clogged streets and the slightly down-at-heel pedestrianized shopping area northwest of the centre, Tucumán lends itself to a gentle stroll and you could easily spend a full day visiting its few sights, including a couple of decent museums.
The village of Amaicha, located at the edge of Tucumán Province, is a peaceful, nondescript little place that livens up once a year 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. The goddess is also the inspiration for one of the region’s most impressive museums, the Museo Pachamama, an ambitious project whose main aim is to show off a local artist’s commercial success.
Amaicha can be reached from Tafí via the RP-307, which zigzags northwards offering fine views of the embalse and the mountains and heaves you over the windswept pass at Abra del Infiernillo (3042m). From here, the road steeply winds back down, along the banks of the Río de Amaicha, taking you through arid but impressive landscapes thickly covered with a forest of cardón cacti.
The brainchild of local artist Héctor Cruz, the splendid Museo Pachamama is 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 semiprecious 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.
The major pre-Inca archeological site of Quilmes is one of the most extensively restored in the country. 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.
Tafí del Valle
From the turn-off to Potrerillo, the RP-307 continues north to reach Tafí del Valle, 128km west of Tucumán, favoured by locals and tourists alike as a day-trip destination or longer retreat from the provincial capital, especially in the summer when the city swelters. Tafí is a rather sprawling village located in a mountain-side valley (from which it takes its name) in the western lee of the Sierra del Aconquija, sandwiched between the Rio del Chusquí and the Río Blanquita, both of which flow into the Río Tafí and then into the Dique La Angostura. This is where Tucumanos come to escape the city – the average temperature is 12°C lower than in the city. Blue and sunny skies are virtually guaranteed year-round, though occasionally thick fog descends into the valley in the winter, making its alpine setting feel bleak and inhospitable.
Apart from relaxing, the main attraction is the opportunity to explore the beautiful mountain scenery and unspoilt riverbanks; the trekking hereabouts 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 village’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.
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.
Studded with snowcapped mountains and volcanic peaks, Catamarca Province remained largely isolated from the rest of Argentina until 1888, when the railway first reached its capital, San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca. It’s still one the poorest parts of the country, and tourism is far less developed here, with the most enticing attractions served via RN-40 from Salta and Cafayate. Antofagasta de la Sierra is especially intriguing, a remote Andean village surrounded by jaw-dropping volcanic landscapes.
The Catamarqueño settlement of Belén is squeezed between the Sierra de Belén and the river of the same name. Olive groves and plantations of capsicum – paprika-producing peppers (pimentones) – stretch across the fertile valley to the south. Belén offers the area’s best accommodation and a couple of very decent restaurants, a handsome church and an interesting archeological museum, and it’s also a base for adventure tourism, including trekking and horseriding. Since Belén promotes itself as the Capital del Poncho you might like to visit the many excellent teleras, or textile workshops, dotted around the town; they also turn out beautiful blankets and sweaters made of llama, vicuña and sheep’s wool, mostly in natural colours. The wool is sometimes blended with walnut bark, to give the local cloth, known as belichas or belenistos, its typical rough texture.
As for festivals, every January 6 a pilgrimage procession clambers to a huge statue of the Virgen de Belén, overlooking the town from its high vantage point to the west, the Cerro de la Virgen.
Fifteen kilometres west of Belén and even more charming, with its partly crumbling adobe houses and pretty orchards, Londres lies 2km off the RN-40 along a winding road that joins its upper and lower towns, on either side of the Río Hondo, a usually dry river that peters out in the Salar de Pipanaco. Known as the Cuna de la Nuez, or Walnut Heartland, the town celebrates the Fiesta de la Nuez with folklore and crafts displays during the first few days of February. Londres de Abajo, the lower town, is centred on Plaza José Eusebio Colombres, where you’ll find the simple, whitewashed eighteenth-century Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, in front of which the walnut festival is held. The focal point for the rest of the year is Londres de Arriba’s Plaza Hipólito Yrigoyen, overlooked by the quaint Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, a once lovely church in a pitiful state of repair but noteworthy for a harmonious colonnade and its fine bells, said to be the country’s oldest. As yet, there’s no accommodation in the town, but ask around, just in case someone has a room to let.
Londres’ humble present-day aspect belies a long and prestigious history, including the fact that it’s Argentina’s second oldest “city” (ciudad), founded in 1558, only five years after Santiago del Estero. Diego de Almagro and his expedition from Cusco began scouring the area in the 1530s and founded a settlement which was named in honour of the marriage between Philip, heir to the Spanish throne, and Mary Tudor: hence the tribute to the English capital in the village’s name.
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 wiped out in a smallpox epidemic at the end of the eighteenth century.
The Puna Catamarqueña
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 main 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.
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.