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.
Originally founded in 1565 by Diego de Villarroel, Tucumán’s first home was near the town of Monteros, 50km southwest of the present city, but mosquitoes proved an intolerable nuisance, and the settlement was moved to its current drier spot in 1685. The etymology of the name Tucumán is something of a mystery – it is probably a corruption of the Quichoa for “place where things finish”, a reference to the abrupt mountains that loom above the fertile plains, but may have been derived from the Kana word yukuman meaning “welling springs”. For a while, the city flourished and its name was applied to a whole region of Spanish America corresponding to southern Bolivia and the northwestern quarter of today’s Argentina. Soon, though, the city was eclipsed by Salta and Córdoba, whose climates were found to be more bearable.
Then came its moment of glory, on July 9, 1816, when the city hosted a historic Congress of Unitarist politicians at which Argentina’s independence from Spain was declared. British investment and climatic conditions favoured Tucumán’s sugar industry, and most of the city’s wealth, built up around the end of the nineteenth century, accrued from this “white gold”. A slump in international sugar prices and shortsighted over-farming have now forced local sugar growers to branch out into alternative money earners, such as tobacco and citrus fruit. Tucumán has become the world’s biggest lemon-producing area, but also grows mandarins, grapefruit and kumquats. With a climate similar to that around Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, much of the area has also been given over to growing blueberries and strawberries – with large numbers of Bolivian workers helping local farmers at harvest time.