Northwest Argentina

From a tourist point of view, Northwest Argentina has yet to be discovered. The best way to travel in this region is to stop whenever one's attention is attracted by something that calls for admiration. Be enraptured by a sunset on a multicolored hill, be bewitched by the musical sentimentality of an erke, contemplate the uniqueness of a sky full of stars, bright and striking, admire the capricious shapes and variations of colors of the enormous rock formations, the valleys, discover the great silence and living nature. All this can be found in this region of eternal harmony. Even the tourist routes follow the same natural tracks used by the ancestors of modern-day man. The attractions appear suddenly, behind a hill, at the bottom of a ravine, in a festival celebrated in a small town just around the corner.

If there is something that calls the visitor's attention to Northwest Argentina, it is the variety of shapes and hues, the vivid colours of the earth, its deserts, valleys and mountains, the break of dawn, the sunsets, the pureness of the air, its enormous silences, the bonhomie of its people, and the traditional fiestas, unique to the region.

The inhabitants of the Northwest are silent and hardly exuberant people. However, during the region's typical carnivals they don their best clothes, and gather their traditional instruments for nine consecutive nights of music, dance, and singularly colourful processions which find their roots deep in the local folklore.

Northwest Argentina maintains the roots of the region's pre-Columbian cultures though influenced by the habits and customs of the Puna. This enormous plateau is located at an altitude of 3,500 metres and stretches beyond Argentina, to Chile and Bolivia. It was precisely these cultures from the north of the continent that converted this zone into pre-Hispanic Argentina's nerve centre, later transferred to Buenos Aires, where the emancipation of the country originated.

The northwest has a rich legacy of this past, in the way of invaluable indigenous ruins, works of art, in which the influence of the pre- and post-Hispanic eras, form the special style of the region, and the colonial architecture, clearly evident in the buildings and particularly in some churches still in use.

The inhabitants of the Argentinian Puna, in the northwest, still proudly maintain numerous ancient traditions. Known as "collas", they maintain the cult of "Pachamama" giving thanks to Mother Earth who makes the "maize grow and livestock multiply" even though they are, simultaneously, profoundly Christian. They sing and dance to the rhythm of their folkloric instruments: the charangos, quenas, erkes, cajas and bombos; they weave the wool of the vicuņas, sheep, and llamas, making blankets and ponchos, and sometimes talk in Quechua, the language of their forefathers.

But there is more to northwest Argentina; it includes the provinces of Salta, Jujuy, Tucuman, Catamarca and La Rioja, five different physiognomies in a region larger than Italy, though only 5% of its population.

This sparsely-populated land, yet to be discovered by international mass tourism, encompasses an area of outstanding beauty, whose people continue to celebrate centuries-old customs. Places like "El Caņon de Talampaya" in La Rioja, or "La Cuesta del Portezuelo" in Catamarca, speak of extraordinarily spectacular panoramas.

The natural parks of Ischigualasto and Talampaya declared world Heritage by UNESCO are in the desert on the western border of the Sierra Pampeanas of central Argentina. This is the only place on earth revealing a complete sequence of fossiliferous sediments representing the entire Triassic Period (245-208 million years ago). Six geological formations in the two parks exhibit fossils of a wide range of species, revealing the evolution of vertebrate life and the nature of palaeo environments in the Triassic Period.

The current climate is arid, with marked temperature extremes. The vegetation is sparse, with 172 species; the fauna is typical of the region, with 20 species of mammals, 36 of birds, and 20 of reptiles and amphibians.

Spectacular formations made by wind erosion are one of the main attractions in both parks. The area has been inhabited since pre-hispanic times, and there are many sites of archaeological significance, including rock paintings.

Tucuman, the smallest province in Argentina and known as "the Garden of the Republic", shows all its beauty in Tafi del Valle and projects its past in the ruins of the Quilmes indian, the last bulwark of resistance against the Spanish Conquistadores.

One cannot help succumbing to the charm and magic of "los Valles Calchaquies" in the province of Salta, with its colonial towns and wild, quiet, and silent attraction charged with tradition. All this has to be discovered without haste, like one who is prepared to savour one of its fruit wines of extraordinary bouquet.

Leaving the city of Salta, "la linda" (the beautiful), one can ascend and penetrate deep into the Andes mountain range and emerge in the Puna heights, with the Tren a las Nubes (Railway to the Clouds), an incredible feat of engineering climbs to an altitude of 4,000 metres across the impressive viaduct of "La Polvorilla".

On the northern border lies the province of Jujuy of which 60% is the altiplano. One of the best excursions around northwest Argentina can be done from here. La Quebrada de Humahuaca, the natural pass towards La Puna, is without doubt, an unforgettable and breathtaking gorge.

Picturesque villages that maintain the architectural characteristics and customs of the pre-Hispanic cultures such as Purmamarca and Maimara; simple chapels of exquisite beauty like those in Uquia, Yavi, or Casabindo, that maintain their colonial style; pre-Hispanic ruins like the ones in Pucara de Tilcara, and traditional festivals like the carnival in Humahuaca follow one another along a route traced next to the Rio Grande.

To cover northwest Argentina the best would be to programme a point of arrival and let oneself be carried away by the tracks, the very same routes the first settlers followed, and observe the stunning scenery that appears.

Discover an unknown world in the mysterious charm of the daybreak, the sunsets, the imposing hills that seem to be the work of an artist, the valleys "with a thousand shades of green", the night on the altiplano, studded with countless stars, the simple beauty of a church made of mud and cardon (teasel), the melancholic rhythm of a zamba or a vidala, the personality, cadence, and the slow rhythm of the Collas, the clearness and purity of the atmosphere, the forms, life and all the movement of this wonderful region.

Taste the delicious local delicacies, like an "Empanada", an "Humita" or a "Tamal" or a "Locro Pulsudo" and as dessert "Dulce de Cayote con Quesillo y Nueces", accompanied by an excellent "Torrontes" wine...

Luckily, in this age of technological progress with its unavoidable presence of globalisation and instant audiovisual communications, there is still the possibility of living sensations pleasing to the senses and spirit, that exceed virtual reality, that can be felt and lived only in natural places like northwest Argentina, where they can still astonish and reach out to all who visit.