Tilcara, Argentina

Photo: sergio jaramillo via freeimages.com

Trips to Argentina usually include three parts. Buenos Aires, of course. Mendoza, the heart of wine country. Plus somewhere in Patagonia, the vast region that covers the southern half of the country. If a fourth stop is added, it’s usually Iguazu Falls, which combine into the largest waterfalls in the world, along the Brazilian border. But that’s it. The rest of the country remains largely unexplored by outsiders.

So what else should you see in this South American country? So much. But let’s start in Jujuy. The northwestern province is where Argentina meets the borders of Bolivia and Chile. The land is mountainous and full of colorful rocks. It’s also very dry. The area was first settled more than 10,000 years ago. Ruins of pre-Columbian fortresses continue to be discovered and reconstructed. So the narrow mountain valley, Quebrada de Humahuaca, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Your plan is to drive through the winding valley that follows along the Río Grande. After a hot, dry summer, it’s finally starting to look like a river again. The valley extends for nearly 100 miles. It passes through the Andean Plateau, sub-Andean hills, and temperate valleys. You’ll find archaeological sites, prehistoric caves, little museums, and colonial churches along the way. You’ll also run into Tilcara.

Photo: LAS MARIAS Hotel Boutique de Tilcara

San Francisco de Tilcara sits more than 8,000 feet above sea level on the east side of the Río Grande. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Argentina. Officially, it became a city in 1600. Many War of Independence battles were fought nearby. Tilcara is now peaceful and picturesque. Large ranches surround the city. Adobe houses blend in with the landscape. Artists come to find inspiration in its beauty; many never leave. You may not want to either once you see your hotel.

Las Marías Hotel Boutique was built to respect the local culture. The two-story living room is decorated with cactus wood, rocks from the river, and locally made textiles. Two stone fireplaces keep the room cozy when the temperature drops. Stone paths lead to 12 understated rooms. With another fireplace and a jacuzzi bath, your suite is also cozy. It has a view of the mountains and a terrace overlooking the gardens and the quiet pool, as well.

After you eat a big buffet breakfast and pick up a premade lunchbox, you’ll be ready to start exploring each morning. Pucará de Tilcara (a pre-Inca fortification), the Museo Irureta (a local art museum), La Isla (a pre-Columbian cemetery), and the market (to buy jewelry or a wool rug to bring home) are all on your must-do list. So is a hike to Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), a waterfall that flows over red rocks. You’ll drink strong coffee in delicate cups at La Pena. You’ll try llama stew, discover you actually like quinoa, and want to learn how to make a delicious spicy tomato spread.

Eventually, you’ll start to wonder what else you’re missing in Argentina. It’s too big of a country to keep returning to the same few places.

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