LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 46
Page. 52 - 58
By: Julia Caprara
Pictures: Carolina Aldao
In the Quechua language, Catamarca means fortress, village or the county on the hillside. The Catamarca countryside is amongst the most stunning in Argentina. Mountains, valleys and a sun that shines on
picturesque villages, winding rivers searching for a path through the steep valleys and streets deserted during the hours of the siesta.
We arrived, more lifeless than sleepy, at the provincial capital, San Fernando del Valle, a little after seven in the morning, after a two-hour flight in a Southern Winds aircraft. Who knows why it is that these flights, and those of Aerolineas Argentinas, leave Buenos
Aires at such times.
We tried to shake off our semi-unconscious state - l am not sure that we were successful - before arriving at the Hotel Casino, the traditional tneeting place for Catamarca society since its foundation decades
ago. Today the Casino has been renovated under the direction of Massimo Ianni and his company Creative Concepts. As well as its casino it offers good levels of service and comfort. Andrés Carrillo, the young
manager who trained and began his career as a hotelier in Switzerland, was a magnificent host.
Caravan to the Heights.
Our trip was organized by Sebastián Madina, originally from Buenos Aires, and Jorge Herrera, an authentic Catamarcan who knows every nook and cranny of the province. The plan was to complete two of the
many tours possible in the province. The itinerary would cover a distance of 11,000 kilometres and include 7 of the 16 departments of the province.
The caravan, made up of three 4x4s and nine adventurers, departed for the northeast one morning. After some 40 minutes of travelling on Provincial Route 4, the first stop was at El Rodeo, 36 kilometres
from the city. It is one of the most popular summer villages in the province, receiving around 10,000 visitors every year, including Catamarcans and visitors from Santiago and Tucumán. Set on the spur of the Ambato, El Rodeo has the indigenous name Niquixaco or "village of mist" because of the frequent mists that shroud the region. Our lunch in the old
Hostería Provincial was empanadas, locro (sweet corn stew) and quesillo (regional cheese) with fig jelly.
The next day we drove another 12 kilometres on Route 4 to Las Juntas, another traditional summer village at the confluence of several rivers, and stopped at the Herrero's beautiful 900-hectare farm, ideal for combining relaxation and adventure. The 60-year-old house is beautifully decorated with every type of objet d'art collected on family trips to the Orient, Europe and America. But the greatest virtue of the place is its location, on a hill with steps leading up to the garden and down to the swimming pool on a lower level.
From there we departed on horseback for the Silleta at 2,300 metres. We travelled on narrow trails through a valley between wild pines, walnut trees, willows and cultivated fields. We crossed the La Salvia and the Las Trancas rivers, where there are rainbow trout and salmontrout weighing up to 5 kilos. It was a steep, three-hour trek, a genuine challenge. We rode along paths beside sheer precipices and giddying drops. Our efforts were rewarded at half distance by a stop for delicious hot empanadas and with a succulent barbecue at our final stop.
There, thankfully, we dismounted from our horses and climbed into the 4x4s that were waiting there to take us along a slippery road to Piedras Blancas (White Rocks), very close to Las Juntas. It was like being in a green valley carpeted with grass that looks like millions
of tiny ferns. This is the characteristic landscape of the two canyons of the Ambato, a humid zone with abundant vegetation.
The place is a popular centre for adventure tourism as it can be climbed either on horseback or on foot. One can also visit picturesque villages like Los Varelas and Las Pirquitas.
Under the Volcano.
The final leg of the expedition was a climb into the Andes, stopping overnight in the hostal at Fiambalá. Early the next day we began to climb towards the north-east. After more than an hour in the vehicles
we passed Las Estancias, a centre of production of potatoes, watched over by the Aconquija Mountain standing at 5500 metres. We were on the Provincial Route, on the slope of the Chilcas to the west of the
Ambato. Occasionally the countryside became forested. We thought it incredible that on the other side there had been salt flats at Pipanco. As we gained altitude, the road became increasingly winding and the scenery more and more spectacular. But the rapid ascent obliged me to spend a good part of the journey lying down on the back seat. It is well worth it, if your timetable allows, to take the time necessary to acclimatise to the debilitating effects of the ltitude.
On the other side of the mountain there was a depression and from there to Andalgalá, a city well-known for some of the biggest mineral deposits in South America, including Bajo de la Alumbrera producing gold and copper and Agua Rica. Andalgalá, a small town in the middle of the desert, is known to locals as "The Pearl of the West" because
of its abundant mineral wealth. We had a frugal lunch as we were gainning altitude and we needed our bodies to be light in order to keep as much oxigen as possible.
The second stop was Belén, the capital of the poncho - as it said that authentic ponchos are sold there in the hills - and with a strong pre-Colombian influence, well represented in its archaeological museum.
We passed through Londres, founded and destroyed several times by the Indian resistance. It is believed that the nearby ruins of El Shinkal were once an administrative centre of the Inca Empire.
We took Route 60 towards Tinogasta, a must for those who are interested in indigenous cultures where both the archaeological museum and the petrified forest are worth visiting. Likewise, in San Pedro, at the
entrance of Fiambalá, there is a beautiful 18th century chapel.
Fiambalá is the last important village in the valley; a modest town of whose greatest attraction is the thermal waters with great healing qualities and the view to the biggest volcano in the world and the
second highest peak in America, Ojos del Salado at 6,864 metres.
The thermal springs are in a reddish arid pass at 2,000 metres. Several stone pools climb the side of the mountain. One begins in a pool at about 25°C and progressing gradually to further pools at temperatures
of up to 50°C. Dipping in those warm waters at night, with the moon reflecting on the water, was a real pleasure. Rumour has it that the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, rents the place once a year for his exclusive
use. The region of Fiambalá, which provides Tinogasta with grapes to produce its Tomontés wine, is an invitation to adventure tourism: to the north there are big sand dunes where the youngsters can practice
sandboarding, 4x4 safaris and endurance motorcycling. There are also pony-treks to Mount Pisses and Ojos del Salado. There are other, lower
mountains to climb in the region, the Incahuasi, Mulamuerta and San Francisco. We spent the night at the 20 room, 2 star Fiambalá hostel where we enjoyed the best vegetable soup we had ever tasted.
The following day we headed towards Chile through the well paved San Fransisco pass. We climbed on Route 60 to Las Coipas, we were now in the heart of the Andes and found it would have been an excellent
opportunity to explore these enormous desolate expanses of country had it not been for the blizzard that greeted us, blown by winds that can at times reach speeds of 100 kph. The conditions forced us back down the mountain.
We were unable to reach the San Francisco Pass - one of our few routes to the Pacific - which would have led us to Copiapó in Chile, where all types of landscapes can be seen, from luxurious, almost tropical, vegetation to arid desert. 5 kilometres after crossing the border lies the Laguna Verde, with its emerald green colour due to the high sulphur content. There are also salt flats and thermal spring caves.
We returned on Route 60 until it met Route 38, on which we travelled the 200 kilometres back to Catamarca.