LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 43
Page. 68 - 79
By: Julia Caprara
Pictures: Federico Quintana
DISCOVERING SAN LUIS
For many years it was remote and unknown, populated only by indigenous tribes: Hurarpes in the north-west and Comechingones in the north-east, the Pampas in the south and the Olongastas to the north, all turned this into dangerous country, ruled by the wild tribes. The evidence of their era is everywhere, from cave paintings to pottery and stone artefacts. It is said that San Luis was founded after the provinces of Mendoza and San Juan, as a way station on the long road from the Andes to Buenos Aires. The capital was founded in 1594. We landed at the San Luis airport on a particularly wann morning. Our first destination was to be the Las Verbenas Hotel, some 70 km to the north, owned by the Rabina family.
Before departing from the airport, we decided on a brief visit to the capital with its low buildings, narrow streets and its cathedral, finished in 1909. Afterwards we took Route 20 towards Carolina and entered the mountains. On this first stage of our journey we passed
the great natural basin and dam of the Potrero de Furies Lake. We went by El Trapiche, one of the most important summer resorts 40 km from the capital. It owes its name to the mill or "trapiche", which
was used to crush the gold-bearing rocks.
Eleven kilometres later we arrived at the hotel in the Pancanta Valley. Eduardo Rabina and his wife Analía were waiting for us with lunch on the table. Outside the horses were saddled for our post-siesta ride. I chose the tamest horse. We headed south in search of the "Caída de la Negra Libre", over thorny slopes, broom sedge and bulrushes. Close to La Carolina we could already see the Rio Grande, where rainbow
trout can be caught, when suddenly the famous waterfall came in sight; a sixty metre vertical drop over which, legend has it, a woman once threw herself to escape her lover.
The San Luis mountain range borders with the Comechingones hills in Córdoba and the Gigante Range in San Juan. It is a green and wild kingdom where grass and bushes mingle with plantations of pines, poplars and willows. In contrast, the wildlife, including pumas, foxes, weasels, hares, quails, vizcachas, otters and ferrets, is shy and hard to see.
Early the following morning we departed on horseback to La Carolina, situated some 12km from the hotel on the flank of the Tomolasta, a two thousand and eighty-metre mountain. Founded in 1792 by the Marquis of Sobremonte, the village was named in honour of Carlos III and became important through the extraction of gold from the nearby mines. Today the labyrinth of dark tunnels and galleries are testimony to the splendour of the old mines. The village has only one dirt road on which lives Tomás, who guides visitors through the ancient gold mine and is a self proclaimed expert on minerals. In order to demonstrate this expertise he shows his visitors an openair exhibition of quartz, marble, onyx and jars filled with gold nuggets.
From the Pancanta Valley the road to La Carolina runs beside the Maray River. Here the countryside is open, dotted with streams, gullies
and ravines. We progressed slowly and arrived at the summit of the Tomolasta Mountain from where we could see the immensity of the landscape. The flat vegetation and "coiron" grass was with us throughout the journey.
Further on the trees opened to a large number of abandoned structures of stone and mud. We stopped to have a chat with Don Ortega, a countryman who lives in one of the dry stone houses and is considered almost an institution in the valley. He treated us to some drinks made with a regional herb and damp fried pasties, which we didn't have the heart to turn down. It is impossible to reach the reserve of La Angostura
without a guide. This reserve has cave paintings and the remains of mortars and various ancient utensils. All along the road the signs indicating the way to the reserve are contradictory and, instead of helping, only serve to confuse. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile effort to find the cave. In search of more indigenous traces we took Route 39 leading from La Angostura to Paso del Rey. There we discovered a town with not a soul on the streets, as if life only took place behind closed doors. The colonial chapel was abandoned so, just like mischievous children, we climbed the bell-tower and sounded the bell. The only response was silence. No one appeared and we left with the
certainty that we had been in a ghost town.
20kms later we reached the natural cave of Intihuasi. This mysterious cavern is 60m wide and 25m deep. Material for various anthropological studies has been extracted from it over recent years. The studies
resulted in an uncertain probability: the existence of human life here some 6000 years BC. I felt insignificant before the open mouth of the mountain. Not only was the size overwhelming but so were the strange forces that emerged from its interior. Approximately 5km from
the Intihuasi cave lies the Piedra Pintada (Painted Stone) house, again with rupestrian paintings it is situated at the foot of the Sololasta mountain. Further along in Cañada Honda we were told of the cementery of Los Gringos where, since 1890, English adventurers who arrived looking for gold, are buried.
I believe that in some way we were following the road of the gold prospectors. On the way we saw Zapitos de la Virgen (small yellow frogs with black and red spots); we learned to distinguish the medicinal
and aromatic plants including mint, peperina, carqueja, yerba buena and camomile. In the meantime the children everywhere we went watched us with huge dark eyes filled with curiosity.
From Las Verbenas we took the road which leads to La Toma, a mining town founded in 1900 dedicated to the extraction of onyx green marble. Later, following the mountains of Comechingones, we travelled another 200kms down the so-called Onyx Freeway to the estancia of the Ezcurra family. We arrived in the afternoon and were awaited by Isabel and her husband Gaston Pagés. It is an historical place where the Jesuits settled in the 18th century. There they built a dam to hold the scarce water from the stream a few metres from the house, dug irrigation ditches and also left other traces of their industry. In 1753 they built the house using local materials and christened it tanzuela.
It is an authentic relic that retains its original name and many other treasures. Its limed walls are covered with coloured tapestries and the floors are stone flagged.
There is an important collection of weapons in the house, corresponding to different stages of the "Conquest of the Desert", and a comprehensive library with books on the history of the province and the estancia, which captivated us for hours. The silver collection is another of the attractions. The furniture, mostly made of carob wood, is colonial in style and, throughout the house, one breathes in the rustic atmosphere. The dry stone walls reveal that in the past it was necessary to protect it from attacks by the Indians from Córdoba.
That same afternoon the Pagés family, Federico and I decided to have a drink at the foot of the mountains as the sun set.
On the eastern side of the mountains of Estanzuela lie traces of an indigenous settlement. We saw carved mortars, cave paintings in the Cueva del Indio and some more modem drawings, probably the work of
the Comechingones tribe. We even saw some remains of the cast-iron ovens used by the Jesuits. The following day, with the aroma of the French toast served at breakfast still in the air, we departed for
Merlo, some 50kms from the estancia.
We arrived at the best known town in the province, skirting the Comechingones range. Merlo, so green and small, has a surprisingly calm atmosphere.
Its village-like soul is sadly disappearing as a result of the influx of increasing numbers of tourists. However, for many porteños, this place is still very relaxing, a sort of nirvana.
On the main square stands the Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in the 18th century and one of the oldest churches in the province. A stop at the local bar on the square is a must at any time of day.
There are interesting things to do without wandering too far from the town, such as a visit to the thousand-year-old tree, the Algarrobo Abuelo (Grandfather Carob), and to Piedras Blancas only 5kms from the centre next to the Arroyo Blanco on the border with Córdoba. The road leads to Pasos Malos, similar to Piedras Blancas and further into the mountains lies the Cascada Olvidada (The Forgotten Falls). The Bajo de Véliz is a more extensive tour, which requires more time. It takes at least a couple of hours to visit the 20km winding pathways until one reaches the large, fossil bearing, slate quarry of great
geological interest. For those who enjoy 4x4 tours there are other interesting alternatives and even paragliding fans have opportunities here. Our last overnight was at the Tanta Inti cabins in the Rincón
del Este. The rooms were amazingly, comfortable and well equipped. After a bath in the splendid Jacuzzi nothing could drag me away from the pleasure of looking at the view of the surrounding mountains from
my cabin window. After the roads of adventure - limitless comfort.