Quebrada de Humahuaca
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a mountain valley that has been in use as a cultural route between the Andean highlands and the plains for over 11000 years.
The valley, carved out by the Rio Grande, is ca. 150 km. long. The river is dry in winter but flows copiously through the Quebrada in the summer.
Numerous tracks, roads and settlements testify to the civilizations that once lived here: hunter-gatherers, indigenous Omaguacas, Inca, Spanish and the Argentine Republic. Due to its strategic position it has been colonized by both the Inca and the Spanish, who were after the trade, minerals and agricultural products. It also has been a stage for many battles of the Argentine War of Independence.
Map of Quebrada de HumahuacaLoad map
Originally when visiting Argentina, we planned to hire a car to visit the Quebrada de Humahuaca. However, a quick search online showed that there were multiple reasonably priced day trips leaving Salta visiting the valley, so we skipped sourcing a rental car and booked two tickets on a day trip.
We booked our day trip with Nordic Travel through Viator, for about $50 USD per person. Our bus seated about 25 passengers and we had a bilingual guide (although only four of us didn't speak Spanish) plus lunch was included.
The downside of doing an organised tour is that the stops are up to the tour company - for instance, our first proper stop was at a roadside cafe/shop with the longest toilet queues I've seen outside a festival. I enjoyed our first proper stop at Purmamarca, with just enough time to visit the church and a viewpoint for the Hills of Seven Colours, plus eat a local tortillas rellena.
However, we only found out on the bus that as it was a Monday, the Pucara de Tilcara was closed, so we only stopped in town, which wasn't that interesting. We also ran out of things to do for our longish stop in Humahuaca - I most enjoyed the colourful street art.
We also weren't expecting that with a 6:30am start time (well at least for pick-ups) and a 12 hour duration, that the tour wouldn't get back to Salta until 8:15pm, a narrow call for our overnight bus leaving at 8:45pm! Luckily we were dropped off first directly at the bus station.
Like other visitors, I found it hard to appreciate the OUV of the valley, particularly as we missed visiting the Pucara de Tilcara. We visited multiple churches, had part of the ancient Inca path pointed out, saw the old tower in Humahuaca and the Independence monument, plus enjoyed the scenic valley, but it didn't add up to much. The windy weather blowing dust everywhere also didn't help!
I visited Quebrada de Humahuaca in March 2022 after almost seven weeks in Argentina. Already in 2008, Els was surprised to write the very first review of this site, which is well on the classic path of backpackers and tourists in South America. It is even more surprising that only one other member of this community has visited the site and written a review since then and that this one dates back to 2009. Thirteen years later, I invite you on another four-day tour of the Quebrada. I spent three nights in a hostel in Tilcara, where I had come with a direct bus from Salta (beautiful city by the way).
First, after settling in at the hostel, I spent the rest of the afternoon surveying the Pucará de Tilcara and the adjacent Jardín Botánico de Altura. This ruined fortification is the main evidence of pre-Hispanic cultures in the area. The site is well laid out. They give you a pamphlet at the reception with the main information to understand the site. The problem is that this site and its visit is more of a lesson on what not to do as an archaeologist. You learn that the archaeologists of the mid-twentieth century rebuilt the dwellings with different materials and techniques than those used at the beginning, that they contaminated some areas of the site by transporting large quantities of soil and that they destroyed part of it to build the monument in homage to the archaeologists, a monument which, by the way, is inspired by the pyramids of Mexico and therefore has nothing to do with the pre-Hispanic culture of the Quebrada. The view from the Pucará is however magnificent.
For my second day, I used the services of an agency to visit the south of the Quebrada. We started with a quick stop to photograph the Cerro de los Siete Colores in Purmamarca. We continued to the Salinas Grandes (not in the core zone). For me, who has never been to Bolivia, I found the spectacle really striking and I enjoyed learning about the exploitation of salt. We then returned to Purmamarca for some free time. This small village is nice, but very touristy. What is left of its authenticity smells like a business for tourists. Notice the cabildo and the colonial church on the main square. Check out the ceilings of several buildings made of cactus wood. Just outside of town, the Paseo de los colorados is definitely worth a visit for the spectacular colored rocks. We made a last stop on the way back to photograph the Paleta del Pintor and the cemetery of Maimará. I also had about 20 minutes to visit the Museo Arqueológico Eduardo Casanova. It has some nice pieces, but I didn't have enough time before it closed to really appreciate them.
I spent my second full day in the Quebrada exploring the northern part, Uquía and Humahuaca. Buses run hourly along the valley road, stopping at each village to pick up passengers. In Uquía, there is the famous Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula. It is all white, low and relatively unadorned, but is famous for its paintings of angels armed with colonial guns. I would have been disappointed to have come to Uquía only for that. However, it is also the starting point of the trail in the Quebrada de las Señoritas. This canyon is the most spectacular trail and set of rock formations I have seen in the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Be sure to follow the two trail branches, one in the narrow canyon and the other further south (follow the route on Maps.me for this one, but don't go any further without a guide and climbing skills). In Humahuaca, a rather uninteresting town, I visited the gigantic Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia and the market in the main square.
For my last day before leaving for San Salvador de Jujuy, I opted for another hike, this one on my own and directly from Tilcara. The Garganta del Diablo is a deep canyon containing a small waterfall just south-east of the town. This area is not as beautiful or unique as the Quebrada de las Señoritas or the Salinas Grandes, but it was worth the effort and kept me busy for half a day.
In conclusion, this is one of the sites I found most difficult to rate. I loved the four days I spent in the Quebrada. The landscapes are extraordinary and the canyons and rock formations are spectacular. However, the cultural aspects are rather poor in my opinion, which is problematic for a cultural site and not mixed or natural. Indeed, the typical adobe houses are interesting, especially those with typical cactus wood ceilings. La Pucará represents a nice effort to share their history, but it is not of World Heritage caliber in terms of preservation. The Quebrada is a living cultural landscape, heavily impacted by tourism, and whose authenticity is difficult to capture. I therefore opted for an average rating that better reflects my appreciation of the area. The take-home message, despite my criticisms, is that this is an exceptional place. Go there!
This was the first site I visited outside of Europe and the Middle East. It was a lucky choice since the area has a very distinct atmposphere from what I had known. The Quebrada is stunning in its natural setting and a very special place. In the Quebrada we visited Tilcara (where we stayed and I would recommend to stay) and nearby Purmamarca. Two special assets of the towns are their traditional colourful cemeteries filled with floral ornaments which are surprisingly cheerful, and the local Cuzco style paintings. If you want an interesting explanation about the Quechua influence on this local Baroque style (in Spanish) go to the Museum of Colonial Painting in Jujuy Capital. Local restaurants offer traditional Andean food and in some of them you can also listen to indigenous music.
Two nearby attractions I would recommend to visit while here are are the Salinas Grandes de Jujuy (second largest salt flats in the world after Uyuni, Bolivia) and Calilegua National Park.
So this is the first review of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Quite remarkable, as it is well on the beaten track for both overland South America travellers (it's close to the Bolivian-Argentine border) and regular Argentinian holidaymakers. Think of a sanitized version of the Andes, in a Colorado/Arizona landscape. I stayed here for four days, both in Purmamarca and Tilcara, and drove up and down the valley in a rental car.
The Quebrada has a relatively high population density, which differs from the many other valleys around Salta. The town of Purmamarca (population: 360) is quiet though: earthen roads, low adobe buildings, the smell of wood smoke in the streets in the evening and early morning, and scarce street lighting. It's a great little town to stay in. Its major landmark is the Seven Coloured Hill, which the town is exactly located in front of. The natural scenery is one of the major assets of the Quebrada de Humahuaca in general.
It wasn't put on the World Heritage List for its natural beauty, however. It's a 'cultural route', used by everyone from hunter-gatherers to independent Argentina. The tracks of the early groups aren't very easy to spot for the casual visitor. Most of what is visible left dates from the Spanish colonial times and later.
Driving north, the first historical building you encounter is the Posta de Hornillos. This is a 16th-century post for travellers to rest, modelled after the oriental caravanserais. It is now turned into a museum about the history of travel along these roads.
Next is the very white Capilla de San Francisco de Paula, in the town of Uquia. It has a large golden altar and was constructed in the mudejar style that so often is seen here.
Even more north is Humahuaca. This is a relatively large town now catering mostly to backpackers on a stopover. One can almost feel the Bolivian atmosphere here in the streets, it's that far north. Humahuaca is home to the lovely ruin of the Torre de Santa Barbara (once a fort, now moved), and an enormous Heroes of the Independence Monument that dwarves everything else in town.
As I already wrote, the pre-Hispanic sites are more difficult to find. I found that I had to make an effort and braved a visit to Coctaca on my own. Coctaca is mentioned as one of the very few specific places in the nomination files. It supposedly has spectacular terraced agricultural lands that show all about how farming locally was and is done. The only thing I noticed however was an extremely difficult unpaved road to drive, lots of cactuses, and a town that seemed uninhabited. There were some stone demarcations visible between the fields, but I didn't really get where to look at. You should really hire a local guide to visit here.
A more spiced-up pre-Hispanic remain is the Pucará of Tilcara. A Pucará was a fortified village, in which the inhabitants defended themselves against the many invaders (and neighbours). The one at Tilcara is almost completely restored. This didn't make ICOMOS happy, but I enjoyed my visit a lot. The Quebrada de Humahuaca (like most of the cultural landscapes on the list) lacks major sights and I'm glad that Tilcara at least made an effort to make its Precolumbian history come alive. The houses and communal buildings were made of dry stone. The relatively large settlement, on top of a hill, is largely complete. There are explanatory signs in Spanish and English too.
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