Catamarca - Undiscovered, Undeveloped,

Catamarca barely rates a handful of pages in most travel guides - and to some extent the paucity of tourist services seems to merit this neglect.  But it’s a circular problem - without estancias, nice hotels, recommended restaurants, etc., most tourists don’t venture out - and the hotels and restaurants don’t get built when there are no tourists!  This may change, as Argentina’s attractions have become better known, and more travelers start looking for the “next place to go.”  And so - off to Catamarca before it is spoiled!

Probably the most publicized destination is the Catamarqueña puna (the indigenous word for high altitude) or altiplano, land above 3500 meters, which lies at the southern end of the altiplano that extends up through Peru.  Adventure tourism offerings here are beginning to multiply.  A different type of scene - and adventure - is waiting to be explored in western Catamarca, ending in the Paso San Francisco crossing to Chile.  You can choose your gateway city, depending on what else you might be doing, as either La Rioja or Catamarca.  (Whichever you choose, it may be the same flight, a roundtrip Buenos Aires - Catamarca - La Rioja - Buenos Aires.)  We began in Catamarca, where we disembarked, in the still early morning, two and half hours out from Buenos Aires, The valley around Catamarca city is fertile farmland and rain is not infrequent, but the western reaches of the province are quite dry, so do not fret if you are greeted by pouring rain on arrival.  The initial stretch of the drive, on Route 38, runs south through the valley, until it connects at the La Rioja border with Route 60.  (If you are coming from La Rioja, you simply drive north on Route 38 to Route 60.)  The next leg runs west to enter the Quebrada de La Cébila in La Rioja, a gorge with hills covered with Chaco forest, oddly mixed with cardon (think saguaro) cactus.  Beyond the gorge are small towns and huge plantations of olive trees, some of the largest such establishments in the country.  At Aimogasta the road begins to follow a defunct rail line, which runs all the way to Tinogasta, 165 km northwest.  Just before Tinogasta, there’s an atmospheric train station at Copacabana; when we stopped to take a photo, a fellow standing on the platform claimed to have been waiting for the train since the day before!  The train, of course, had not stopped there for over thirty years.

Tinogasta offers fuel for hungry drivers as well as for vehicles.  The Huaira Puca grill served up a tasty lunch.  Here there is also a new hostería, an historic house dating to 1897 and owned for the last century by the Orella family, which has turned it into the Casagrande inn.  Still heading north, we entered the newly-designated Ruta del Adobe, a stretch of Route 60 about 30 miles/50 km long, ending at Fiambalá, the last town in the valley.  Historic adobe buildings dot the landscape.  First comes El Puesto, with the Oratorio Colonial de los Orquera, built in 1745 - and still cared for by descendants of the family that built it.  Four km further, on a dirt road, is the Casco del Antiguo Mayorazgo de Anillaco, the oldest colonial site in Catamarca.  Don Juan Gregorio de Bazán y Pedraza established his hacienda here at the start of the 18th century, using part of the vast domains given him by the Spanish king in thanks for his role in the so-called Calchaqui Wars against the indigenous (Diaguita) people of northwestern Argentina.  The unusual chapel, long and low-slung, with no belfry, tower, or anything else that looks like it belongs to a chapel, was built in 1712; its adobe altar has been refurbished and is quite splendid.  Back on Route 60, a few km north, there’s a stop at the ruins of Batungasta, a Diaguita settlement overrun in the Calchaqui wars as the Spanish crushed resistance to their rule.  Most of the dwellings were destroyed, either by the battle or with time and looting; only from the fortification on the hill can you get an idea of the strategic layout of the place.  Last is the San Pedro church, at the entrance to Fiambalá.  This whitewashed church dates from 1770; next to it there is a small museum, the Comandancía de Armas, constructed in 1745.  

Fiambalá is an oasis town at the junction of the Abuacán and Guanchín rivers; its name is derived from fiambalaos, one of the Diaguita Indian groups.  This was one of the earliest areas explored by the Spanish conquistadores as they drove south; Diego de Almagro arrived in 1535 from Chile.  Fiambalá was settled as the second great hacienda or mayorazgo in the territory given to Bazán y Pedraza.  Some 200 years later Diego Carrizo de Frites brought the grapevines and established the irrigation system, or acequias (which can still be seen today), which created the oasis.  One of his descendants built the San Pedro church.  All of these names figure in the contemporary street signs of Fiambalá.

To the north of Fiambalá the rivers peter out, giving way first to thermal springs at Saujil 15 km out, and then to a large area of sand dunes, los Medanitos. In the Sierra de Fiambalá east of the town are thermal baths; the drive there takes you through extremely arid countryside, which appears to produce a fine crop of huge rocks.  You can stay at the baths in bungalows, camp alongside, or stay at the little hostería down the hill.  Soaking in the baths at last under a starry desert sky. . .unfortunately we had not brought gear for that, and so spent the night in the lodgings in town .  Dinner at the pizzeria Roma was very good and very cheap, even with a bottle of local wine.  Fiambalá has a small archeology museum (as does Tinogasta) with some pottery and two mummies on display.  This, like the tourist office and the market, is not open on Sunday; otherwise hours are 8:30 to 12:30 and 16:30 to 19:30.  The crafts of the area include handwoven fabrics, sugared nuts, aguardiente, basketry, and, in Tinogasta, carved semi-precious stones.  Both towns have a number of weavers who work out of their homes; ask at the tourist offices for directions.

A wonderful extension of this trip lies to the west, on an almost-entirely paved road that rises to the San Francisco pass into Chile at 4830 meters, a little over 200 km from Fiambalá.  This route is the only pass through the Andes to Chile in Catamarca (and one of just a handful of paved crossings north from Mendoza). It is an ancient route, used in pre-Colombian times, and later by Spanish conquistadores and colonizers, and assorted herdsmen, businessmen and adventurers.  And what a gorgeous road, a world-class Great Drive (but not a great high-speed road, even in the bits where you could run flat-out the scenery just screams: stop! slow down!).  There are awesome rock formations in the Cuesta de Loro-Huasi (from which there are archeological finds in the Fiambalá museum), blood-red cliffs in the Las Angosturas gorge, and then high mountain wetlands filled with birds - and nobody, but simply nobody, to see them but you, the traveler.  At one point we thought we glimpsed a human form outside one of the houses, but were not really sure...and that was it!  About halfway up, a mining road (not much more than a rut in the earth) leads to the Lagunas Verde and Azul.  A bit further, at km 122, the trout fishing at Cazadero Grande must be one of the highest such spots on earth. Then the road runs up to the San Buenaventura escarpment, the southern end of the whole South American altiplano, before swinging west into Chile.  At the foot of this rock wall, 3000 meters high, are pastures where guanacos graze; until the early years of the twentieth century, cattle and sheep were rested here before being moved into Chile.  Fiambalá served as the initial point for fattening of such livestock before they moved higher.  Temperatures here may vary by 45 degrees celsius in the course of the day.  Driving further west, high volcanoes come into view, such as Incahuasi at 6638 meters, or Ojos de Salado, the highest volcano in the world at 6893 meters.

Short of time, we eventually had to turn around, and drive smartly back to Catamarca and the airport some 250 miles away.  Fortunately we did not encounter the snow that fell just a few days later, temporarily closing the pass with two meters of snow!  The airport itself is small and simple - only one check-in counter, no shops, just a coffee bar with excellent coffee.  You’re quickly on your way back to the Other World with only one complaint - not enough time in the Better World.  If you are a birder, you will have likely seen a dozen or more new species; a camera buff will have found abundant scenes to shoot - and everyone will be recharged and rested.

Logistics

Fiambala:

Themal baths.  A small per person entrance fee, plus another small fee per vehicle (if you stay overnight, you pay only once as you come and go).  The hostería and bungalows are run by the municipality.   Information: Tel 03837, 49-6152.  Tourist office, 03837 490616.

Hostería.  Calle Diego de Almagro.  03837 496291.  Pizzeria Roma.  Abaucán esquina Padre Arch.  open daily for lunch and dinner (8:30 p.m. for dinner; even though this may be far from any cities, dinner is not served early!)

Tinogasta. Rancho Huaira Pucá at Moreno 683;  Casagrande - Constitucion and Moreno, by the post office.  $10 per person, with breakfast.  A restaurant is attached.  Tourist office in the former Hosteria de Turismo - 03837 420 025

Getting around:

Car rental in Catamarca.  Catamarca, San Martin 311.  )3833 43-5428/42-5507; Hotel Ancasti, 43-5951/5952.

Remisero in Catamarca.  Luis Soria.  03833 154-09207.  Short and long hauls.  Cheaper than a rental car!

Tourism resources:

Adventure trips.  La Lunita.  Call Sebastián Madina, 4773-6542 in Buenos Aires.  www.lalunita.com.ar, info@lalunita.com.ar.  Trips to the puna as well as the Paso de San Francisco, and into the Sierra to Laguna Verde and Mount Pissis, the second highest peak in the Americas (6882 meters), and into Chile to San Pedro de Atacama.  More trips of all types at Alta Catamarca, San Martin 319, Catamarca.  (03833) 43-0454.  See <www.altacatamarca.com>, info@altacatamarca.com.  Also contact the tourist office in Fiambalá for local guides.  (03837) 490616.  

Note: This was a trip in late 2003…best to verify sites before traveling!!

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.