In the far north west of Argentina in the high and arid landscapes of the Andes bordering Bolivia, archaeologists have excavated pre-Hispanic ruins which were once home to indigenous people prior to the Inca Empire’s reign in the region and long before the arrival of the Spanish.
Dozens of settlements have been found – like those at Quilmes and Tilcara, each having hosted several thousand people, known locally and collectively as the “Diaguita”. These pre-Colombian tribes inhabited parts of Northwestern Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
The region is famed for its picturesque multi-coloured rock formations, mountain cliffs, and fertile river valleys cutting through the dramatic landscape.
The descendants of the people who lived in ruined and lost settlements like Quilmes and Tilcara can be found today in towns such as Purmamarca and Humahuaca. In recent years, these towns have become a hotbed of tourist activity, owing to both the stunning geography and the customs of the people.
Purmamarca is a small settlement, a village almost, and is famous for the coloured rocks cliffs that overlook it. Humahuaca is bigger, more of a town situated in the mountain range Quebrada de Humahuaca, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003.
At higher altitudes just over an hour from Purmamarca, the infamous and stunning Salinas Grandes salt flats can be found at elevations of almost 15,000 feet.
The perfect scenery of the Andes doesn’t stop here – an even more spectacular kaleidoscope of rock formations can be found 40 minutes outside the town – at 4,000 metres – high up in the Andes. It’s a rocky drive on winding mountain dirt roads to get there. Here, high mountain cemeteries of generations passed dot the sparse landscape and roaming herds of llamas and vicuña – the wild ancestor of domesticated Alpacas – can be found.
The Spanish conquered this region in the 16th century and the tribes here were driven out of their hilltop settlements, leaving behind many colonial architecture and relics. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Argentina regained its independence; the occasion celebrated by the installation of a huge statue overlooking Humahuaca sculpted by renowned native Tilcara sculptor, Ernesto Soto Avendano. Atop sits a native Indian, arm raised in freedom.
Before independence the area had become part of the rail transit route for silver travelling from nearby Bolivia. One of the lines ran high up into the Andes, following the ancient routes of it’s nomadic peoples. This section of the line has long been closed due to some mining operations ceasing and the competitive cost of road-haulage, but the relics of this bygone era remain in places like Volcan. However it would appear that it is not the end of the line for the rail systems in the Argentine Andes. A drive to improve the ecological impact of transportation in the region has resulted in talks of new solar-powered rail links between Volcan and Humahuaca, which could see large parts of existing railways revived and suitability for tourist-filled passenger trains improved.
Nowadays the indigenous people of the Andes embrace their ancient heritage more than ever. Special flags fly over the old ruined settlements at Quilmes and Tilcara, a tribute to their special significance and status, and schoolchildren visit to eagerly learn the history of their ancestors.