The route between Tucumán and Cafayate takes about five hours; first, the road climbs out of the valley where Cafayate is located, passing through the arid climate of the high Andes, with rolling hills spotted with cacti and sparse vegetation. From there, the road descends to the province of Tucumán, passing through the small, scenic towns of Amaicha del Valle and Tafí del Valle on the way to the capital, San Miguel de Tucumán.
While northwest Argentina and the provinces of Salta and Jujuy are famous for having a dry climate and lots of sun, Tucumán is located at a lower elevation which invites stormier weather. July means winter in Argentina, and in Tucumán, this translates to clouds and rain. Descending through the Valles Calchaquíes, we could see the clouds forming over the Tafí del Valle area. From afar, it looked like a gorgeous grey-blue lake set amongst the Andes.
I snapped picture after picture of the clouds from the window of the bus, appreciating the picturesque fog over the valley. However, as we approached Tafí del Valle, it was clear that the weather was very different within this gorgeous cloud cover. The beauty of Tafí del Valle was muted by the thick clouds and fog and frigid temperatures. In 2001, I’d visited this small but touristic town with my study abroad cohort, and I peered out the window looking for details I remembered. It is still basically a one-street town.
From there, we continued on to the capital of the province, San Miguel de Tucumán, known simply as Tucumán. Romina and I said our goodbyes as she continued her journey back to her hometown, Córdoba, and I got a cab to my hostel, A La Gurda Hostel.
A La Gurda is a lovely family-owned and operated hostel located in a historic casona (big house) in the heart of Tucumán, and I was immediately welcomed into its embrace upon arrival. Several guests actually lived there as they did an exchange program or internship, so there was already a core group to hang out with. It was also the beginning of vacaciones for people from Buenos Aires, so there was a lively atmosphere of people wanting to make the most of their time off.
Almost as soon as I arrived, a group formed to go out to dinner and one of the long-term guests invited us to tag along with him to a house party with tucumanos before heading to a club. It was Friday night, and when in Tucumán… We headed to a very trendy club called REcorcholis, where I was taken back about ten years to my life in Buenos Aires, dancing all night surrounded by well-off, fashionable Argentines.
I spent the next few days in Tucumán recovering from the all-night party and trying to adjust to the damp winter weather, which chilled me to my bones. The sun does not reach inside the old casonas, which usually do not have heat, so I basically chased the sun and spent a lot of time reading by the fire. I toured the historical circuit of Tucumán on a cloudy, cold day, but luckily managed to head back the next day when the sun came out again, which enabled me to capture these lovely pictures of the historical buildings around the Plaza Independencia, the main plaza.
I also checked out the Casa Histórica de la Independencia, where Argentina’s independence had been proclaimed in 1816. This historic building continues to be painted a brilliant white and is visited by patriotic Argentines, especially on a holiday weekend like this one.
Tucumán is also known for its political and intellectual side, which you can see reflected in the artistic graffiti around the city. Tucumán has a tragic past; the province was brutally repressed by the military dictatorship from 1976-1983, and tens of thousands of people were “disappeared” by the military, including students, artists, writers, and other intellectuals. Throughout the city, you see murals and plaques commemorating these losses and asking us to remember the Disappeared. Answers are still being sought.
The disappeared have not been, and will not be, forgotten.
After a few days of wandering the city and enjoying its cosmopolitan atmosphere, I decided it was time to do something touristic to explore the province beyond the capital. I joined a tour of the Circuito Chico (Small Circuit/Loop). Our first stop was Dique El Cadillal, a beautiful reservoir surrounded by green forests. This is a prime place for water sports during the summer; it has an extensive visitor complex, including a tram to the top of one of the hills where you can get a view of the whole area. There is also an amphitheater constructed with a chess board in the middle, because why not? 😛
After that, we headed to the monastery at El Siambón, where you can buy jams and jellies and natural products made by the monks. From here, you can really get a sense for the green forests of Tucumán; I imagine the scenery is even more gorgeous in the summer.
For me, the most interesting part about this stop was our guide’s tales about this statue of Mary. As you can see from this photo, Mary’s skin is darker that you might expect in Argentina, and her face clearly has indigenous characteristics, reflecting the true heritage of this region of the Andes. Religious pilgrims visit this statue and leave offerings like the rosary and roses in the above photo.
From El Siambón, we headed to Cerro San Javier to appreciate the views of Tucumán from above. After spending the past few weeks in the northern deserts, I couldn’t get enough of the greenery.
Cerro San Javier is well known locally for its statue of Christ. There’s even a diagram of some of the most famous Christ statues around the world, comparing their size and shape!
The views of Tucumán from Cerro San Javier really helped me to understand just how large the city actually is.
I loved the visibility of the surrounding valley, with several crests visible in the distance. Unfortunately, it was too cold to stay for the sunset, and we still had one more stop, to visit the chapel at Villa Nougués, which is surrounded by highly exclusive mansions and is also impossible for commoners like us to visit. 🙂
On my last day in Tucumán, I decided to visit Parque 9 de Julio, the largest park in Tucumán. Both Buenos Aires and Mendoza have similar giant parks; their style is distinctly Argentine. I visited the Casa del Obispo Colombres, an old house which pre-dates the construction of the park, and its Museo de la Industria Azucarera, a museum about the sugar industry in Tucumán. Did you know that Tucumán province has a great climate for growing sugar cane? I didn’t!
After a cold walk through the expansive park, I decided to head back towards the hostel. I found a café and treated myself to my favorite Argentine drink, a submarino. A submarino is hot chocolate, Argentine style: you receive a glass mug of hot milk and a chocolate bar, which you submerge in the milk until it melts. Then you add sugar to taste and enjoy your hot chocolate. I also decided to get a factura instead of the traditional medialunas; a factura is a pastry cream-filled flaky pastry. I enjoyed both while reading outside in the late afternoon sun.
Finally, I headed back to the hostel to hang out until my bus left much later that night. I ended up making empanadas from scratch, improvising a cheese and corn filling, and putting the skills I learned in Salta to use! After a year without an oven in Peru, it was fun to be able to bake things. It is also a lot warmer when you sit next to the oven in a small kitchen. 🙂
As an illustration of the nice people I met in the hostel, two of the guests accompanied me to the bus station, as my bus was leaving around 1AM and I was nervous about being a target as a solo foreign woman at that hour of the night. I had decided to take a late bus to La Rioja because the trip was only five or six hours and I wanted to arrive as close to dawn as possible. I really appreciated their kindness, humor, and patience as they waited for me to get on my bus. Like I continue to say, I was blessed with awesome companions during my trip, and Tucumán was no exception.
Recommendations for Tucumán, Argentina:
- Stay at A La Gurda Hostel! The family that owns the hostel and the staff are super accommodating and friendly. The hostel has very nice bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a terrace for handwashing your clothes and hanging them to dry. There’s also a laundry service and grocery store nearby.
- If you’re vegetarian, there are quite a few vegetarian Chinese restaurants in Tucumán! They have salad bars where you can get all kinds of delicious food priced by the pound. Fon Restaurante is just down the block from A La Gurda. I also enjoyed Lotos.
- You may want to take a tour of the Circuito Chico, but I suggest figuring out public transportation and doing it yourself. You won’t be able to get to the monastery or see any of the additional stops, but you can easily visit Cerro San Javier and Dique El Cadillal using public buses.
- You should absolutely visit Tafí del Valle and/or Amaicha del Valle on your trip to Tucumán province. There are several affordable hostels in Amaicha del Valle. I wish I had known about this town before leaving Cafayate, as we passed through it on the way to Tucumán! Alternatively, you could do a tour around the Valles Calchaquíes to see these towns and also visit Quilmes, some of the most substantial and most interesting ruins in Argentina. I did not revisit Tafí del Valle and Quilmes because I was there in 2001.
- Try to visit Tucumán in another season besides winter. There are lot of interesting outdoor activities to do in warmer seasons, and the greenery around the area would be much more impressive.