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An Argentine Gem Hidden No More
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EVERY August, the people of Jujuy pay tribute to the earth goddess Pachamama. Families prepare elaborate dishes â€” tamales, stews, llama or lamb â€” and then bury the food in a backyard or field, along with abundant hard liquor, coca leaves and even cigarettes. They believe that these offerings will satisfy the deity's appetites and thus bring them good fortune and an abundant harvest. It's an ancient Andean tradition that remains strong in this province in the northwestern corner of Argentina.
In a country likened more to Europe than the rest of Latin America, Jujuy stands apart.
Here, pagan rituals overshadow Catholic beliefs, medicine men are sometimes preferred to doctors, and everyone, regardless of ancestry, embraces an indigenous heritage that dates back to the 10th century.
â€œThe culture of Jujuy has little to do with the rest of the country,â€ said HÃ©ctor TizÃ³n, a renowned Argentine writer born in a small town near the province's capital, San Salvador de Jujuy. â€œThe culinary arts, the music, customs and architecture are autochthonous.â€
But perhaps the most singular aspect of Jujuy is its dramatic landscape: more than 20,000 square miles of salt deserts, untamed jungles and an endless maze of multicolored rocky mountains rising up to 16,000 feet, threaded by a scenic ravine called Quebrada de Humahuaca â€” a onetime Inca trade route leading north to Bolivia, now a Unesco World Heritage site.
Until recently, Jujuy (pronounced hoo-HWEE) remained in relative obscurity, visited mostly by adventure travelers. With no major cities to speak of and few flights arriving at its modest international airport, anonymity wasn't hard. But Argentina's financial crisis in 2001 led many of its citizens to explore their own country, a cheaper alternative to flying abroad. It didn't take long for sophisticated PorteÃ±os, as residents of Buenos Aires are called, to discover Jujuy. At the same time, the rising popularity of nearby Salta's wineries started attracting worldly visitors to the region. The result has been an unexpected syncretism of cosmopolitan culture and age-old traditions, two very different worlds gradually embracing each other.
â€œMaybe this is one of the things we have the crisis to thank for,â€ Facundo Arana, an actor from Buenos Aires who was visiting Jujuy in May, said of the region's breakthrough as a tourist destination. â€œJujuy cannot be put into words; it seeps in through your eyes, your ears and your soul.â€
Mr. Arana, a tall, blond and slightly scruffy heartthrob, was touring the north on a motorcycle while a camera crew documented his journey for a show promoting health awareness. He said the Quebrada de Humahuaca's silent beauty captivated him during his first trip to Jujuy a decade ago.
Back then, travelers were in for a rustic journey, with few options for accommodations along the 10 small towns that flank the ravine.
Now, about a dozen boutique lodgings have opened in or near the 100-mile route, most of them decorated by the design firm Usos. Started in 2001 by the local architects Carlos Gronda and Arturo de Tezanos Pinto, Usos draws inspiration from the history, traditions and idiosyncrasies of the region to create folkloric-chic furniture, objects and installations.
At Huacalera, a roadside ranch in the heart of the Quebrada that was converted last year into a hotel and spa, Usos outfitted the lobby with three boldly colored round tables backed by a wall of round mirrors. The tables display a variety of evocative figurines: tiny llamas, potted miniature cactuses and an army of ekekos, good-luck amulets that look like toy representations of Clark Gable â€” if he wore traditional Andean costumes and colorful wool hats.
â€œWe create objects with identity,â€ said Mr. Tezanos Pinto, looking dapper in a cashmere scarf and red sneakers. â€œLatin America has always looked to the outside; we are convinced that a lot can be achieved by looking at what's here in the north of Argentina.â€
Another Usos collaboration is Casa Colorada, a secluded retreat floating above the clouds on a 10,000-foot-high plateau surrounded by mountain peaks. The path that leads there â€” the Camino a la Garganta del Diablo, or the Road to the Devil's Gorge â€” begins at Tilcara, a small town of adobe constructions with a bustling central plaza where Indian vendors sell their crafts by day and street musicians play their charangos (small guitars) by night.
Less than a mile into the journey, the road begins to live up to its name: this steep and curvy path along the edge of a cliff is not for the faint of heart. If a passenger finds the will to relax, the 40-minute ride is spectacular, passing through massive sandstone quarries, a reserve of giant cacti called cardones, ancient farming terraces and, finally, a sprawling stone-walled ranch with red roofs.
The living area of this 10-room estate, decorated with ample white sofas and throw pillows in purple shades â€” a palette often seen in Indian clothing â€” looks out into a serene horizon of pale green ranges. Guests can book treks or horseback rides of varying difficulty, some along steep mountain trails, and others along streams and fields where pumas, condors and vicuÃ±as can be spotted. Meals are prepared by a staff of local cooks who might serve a starter of tamales and an entree of Andean fingerling potatoes, broad beans and rolled chicken breast with mushrooms.
Jujuy's cuisine, like the rest of its traditions, is a convergence of colonial and pre-Hispanic influences. Some of the region's fare, like tamales and grilled llama, is common in several Latin American countries. Others, like locro, a rich corn-and-meat stew, are specifically associated with northwest Argentina.
Restaurants are beginning to offer upscale versions of these staples. El Nuevo Progreso in Tilcara, a bohemian spot run by a Buenos Aires transplant, has llama carpaccio with arugula, and beer-braised lamb with chestnut-and-potatoes mash. Diners linger here sipping regional red wine, surrounded by the owner's own abstract paintings, listening to jazz CDs or live folkloric music.
While Tilcara has several dining options and services, Purmamarca has the most charm among the Quebrada's towns. It is tiny â€” just a few blocks of adobe houses, rustic bars and shops selling everything from silver jewelry and alpaca sweaters to dolls and medicinal herbs â€” but framed by the greatness of the Cerro de los Siete Colores, or the Hill of the Seven Colors, which is a towering rainbow of green, yellow, purple and ocher rock formations.
From this hill stems the Camino de los Colorados, a gravel path along two miles of geologic wonders: red flat-topped mountains, green conical mountains, uneven purple ridges. Farther west, some 40 miles from Purmamarca, is the Salinas Grandes salt desert, an otherworldly expanse of white flatlands that becomes turquoise when it rains.
Surely this haunting scenery inspired many of the local legends, including tales of goblin spirits that live alone in the puna, the Altiplano, and enjoy tormenting rural travelers. Peasants say these lonesome goblins can sometimes be heard singing sad songs amid the hills.
Like the ekeko, the Clark Gable-faced amulet dressed in a bright poncho, standing agape and with open arms waiting for good fortune to arrive, Jujuy may be ready for a new future, but never at the expense of its quirky style.
â€œJujuy has a unique essence,â€ Mr. Tezanos Pintos said. â€œWe have our own stamp.â€
AerolÃneas Argentinas has daily direct flights from Buenos Aires to San Salvador de Jujuy, the provincial capital. A recent Web search found flights starting at $400. Another option is to fly from Buenos Aires into nearby Salta (LAN Airlines has daily flights) and drive 60 miles north to Jujuy.
Jujuy's Quebrada de Humahuaca has temperate days and cool nights year-round, with considerably warmer weather from December through March. Carnaval in February, Holy Week in March and Pachamama in August are the most important celebrations.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Huacalera (Route 9, Huacalera; 54-388-155813417; www.hotelhuacalera.com). This spacious colonial-style ranch in the heart of the Quebrada de Humahuaca has folkloric-chic rooms, a pool and spa. Doubles from 397 Argentine pesos, or $103 at 3.86 pesos to the dollar, including buffet breakfast.
Casa Colorada (Route 9, Tilcara; 54-11-43247604; www.casacolorada.com.ar). A secluded high-altitude retreat surrounded by mountain peaks, sandstone quarries and a reserve of giant cactuses. Guests can book horseback rides and treks. Doubles from 866 Argentine pesos, including breakfast and dinner.
Marques de Tojo (4 Santa Rosa, Purmamarca; 54-388-4116001; www.marquesdetojo.com.ar). Just steps from Purmamarca's central plaza, this new boutique property has 10 rooms decorated with Spanish-colonial furniture.
WHERE TO EAT
El Nuevo Progreso (Lavalle 351, Tilcara; 54-388-495-5237). Facing Tilcara's central plaza, this bohemian spot serves innovative dishes using traditional northwestern ingredients like llama and Andean potatoes.
Los Puestos (Belgrano, corner of Padilla, Tilcara; 54-388-495-5100). This family restaurant with rustic wood furniture serves tasty cheese and meat empanadas fresh from the wood-fired oven.
Manantial del Silencio (Route 52, Purmamarca; 54-388-4908080; www.hotelmanantialdelsilencio.com). The restaurant at this hotel near Purmamarca, helmed by the Buenos Aires-born chef Sergio Latorre, specializes in gourmet Andean cuisinelike quinoa risotto and has an ample selection of Argentine wines.
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