It's like they always say: Come for the multi-colored mountains, stay for the important archaeological sites.
It’s renowned for its multi-colored mountains, high-altitude wines and peñas (folk concerts), but the province of Salta in Argentina’s wild northwest is also home to some of the country’s most important archaeological sites. From curious rock art galleries to once-thriving Inca cities, these ancient relics offer a fascinating window into how the region’s ancient cultures once thrived.
Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña
Rising to 21,981 feet, the Llullaillaco volcano on Salta’s border with Chile is inaccessible to all but experienced mountaineers, but a remarkable archaeological discovery on its summit can be viewed right in Salta’s city center. One of the most important museums in Argentina, the High Mountain Archaeological Museum (MAAM) was created to preserve the remains of the Children of Llullaillaco, three Inca child mummies found on the volcano in 1999. Only one of the children–thought to be human sacrifices–is on display at any one time, yet each is so well preserved they are equally interesting. The informative exhibition also includes illas (small votive figurines of animals and humans) recovered with the mummies, photographs from the Llullaillaco expedition, and background on the sacrifices and the Qhapaq Ñan (Argentina’s Inca Trail).
Pucará de Tilcara
Among the best restored and most accessible of the region’s ancient ruins, this pre-Inca site lies on the fringe of the village of Tilcara, 124 miles north of Salta city in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a Unesco-listed mountain valley in the province of Jujuy. Thought to have first been occupied by the Omaguaca tribe in the 10th century, the site was absorbed by the Inca Empire in the 15th century before falling to the Spanish in 1595. Since being included on the World Monuments Watch list in 2012, the site has undergone extensive restoration works, including the reconstruction of typical dwellings and an area for religious sacrifices. The settlement peaks on a gentle hill adorned with a Mesoamerican truncated pyramid, but while it mimics the stone architecture of the town, it’s actually a monument built in 1935 to honor the first archaeologists who worked on the site and has no connection to the ancient tribes that lived here.
Cerro Cuevas Pintadas de Guachipas
Two hours’ drive southwest of Salta lies the Lerma Valley, home to the historic town of Guachipas and a network of rock art galleries that form one of Argentina’s finest yet little known archaeological sites. Thought to be nearly a millennia-old, the central rock art gallery is contained under 33 eaves of a geologic formation known as Cuevas Pintadas or Las Juntas. Paintings (mostly in white, black and red) depict indigenous customs such as hunting, with predominant figures including camelids and “shield men,” the latter believed to symbolize shamans with a connection to the supernatural world. Drawings of various insects, spiders, scorpions, frogs, jaguars, and other cats can also be spotted in sandstone caves in the area. Autenitca Salta runs tours from Salta city.
Spanning six countries and stretching for more than 18,000 miles, the Qhapaq Ñan (Andean Road System) was constructed by pre-Hispanic Andean communities over several centuries. Protected by Unesco in 2014, Argentina’s Inca Trail–which reached its maximum expansion in the 15th century during the Inca period–cuts straight through Salta and weaves through the Inca sites mentioned in this article. With very little tourism infrastructure along the trail, which disappears completely in some sections, many hikers opt to sign up for a single or multi-day guided trip from Salta city, which typically starts near Quebrada Del Toro (Toro Gorge), about an hour’s drive northwest of Salta. Guides can be arranged through Cielos Andinos.
Driving up into the dramatic Andean highlands of Salta city on Route 51, you’ll hit the tiny village of Santa Rosa de Tastil (10,200 feet) after about 90 minutes. Perched above the village (about a three-mile return hike) lie the ruins of a labyrinth village built by the Atacameño (Atacama People) that housed 2,200 during its 15th-century peak prior to an Inca siege. Restored in the 1960s, the sandstone city (which lies on Argentina’s Inca Trail) doesn’t rise much higher than its foundations today, but still makes for a worthwhile hike. Stop in at the small museum in Santa Rosa de Tastil en route, with has information panels artifacts recovered from the site. More artifacts can be viewed at the Museo Antropológico in Salta city.
Potrero de Payogasta
Thought to be one of the great Inca settlements of the region, the ruins of Potrero de Payogasta are hidden in the Calchaquíes Valleys between the towns of Payogasta and La Poma, about three and-a-half-hours drive southwest of Salta city. Sometimes referred to as a “the Cuzco of the Calchaquíes Valleys,” the ancient administrative town’s location on a low hill on Argentina’s Inca Trail facilitated visual control of a large area. Despite its importance, extensive excavations of the remote site, accessed via a local road heading northwest of Payogasta, followed by a six-mile round-trip hike, have yet to be undertaken. Amid the ruins, however, many features of Inca architecture can be spotted, from carved ashlars to niches in walls, to an important building known as the “kallanca,” whose gable stands nearly 23 feet high. The nearby Sala de Payogasta Hotel can help with arranging a guide.
Granary La Poma
About eight miles south of La Poma on Route 40, look for the sign indicating access to “Los Graneros.” Inside this huge, 115-foot-long cavern lies two dozen roofed mud and straw structures that acted as an ancient storage place for corn and other crops. Thought to be around 900 years old, these ancient silos (also known locally as Los Graneros Incaicos) are thought to have contained up to 15 tons of corn and beans. Look out for measurements carved in stone, and cave paintings thought to be instructions on how to use the granaries.
Argentina’s largest pre-Colombian settlement, Quilmes dates back to the first century and was home to around 5,000 people at its height. One of the few tribes that managed to resist the Incas, the Quilmes tribe also managed to keep the Spanish at bay for a whopping 130 years. Today, the terraced ruins–which sprawl across 30 hectares–lie three miles west off Route 40, about four hours’ drive south of Salta city in the Calchaquí Valleys. While its thick walls and sharply angled passageways underscore its defensive purpose, Quilmes was very much a working city. Trails on either side of the complex lead up to the remains of a watchtower for excellent views and guides at the entrance will offer an explanation and/or tour for a tip.