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Buenos Aires likes to regard itself as an Italo-Spanish city washed up on South American shores, and here the legend of immigrant gauchos taming empty wildernesses survives. But in the north this myth disintegrates.

Walk the streets of Posadas, of Resistencia, of Jujuy – these are important cities, not remote villages – and people’s indigenous heritage is clear.

The Andean northwest
This is an Argentina far removed from the capital's bustle. A thousand miles northwest of Buenos Aires, in Jujuy, the Andes loom just out of sight, but define the way of life. The ñoquis (gnocchi) and steaks have long since given way to locro, a highland maize-and-pork stew full of soul-satisfying textures. The road north towards southern Bolivia winds upwards through the otherworldly colours of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Indigenous handcrafts brighten village markets, locals chew coca, and ruined thousand-year-old fortresses crumble among giant trident-shaped cardón cactuses. Off the highway, asphalt becomes rutted dirt, and battered buses churn through mud or dust to settlements where the daily rituals of llama-herding and coping with high-altitude life on the puna go on. Buenos Aires is a world away.

Calchaquí valleys
Southwest of Salta, these valleys produce traditionally-woven ponchos and high-quality wine from the Andean foothills. It is dry, dusty terrain and a bone-jarring journey away from urban life. Adobe houses, clay ovens and hamlets seem untouched by European influence - but not so. "We Diaguita adapted to Spanish culture long ago", says one weaver. "I'm proud of my indigenous roots but I feel Argentine above all else."

The Toba of the Gran Chaco
Resistencia sits at the edge of the "Impenetrable", where cattle roam over vast, dry solitudes comparatively recently settled by Europeans. It is a place of big hats, big trucks and big moustaches, and is home to several indigenous groups. Tourism's golden rain has barely watered Toba communities who scrape a meagre living from the parched land. In town collectives promote Toba culture and issues, but it is an ongoing battle to be heard.

Misiones, the Guaraní, and the Iguazú Falls
In northeast Argentina, the stones of spectacular missions founded by Jesuits have been swallowed by the jungle, but the people with whom they forged a visionary alliance, the Guaraní, are part of the contemporary picture. Some more remote villages conserve a reasonably traditional existence - some even banning outside contact for their own protection - but most folks in Misiones, from the mate plantations to the Iguazú Falls, have indigenous blood, and Guaraní words pepper the Spanish up here. Tropical rains, fertile vegetation and orange-red mud make Argentina's north-eastern finger distinct, and the thunder of the world's most spectacular waterfalls leaves a lifelong impression.

How to
From Buenos Aires, there are flights to Salta, Jujuy, Resistencia, Posadas and Puerto Iguazú. Regular, comfortable long-haul buses also service these places.


Andy Symington has lived and worked in Argentina, and returns regularly. He is co-author of Lonely Planet's Argentina guide.

 

© 2010 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Argentina’s indigenous north’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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