Jujuy is a north-western province of Argentina, known for its beautiful terrain and aboriginal customs. Located just 84 kilometers from San Salvador de Jujuy, the provincial capital, is the small town of Tilcara (which means “shooting star” in the Quechua language of the Incas). Here you can find Argentina’s history goes back beyond Diego Maradona or Gauchos. Here is a place even older than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ancient song “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”.
A short walk from the town lies the fortress of Pucará de Tilcara, rebuilt ruins that were once occupied by farmers of the Late Incan Empire over 500 years ago, ruins that may be even 1,000 years old in places. To get to the ruins you have to walk over the kind of wooden and steel bridge you half expect to see Lee Marvin and the rest of “The Dirty Dozen” blowing to smithereens. You should take water, the sun can be cruelly hot during summer and the altitude is over 2,500 meters above sea level. Bald heads will definitely require a hat.
From the bridge you can see the huge cacti that dot the horizon like chicken pox on a 6 year old (just as prickly). Llamas can be heard gossiping away as you reach the entrance for the Pucará, looking at you with that untrusting stare locals reserve for invading foreigners.
The entrance fee is currently five pesos ($1.60 America) or two pesos (65c) if you’re retired, open daily from 9-12:30pm and then 2-6pm. It is quite a trek, with many climbs, so make sure you wear your walking boots. It is important to arrive before the closing times as there is no way the grumpy guards will miss their humitas (corn and cheese wrapped in corn husks) and tamales (similar to humita but with meat) waiting for you to take photographs of the equally grumpy llamas.
However, despite the grumpiness, the Pucará is a fascinating site with grandiose views of the mountainous region. The valley that enfolds the fortress like a coin in a pocket is known as the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which has been inhabited for 10,000 years and is so inspiring that UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage Site in 2003.
After passing the dagger-throwing looks of the llamas, you will pass the necropolis to your left, which is a peaceful and open section of land with regional grasses and plants growing over the dust of the long-gone native Tilcarans. Next to this is a Botanical Garden practically overflowing with dangerously sharp cacti.
The center of the fortress ruins is occupied by the church, only a brief climb away, up the hill which dominates the location. The tiny houses scattered around the hill are made of local stones with flat roofs, surprisingly waterproof for when the rain makes a rare visit. There are stunning views to be enjoyed over the heavy breathing of unfit hikers. After climbing past the small houses, which you can enter, you will reach the summit and a brief walk will take you to the eerie church.
The Incas unfortunately liked to indulge in a little sacrifice now and again, especially if the weather was bad or harvest was poor. Children were deemed to be the most pure, so it was not uncommon for children to be sacrificed at the altar, with a blow to the head. The altar has been reconstructed; there is some sort of thickness to the air surrounding it, a palpable heaviness. You just hope the original inhabitants did not suffer too often from bad weather or poor harvests.
Moving away from the church section it is possible to see an almost Mesoamerican Pyramid type of Monument occupying the area. This was built in 1935 to honor the ethnographers and archaeologists who discovered the ruins and started restoring them. Although relatively new compared to its surroundings, the pyramid seems to sit comfortably amongst its ancient neighbors, and also serves as a good central location to take in the incredible vistas that surround the Pucará. If you close your eyes and ignore the chatter of less-reverent tourists you can image an almost magical atmosphere that must have occupied the place before the Spanish colonial powers evicted the people.
The fortress now forms part of the University of Buenos Aires and has become a popular attraction. During the low season it can attract 350 people a day whereas high season (generally Argentinean school holidays) sees 1,000 or more people treading the antique paths. This means between 100,000 and 300,000 people visit every year, enabling the restoration process to continue and keeping the grumpy llamas well fed and fat.
If you do not feel the urge to make the climb (or you have old/young people in your party) it is possible to take a car on to the site, this will cost five pesos authorization fee and you get 20 minutes to look around, but the road does lead to the hill summit so you won’t miss out on any of the sights. English guides are also available on request.
The best thing about Pucará de Tilcara is the surprising amount of peace that can be found there and the relative ease of access, it may not be as well-known as Machu Picchu in Peru, but it does not fail to disappoint the interested observer or “Incaphile”.
One of the best times to go is at the end of February, which is carnival time, so you can enjoy the dual entertainment of an ancient ruin and a town having a party. The children dress up as little devils whilst a market exhibiting local crafts try their best to make you give up your money and invariably succeed in doing so, such is the lure of a poncho with a llama woven on it, all bright and beautiful colors reflecting the nature of the local people. During the festivities, beware of children (and adults) throwing flour, water balloons, and spraying foam on you, and make sure you pack a sense of humor.
Go to Pucará de Tilcara and walk like an Incan for a day.
84 km from San Salvador de Jujuy, and 2,500m above sea level.
Open daily from 9-12:30pm and 2-6pm