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Top Argentina

San Juan

San Juan is much less known than its towering cousin, Mendoza. This largely modern city has a provincial air to it. It has many museums and plazas. Wineries paint the countryside in claret and sparkling white. It welcomes pilgrims to the shrines of Difunta Correa and San Expédito. Great day escapes are made to the Las Lajas thermal pools or through Zonda canyon. San Juan is the gateway to the province's great attractions, like Valle de Calingasta, rimmed by snowy mountains and glittered at night by a million stars. To the north is Valle de Iglesia with hot springs, colonial churches and windsurfing. Valle Fértil and Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) lie to the northeast.

For millenia humans lived in the Estero de Zonda area to the west. During the Inca occupation (1491-1532), settlements expanded to where the city is now. Present-day San Juan was founded by Spaniard Juan Jufré in 1562, as a base to exploit Inca mines in the western mountains. It was first part of the Chilean district of the Río del Plata Viceroyalty, but then placed under Buenos Aires' administration. José de San Martín was governor of the Cuyo Region during the virreinato's twilight years (1814-1816). The room where he stayed in the Santo Domingo monastery in 1815 is now a museum (Monday-Saturday 9:15 a.m.-2 p.m. Laprida 57 Oeste, Tel: 422-1573, E-mail:, URL: The Convento Santo Domingo, constructed in 1670, is San Juan's oldest building.

Another of Argentina's important historical figures, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, was born in San Juan. On February 15, 1811, he entered the nation's future at the low, white-washed house which is now the Museo HistĂłrico Sarmiento (Sarmiento 21 Sur, Tel: 422-4603, E-mail:, URL: closed for renovation).

Beautiful sycamore and palm-lined plazas dot San Juan's downtown. The main square, Plaza 25 de Mayo, is surrounded by social clubs, sidewalk cafés, banks and hotels. On the northwest side is the modern Catedral (Rivadavia and Mendoza). Within it rest the ashes of the 1944 earthquake's 11,000 victims and the tomb of Fray Justo Santa María de Oro, who assisted San Martín and other independence leaders. Some of the old cathedral's statues are preserved. From the church's 53-meter (174-ft) high, free-standing bell tower are great views of the city and mountains (daily 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Entry: $1.25, children to 10 years old free).

The city's original Catedral and colonial architecture disappeared due to three major earthquakes it has suffered, in 1894, 1944 and 1977. The 7.8 tremor of January 15, 1944, destroyed most of the city. Few buildings remained after that event. Museo de la Memoria Urbana has photos of San Juan as it looked before and the day after that fateful day. A simulator allows visitors to experience the 49-second quake (Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, holidays 4-8 p.m. Av España and Mitre. Entry: free). In the book, San Juan's Earthquake, Armando Gutiérrez recounts his experience (available in Spanish, English; $8.25).

An old Argentine saying, estar entre San Juan y Mendoza (to be betwen San Juan and Mendoza, or to get drunk) refers to the region's wine-producing area. Even though Mendoza's vineyards are better known, San Juan also makes good quality wines and champagnes. Two of the 11 bodegas are within the city: Antigua Bodega (Salta 782 Norte, Tel: 421-4327, URL: and Graffigna (Colón 1342 Norte, Tel: 421-4227, URL: Most are in Pocitos, 11 kilometers (7 mi) south on Ruta Nacional 40. Two produce organic wines: the family-owned Bodega Fabril Alto Verde (Acceso Sur, between Calles 13 and 14, Tel: 0264-421-2683, URL: and Champañera Miguel Mas, specializing in champagne and balsamic vinegar (Bruschi 520 Este, Tel: 0264-422-5807, URL: Other Pocito wineries are Viñas de Sesiga (Aberastain and Calle 15, Tel: 492-2000, E-mail: and Las Marianas (Calle Nueva s/n, between Vidart and Aberastain, Tel: 423-1191, URL:

Another premier Sanjuanino crop is olives. The processing and oil pressing may be seen at Museo Don Julio, located two blocks north of downtown (one-hour tours Monday-Friday 10 a.m., 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m., 6 p.m. 25 de Mayo 165 Oeste, Tel: 421-0433, URL: The region also produces figs, raisins and other dried fruits.

(Altitude: 640 m / 2,100 ft, Population: 112,778, Phone Code: 0264)


Other places nearby San Juan: Valle De Iglesia, Chilecito, San AgustĂ­n Del Valle FĂ©rtil, Barreal, La Rioja and Calingasta.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

01 Aug 2011

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