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With fiery mountains blazing in its background and squat adobe buildings in burnt reds and buttery yellows, dry Humahuaca feels a bit like a painted desert. But the parched town is anything but dry in spirit. These people love life and know how to live it.

Humahuaca derives its name from the omaguacas, an Indian tribe that dwelled in the Quebrada de Humahuaca for centuries. The word means “sacred river” or “river that always will remain.” The omaguacas were skilled farmers and developed an advanced irrigation system that can still be seen in the ruins of Coctaca, just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from town. The entire canyon has been an important transit route since the Inca period, but Humahuaca itself is a colonial town, complete with a Spanish-style church, narrow cobble streets, and colonial style street lamps. It was founded in the 16th century by Juan Ochoa de Zárate and was a major stop for expeditions to High Peru. It was Spaniards who added the “H” to change the name to Humahuaca.

But for all that colonial atmosphere, its people cling to their ancient traditions. Quechua roots are strong here, and the spirited people celebrate them whenever the possibility arises. Humahuaca considers itself Carnaval’s Capital City and hosts the Tantanakuy Festival in the days prior to Carnaval, inviting musicians from all over South America to meet and share their music. Even patron saint festivals involve some of the ancient traditions of worshipping the dead.

Humahuaca’s pretty town square is dominated by tall trees and gorgeous architecture. The stark white Iglesia de la Candelaria contains lovely paintings from the Cusco School and an image of La Virgen de la Candelaria, the town’s patron saint. Perhaps even more beautiful is the Cabildo, with its textured adobe, ornate arches and famous clock tower. The most striking feature, however, is post-colonial and a little beyond the plaza itself: the massive Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia, which was designed by Ernesto Soto Avendaño to commemorate the men of Northern Argentina who fought Argentina’s War for Independence. Many find the monument to be ostentatious and not one of the sculptor’s better works, but regardless of aesthetic opinion, this imposing structure symbolizes the pride of the entire region for the major part their ancestors played in freeing the nation.

Humahuaca pride results in hospitality—the people of this city are happy to show it off to visitors. There are several hotels and hostels in town, and, during festival times especially, many families rent rooms in their homes, treating lucky visitors like part of the family. Jewelry vendors not only sell their wares in the steps leading up to the Monument to the Heroes of the Independence, but strike up conversations with passers-by, and if you ask down by the artesian fair, it’s possible to enter a pottery studio and watch them handcraft the very pieces they sell on the street. Indeed, it’s hard to decide what makes this town most appealing: its spectacular setting, fascinating history or amazing inhabitants.

Telephone code: 03887

Pop. 6140

Altitude 3000m


Other places nearby Humahuaca : Tilcara, Iryua and Purmamarca.

By Suzanne Russo
Suzanne's childhood travel experiences were limited to road trip forays with her parents, and the thrill that came with crossing the state line,...
30 Apr 2008

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