Northern Argentina is renowned for its wine, but the region also has a wealth of archaeological sites, notably the dramatic ruins of an ancient city south of Cafayate.
One morning a driver took us an hour south of Cafayate. We passed cactus-studded vineyards, rugged mountains and tiny colonial villages, finally reaching the ruins of Quilmes. Founded in the ninth or 10th century, the hillside city housed between 3,000 and 5,000 people at its height in an area covering about 75 acres, making it the largest pre-Colombian city in Argentina. The Incas never quite conquered Quilmes, but the Spaniards did. After they forcibly removed the remaining inhabitants, Quilmes sank into obscurity, with only sporadic interest in the site until 1977. At that time, the government decided to reconstruct the ruins in order to make them more interesting for visitors. The results clarify the floorplans of hundreds of buildings, but the efforts sacrificed the archaeological integrity of much of the site. Even so, it is fascinating to walk among the buildings, cupped by the curve of a mountainside. I recommend ascending the trails flanking either side of the city center for sweeping panoramic views, including vast swaths of unexcavated neighborhoods. Despite the bungled restoration, Quilmes remains a thoroughly atmospheric place.
In March of 1999, archaeologists excavating at the 22,110-foot-high summit of Llullaillaco Volcano — a sacred site of the Inca — discovered the graves of three children who had been sacrificed some 500 years ago. Because of the elevation, they were frozen, not mummified, which meant that their bodies, clothing and 100 some ritual objects found with them remained in startling condition. The MAAM, housed in a 19th-century neo-Gothic building facing Salta’s main square, explains the significance of the various sacred items found with the children, and, on a rotating basis, displays one of the sacrificial victims. During our visit, we saw the 7-year-old boy, seated with his head on his knees and still wearing his leather moccasins, red and blue tunic, and white feathers in his hair.