Although Argentina isn’t thought of as a country with archaeological riches, there are ancient sites scattered across the pampas where you can dig into this country’s indigenous past. Millennia ago, great cities were founded in the Northwest and wandering hunter nations left their imprint across the Patagonia plains.
Salta is the jumping off point to visit the sites that scatter the Northwest of Argentina. From the Bolivian border to Catamarca, the canyons and highlands hide memories of the long-ago times. At Yaví, near La Quiaca, petroglyphs paint rock overhang. In the Quebrada de Humahuaca is Pukará de Tilcara, a pre-Incan hilltop fortress.
South of Salta is Argentina’s most famous and significant archaeological ruins, Quilmes. This religious city of the Quilmes nation was established in the 9th century AD and inhabited until 1667. It was a major center of resistance against the Inca and Spaniards. The ruins terrace the cragged desert hills near Amaicha del Valle. The Quilmes descendants, the Diaguita, still consider it a sacred site.
Once the entire valley on the other side of the ridge from Amaicha was filled with menhire, or carved stone pillars. The meaning of these enigmatic statues is lost in the mists of time that rise from Dique La Angostura. Modern man has gathered many of the sculptures together in El Mollar, near Tafí del Valle.
Continuing South, edging the Andean mountains, travelers will find more remnants of Argentina’s pre-Columbian past. Near Catamarca, cities of the Aguada nation protected the narrow valleys from the advance of invaders. One of the best-preserved examples is Pueblo Perdido de la Quebrada, dating from the 3rd to 5th century AD. From beneath cardoon cactus and desert scrub, the stone walls mutely give testimony to that part of Argentina’s history.
From Argentina’s Northwest, Ruta 40 winds through the Andean foothills into the Patagonia—and to a different type of reminder of the country’s ancient past. For thousands of years, the ancestors of the Aónikenk wandered these wind-swept plains, following herds of guanaco. Wherever they went, they left colorful handprints on the walls of shallow caves.
The most famous of these sites is Cueva de las Manos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Perito Moreno. The cave earns its name from the 829 handprints adorning the walls. Rhea prints, salamanders, hunting scenes and birthing guanacos under full moons are other creations these journeyers left behind.
Many other sites like this extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Near Puerto San Julián is Estancia La María, home to what archaeologists consider Patagonia’s second-most important site. In the center of the Patagonia, Sarmiento claims the Alero de Manos Pintadas. The pre-Áónikenk peoples didn’t only stay on the eastern side of the Andes, though. Just across the border from Perito Moreno, in Chile, there are other pre-Aónikenk hand paintings along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires (Lago General Carrera): in Reserva Natural Jeínemeni near Chile Chico and Paredón de las Manos at Cerro Castillo.
With summer approaching, it’s a great time to get to these and many other archaeological sites. To help you dig Argentina’s barely excavated history, pack along a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina. To get to the Chilean sites, pick up on V!VA Travel Guides Chile.