Tilcara is a small town situated north of Salta, one stop before Humahuaca. The town is named after its ancient indigenous tribe and still today, its descendants share much of their culture and many of their old traditions, which make Tilcara a fascinating place to visit. Almost 6000 people live in Tilcara, most in traditional adobe houses, along the rivers Rio Grande and Rio Huasamayo.
The central part of town is along the main road that runs up from the bus station. Along here, you’ll find a selection of restaurants and souvenir shops. There is a lovely indoor market that sells local food products and handicrafts, particularly quality wool clothing. Nice, but not cheap. Just outside, you’ll find people grilling tortilla bread stuffed with ham and cheese. These are delicious and a great snack to warm you up when the sun starts to set. Further up the main street, you’ll get to the plaza with yet more market stalls selling the usual brightly-coloured woven and knitted products.
There are plenty of restaurants serving great food. If you want an asado, or barbecued meat, make sure you go at lunchtime. One evening, we went to a particularly great restaurant on the corner of the plaza. The food was good, but the entertainment was even better. We arrived at about 9pm, which is early for Argentinian dinner time, but the place soon filled up and people were queuing at the door for a table. They had a great band playing the classic folklorico music with their unusual traditional musical instruments. In Argentina, they call these performances ‘peñas’, and are definitely worth going to at least once on your trip. It’s a special type of music with beautiful songs that tell wonderful stories.
What to do in Tilcara
As soon as you arrive in Tilcara, you’re best off going to the Tourist Information office along the main road. Here, you can find out about walks and places to visit on your own, and also arrange for a guided tour to the mountain caves, which is definitely recommended.
Below are descriptions of the things we did when we visited Tilcara:
Garganta del Diablo
This walk takes you up higher into the mountains that form the backdrop of the town. It’s uphill most of the way, which can be tough in the strong sun, but the cactus-covered landscape is striking and views are spectacular. The higher up you go, the better it gets. The walk takes about 2 hours to get to the waterfall. You have to pay a 10 peso entrance fee to the lady in the small hut – make sure you have the exact change. Here, you can walk through the Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat gorge, to the waterfalls. For us, the waterfalls were nothing spectacular, however the walk up is definitely worth doing.
This was the guided walk that we organised at the Tourist Office in Tilcara. It’s definitely a trip you should do with a guide, not only because you’ll learn so much more, but also because the caves are not easy to get to. If you’re afraid of heights or don’t fancy clambering down the mountainside, I would suggest you avoid this walk.
Once again, the landscape is fantastic and you certainly get a good view when you reach the highest point of your walk. It’s about a 4 hour roundtrip going up the mountains and then returning down the otherside. At the top, we entered two caves. Our guide gave us a candle each and in the second cave, we went all the way to the end, blew out the flames and sat in silence. It was quite a spooky and surreal feeling to be in utter darkness and not to hear a sound, an experience that is rare, or in fact impossible in most places back in England. We were told that during times of conflict in the past, people had hidden up in these caves. It certainly gave us something to think about whilst sitting inside the mountain in the silent blackness. We then relit our candles and our guide told us stories about local myths and legends as she passed round some delicious peaches grown from her parents’ orchard!
We left the cave through the opposite side of the mountain, through a narrow gap in the rock. The descending path was pretty steep and rocky, so most of us decided it was probably best to slide down our backsides! Good fun, especially with the view of all the coloured mountain peaks in front of us. We returned to Tilcara at about 1pm in time for a well-deserved lunch.
Las Ruinas de Pucara
On the outskirts of town, you will find these impressive ancient ruins. No need for a guide and free to enter. These ruins of the pre-hispanic Tilcara community are fascinating to visit and at the top of the hill you can walk around the ancient temple. Again, more fantastic views and thousands of cacti! There are also llamas, which are always worth seeing!
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