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The Lost City

The Lost City


Emilie Giraud visits Argentina’s very own Machu Picchu – the ruins of Quilmes

There is a famous saying in Latin America: “The Mexican come from the Aztecs; the Peruvian from the Incas and the Argentinians from the boats “. Visiting Amaicha del Valle, a little village in the Calchaquì Valley, Tucuman, I got to meet descendants of a pre-Inca people, the Diaguitas, and discover “the other history” of the Argentinian North.

50 km from lush, green Tafi del Valle and 60 km from Cafayate, Amaicha is only mentioned in touristic guides as a practical spot to sleep before visiting the Ruins of Quilmes. At the entrance of the village, a welcoming billboard boasts about Amaicha being the place with the best climate of the world with 360 days of sun a year. The scenery is from a classic Western – clouds of dust, carob trees and huge cactuses. Sun bleached cow skulls hang at the entrances of some houses.

I was lured there with friends to celebrate the summer solstice. In Amaicha, you won’t find traditional hotels but instead you can rent rooms in family houses. That’s how we settled in Amancay, the colorful, traditional style house of my host Sebastian Pastrana.


At dawn, our cheerful group walks towards a piece of land deemed sacred by Sebastian’s father Miguel. The day star is just about to show. While the sun rises in a magical red glow at the rhythm of the traditional flute and tambour, the old man, ceremoniously wrapped in a poncho, offers home-made wine, cigarettes, medicinal plants and water to the Earth, begging her for our world not to collapse.

Like many Andean people, the lifestyle and spirituality of the Amaichas revolves around the figure of Pachamama. Pachamama is more than Mother Nature, it is the entire Universe. They believe she gives us everything and we are part of her. She requires reciprocity and respect. One should only use her resources reasonably and honor her with offerings.

“20 years ago, those rituals were considered Indian things, and it was not something positive“  explains Sebastian. “I remember my grandmother opening the mouth of the Pachamama in the mountain, curing it, cleaning it, perfuming it with incense, leaving it ready for offerings. Myself and my cousins would fast and offer wheat and corn, careful not to leave any mark of the ritual behind. At the end, she would send us away quickly fearing that someone who did not share the practice would pass by. At the time, it was considered witchery “.

Nowadays, the day of the Pachamama – the 1st of August, is celebrated openly in  the Andes and there is a revival amongst the native people. In Argentina however, scornful references to native culture are still pretty prevalent and “Indio” remains a common insult in everyday slang. Very little is said in history books about pre-Inca people and the official history assumes they have all died. The winner wrote the history and the loser has been denied its own existence, and identity.

“At school we were told something and at home, we were told a different history,” admits Sebastian and he invites us to see that other history at the city of Quilmes, a few kilometers away.

“When we are taught about native people in Latin America, we study a bit of the Maya, the Inca and the Aztec civilizations. But you need to know there were also very well organized tribes before the Incas here in Argentina.”

Sebastian explains that the Diaguita culture, (the Amaichas and Quilmes), was 60,000 people living in the Calchaqui Valley up until the end of the 17th century and their territory stretched 25.500 sq km between what are nowadays Tucuman, Catamarca and Salta provinces.  They  grew corn, quinoa and pumpkin using irrigation and terraces. They worked leather as well as gold, silver, bone, bronze and made ceramics and fabrics. Unlike the Incas, they were not an expansionist civilization.

The Incas only entered the Valley in 1480 and dominated this area for 50 years before being defeated by the Spanish. In 1534, the Conquistadores arrived in the region and imposed heavy taxes and compulsory catholicism. The spirituality and ceremonies of the Diaguitas were prohibited along with their language, the kakan.

“Two chiefs Calchaqui and Chelemin united the tribes of the valley and lead a 130 year-old rebellion against the Spanish from 1534 and 1667,” recounts Sebastian with pride in his eyes. The last to resist were the Quilmes who held out to the end in their city.

“This place has a very heavy history,” he explains.  “Entire generations lived and died in a state of continuous war.”

DSC_0566Approaching the archeological site, we can observe lots of dry stone walls following circular or rectangular patterns, extending from the plain to the mountain. The circular buildings used to be places of production and the rectangular ones were houses. The walls nearby the entrance were rebuilt in 1977, under the military dictatorship.

“The reconstruction work was neither done with scientific rigour nor historical relevancy, the work was rough and made for tourist to take nice pictures” according to Sebastian.

Interestingly enough, many workers involved in the restoration were descendants of the native people that once lived there. They had accepted the task in order to escape the harsh work of the sugarcane factories yet they rarely got paid.

To see the original city better, we start to walk up the pucara, the Indian fortress. The oral tradition of the Diaguitas says that the Sacred City is divided in two parts – the City of Peace and the City of War. The City of Peace extended toward the South. It is a flat area ideal for farming, and where people would normally live. The City of War is the pucara, the triangular mountain we are climbing on. The walls of its houses served as paths to go up and find refuge during invasions.

In 1667, after a century of war, and the deaths of thousands of people, a Spanish general called Villacorta ended the rebellion by besieging the fortress and cutting their access to water and food. Fleeing women and children were tortured and killed, witnessed by the Spanish bishop Bartholomé de las Casas, who later denounced these acts as “human butchery”. The siege turned into a bloodbath and the city was never ever inhabited again.

After the native people surrendered, the official history says that 2000 survivors were forced to march 1500 km to the city of Quilmes in the province of Buenos Aires. Only 400 people made it. In the census of 1810, they do not appear anywhere. The archives explain that women had made “a pact of non-procreation”. From then on, the official history considers there is no more descendants of this people. However in a 2001 census, more than 30,000 people claimed Diaguita origins.

 Alternative research and the careful study of the archives show that not all the Diaguitas had been displaced to Buenos Aires. Before the final surrender at Quilmes, many had been exiled to Salta, La Rioja, Catamarca, Cordoba and Santa Fé to work in vineyards, mines and cotton plantations. There is even a town called Calchaqui in Santé Fé Province. During the siege, the last Cacique, Ikin, is even said to have had some Quilmes women and children escape through the mountains. A bishop crossing from Chile to Tucuman in 1710 related how he encountered tribes, suggesting they came back to the area 50 years after.  In 1716, the Crown of Spain gave the remaining Diaguita back 120,000 hectares, including Quilmes, under the condition they let the mules and sheep of the governor pasture freely on their land. They also had to convert to Catholicism, which they accepted without never really abandoning their own spirituality.

Finally reaching the top of the pucara, I understand how strategic the fortress was, protected by the mountain on one side and offering a spectacular view on the Calchaqui Valley on the other side. Contemplating the wonderful scenery, I see a derelict hotel and its huge empty swimming pool standing right inside the surrounding walls of the Sacred City.

DSC_0487In the 1990’s, in a wave of privatization, the archeological site was sold and developed as a tourist resort. The native community of Quilmes rose up and decided to retake the site by force, closing down the hotel. They now manage the site and the money from entrance fees go to micro-credits and educational projects that benefit the community.

History has somehow managed to repeat itself. The Amaichas-Quilmes remain defiant and are nowadays more organized than ever to protect and value their rights. Quilmes is more than a set of historical ruins but a living example of one people’s ongoing fight for survival and identity.

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