San Miguel de Tucumán

Hailed as the birthplace of Argentinian independence, the sprawling, modern, and stuffy metropolitan hub of San Miguel de Tucumán is today one the country’s commercial kingpins, home to some of its largest tobacco, sugar cane and rice traders, and a bona fide hotspot for national educational institutions, governmental development and cultural pursuits.

Nestled neatly on the plains of the Argentinian Aconquija Mountains, the city enjoys a dramatic natural backdrop of forested ridges, deep valleys and jagged peaks that fade to a silhouette in the west after dark, while its rich offering of historical sites and touristic ‘must sees’ make it an unfortunate spot to miss for any traveller making their way through Argentina.

Like so many of Argentina’s modern cityscapes, San Miguel de Tucumán was founded in the middle of the 16th century by the exploring Spanish Conquistadores, who were gradually making their way eastward through the continent on missions out of Peru. But even before the colonisation of the New World and the eventual establishment of Tucumán in this North West region of Argentina, the area where the city now stands was inhabited by a variety of native tribesmen. The most predominant of these were the diaguitas calchaquies, a largely unaggressive and agricultural people who utilised irrigated terraced farming methods on the Aconquija hillsides.

Following the city’s foundation in 1565, incessant bouts of tribal war with the local indigenous peoples, frequent outbreaks of malaria caused by the region’s unchecked river ways, and a number of more general infrastructural problems, meant that the entire settlement was moved from its original site (close the modern day town of Monteros) to a higher point that was more mountainous and tactically located right on the trade and travel road leading to Peru. This new location set the city in good stead, allowing local farmers easy access to the vast chaco plains and waterways that dominated in the east, protection in the form of the Aconquija Mountains to the city’s back and good connections with the rest of colonial Spain’s urban centres in the New World.

In many ways it was the 19th century that ushered in the heyday or golden age of the history of San Miguel de Tucumán. It was a century that was to see the city take centre stage in Argentina’s national plight for independence from Spain, hosting the Congress of the United Provinces in 1816; the nation’s most vehement and final pronouncement of separatism before the onslaught of civil war throughout the rest of the century.

Today the city of San Miguel de Tucumán retains all of the earthy and grass-roots characteristics that it held right from the beginning, and is often considered to be one of the working class powerhouses of the nation. It’s a feature that oozes throughout its bustling market squares and energetic streets every day, and first-time visitors who’ve just made their way from the more laid-back gaucho towns of the northwest backcountry might be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been transported to a whole new planet.

If you are coming here to sightsee, then you may have to do a little searching amidst the built up commercial districts and trading spaces. Rest assured though, there’s plenty to see, and Tucumán is quick to reward those who stick to it. An absolute essential visit is the Casa de la Independencia that’s located just to the west of the Ninth of July Park in the very heart of the city. This white-washed colonial building may look unassuming and indifferent to the tourist crowds it continually pulls, but its importance cannot be overstated. It was here that the Argentinian luminaries first decreed their national independence and laid the groundwork for today’s sovereign state, apart from its European founders.

Another veritable ‘must see’ of the Tucuman downtown is the Ninth of July Park that dominates the eastern centre of the city. This flood of green rubs shoulders with the towering business buildings and industrial complexes of the town, something like an Argentinian Central Park. Rumour has it that this vast area of parkland in the middle of the city is currently being considered by UNESCO for a place on the much-coveted world heritage list, made worthy because of its place at the heart of Tucuman’s sugar cane industry during the 19th century.

While culturally rich and historically important, it’s no secret that the hubbub of San Miguel de Tucumán can take some getting used to. If you’re planning a trip here, it’s recommended that you allow at least two days to acclimatise the city’s energy and flair, and don’t leave without sampling its fabled nightlife, when bars and cantinas throb with local crowds until the early hours of the morning.