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A tour of Argentina wouldn't be complete without a stop in its capital, but head outside of the popular nightlife hub that is Buenos Aires and you'll find two routes that show off some amazing South American countryside. These routes - a historic trade route an a high-altitude train ride - are sure proof that the destination is not so important as the journey itself.
Quebrada de Humahuaca is a northwest Argentinean valley beautifully sculpted by the Rio Grande. It's set apart from other valleys by its rainbow-colored stratification that mirrors the long and visibly colorful history of the region. Hunter-gathe?rer societies originally settled in 10,000 B.C. and over the next 9,000 years these settlements - thought to be along seasonal migration routes - were abandoned and then re-settled as increased rainfall made the area more hospitable.
Over the course of the past 10,000 years it has consistently been part of a major trading route that connects southeast Argentina with the Andean regions further north. After the hunter-gatherers came, there were agricultural communities, followed by the Incan empire, Spanish settlements and finally, in the past two hundred years, struggles for independence.
This history makes for a good read, but what makes this valley a truly fascinating sight is the fact that traces of these various cultures and settlements are still visible in the landscape. There are 26 rock-art sites around the valley that demonstrate the presence of hunter-gatherers from the time of their first settlement to the invasion of the Spanish, as seen in pictographs of them battling Iberian armies. In Coctaca there are agricultural terrace fields dating back 1,500 years. Road systems are left over from the crisscrossed Incan Empire. Spanish churches and chapels visibly dot the valley. Its prominence along a trade route has made this region a veritable cornucopia of cultural history.
Riding sky high
Driving through the Quebrada de Humahuaca is an experience, but why not take a load off and board a train through the clouds? El tren a las nubes, as it is regionally called, is a 16-hour ride that follows 130 miles of track over dozens of bridges, tunnels, viaducts and even a couple of spirals. Its most amazing aspect is the sloping curve at the Polvorilla viaduct, which stands nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. The day-long ride starts early at 7 a.m. and runs often past midnight. Fortunately, there are dining cars, a medical car, and a number of guides to ease marathon travel fatigue.
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