Humahuaca gets its name from an Indian tribe that dwelled the area for centuries. This people were called the “omaguacas”, according to records of the originary tongues. The word means “sacred river” or “river that always will remain”.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the letter “h” was added at the beginning of the word and the place was christened again as Humahuaca, which continues to be its name to this date and which is used to refer to the entire ravine that starts at the small town of Volcán and continues along Route 9 up to famous Humahuaca
The city was founded by the Spaniards in the late XVI century, but its lands had been dwelled by man for over 10 thousand years, as evidenced by mysterious ruins, pucarás
and cave paintings scattered all over the ravine.
Until the late XIX century, it was one of the most important commercial centers in the Upper Peru colonies and it reached its twilight when the extraction of precious metals, such as gold and silver, began to die out.
At present, Humahuaca, just like the small ravine villages, laces stories and traditions of their ancestral roots, preserves religious beliefs, rites, celebrations, art, music and agricultural techniques that represent a unique living heritage on the planet. Therefore, the whole ravine was declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.
Its narrow cobbled streets, its low adobe houses, its churches and its saint coming out everyday at noon to salute its followers and the small squares, as well as its handicrafts market, are some of the attractions that turn Humahuaca into an ideal place to walk around and feel time has stopped.
Customs of Humahuaca
Both in its main church and in the Northern Carnival Museum, it is possible to get deep into some customs that remain alive in the area and that revolve around the celebration of certain phenomena that generally have a divine rather than an earthly nature.
Some celebrations are related to the agricultural calendar, such as the Minga and the Señalada; others to the patron saint festivals, such as the misachicos, worship to the dead and living nativity scenes. And, of course, worship to Pachamama, maybe the best known rite among the originary peoples from the Argentinian North.
The carnival is another great northern celebration. The entire town takes part, which has turned this event into one of the most famous festivities in the country. It lasts for one whole week and its preparation keeps the communities in tenterhooks all through the year, until so longed-for February arrives and the devil comes down the hill to find work for idle hands and invite everyone to the celebration, as asserted by many popular beliefs in the entire area of the ravine.
Even if the place is not visited during February, masks and costumes, mirrors and rituals may be observed all year round. A variety of museums showing handicrafts, folklore, paintings and sculptures may be visited in the city. As well, at the handicrafts studios, visitors can watch how the mud and clay are handled in order to create the typical local pottery.
When the carnival arrives, the whole ravine gets dressed up. Preparations are evident all around, in every house, in every family. After much practice, guitar playing and typical dancing are perfect in January. But February is “the” month and everyone attends that date.
Bear in mind: The famous carnival of Humahuaca is celebrated every year late in February and early in March, when even the “burial of carnival” takes place. This is another popular festival that summons most mountain dwellers. In the last few years, tourists have also enjoyed these events.