Chilecito (La Rioja) is a land of vineyards, wineries, where the contrast between the desert and the irrigated area is really impressive. It has the largest cable car in the world (21.5 miles long), some nearby colonial villages, the colorful Cuesta de Miranda. The town is located in a beautiful valley, dedicated mostly to vineyards and wineries, of which Viñas Riojanas (an cheap but delicious white wine) is the most important. On clear days, you can see the Famatina mountain range which is 22,000 feet high and that, during the winter season, is sometimes covered with snow.
Although for many years vineyards were nearly the only plantation in this area, agriculture now has diversified. Olive tree plantations, peaches, and walnuts, are some of the main resources in the area. Recent initiation of open pit gold mining activities have increased employment in the area, but seem to be affecting agriculture. Although it might be too soon to draw conclusions, there is a Project of Law at the Provincial Congress prohibiting open pit mines in the whole province.
Chilecito is the main economic center of the whole province, although it has about 40% of the population of the capital. It is within the main tourist circuit of the Province, that starts at the city of La Rioja, goes through Patquía, a completely arid little village of about one thousand inhabitants, passes in front of Los Mogotes, 15 miles to the northwest of Patquía, a beautiful reddish cliff area on the left-hand side of the highway, and then goes through some small agricultural villages like Vichigasta and Aimogasta, until it arrives at Chilecito. The whole distance from La Rioja to Chilecito is some 125 miles, although if there were a direct highway, distance would be far shorter. Chilecito has many attractions, including the huge Christ (still under construction) that towers over the valley, and from where you have a beautiful view of the city in one direction, and of the agricultural area in the opposite direction, the largest cable car in the world, that used to belong to the La Mexicana gold mine, constructed nearly a century ago and 21.5 miles long. There have been some projects to recycle the cable car and offer it as an alternative for tourism. It goes up to 16,000 feet. There is a museum at the base of the cable car. The road that goes through the colorful Cuesta de Miranda and Villa Union, arrives finally at the Talampaya National Park, one of the tourist treasures of Argentina, declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO. Near Chilecito there are a number of small colonial villages like Sañogasta, where some parts of the village seem to be over a century old, and Famatina, a prime nut-growing area, that is also very picturesque.
There are not many hotels in Chilecito, so you might want to consider staying at La Rioja, visiting the attractions in this area and continuing to Villa Union, from where you can take a tour to the Talampaya National Park. The distance from Chilecito to Villa Union is 75 miles along an earth road and through beautiful sceneries (Cuesta de Miranda). Due to the distances involved and the fact that tourism is not well-organized in this area, it might be advisable to rent a car at La Rioja to do the whole tour. Renting a car should cost around $35 per day, excluding insurance and gasoline. If you hire a taxi, settle the price before you get on, because taxi clocks have three different rates in the clock and a dishonest taxi driver could fool you. They nearly fooled me this time. They said 35 cents per kilometer and were charging me 50 cents per kilometer. I noticed it, told the driver and he made a discount on the final price. Hotels: Hostería ACA (Automovil Club Argentino) is pretty good. Villa Union has four hotels and a number of lodges. I have not stayed here.
There are direct bus services from Buenos Aires to Chilecito (16 hours travel, Andesmar, El Rápido Argentino) and from Córdoba (El Rápido Argentino, SOCASA) to Chilecito (six hours). There are also buses from Villa Carlos Paz. From 2-6:30pm there are no bus services between La Rioja and Chilecito. It is an Arizona-type climate, and most shops close at noon and open in the evening. There is only one bus in the day to Villa Union, so I would rent a car and explore the area at my own pace. There are only two travel agencies in Chilecito, and departure of tours is not guaranteed, since they depend on the number of potential passengers interested. You can also use local taxi services, but set the rate before you board the taxi. Private cars are not allowed inside the Talampaya National Park. You must park the car and take the tour on National Park vehicles. Circuits 1 and 2 cost $17 per person (for both). There is an admission fee of $4 per person. The most important winery to visit in Chilecito is Viñas Riojanas, that produces a good quality and inexpensive white wine.
Here are the web pages of some bus companies that serve the area:
Sorry, all these pages are in Spanish.
Enjoy your stay in La Rioja