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A trail of tradition in the foothills of northwest Argentina
A photo provided by Nora Walsh shows Rodolfo Arnaldo “Terito” Guzmán at the loom in his workshop on El Camino de los Artesanos (the Path of the Artisans) in El Colte, Argentina. The recently upgraded shopping trail is home to more than 20 families and 70 loom artisans who live and sell handwoven textiles from adobe stalls in front of low-slung ranch houses. (Nora Walsh via The New York Times)

by Nora Walsh

NEW YORK, NY.- Nestled in the rugged Calchaquí Valleys of northwest Argentina, in the province of Salta, is a generations-old community of weavers producing some of the best examples of the ponchos and other woven goods that are emblematic of the country.

In the pocket-size town of El Colte, tucked in the municipality of Seclantás, craft lovers will find El Camino de los Artesanos (the Path of the Artisans), a recently upgraded shopping trail where more than 20 families and 70 loom artisans live and sell handwoven textiles from adobe stalls in front of low-slung ranch homes.

An icon of the Argentine gaucho, the poncho has its origins in Indigenous Andean culture, when it was used for protection against the cold and rain and served as a blanket to sleep on. Its style has evolved over centuries to possess characteristic motifs and techniques pertaining to the different regions of the country.

“Seclantás is historically known as the cradle of the Salteño poncho, which is an important symbol of our history, cultural identity and craftsmanship,” said Fernando Escudero, co-founder of travel company Autentica Salta, who frequently brings his clients to shop at the artisan community. “I often give ponchos as a gift because it’s so representative of our culture, and they last a lifetime.”

María Fernanda Funes, the secretary of culture and tourism for Seclantás, explained that Salta’s typical red-and-black poncho honored Gen. Don Martín Miguel de Güemes and his army of gauchos who fought for Argentina’s independence from the Spanish crown in the early 19th century.

This long history of weaving still remains today among the families in El Colte, where the ancestral art is passed down through the generations. Every aspect of the process remains traditional, including the way hand-spun natural fibers are sheared from llama and sheep, and are then tinted using natural vegetable dyes produced from raw materials such as walnut shells, carob tree resin, beetroot and ceibo, a flowering tree. Designs include traditional ponchos and ruanas — which are similar to ponchos but with an open front — along with shawls, table runners, tapestries and bed throws.

“In the last decade, the artisan route, which has always been there, was gaining renown throughout the country as a place to buy high-quality crafts,” said Mauricio Abán, mayor of Seclantás. In 2016, he added, his administration won a Lugares Mágicos (magic places) designation. The sustainable tourism development program, sponsored by the local government and the Inter-American Development Bank, provided funding that allowed the region to enhance its tourism offerings.

As a result, El Camino de los Artesanos underwent an approximately $600,000 beautification process, replacing the main dirt road with a paved one to minimize dust that could soil the crafts. Sidewalks, parking, streetlights and bathrooms were installed, and a local architect was hired to upgrade the design of nine artisan properties with the aim of creating a unified aesthetic along the trail. Each was renovated to include an open-air stall made from local stone and adobe, and topped with thatched cane roofs under which the artisans now sell their wares.

In recent years, local weaver Paulina Canavides has helped popularize the shopping route by garnering local, regional and national awards for her designs.

In 2019, Canavides brought home the top prize from the annual La Rural Exposition in Palermo, Buenos Aires, the foremost agricultural trade fair in Latin America, where her vicuña fiber poncho using ethically certified wool from the San Pedro de Nolasco de Los Molinos Association was chosen as the best overall handcrafted item from thousands of pieces.

Canavides explained that each of her pieces was “a labor of love, and I dedicate eight to 10 hours a day for 15 days to create a poncho that’s well-dyed, well-knit, well-proportioned and completely unique.”

With financing from the Seclantás municipality, Canavides was able to build a workshop for her loom as well as a showroom to display her wide range of crafts, including elegant llama and sheep’s wool ponchos, bedspreads, shawls and sashes. Canavides is busier than ever filling custom orders that she ships all over the country, and plans to ship internationally in the future. Clients who visit her stall can also request bespoke garments by selecting the design, color and exact measurements. Prices vary depending on the size, complexity and fineness of the weave. Llama wool ponchos (which are softer than sheep’s wool) start at 60,000 Argentine pesos (around $370), but she notes that prices are unstable because of inflation.

“I grew up in this house learning how to weave from my parents and grandparents. In the past, we had to fight very hard to sustain our family with artisanal work. In order to sell our products, we had to travel to the city of Salta or Buenos Aires,” Canavides said. “But now, with so many travelers passing through the artisan route, I sell pieces right from my front door and I’m able to live well from my handicrafts.”

Weaving is also part of the Guzmán family. Rodolfo Arnaldo “Terito” Guzmán learned from his father, Alfonso “Tero” Guzmán, who died in 2013. His father was famous for gifting a Salteño poncho to Pope John Paul II, which garnered his work international acclaim and demand. Guzmán and his mother, Vitalia Herrera, have homes and workshops facing each other along the route. Both are decorated with pink potted geraniums and colorful hanging shawls swaying melodically in the silent breeze. Their stalls are equipped with an extensive stock of handcrafted garments and home accessories in a range of natural colors and patterns constructed by the artisans and their families.

Visitors can watch Guzmán weave in an open-air workshop while they peruse his collection of bestselling ruanas and bed throws, which sell for 20,000 Argentine pesos and take a week to make, and an assortment of llama and sheep’s wool ponchos at 60,000 and 55,000 Argentine pesos.

Marcela Gonza and her sisters learned to weave at a young age from their mother and grandparents, a tradition that has been passed down in their family for generations. Their display tables are piled with various styles of ponchos (lightweight “ponchitos” start at 35,000 Argentine pesos), pashminas (from 17,000 Argentine pesos) and rugs (from 19,000 Argentine pesos) as well as saddlebags fashioned from llama and sheep’s wool.

“For me, our crafts symbolize our culture: what we are, where we come from and where we want to go,” Gonza said. “It’s very important to me, beyond the economics, that our clients leave with something they like because they are not just buying a poncho or shawl, they are taking home a piece of our heritage, our hearts and our identity.”

Gonza finds inspiration for her designs in the colors, contours and textures present in the dramatic landscapes of El Colte, her birthplace cradled in the foothills of the Andes. Over time her designs have evolved in response to client demand. “For a while we were focused only on making Salteño ponchos. It didn’t occur to us to make ponchos in other colors or patterns or remove fringes,” she said. “We are learning from and adapting to the tastes of our clients.”

It provides Gonza great pleasure that tourists come and appreciate the work because her family strives every day to create crafts that are as perfect as possible. “We do it from our hearts, because we love it, because it’s been transmitted to us and because we’ve mastered it,” she said.

“I want our culture, this gift our ancestors have left us, to never be lost,” she added. “I want the whole world to know it, and I hope that new generations will continue to do it and enjoy this wonderful art.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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