Inca Cueva


Useful Information

Location: Humahuaca
(-23.002001, -65.461978)
Open: All year daily 9-19.
Fee: Adults ARS 4,000.
Classification: SpeleologyErosional Cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave
Light: n/a
Dimension: Cave 1: L=5 m, W=40 m, H=10 m.
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Alicia Ana Fernández Distel (2009): Petrograbados en Inca Cueva (Jujuy). ¿Un arte rupestre soslayado?; Centro de Estudios Indígenas y Coloniales, Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Nacional de Jujuy - CONICET; San Salvador de Jujuy (pcia. de Jujuy). online Español - Spanish
Martín Giménez (1941): Inca Cueva, tesoro arqueológico quebradeño revista El Monitor de la Educación; Ciudad de Buenos Aires; 1941; pp. 84‑88. online Español - Spanish
Carlos Eduardo Solivérez (1963): Inca Cueva: un patrimonio que se pierde diario Pregón; San Salvador de Jujuy (pcia. de Jujuy); 11 de noviembre de 1963. Español - Spanish
Address: Inca Cueva, Comisión Municipal de Tres Cruces.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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1936 three mummies in Inca Cueva excavated.
1963 problem of vandalism first published.
FEB-2008 restoration of paintings planned by the Technical Team of the Quebrada de Humahuaca Management Unit of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
DEC-2012 beginning of restoration by specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology México.


Inca Cueva (Inca Cave) is despite the name not a cave. It is a rock formation of red sandstone, similar to the Arches NP in the United States. Erosion by wind and water created cliff faces with overhangs, abris, natural bridges and strange pools. A small spring creates a secret oasis in the arid landscape. The place is tranquil, and with the water an important place for animals and man. As a result the native inhabitants used the shelters for rest and for wall paintings. Today the site is an archaeological treasure.

The main grotto is covered by black, red and ochre paintings. Black is obviously charcoal, red is iron oxide or rust, and beige is a different kind of iron oxide. Those pigments were available in the area and were used for art, some 9,000 years ago. Carbon found in excavated fireplaces was dated and was between 9,200 and 1,600 years old. The place was never inhabited, but it was regularly visited over millennia. Beneath the main grotto, there are a total of 12 caves along the gorge.

In 1936 three mummies were excavated in Inca Cueva by Dr. Justiniano Torres Aparicio, which were named Chulina, Chulinita and Rosalía. The astonishing thing with those mummies is that they have features which differ very much from the native Andean of today. This type of people, tall, thin, with an elongated skull and slightly prominent cheekbones, is described as graceful. They obviously had the practice of deforming their heads to make them longer by tying them with bands from childhood to adolescence. They are similar only to the oldest skeletons found in Brazil in Minas Gerais. This was obviously a tribe of people which moved away or died out, there are no remains left today except for their paintings and mummies. Rosalía was dated 5400 years old and Chulina was radiocarbon-dated at 6080±100 years, which would make them the oldest mummies ever found. The mummies are on display in the Museo Arqueológico de Humahuaca (Archaeological Museum of Humahuaca).

Another rather interesting discovery were 4,150-year-old pipes, which contained the remains of cebil seeds. They contain alkaloids derived from dimethyl tryptamine, and were used as drugs, by shamans in rituals, and in popular medicine. Cebil (Anadenanthera colubrina) is considered a sacred tree by local cultures. This is so far the oldest evidence of cebil consumption.

The site has been a target of vandalism since the 1960s. Unfortunately, the cave paintings, especially those in the first cave, were damaged. Some were sprayed with modern dye in cans, others were scraped off and are thus completely destroyed. Since 2008, the Technical Team of the Quebrada de Humahuaca Management Unit of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture of the province of Jujuy is making plans, how to protect the paintings. We were quite impressed by the sheer number of letters. They were restored in 2012 by specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology from México, they stress that there were no specialists in Argentina for this task. However, experiences with other sites all over the world tell us that the only working solution would be to fence the place off and install a ticket office.

There is no public transport, so the site is actually only accessible by car. At the road RN 9 is a car park, where the trail to the cave starts. For exact coordinates, see the hiking portals. It's about 3.5 km walk to the cave, which normally would be an hour pleasant walk. But the parking lot is at 3,500 m asl, and if you are not a local and used to the height, it's quite strenuous. You should plan at least 3 hours, wear walking shoes, appropriate clothes, sun protection (hat), and bring some water and snacks. There is a guide on site, who charges the fee, and also gives explanations and makes guided tours.