Map of Mesopotamia and the Paraná Littoral in Argentina

Mesopotamia and the Paraná Littoral

Capital of its province, the city of Santa Fe plays second fiddle to youthful Rosario in economics and culture, but it has a core of colonial monuments that no other nearby place can match. It also enjoys easy access to the middle Paraná islands, thanks to a series of bridges across the river’s tributaries to the city of Paraná, Entre Ríos.

The river, though, is a mixed blessing, as Santa Fe is vulnerable to floods—in May 2003 an inundation by the Río Salado killed dozens and displaced thousands, causing millions of dollars in damage—and even to desiccation, as shallow Laguna Setúbal nearly evaporated in 1964 for lack of rainfall in the upper Paraná. The summer heat and humidity can make Santa Fe a sweat lodge of a city.

Sited 10 kilometers east of the Paraná’s main channel, Santa Fe (pop. about 500,000) is 167 kilometers north of Rosario and 475 kilometers north of Buenos Aires via RN 11 and the autopista A-008. It is 25 kilometers west of the Entre Ríos provincial capital of Paraná via RN 168 and a subfluvial tunnel, and 544 kilometers south of Resistencia via RN 11.


In 1573, southbound from Asunción in present- day Paraguay, Juan de Garay founded Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz on the Río San Javier, a Paraná tributary about 80 kilometers northwest of Santa Fe’s present site. The first Santa Fe, though, proved insecure because its isolation exposed it to indigenous raiders, and the location was even more flood-prone than it is now. The ruling cabildo (town council) moved and rebuilt the city on the original plan; significant colonial architecture remains, but some of it fell to the wrecking ball in a 19th-century Francophile construction boom and 20th-century redevelopment.

Sights in Santa Fe

The river and its tributaries are a palpable presence. One of Santa Fe’s most offbeat sights, crossing Laguna Setúbal at the east end of Bulevar Gálvez, is the Puente Colgante (1928), the suspension bridge that linked the city to the islands and the city of Paraná until a 1983 flood damaged it beyond usability until just a couple years ago, when it underwent a major retrofit (it still doesn’t handle big trucks, but normal passenger vehicles, as well as bicycles and pedestrians, can use it).

Four blocks west of the river, Plaza 25 de Mayo is the city’s colonial, and contemporary, civic center. On its east side, the lavish interior of the Jesuit Iglesia de la Compañía (San Martín and Estanislao López), dating from 1697, contrasts with its unadorned exterior. Returned to the Jesuits in 1862, almost a century after their expulsion from the Americas, it’s a national historical monument.

On the plaza’s north side, the twin-towered Catedral Metropolitana (Estanislao López and San Gerónimo), dating from 1751, is also a national monument. The south side underwent a major transformation, however, when the mansard-topped French Renaissance Casa de Gobierno (government house) replaced the colonial cabildo in the early 20th century.

Immediately southeast, Parque General Belgrano contains a cluster of colonial structures that are historical monuments and museums. In a musty 18th-century residence, distinguished by an impressive sample of religious carvings from colonial missions, the Museo Histórico Provincial Brigadier General Estanislao López (San Martín 1490, tel. 0342/457-3529,, free) contains silverwork, pottery, period furniture, and material on the province’s chaotic postcolonial political history, plus paintings from colonial Perú. Summer hours are 8:30 a.m.–noon and 4–8:30 p.m. weekdays, 5:30–8:30 p.m. weekends and holidays. The rest of the year, afternoon hours are slightly shorter; it’s closed January 1, May 1, Good Friday, the first Friday of December, and December 25.

The Museo Etnográfico y Colonial Juan de Garay (25 de Mayo 1470, tel. 0342/457-3550, free but donations encouraged) focuses on Santa Fe la Vieja, including the area’s indigenous heritage and a scale model of the city’s original site near present-day Cayastá. Spanish-colonial relics include ceramics and coins. Summer hours are 8:30 a.m.–noon and 3:30–8:30 p.m. Tuesday– Friday, 5–8 p.m. weekends and holidays. Afternoon hours are shorter and slightly earlier the rest of the year; it’s closed January 1, May 1, Good Friday, the first Friday of December, and December 25.

Begun in 1673 and finished in 1688, the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (Amenábar 2257, tel. 0342/459-3303) is Santa Fe’s most significant remaining colonial landmark. Damaged by lightning in 1824, it slowly deteriorated, suffered several instances of illadvised remodeling over more than a century, and finally survived thanks to thoughtful restoration between 1938 and the early 1950s. What survived, thanks to the efforts of architects Angel Guido and Mario Buschiazzo, were the original facade, thick adobe walls, and a red-tile ceiling supported by beams of hardwoods and cedar, held together by leather and dowels rather than nails. Its hand-carved exterior doors lead to a nave with a goldlaminated pulpit.

As elsewhere in the city, the church bears witness to the force of the river—oddly enough, in the tomb of Padre Magallanes, who was attacked by a jaguar that entered the church while fleeing an 1825 flood. Provincial caudillo Estanislao López and his wife also repose here.

In one wing of the cloisters, the Museo Histórico San Francisco (8 a.m.–noon and 4–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., free) deals with both religious and secular history in colonial and early-independence years. Among the exhibits are ceramics, furniture, silverwork, weapons, religious artifacts from various eras, and sacred and secular art. Its Sala de los Constituyentes displays wax figures of the representatives to the assembly that wrote the Argentine Constitution of 1853.

One block west of the plaza, also a national monument, the late colonial Templo de Santo Domingo (3 de Febrero and 9 de Julio) is a neoclassical hodgepodge dating from 1805 that took a century to complete. Two blocks farther west, Plaza Italia is the setting for the Palacio Legislativo (provincial legislature); immediately east, the outstanding Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Rosa Galisteo de Rodríguez (4 de Enero 1510, tel. 0342/457-3577, free), the provincial fine arts museum, holds 2,200 paintings, sculptures, and engravings. Hours are 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–6 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3–7 p.m. weekends and holidays; it is closed January 1, May 1, Good Friday, the first Friday of December, and December 25.

Four blocks north of the plaza, the San Martín pedestrian mall is home to the Museo Municipal de Artes Visuales Sor Josefa Díaz y Clucellas (San Martín 2068, tel. 0342/457-1886, free) showcasing contemporary art; it’s open 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and 4–8 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, 5–8 p.m. weekends and holidays.

Entertainment in Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s major performing arts locale is the French Renaissance Teatro Municipal Primero de Mayo (Avenida San Martín 2020, tel. 0342/457-1883), whose restoration has earned architectural prizes. Cine América (25 de Mayo 3075, tel. 0342/452-2246) shows recent movies.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.