There is nothing more exciting when planning a last minute vacation, than realizing, after the fact, that you just experienced the trip of a lifetime to one of the most remote places on Earth. That is how we felt on the plane ride home from Buenos Aires last year after having spent four days in the Puna.
The Antiplano-Puna is a high altitude desert in the central Andes that extends from Peru through Bolivia and into northwest Argentina. The Puna region of Argentina, while an extension of the high open plateau of the Bolivian highlands, is unique because it is bounded by volcanos to the west and mountains to the east, and varies in altitude from 800 to 3,200 meters above sea level. The Puna has the largest thermal amplitude in the world, with recorded temperatures varying between +30 degrees celsius during the day to -30 degrees celsius overnight. The Puna receives roughly 1,000 visitors per year, and is considered to be one of the least populated areas of the planet.
Naturally, part of me doesn't want to write about it, because I don't want this mystical place to become spoiled, but the other part of me can't help but share this most amazing experience. Our adventure to the Puna began after a two and a half hour flight from Buenos Aires to Salta. We made our way to Finca Valentina, a small country hotel owned by the founder of Socompa Adventure Travel, Fabrizio Ghilardi and his wife, Valentina. Fabrizio and Valentina, originally from Milan, moved to Salta because of his love of the Puna and the mountaineering opportunities in the Andes. In 2006, he started Socompa, and in 2008, they opened Finca Valentina, a lovely, five bedroom hotel in the countryside outside of Salta. The traditional hacienda, designed by Valentina (an architect), has all the amenities of a modern hotel; comfortable beds with high-end linens, heated floors, italian espresso and delicious food.
We awoke early to be picked up by Mario, our driver and Socompa expedition leader. At this point, we really had no idea what was in store for us. While I had read a little bit about where we were headed prior to the trip, my husband was completely in the dark, and thankfully, a good sport when it comes to surprise adventures. So, as Mario loaded our bags into the bed of his truck, we couldn't help but be curious about the extra tires, satellite phone, oxygen, and water tanks that were tucked under the tarps. When my husband raised his eyebrows, I gave him the look that translated to "just roll with it."
We headed out that morning toward the outpost of Tolar Grande, our evening destination. The first 100 kilometers of our journey took us through the Quebrada del Toro to the village of San Antonio de los Cobres. The Quebrada del Toro is a rainbow hued gorge, characterized by high rock walls, streams, cactus, and tour buses from Salta. We arrived in the mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres (elevation 3,800 meters) for lunch, and ate our first of many chicken milanese. This is where I tell you that this is not a foodie trip. While the menus along the way were limited, the simple food that was prepared for us was always lovingly cooked by a villager and tasted delicious (if you have strict dietary restraints, this may not be the trip for you). San Antonio de los Cobres is the return point for day trippers from Salta, and the place where we left civilization behind and headed out on the dirt tracks towards Tolar Grande; we wouldn't encounter pavement - or much in the way of civilization - for another three days.
After leaving San Antonio de los Cobres we came to the Labyrinth. A desert of fossil dunes, the Labyrinth is 10 million years old and consists of thousands of small peaks made of clay and gypsum. The first example of the dramatic landscapes we would encounter, the Labyrinth is dry, red, and oddly mystical as it appears out of nowhere.
Much of that first day was spent creating distance between ourselves and Salta. Other than a few donkeys and vicuñas, we didn't encounter another living thing until we descended into Tolar Grande in the late afternoon. As we neared the village, the setting sun deepened the hues of the mountains around us, creating a spectacular backdrop for our stop at Los Ojos del Mar. Los Ojos del Mar consist of three large deep blue pools in the middle of a salt flat. While there is little geological explanation for their existence, scientists have recently determined that the organisms living in the pools have prehistoric significance, dating back 3 million years.
We pulled into Tolar Grande (elevation 3,500 meters), checked into our hostel, and headed out for a walk. As we headed outside into the freezing cold air, I said to my husband, "can you believe Mario's playlist? When do you think it will start to repeat?" First of all, Mario is an incredible guide; he is knowledgeable about the Puna, speaks perfect English, is personable, and has a great sense of humor. While some would cringe at the thought of spending four days in a car with a perfect stranger, it was actually one of the highlights of our trip. Not only did Mario's playlist outlast our trek, it spanned four decades, all genres of music, and contained many one hit wonders that prompted a chuckle from the back seat; a road trip, after all, is only as good as the music and the company in your car.
As the sun set, the temperature plummeted and the winds whipped up. We were traveling through the Puna in September, spring in the southern hemisphere, so we were prepared for the dramatic fluctuation of temperature, but the biting wind still stung. Tolar Grande is a rural village that was once supported by the mining industry, but is now a desolate place for travelers to spend the night. After dinner, Mario drove us out into the desert to look at the stars. The pitch black night and complete absence of light pollution allowed us to the see solar system on steroids. Had I been prepared, I would have brushed up on my night photography skills, as the stars were stunning.
Rising with the sun, we loaded up the truck and hit the track, driving 70 kilometers towards the great Salar de Arizaro, the sixth largest salt flat in the world. Driving the 100 kilometer length of the salt flat, crusty, white hexagons of salt and sand lay out on all sides of us. In the summer, when it rains, albeit a nominal amount, the salt floats to the surface and the sand sinks below leaving a bright white plain. At this time of year, the Salar was waiting for the rain, so it was covered by a thin layer of sand. Towards the end of the salt flat sits the Cono de Arita (pictured above), a volcanic pyramid, believed to be a premature volcano. Out of nowhere, the dark black cone rises 122 meters from the floor of the salt pan. While there was a primitive sign alerting us to our location, there were no recent car tracks, no parking lot, and no security preventing me from climbing to the top. We were utterly alone to take in this landscape, another reminder of the remoteness and isolation that the Puna epitomizes.
Leaving the Salar, and the few donkeys that grazed nearby, our truck climbed back up into the mountains. To drive this track is to rise and fall with the landscape; the view changing at every turn. After an hour or so, we descended into another great salt pan, the Salar de Antofalla, where we stopped for lunch (our third, and very delicious, chicken milanese in two days) at the tiny village of Antofalla, one of the most isolated villages in Argentina. Set in an oasis on the edge of the salt pan, Antofalla is the home of 50 or so shepherds and farmers who live very simply with a limited connection to the outside world.
Leaving Antofalla behind, we crossed the Salar and ascended the vega colorada range. There was no road to rely on, just GPS coordinates. Mario put the truck in its lowest gear and up the mountain we went - off roading at its best. At the summit we hopped out of the truck, and with the wind whipping, took in the incredible view of the salt pan and volcanos in the distance.
The afternoon drive took us through the high altitude mountain region of Quebrada de Calalaste, a very desolate landscape dotted with high altitude grasses that shimmered in the bright sun. Since I have never traveled at this elevation, I was not only surprised by the wind and thinness of the air, but the vibrant blue of the sky - a blue like nothing I have ever seen. The contrast of the yellow grass and the bright blue sky (and the flashy colors of my patagonia ensemble) made the otherwise bleak landscape stunning. Descending into the village of Antofogasta de la Sierra, the ground warmed and an oasis of alfalfa grasses and streams provided space for vicuñas and llamas to graze. With the mining industry dried up, the 1,000 or so people who live in the area make their living as shepherds and farmers, but do so in the shadow of 200 young volcanos. After driving for two days and encountering few people, Antofogasta de la Sierra felt like it should be a civilized center, after all, it has a school and medical facility. However, the absence of people and lack of cell phone service was a quick reminder of how isolating the desert can be.
Beyond Antofogasta de la Sierra, the track took us past bright blue lagoons, across massive black lava flows, and around several volcanos. As we drove across the desert plain from towards El Peñon, where we would spend the next two nights, the sun was low and shined on the mountains ahead of us. For the last hour of our drive that day, the view did not change; the mountains just got bigger and bigger. El Peñon (3,400 meters) is an adobe village, inhabited by approximately 180 people. We pulled into Hosteria de Altura el Peñon, a small hotel managed by Socompa. The wind was whipping, and as we rushed inside, dusty from the day, the building quaked with the force and sound of the wind outside. At 5:00 pm, it was cold and dim inside; the power is not turned on until 6:00 pm, and the wood stoves that heat the place had not yet been lit. We were shown to our room where we unpacked our bags and washed our faces. When we emerged, we were greeted by hot tea and a roaring fire. As the wind died down outside, we warmed up on the leather couch in front of the stone fireplace and got to know the other travelers passing through. After dinner, we headed back to our room just as they were lighting the wood stoves that line the hallway. The stoves, as it turns out, are connected by pipes that run through the rooms, providing heat as we slept.
We arose to another day of blinding sun and magical blue horizons. With Van Halen blaring from the speakers, we roared out of El Peñon. Our destination that morning was a "big sand dune, if I can find it," says our faithful driver, Mario (he knew exactly where he was going). After plugging a few coordinates into the GPS we jumped the dirt track, put the truck in low, and headed up. About twenty minutes later we emerged, high above the desert floor. Slowly, taking caution to not get stuck in the sand, Mario pulled our truck up to a massive white sand dune. Climbing up the dune in the biting wind took a bit of work, but the views from the top were incredible. The only thing that kept me from rolling down the dune was the expensive piece of camera equipment around my neck - next time, perhaps, but very tempting.
Leaving the dune, we headed back down to the desert floor. Not far ahead of us lay one of the more bizarre natural phenomenons I have ever seen, Campo de Piedra Pómez. At an altitude of 3,650 meters, Campo de Piedra Pómez is a giant, white, stone labyrinth that is 25-kilometers long and 10-kilometers wide. The creation of Campo de Piedra Pómez began with the explosion of a volcanic stratum from the Cerro Blanco caldera, which created a plume of ash and debris akin to that of an atomic bomb. The harsh temperature of the Puna caused the debris to immediately crystalize, and as it cooled, the escape of volcanic gases transformed the rock into a porous pumice. Over time, the strong dry Andean winds sculpted the pumice into the otherworldly formations that shape the mysterious landscape that exists today. Walking through pumice field, this place felt so ancient and weird that I would not have been surprised had a dinosaur appeared from around one of the giant rock formations.
After a picnic lunch in the truck (the wind was blowing like mad outside) we turned around and headed back towards Carachi Pampa, the huge black volcano that had been looming in our rearview mirror all morning. The volcano is surrounded by a large apron of black lava, and behind it is a large red lake filled with pink flamingos (I promise I am not exaggerating). The shallow, bright red water laps against pink sand and is milky red due to its high mineral and algae content. Surrounding the lake's edge are fresh water marshes filled with bright green algae. The water in the marsh is crystal clear, and from a distance appears as a deep blue, reflecting the intensity of the color in the sky. We spent the next hour traipsing along the edge of the lake, stalking the pink flamingos into flight and collecting the feathers that they left behind. From a visual perspective, the landscape appeared out of a dream, as if I had enhanced its color saturation in Photoshop by 100%; it was surreal.
In the morning, we left the Puna and started the long journey back to Salta. As we slowly made our descent, the landscape became more hospitable, and the villages we passed gradually became more populated and less desolate. In the town of Santa Maria we stopped at a campground where we were welcomed by Argentine cowboy / BBQ master, Raul, who had prepared a simple parilla for us. After inhaling the delicious steak and fresh tomato salad, we got back in the truck and headed towards the vineyards of Cafayate. Suddenly, it felt like we were in Napa; vines as far as the eye can see, wineries and hosterias dotting the dusty landscape. We pulled into a winery to stretch our legs and taste some Torrontes and Malbec. A group of 20-something travelers who accompanied us on a tour of the winery couldn't help but comment on our hiking boots, dusty faces, and layers of fleece and capilene. Where in the world had we emerged from? They of course had no idea what or where the Puna is.
In the fading afternoon light, we traveled through the Quebrada de las Conchas Gorge. Its scenic sedimentary rock formations reminded me of the American southwest. While we stopped a couple of times to take photographs and check out the views, we didn't find the need to linger and explore, seeing as we had just left one of the most spectacular places on Earth and were once again surrounded by tour buses and selfie stick prodding tourists.
We returned to Finca Valentina in the evening, just in time to shower and have dinner. After being so isolated for four days, we were a bit chatty with the other guests at dinner. We couldn't help but share what we had just experienced. The other guests felt a little slighted by the fact that they had not known about the possibility of visiting the Puna, let alone its existence. I reassured them that it was a good reason to return.
The desert is naturally an inhospitable place, often characterized by dramatic temperature fluctuation, extreme altitude, and the absence of flora and fauna. The Puna is a place where these desert extremes collide; a harsh environment that remains sparsely populated and unchanged by the development of the modern world. As a result, the only thing that has caused its landscape to change over time is the evolution of the Earth; tectonic plates shift, mountains form, volcanos protrude and erupt, temperatures cool and warm the environment, and always, always, the wind blows. Which is why driving through these mesmerizing landscapes was like navigating through a high-definition dream on the surface of the moon. I doubt I will have the opportunity to return to the Puna, but having been, I feel like I visited the end of the earth, and that I may have possibly found the place where all the dinosaurs have been hiding.
Admittedly, a trip like this is not for everyone, after all, it does involve a lot of rough driving and nature peeing. But if you decide to go, it is not one of those crazy trips that requires the assistance of a travel agent to set up. All you need it to get yourself to Salta and Socompa will take care of the rest.
Hosteria El Penon: www.hosteriaelpenon.com
Finca Valentina: www.finca-valentina.com.ar
Credit cards will not get you very far in this part of the world. Bring cash. Dollars fetch a remarkable exchange on the blue market in Buenos Aires.
When traveling in the Puna, dress accordingly. If you are like me in cold, windy places, the more layers of Patagonia threads, the better!
Whats to Come:
Palm Springs ★ 011.15
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