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The Puna: A less travelled corner of Argentina
Venturing into the North West of Argentina, our Latin America specialist Grant explores the spectacular scenery and adventure travel potential of the Puna.
The Puna is a vast area that stretches from Peru down into Northern Argentina, situated above the treeline between 3,200 and 3,500m and below the permanent snow line of the Central Andes. Despite the popularity of the high Atacama plateaus and salt flats of neighboring Chile and Bolivia, very little tourism has ventured into this part of Argentina. This, I am sure, will change quickly, as nowhere else comes close to offering adventure travel amongst such varied and spectacular landscapes.
It had been several years since I last visited Argentina. Back then I was living in Chile and frequently crossed the border to visit Mendoza, Patagonia and everywhere in between. I had visited Salta and explored the route down to Cafayate, but never ventured into the Puna – this was in part due to the near impossibility of getting there. Arriving into Salta, I couldn’t help but notice how much the city had changed since I first visited in 2008, expanding further and further out towards the nearby sierra. One of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities in South America, the centre is full of Baroque architecture and leafy plazas. Finding a table at a bar on the main plaza, I spent the evening eating empanadas and drinking the local beer whilst watching the street performers and people going about their evenings.
Salta is the gateway to the Northern region of Argentina. I was to spend the next six days exploring the region by 4×4, an adventure I have wanted to do for years! Accompanied by Mario and Mercedes who both work for our agent in this area, we left Salta in the early morning in a torrential downpour and headed south, down through the Quebrada de las Conchas to Cafayate. This well-travelled route winds its way through ravines and canyons, surrounded by terracotta coloured rock walls of all shapes and sizes, before arriving into Cafayate, famous for its Malbec and Torrontes vineyards. For those who like horse-riding and hiking, I highly recommend making a day trip of this; however we had a long day ahead of us and needed to push on towards the Puna and our final stop of El Peñon.
The next five hours saw us ascend to well over 3000m above sea level. The landscape changed to reveal snow covered plateaus and puna grasslands, populated by vicuñas. Straight tarmac roads for as far as the eye could see gradually gave way to windy bumpy dirt tracks. We sometimes went a couple of hours without seeing another vehicle. With no phone signal or road signs, I was glad my driver and guide Mario made this journey on a regular basis. El Peñon is a small town situated on the edge of Campo de Piedra Pómez (pumice stone field). Located in the district of Catamarca, renowned for its slow and problematic bureaucracy, it is no small miracle to find accommodation offering heated rooms, Wi-Fi and excellent food.
Hosteria El Peñon is the perfect base for a couple of days’ exploration. First, we headed to the pumice stone field, one of the highlights of any trip into the Puna. The rocks, ranging up to 10m in height and scattered across a sand covered area of 155km2, have been sculpted into strange shapes by the harsh winds of the region. The area resembles a white labyrinth, and walking and climbing around the giant monoliths offer breath-taking views across to volcano Carachi Pampa and the nearby dunes. We also visited Volcano Galan and Laguna Grande. Making the two hour journey across the plateau, surrounded by multi-coloured rocky ridges, we eventually arrived at Laguna Grande, a salt lake whose mirrored surface freezes solid in winter and in spring is home to over 19,000 pink flamingos.
A little further, we ascended to the rim of the Galan Volcanic Crater, the largest in the world with a diameter of 42km. The sheer size is difficult to comprehend, but on reflection everything in the Puna, from the salt plains and lava flows to the volcanoes, appears to be on a grander scale. It is startling how few tourists have heard of this area.
Leaving El Peñon behind, we headed north towards Tolar Grande. Despite spending around nine hours in a car, it was one of my most enjoyable and memorable days spent travelling in South America. Every time we ascended to the top of a winding valley road or reached the other end of a salt plain, we were greeted with another equally impressive landscape, bordered by differently coloured volcanos, rock formations and lagoons that reenergised your focus. Reaching the top of the Quebrada de Calalaste, we found ourselves looking down over the Salar de Antofalla, a 130km long salt plain that threads its way between 6000m volcanoes. We enjoyed lunch – homemade pizza – in the small town of Antofalla on the other side of the Salar. The town is in stark contrast to its barren desert surroundings due to the existence of a natural spring that allowed willow and elm trees to grow and produced fields perfect for grazing.
Thinking this town of 40 inhabitants was small, we soon came across Antofallita, an oasis of two small farms. I had recently read an article on the BBC website about the two inhabitants – a brother and a sister – and how they fell out some years ago and no longer talk to each other. With water so precious in this part of the world, neither has any desire to relocate, so they happily ignore each other. In this remote part of the world, the BBC called them the loneliest people in the world.
Doña Coralina was there to greet us, and after a few pleasantries we continued up, over and down into the Salar de Arizaro. Probably the most iconic photo of this region is of the Cono de Arita, a black volcanic pyramid that appears geometrically perfect and seems to float on the salar. Having seen the photo so many times, I was expecting to be a bit underwhelmed, but like the postcard vistas of Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro, it completely mesmerises you and can only be done justice by seeing it with your own eyes.
Tolar Grande is a small mining town protected behind a range of red rock pyramids on the edge of the Salar de Arizaro. The rich mineral deposits made this part the Puna a prosperous mining region in the second half of the 20th century. Minerals were extracted from Mina Julia at 5,200m above sea level and transported by train to Chile and eventually on to America. By 1979 however, foreign demand had dried up and the mines were closed. Walking amongst the ruins of these ghost towns and former railway stations makes their abandonment seem far longer than 35 years ago. In the case of Mina La Casualidad, I found it hard to picture a once booming town 2000 people strong, complete with a school and even a casino. We tried to reach Mina Julia but snow had made much of the route impassable. After getting stuck at an altitude of 5000m and spending 30 laboured minutes digging ourselves out, we admitted defeat and headed back to Tolar Grande.
After four days of off road adventure in the Puna, our final day was to take us back to civilisation and warmer climates. Upon leaving Tolar, we stopped at the Ojos de Mar, where the surrounding volcanoes are reflected in the blue mirrored pools. The road then ascended up to the Desierto del Diablo and on to the Labyrinth desert, famed for its much photographed red fossilised dunes, and down to San Antonio de las Cobres via the Alto Chorrillos pass at 4,560m above sea level. From here, we descended back to Salta through the Quebrada del Toro, the same route taken by the Tren a las Nubes. The mineral landscapes became greener as we dropped in altitude and vegetation filled the surrounding hills.
Not only was the Puna the perfect end to my trip that had also included some of the better known regions of Argentina, it provided by far one of the best travel experiences I have ever had in Latin America.
Inspired to visit a less travelled corner of Latin America?
Check out our Northern Argentina Highlights itinerary. This is similar to what Grant did but he spent longer in the North West to enjoy the region to its full potential. Get in touch with him on 020 7622 1116 to hear more about his experience and let him plan you a tailor-made trip.