Have you ever run down a white sand dune at 3500 meters above sea level? Or stood at the rim of the biggest known volcanic crater of the world? Looked into fanta-colored arsenic water holes? Found algae below a thin layer of salt in a salt pan in the middle of the desert? Sat in the tunnel of a sulphur mine at 5200 meters? No? Then it’s time for a visit to the Puna.
How to Get to the Puna
Every year we have a calendar called “Reise” (travel; harenberg-kalender.de/reise-2016/), where every day of the year there’s a different picture of any place in the world. In 2014 or early 2015 there was a picture of Cono de Arita, a mountain in the Salar de Arizaro, a salt pan in northwestern Argentina. As soon as we saw this picture we knew: one day we’ll go there.
So when we started planning our trip and knew we’d be going to Argentina we knew we had to go to the Puna, the high plateau in northwestern Argentina where the Cono de Arita is. I found only very few tour operators online. Those were either way too expensive or did travel to the Puna but not as far as the Salar de Arizaro. Finally, we found Walter Cristian Metzke (of Alma Gaucho), a German-Argentine who offers all kinds of tours in the Puna. Walter is a great person and an excellent and experienced guide and knows the region, it’s inhabitants, and it’s wonders very well. He also knows where to take the best pictures.
Towards the Sun
Our 6-day tour with Walter started in Cafayate. The drive to El Peñon, a small village at 3400 m with 300 inhabitants, took all day. There’s no time for activities but nevertheless we arrived exhausted: The altitude takes it’s toll; the body needs 4 to 7 days to adapt. So that evening we just ate a llama schnitzel (delicious) and then fell into bed. We stayed at Hospedaje Don Carmelo, a nice and clean place, better (and cheaper) than many hotels and hostels we have stayed in in Argentina so far. Just note that there’s no electricity in the village during the night so you better bring a torch in case you need to go to the bathroom.
Whiteout: Sand Dunes and Pumice Stones
Close to El Peñón there’s a salt lake surrounded by black volcanoes, red, grey, and yellow mountains, and white sand dunes. We walked up one of the dunes and run down barefoot from the top – what a feeling!
With sand between our toes (poor Hossam even got blisters from the hot sand – no risk, no fun, I guess) we continued to Campo de Piedra Pómez, a pumice stone field. Originated from a volcanic eruption 73000 years ago, these stones have been continuously shaped by the wind, water, and the big temperature differences between day and night. The field is huge, it’s about 35 km long and 7 km wide and unless you spend a whole day there you can only see a small part of this impressive place. We walked between the stones, climbed on top of them, almost got lost, and it just got more awesome the further we walked and the higher the stones we climbed.
From Antofagasta de la Sierra, where we spent the next two nights, we took the long and difficult but also more rewarding way (can’t call it a road) to the world’s biggest known crater, the crater of Galán volcano. Not far from Antofagasta de la Sierra the first attraction awaits the curious visitor: Campo las Tobas; ancient petroglyphs carved in a huge stone plate on the ground. There are human figures, ñandú feet, llamas, and even an ape. As always, the carvings are open to interpretation; no one knows what they actually mean or how old they are.
The way to the crater leads through a canyon where condors nest and over green meadows (small but nevertheless stunning – we’re in a desert after all) where our car got stuck and had to be dragged out. Then further along mountains of all colors and forms, and finally up to over 5000 m to the rim of Galán volcano. There we met a big group of french people (what are the odds to meet other people in the Puna..?). One of their nine (!) cars was only a 2WD and couldn’t get up the hill so they asked our guide to help drag the car up. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds but finally it somehow worked but Hossam and I (everyone except for the driver had to get out of the car) ended up walking up to the crater rim. That’s what I call acclimatization.
Even though it was a very cloudy day (which is really rare in the Puna, Walter repeatedly assured us), the crater was spectacular. Down inside the crater there are several mountains as well as salt lakes of different colors, some of them highly arsenic and toxic.
On the way back from the crater we stopped at Laguna Grande where there are thousands of flamingoes. At the moment there are around 9000 birds but sometimes there are up to 20’000 flamingoes at Laguna Grande. A crowded place. The birds (three different species) are beautiful, I only wished there were less clouds but you simply can’t have it all.
Antofagasta de la Sierra
The small village (~1400 inhabitants) lies in a fertile valley surrounded by red sandstone cliffs and volcanoes. It’s a tranquil village of red adobe houses (I love those red stones!), children in school uniforms, few people on the streets, and lazy dogs lying in the sunlight.
Just as in El Peñón, most hotels here are run by women. Anyway, we saw only few men in the villages, mostly just women and children. The women seem to be the ones here who work and take the initiative to set up a hotel or a business.
The Puna & Its Inhabitants
The evening of our second day in Antofagasta de la Sierra I spoke to Elia Morales, the owner of the place we stayed in; the Apart Hotel Jalen (a great place!). Elia is a very interesting and strong woman who moved to Antofagasta de la Sierra only a year ago. She loves the beauty of the Puna and knows that it’s important to protect the environment, the natural beauty, and the archaeological sites of the region.
Unfortunately, some people don’t care much what happens with the land. On many mountainsides you can see tire tracks: Careless people – tourists maybe, coming here for some fun, and driving everywhere with their 4WDs – leave tracks that will be visible for hundreds of years and it hurts to see this.
There are big environmental issues that threaten the pristine beauty of the land. The garbage is collected by the municipality but they just throw it into a dump somewhere and the strong winds blow plastic bags and other things away. Water is another problem; there’s less and less of it. The companies that run the mines in the region use a lot of water but they don’t compensate the community for it – at least not in a way that really benefits the Puna’s people. To make up for what they destroy, the companies build some houses or plazas but what people actually need is water.
Close to the sand dune we run down the other day there are other dunes which the government wants to exploit in order to use the sand for fracking projects in Patagonia. The government claims that it wouldn’t impact the environment but obviously it would: Every day truckloads of sand would be transported away until there’s nothing left of the dune. Plus there’s the damage caused by fracking in Patagonia. Elia and other villagers are trying to fight against this project and I hope so much that they will win but unfortunately, the odds are against them. It’s a very small village fighting against the government and the interest of oil companies.
Many villagers haven’t visited the natural attractions around Antofagasta de la Sierra and therefore don’t care too much for the beauty of the land. Also, a lot of young people leave for the cities and don’t return to their hometown. With many people leaving and the old ones dying, traditions and traditional handicrafts are dying too, like it happens in so many other places all over the world.
Elia and others try to make the community understand how important it is to protect the landscape and the environment as well as the archeological sites. Unfortunately, some of the many sites in the region have already been destroyed. But it’s important to protect them; they’re part of the people’s history and future at the same time.
A good source of income is tourism and the town could be made much more attractive for tourists. Elia is full of ideas and enthusiasm to make a change and I hope she can mobilize other people to do something. Together they can make a difference, not only in the town itself but also in people’s minds; the natural attractions of the Puna are key to the region’s tourism. The town itself is a nice place to spend a few days, there are interesting things to see and some good hikes in the area. It’s also a very safe place, there’s no need to look your door when you go shopping for groceries in the despensa around the corner. Anyway – where would the thief go..?!
That night Elia was hoping it would finally rain a bit – rain clouds had formed over the valley the past few days but had always been blow away by the wind – and when I left her small shop, it was actually raining. There was even a rainbow. It looked amazing against the backdrop of red cliffs.
Salt and Water
The way to the town of Tolar Grande lead us through and along the longest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Antofalla, which is over 150 km long. Coming from Antofagasta de la Sierra, we had to cross the Salar which is no problem since the ground is quite dry in most places. However, it’s of course essential to know exactly where you can cross so you don’t get stuck. In the middle of the Salar we made a short stop and suddenly saw a black bird walking toward us – a cormorant. The bird was completely lost, there are no cormorants living on the Puna, there’s no habitat for them here. The poor animal was completely exhausted but there was nothing we could do to help; we had to leave it on the Salar.
The small village of Antofalla (45 inhabitants) lies in an oasis in the middle of the desert. The name Antofalla means “village where the sun dies” in the indigenous Kunza language. Apple trees grow here, and flowers, people keep llamas and sheep and there’s a tiny school. There’s a small mill and several ovens for baking bread and, at the entrance of the village, an ugly, unfinished and odd plaza. It has been put here by the village governor shortly before elections but I wonder if that plaza provided him the necessary votes to be reelected.
Ojos de Campo
Close to Antofalla there are several small lagoons, the Ojos de Campo, with different colors: light blue, dark blue, and a stunning orange (no, it’s not Fanta and no, you can’t drink it). The different colors are caused by microorganisms in the water. The lagoons look awesome, the surrounding mountains and the clouds are reflected in the water – another thing we didn’t expect to find here and wouldn’t have found without a guide (once again thank you, Walter!).
Cono de Arita
That afternoon we finally saw the Cono de Arita, this small but perfectly shaped cone, this mountain/volcano/whatever. Apparently it’s not clear what it really is or how it was formed and as always in such cases there are people who go for the easiest explanation: it was built by aliens. Yeah, sure. It was fantastic to finally see the Cono de Arita and I took about 300 pictures of which I deleted 295 but that mountain is the reason why we came to the Puna in the first place. It was more than worth it to come here!
Mining for Yellow Gold: Mina La Casualidad
In 1940, the sulphur mine Mina La Casualidad was opened and it was operated until 1978. At one time, over 3000 people lived in the village. Today it’s just ruins. Almost nothing reminds of the people who used to call the town their home, apart from some torn shoes and rests of Christmas decoration in the almost empty church. People still do come here, however. They come to visit the graves of their relatives on the town’s cemetery where the plastic flowers on some of the graves are new and not yet bleached or blown away. How must it feel for those people to see their decaying houses? We, the curious tourists, just step inside everywhere, ignoring the words PELIGRO! NO PASAR! (Danger! Do not cross!) painted on the walls and examining the house’s small rooms.
Mina La Julia
A 15 km long ropeway connected La Casualidad with another sulphur mine, La Julia, which is located on the mountainside of Cerro Estrella at 5230 m next to the border with Chile. There, sulphur was extracted by underground as well as surface mining and then transported to the refinery of La Casualidad. During the transport, the buckets swayed in the wind and from the movement stones fell out and drew a straight white line between the two mines which can be seen from miles away.
Sulphur is everywhere at La Julia. The mountaintop is yellow, and even the houses have been built with yellow, rose, and blue sulphur stones. But exactly how healthy was that for the inhabitants..?
La Julia was just a very small settlement. Life must have been hard here at this altitude and besides it’s cold and there’s a constant strong wind blowing. It was a challenge walking around, every step is an effort. In spite of the strong wind however, it was somehow very calm and you could hear yourself breathing hard (I felt like an astronaut in her helmet, just waiting for the alien to attack) and I felt very lonely walking around the abandoned village. Despite the altitude we climbed to the tunnels; no way we’d miss that! And what a feeling that was, sitting inside this yellow tunnel, looking out over the stunning landscape and all the way to Chile.
Salt and Trains: Tolar Grande
The landscape around the town of Tolar Grande is Mars-like with red rocks and huge valleys (at least that’s how “The Martian” taught me Mars looks like). I was quite tired on that 6th and last day on the Puna. The days have been long and exhausting, we’ve seen so much, and the altitude is tiring. Nevertheless, it was another wonderful day full of surprises (the Puna’s landscape just doesn’t stop to amaze us). We saw the Ojos de Mar, holes with fantastic blue water near Tolar Grande, there was a salt pond where you could go swimming (water temperature: too cold for me), and another salt pan where we found algae under the thin layer of salt and tiny worms and insects. Everything here is alive, even if it doesn’t seem so at a first glance.
We roughly followed the trail of the Salta-Antofagasta railway, a railway connecting Salta in Argentina with Antofagasta in Chile. It was built between 1921 and 1948 and served as a passenger train but also transported material from the various mines in the region. Today the tourist train Tren a las Nubes runs once a week but only during the winter. Shortly before San Antonio de los Cobres, there’s the La Polvorilla viaduct, the highest viaduct (almost 65 meters at an altitude of 4188 m) of the line. Since there aren’t any trains during the summer, it was possible to cross the viaduct on foot (but only if you don’t suffer from vertigo).
One day we’ll be back
If one day we go back to Argentina, it’ll be to the northwest because there’s so much to see and do there and we definitely didn’t spend enough time in the region. And, of course, we’d go to the Puna, again. It is such a wonderful place, full of surprises and full of life and if you love nature, it’s the place to go. It’s a desert but it’s very much alive, there are humans (lovely people), animals (the cute and elegant vicuñas, llamas, birds, …), and plants – you discover flowers in places you’d least expect there to be some and it’s amazing to see how a few drops of rain can turn the hills green. It’s like magic.