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Nature in All Its Glory

From Volcanos to Dinosaurs, Argentina's Northwest Desert Is Extreme in Every Way

by Jessica Cantlin

Red lake in the Puna
A road trip for the ages. All photos by Jessica Cantlin.

We're easing our way into 2017 by noting the extreme places we want to visit. That includes places that feel like they're stuck in a different era. Geological era, that is. Case in point: The Puna, northwest Argentina's desert region.

THE PUNA, Argentina — As our plane left Argentina after four days in the Puna, I felt like I had just woken from a high-definition, virtual-reality dream, like I might have discovered the place where all the dinosaurs are hiding. Imagine one of the least populated and most disconnected areas on earth. Picture a place made inhospitable by dramatic temperature fluctuations, extreme altitude, and the absence of flora and fauna. Now visualize a desert landscape dotted with volcano fields, red lakes, salt flats, and rainbow-colored mountains. You now have a sense of the Puna, the desert region in Argentina's remote northwest. If you are looking for the trip of a lifetime, keep reading.

Our adventure begins in Salta, a small city just two and a half hours by plane from Buenos Aires. My husband, Alan, and I make our way to Finca Valentina, a small hotel owned by Fabrizio and Valentina Ghilardi. The couple, originally from Milan, moved to Salta because Fabrizio, an avid outdoorsman and mountaineer, couldn't get the Puna's landscape out of his head. In 2006, Fabrizio formed Socompa Adventure Travel to lead trips into the area. After a few years, they opened Finca Valentina, a lovely, five-bedroom country hotel. It was the perfect launch pad for our adventure.

DAY 1 — PREHISTORIC POOLS AND INSPIRED PLAYLISTS

Mario, our driver and expedition leader, arrives early to collect us. As he loads our bags into the bed of his truck, I decide that Mario is either preparing for the apocalypse or that we are in for quite an adventure. Tucked under the tarp in the bed of the truck are extra tires, a satellite phone, oxygen, and water tanks. My husband raises his eyebrows and nudges me; I shoot him that look that says "just go with it." The first 60 miles of our journey take us through Quebrada del Toro, a colorful gorge filled with rock walls, streams, cacti, and tour buses from Salta. We arrive in the dusty, mining town San Antonio de los Cobres (elevation 12,500 feet) and eat a simple lunch of chicken Milanese (our first of several) before splitting from the other tour groups to head into the Puna.

Labyrinth Puna

The Labyrinth is a ten-million-year-old desert of fossil dunes.

Los Ojos del Mar Puna

Three large, deep, blue pools in the middle of a salt flat known as Los Ojos del Mar.

Tolar Grande Mountains, Puna

The Tolar Grande Mountains.

That afternoon, we drive through the Labyrinth, a ten-million-year-old desert of fossil dunes made of clay and gypsum. The first example of the dramatic landscapes we will encounter, the Labyrinth is dry, red, and appears out of nowhere. For the rest of the afternoon, the only living things we encounter are donkeys and vicuñas. In the late afternoon, we descend into the village of Tolar Grande, our evening destination. As we near the village, the setting sun deepens the hues of the mountains around us, creating a spectacular backdrop for our stop at Los Ojos del Mar, three large, deep, blue pools in the middle of a salt flat. While there is little geological explanation for their existence, scientists believe that the organisms living in the pools have prehistoric significance, dating back three million years. No swimming allowed. Not only are the Argentines trying to preserve the site, but the water temperature is incredibly and inhospitably cold.

Tolar Grande, population 150, is a deserted mining town on the edge of the Puna. After checking into our hostel, we head out for a walk. As darkness falls, the temperature plummets and the winds whip up. It is September, spring in the southern hemisphere, so we are prepared for the dramatic fluctuation in temperature, but the wind stings and the altitude gives me a headache.

Strolling in the freezing air, alone for the first time that day, we discuss our amazing guide. Mario is knowledgeable about the Puna, speaks perfect English, and has a great sense of humor, especially when I start referring to him as my "photographer's assistant." While some would cringe at the thought of spending four days in a car with a stranger, Mario is a highlight of our trip. Not only does his playlist outlast our trek, but it also spans four decades, all genres of music, and includes many one-hit wonders. (A road trip, after all, is only as good as the music and the company in your car.)

After dinner, Mario drives us into the desert to look at the stars. The absence of any light pollution makes the solar system looks as if it's on steroids. We queue up Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

Cono de Arita, Puna

The Cono de Arita rises 400 feet from the ground.

DAY 2 — WE ASCEND GREAT HEIGHTS

Rising with the sun, we hit the track — there are no paved roads in the Puna — and drive toward the Salar de Arizaro, the sixth largest salt flat in the world. Driving the length of the Salar, we are surrounded by crusty, white hexagons of salt and sand. Towards the end of the salt flat, Cono de Arita rises 400 feet from the ground. A primitive sign alerts us to our location and altitude, but there are no recent tire tracks. And no security stopping me from climbing to the top. Facing the bracing, cold wind, I walk towards the giant pyramid. When I realize it's much bigger and farther away than I had anticipated, my logical mind intervenes and suggests that perhaps this isn't the time for a solo ascent up a 400-foot mound of dirt.

We leave the Salar and head back into the mountains. Driving this track is like clinging to the side of a mountain: A single wrong move with the steering wheel would send us tumbling down the mountain. After an hour or so, we arrive at the tiny hamlet Antofalla, where we stop for lunch at a villager's home. Set in an oasis on the edge of the salt pan, the village has little connection to civilization, making it one of the most isolated spots in Argentina. The villagers welcome us warmly, but it is hard to not feel like an intruder in a place that receives so few visitors.

Vega Colorada, Puna

The Vega Colorada Range.

Salar de Antofalla, Puna

Salar de Antofalla.

Quebrada de Calalaste, Puna

The high-alittude grasses of Quebrada de Calalaste.

After lunch, we cross the Salar and ascend the Vega Colorada range. Mario programs the GPS and puts the truck in its lowest gear. Up the mountain we go: off-roading at its best. At the summit, we climb out of the truck to take in the stunning view of the salt pan and volcanoes below.

The afternoon takes us through the high mountains of Quebrada de Calalaste, a bleak landscape interrupted only by high-altitude grasses that shimmer in the bright sun. As we drive down the other side of the range into the settlement of Antofagasta de la Sierra, the landscape comes alive with alfalfa and streams, and suddenly we find ourselves in a standoff with a herd of very aggressive llamas, a sign that we are re-entering civilization.

With the mining industry shrinking, the thousand or so locals make their living as shepherds and farmers, but do so in the shadow of 200 young volcanoes. After driving for two days and encountering few people, Antofagasta de la Sierra feels like a commercial center. After all, it has a school and medical facility. However, as is not uncommon in remote places, the population of the village is rapidly declining, as young people leave, seeking better opportunities in larger towns. Walking through the empty village, my husband holds his cellphone up to the sky, searching for a signal. Yeah, not a chance.

Volcano Field in the Puna

Volcanoes galore surrounding Antofogasta de la Sierra.

Mountains in the Puna

Back into the mountains.

El Penon, Puna

Driving into adobe village El Peñon.

Beyond Antofagasta de la Sierra, our route takes us past bright blue lagoons and around several volcanoes. As we drive across the desert towards El Peñon, where we will spend the next two nights, the view does not change, the mountains just get bigger and bigger.

El Peñon (altitude of 11,000 feet) is an adobe village, inhabited by approximately 180 people. We pull into Hosteria de Altura el Peñon and rush inside to escape the dust and wind. The sound of the building quaking through the rafters makes me wonder what kind of night we are in for. It's 5 p.m., the Hosteria is cold and dim, the power is not turned on, and the wood stoves that heat the place are not yet lit. We are shown to our room, where we unpack and wash our faces. When we emerge, we are greeted with hot tea and a roaring fire. As the wind dies down outside, we warm ourselves in front of the stone fireplace, speechless from the day.

DAY 3 — IN PRAISE OF DINOSAURS AND RAINBOWS

We wake to another day of blinding sun and blue horizons. With Van Halen blaring from the speakers, we roar out of El Peñon. Our destination that morning is a "big sand dune, if I can find it," says Mario smugly. (He knows exactly where he's going.) After plugging a few coordinates into the GPS, we emerge twenty minutes later high above the desert floor. Taking care not to get stuck in the sand, Mario pulls our truck up to a massive white sand dune. Climbing up the dune in the biting wind takes effort, but the views from the top are incredible. I feel joyous and invincible, and the only thing that stops me from sliding down the dune is the expensive piece of camera equipment around my neck. Next time.

Puna Sand Dune

Climbing up the sand dune is no easy feat, but worth the spectacular views.

Campo di Piedra Pomez

Campo de Piedra Pómez, a giant, white, stone labyrinth at 12,000 feet.

Red Lake, the Puna

The lake's bright red water and pale pink sand get their hues from the earth's rich mineral content.

Leaving the dune, we drive back down to the desert floor. Not far ahead of us lies one of the more bizarre natural phenomenons I have ever seen, Campo de Piedra Pómez. The giant, white, stone labyrinth at 12,000 feet was created by a volcanic explosion as strong as an atomic bomb. The harsh temperature of the Puna caused the ash and debris to crystalize immediately. As they cooled, the volcanic gases transformed the rock into porous pumice. Over time, the strong, dry Andean winds sculpted the pumice into the otherworldly formations that form the mysterious landscape that exists today. This place feels so ancient and weird that I would not have been surprised to bump into a dinosaur around one of the rock formations.

After a picnic, we head back toward Carachi Pampa, the huge black volcano that has been looming in our rearview mirror all morning. A large apron of black lava surrounds the volcano, and in its shadow is a large red lake filled with pink flamingos. The bright red water and pale pink sand get their hues from the earth's rich mineral content. Surrounding the lake edge are crystal-clear freshwater marshes filled with bright green algae. We spend the next hour traipsing along the edge of the lake, stalking the pink flamingos into flight and collecting their feathers. Am I dreaming?

DAY 4 — IN VINO VERITAS

In the morning, we leave the Puna and start the long journey back to Salta. As we descend, the landscape becomes more verdant and the villages more populated. In the town of Santa Maria we stop at a campground where an Argentine cowboy welcomes us with a simple parilla. We inhale the delicious steak and continue on our journey towards the vineyards of Cafayate. Suddenly, it feels like we are in Napa; There are vines as far as the eye can see. We pull into Bodega Nanni winery to stretch our legs and taste some torrontes and malbec and agree that tasting wine at low altitude is the perfect way to end our trip.

A group of 20-something travelers who accompany us on a tour of the winery can't help but comment on our dusty appearances. Where in the world had we been? They had never heard of the Puna. I start to tell them about our adventure, but instead pause and ask, "ever feel like disappearing?"

View from Carachi Pampa

The view from Carachi Pampa.


PLAN YOUR TRIP

GPS

A high-altitude desert in the central Andes, the Puna is bounded by volcanoes and mountains and ranges in altitude from 2,500 to 11,000 feet above sea level.

HOW TO GET THERE

Fly: Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport (SLA), also known as El Aybal Airport, is seven kilometers from Salta. The airlines that fly here are Aerolíneas Argentinas, LAN Argentina, and Andes Líneas Aéreas.

ON THE GROUND ARRANGEMENTS

All we had to do was get ourselves to Salta. Socompa took care of the rest.

THE FEE

A four-day, three-night, all-inclusive trip to the Puna costs approximately $1,400 per person.

THE FOOD

We didn't come to the Puna for the cuisine. While the menus along the way were limited, the simple and delicious food was always cooked lovingly by a villager. I never knew how much I liked chicken Milanese. If you have strict dietary restraints, this may not be the trip for you.

WHERE TO STAY

Finca Valentina is a traditional hacienda (designed by Valentina) with all the amenities of a modern hotel: comfortable beds with high-end linens, beautiful bathrooms with heated floors, Italian espresso, and delicious food. Rates from $145 per night.

Socompa does a remarkable job operating Hosteria El Peñon and has made it a comfortable place for travelers to stay. However, accommodations in the Puna are understandably more basic, with few modern amenities.

Llamas in the Puna

A stand-off with llamas.

MONEY MATTERS

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.

WEATHER

With the largest thermal amplitude in the world, the Puna experiences temperatures varying between 86° F during the day to -86° F overnight. (That negative is not a typo.) Given these extreme conditions and geographic remoteness, the Antiplano-Puna only receives roughly 1,000 visitors per year.

WHAT TO PACK

When traveling in the Puna, dress accordingly. If you are like me in cold, windy places, the more layers of fleece and Gore-Tex, the better. Pack your hat, mittens, hiking boots, and polarized sunglasses. Bring your best camera, extra batteries, and plenty of SD cards. At night be prepared to entertain yourself the old fashioned way, with a book, backgammon, and deck of cards.

IT'S NOT FOR EVERYONE

I chose to visit the Puna because I was looking for an off-the-beaten-path travel experience that would take me beyond the cafes and galleries of Buenos Aires. Admittedly, a trip like this is not for everyone. It involves a lot of rough driving, high altitudes, and harsh conditions.

WIFI

There is little to no Wi-Fi in this part of the world. While there is a wireless router at Hosteria El Peñon, don't expect a strong signal that will allow you to do much of anything. It's okay: This is the universe telling you to truly check out.

MAP IT

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE

Man on the Moon? No, It's the Atacama Desert
Finding Helado Heaven in Buenos Aires
From Dawn to Dusk in South America

Jessica is a landscape photographer and travel writer from Seattle. You can follow her adventures at feedmywanderlust.com and on Instagram. She travels for the simple pleasure of seeing new places, meeting interesting people, and experiencing unique landscapes.

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