A journey into… the Argentinian puna
“When you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Joseph Campbell
Little could this motto, at the top page of my day-to-day travel itinerary, prepare me for the awe and amazement found on my adventure into the puna – the elevated plateau of north-west Argentina fractured by the Central Andean mountain ranges, depressions and chains of volcanos. Nor could the full description encompass the variety of desert landscapes that I was about to discover on this most exhilarating off-the-beaten-track trip to one of the least known and incredibly untamed regions that I have ever visited.
Heading south from the beautiful city of Salta, the Route 40 weaves through foothills dotted with giant cacti and offers numerous opportunities to spot condors flying high in the sky. It passes by colourful mountains, small ranches and quaint colonial villages like Cachi and Molinos before reaching the delightful town of Cafayate, surrounded by high altitude vineyards and wine estates.
Church in Molinos
The highlight of the journey is probably the drive through the spectacular Arrows Canyon, where thousands of rocks covered with clay have been raised vertically from the ground to appear like arrow heads.
An hour’s drive south of Cafayate, you can explore the most interesting pre-Inca ruins in the country. This ancient urban centre of the Quilmes people, who once resisted the Incas, rises up a hill and provides awesome views over the entire valley and the impressive stone walls of the complex.
Leaving Route 40, the unpaved road starts climbing to reach the high altitude desert, called ‘puna’. This extraordinary semi-arid plateau spreads at altitudes of more than 3,400 metres and encompasses a variety of unusual geological formations and some of the most solitary and surreal landscape to be found on the planet.
Guanacos at sunset
The seemingly inhospitable scenery is enlivened by roaming vicunas, guanacos, wild donkeys, nesting flamingoes and green oasis villages such as El Penon.
Kids play in the village of El Penon
The Pumice Stone Field is a strange and stunning labyrinth of rocks formed as a result of a powerful volcanic explosion that spread ash and debris over hundreds of kilometres. The escape of gases during the rapid cooling produced the extremely porous structure of the rocks that were then sculptured by the harsh puna winds into bizarre 2- to 10-metre-high formations.
Pumice stone field
This extraordinary sea of ochre, white and pink blocks is surrounded by a silhouette of volcanoes and immense sand dunes, a result of the erosion.
Carachi Pampa volcano and stone field
An hour’s drive from the village of El Penon is the Laguna Grande Reserve, the largest congregation centre of the small parina flamingo (25% of the total population). This turquoise coloured lake located at 4,150 metres above sea level freezes in winter and becomes a nesting site in the summer.
Shores of the Laguna Grande
The chilling winds that blow along its shore do not seem to disturb the thousands of pink flamingoes that flock here.
Coloured mountains, deep blue lagoons, fields of black basalt lava strips and green oases can be encountered on the way to Antofalla, a shepherd’s settlement and once an important station for llama caravans to the Atacama in Chile. Nowadays the tiny settlement provides a welcome stop en route for a simple but hearty home cooked lunch.
On the way to Antofalla
One of the most mesmerizing geographical features encountered in the puna is the spacecraft-like Arita Cone. This almost perfect pyramid of black lava salt seems to float above the desert floor of Salar de Arizaro, the sixth largest salt flat on Earth.
The tall mountains surrounding the salt pans create the illusion that the volcano is much smaller than its actual height of almost 150 metres.
Salar de Arizaro
As startling and diverse as the landscape itself is the varied colour palette of the puna – splashes of red, orange and green occasionally mix with numerous shades of brown, grey and blue. Epic sunsets bathe high mountain peaks and the vast expanses in hues of purple to leave yet another unforgettable snapshot.
Sunset over the salar
In the surroundings of Tolar Grande, a tiny former railway village, another natural wonder is set amid the seemingly endless white sea of salt. Ojos del Mar (‘the eyes of the sea’) are small turquoise lakes home to a huge colony of living stromatolites, early life formations that dominated our planet millions of years ago. The mirror-like waters reflect the silhouettes of the surrounding volcanoes in the morning.
Reflection of a volcano in Ojos del Mar
The Labyrinth desert offers amazing photographic opportunities and reveals yet another startlingly different puna environment.
This 10-million-year-old eroded desert consists of fossil dunes formed by red clay and gypsum crystals.
Fossil dunes in the Labyrinth Desert
Cox & Kings runs a private itinerary to the Argentinian Puna >
Alternatively, if you would like to create a tailor-made journey to Argentina and the Puna, please contact a Latin America specialist on 020 7873 5000.