The Puna high plateau in Argentina: A land of endless horizons
The diversity in the scenery in the Puna High Plateau of Argentina is astounding, making it a traveler’s and photographer’s bucket list destination. The Puna de Atacama or Atacama Plateau is an arid high plateau, stretching from northern Chile into Argentina with the Andes as a spectacular backdrop.
Hugging our coats close, we scampered around in pure delight – what a difference from the night before: Our first day climbing into horizons that stretched for miles and the labyrinth red rock canyons of the Puna was certainly inspiring, but the long day at altitude left us exhausted. So our late evening arrival into Tolar Grande was merely a desperate search to satisfy our hunger and get to sleep – neither easy at 11,500 feet.
And then came dawn and a new day. We scrambled up a well-marked trail in the crisp air to an overlook, and our breath was taken away again — but this time by the view, not the altitude. Our second day was beginning full of promise for what was still to come as we explored Argentina’s Puna with Socompa Adventure Travel.
Puna high plateau beckons with spectacular scenery
When we heard about this trip, a five-day 4WD loop through the Puna, I was a tad skeptical of why we had to spend so much time sitting in a vehicle; I love to photograph small villages and cultures, and people on active adventures. The trip would in fact cover more than 750 miles. Michael, on the other hand, had an inkling of what Argentina’s Puna had to offer in scenery and was all-in from the start. Always one for an adventure into the unknown, however, I also bought into it quickly. Now, we are both Puna disciples extolling its beauty!
Part of the Andean Plateau surrounded by a volcanic chain to the west and a mountain belt to the east, the Puna has an average elevation of more than 10,000 feet, with passes reaching close to 15,000. Yes, the air is thin, so you must drink drink drink and take care of yourself well. I tell people there really is nothing there. Really. Nothing. But what I mean by that is, there are no real towns, no cafés around the corner, no real civilization – the expansive area is just too remote, rugged and windblown for much other than miners (these days, seeking lithium) and adventurous travelers seeking the epitome of an off-the-beaten-path trip with spectacular landscape.
The diversity in scenery is astounding, truly a traveler’s and photographer’s dream – one minute you are snaking through acres of red rock hills (the Labyrinth Desert), later you can see forever across salt flats (Salinas Grande at nearly 30,000 acres is the third-largest in the world), the next day you stop to admire volcanic domes of black pumice, after that you scramble up pure white sand dunes and get lost in a field of white pumice. Then there are the lakes and tens of thousands of flamingoes, as well as the other wildlife including vicuna (like llamas) and suri (little ostrich-like animals).
Socompa knows how to tour the Puna
We traveled with Socompa Adventure Travel, which was indeed one of the first to take organized overland trips into this wild region after the company was founded in 2004. Socompa has insider ties, too, with Argentinian guides who often deliver products and gear to locals in a couple of the tiny enclaves. They know the culture and local people, and they know how to make your experience a familial one. In fact, Socompa leases and manages one of only a couple of hostels in the area – the Hosteria de Altura di El Penon – and it has close ties to the only hostel in Tolar Grande – Hosteria Casa Andina — thus ensuring Socompa guests are taken care of. For many adventure travelers who don’t participate in a guided 4WD tour like Socompa’s, visiting the grandeur of Argentina’s Puna means camping, which could mean weathering unrelenting sandstorms and some wild weather, not to mention the incessant winds. Even simple hostels feel like luxury after a day exploring the Puna.
It would be easy to bite off more than you can chew in visiting the Puna. The distances are vast, and the scenery other-worldly. The Cono de Arita rises like an alien spaceship, a black volcanic cone surrounded by an endless field of white salt flats with colorful rocks and sand in the background. Travelers make endlessly long day trips from Salta just to view this sight.
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Laguna Seca is a ghost of a railroad station that was built for doing business with Chile in the ‘40s, but was never used and today sits neglected on a vast plateau. Buildings are windowless and show their abandoned wear although a sign proudly displaying the name of the train, oddly, is still brightly painted.
The first night we bunked at the town of Tolar Grande, in a small Hostel called Casa Andina. Although simple, it felt like luxury after our first dusty day at high altitude – breath short, appetite gone, exhaustion setting in. The next morning, we felt reinvigorated. After our walk to the top of the hill and stopping to swap tales with a group of French travelers camping in 4WD trucks on their independent adventure, we headed over to what seemed to be the only restaurant in town, Parador Llullaillaco. We were entertained by how our guide extraordinaire Mario headed to the kitchen to help cook eggs and boil up water for our (instant) coffee. Miners sat wordlessly hunkered over their plates of eggs, toast and jam, eyes cast upward as the local news danced across the TV. While there was TV, it hadn’t taken us long to give up on the concept of phone reception or workable Internet. We had been told that the small school in Tolar Grande had Internet, and locals gathered behind it, phones in hand, trying to snag some semblance of a signal. Oh, we tried, too – how can one resist? — but soon gave up. In the Puna, you are indeed away from it all. Traffic is mostly non-existent save for the periodic mining vehicle, or crossing paths with another (infrequent) 4WD tour. “Natural breaks” happen beside your vehicle with expansive views of mountains and salt flats, red rocks and pumice. Lunch is a picnic affair, essentially on the road wherever you decide to stop – choose your view. The only worry is trying to stay out of the wind and working to keep dust from blowing into your sandwich, teeth and, well, everything else.
Isolated, rugged beauty of the Puna landscape
The remote isolation is what in fact made the Puna and its scenery so attractive to the few who do call this place home or travelers. The oasis called Antofallita sits at the base of painted hills and is allegedly inhabited by about 60 people working as shepherds (can’t imagine where 60 people would live there). We were able to briefly meet Corrina, who came out to greet our passing truck since she knows our guide, Mario. She is a resident whose brother lives a stone’s throw away but, according to our guide, they didn’t talk for 20 years and today remain only passingly cordial. The appearance of cameras led to a quick wave of a hand as she scurried back inside, out of sight.
A couple of nights in the village of El Penon – population about 400 – allowed us to visit the oasis called Laguna Grande, a nesting site for flamingoes and other exotic birds. We spent more than hour there at sunset, tiptoeing around the lake to try to catch the light of the setting sun on the birds. The flamingoes tiptoed in the opposite direction. From El Penon, you also can take a day trip to the pumice fields mentioned above, a natural reserve called Campo de Piedra Pomez, as well as to the Dunas Blancas. Admittedly, I kinda of yawned at the idea of a white dune. I mean, really, we have lots of these in California, Oregon, and Nevada. But we bounced along the roads from the pumice fields, still jabbering about how astounding the rocks were and how we would have liked to have spent the day wandering around the stone formations. Then, the dune looms in front of us. Jabber turns to sudden silence. This is the king of all white dunes! We grab cameras and scramble out of the truck as fast as we can – as if the dune is going to run away? White and pure as untouched snow, fine sand slides under your feet, a view that goes forever – OK, so most views in the Puna go forever, but the purity of color contrasting with the blue of the sky makes you wriggle in pleasure – like so many places in the Puna, it simply takes away your breath.
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On our fourth day in the Puna, after two nights in El Penon, we headed back onto the road to return to “reality.” Our trip was a short version of what is possible in the Puna region of northwestern Argentina. Four days is in fact quite compact for the area, with at least five days or maybe a week, or even WEEKS, even better. At the Pumice fields, we came across a Swiss couple in a camper van who was still digging sand out of their teeth from a sandstorm the night before. They were spending two years driving through Argentina and into Uruguay … and beyond.
Back to civilization
Socompa is able to individualize trips, so after our rather packed four days in the Puna we tacked on a night in Cafayate, a budding wine-growing area about 125 miles south of Salta and for many a day or weekend trip from Salta. On the way there, however, we had yet another treat – a personal outdoor “asado” barbeque lunch with Raoul manning the pit in a private garden in Santa Maria. He slammed huge slabs of tender meat in front of us, and as soon as we had taken our last bite, he’d stab another and slam it down in front of us. We had to beg for mercy after a couple of rounds. We wrapped up our adventure with some wine-tasting and a visit in Cafayate and the next morning headed back to Salta. Paved roads, increasing traffic, houses along the road, lower altitude – it seemed so anti-climactic and so so far away from what we had lived the last four days.
Certainly, we were out of the depths of the magical Puna, but all the magic wasn’t done yet. Along the way, we went through a UNESCO Biosphere called Laguna Blanca, climbed another white dune, and drove the multi-colored Quebrada de las Conchas gorge between Salta and Cafayate carved by the Las Conchas River. An easy day trip from Salta, the natural amphitheater in the rocks attracts travelers, students and musicians to marvel at the acoustics, and the diverse route attracts photographers, cyclists and hikers.
Visiting the Puna is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that surpasses all notions of what is there and how impressive it will be. Now we just have to go back and spend more time.