The Puna Region / North-west Argentina
The Puna Region („Puna de Atacama“) is a mountainous area in North-West Argentina with an altitude between 3,500 m and 6,700 m which is divided between Chile (15%) and Argentina (85%). It is an extremely arid area and there exist only few permanent settlements in the 80,000 km2 area (which is approx. the size of Austria). The surface consists of a mixture of sediments and lava originating from several (now inactive) volcanos. The region – unknown even to most Argentinians – still is below the radar of international tour operators. Rumour says that the government does not promote the mineral rich region for tourism in order to preserve it for mining.
I stumbled over this region by coincidence: There is an area on the map where there are hardly any roads marked but instead there are a number of salars (salt flats) with resounding names like Salar del Hombre Muerto (Salar of the Dead Man) or Salar de los Ratones (Salar of the Rats). What smelled like adventure and was initially planned to be a two-day trip ended up as a fantastic eight-day journey of more than 2,000 km on gravel road because there were so many spectacular sites to visit. On average I met two cars a day.
In case you want to visit the region yourself: As there are no proper maps available, driving is challenging and navigation is a bit problematic it might be useful to use the service of a local tour operator e.g. www.hosteriainca.wixsite.com/antofagasta (who kindly allowed me to follow his car for part of the journey). However, be aware that you will constantly travel between 3,000 and 5,000 m of altitude.
I started the trip in Eje (Ruta 40) from where the road climbs over a 4,000 m pass until it reaches Antofagasta de la Sierra (1.400 inhabitants), the biggest town in the area. Next to the town there are two volcanos which erupted 32,000 years ago. Due to the dry climate the lava looks only a few years old.
The following photos show a road trip from Antofagasta via Antofalla (seven families) and Antofallita (three persons) to Tolar Grande (147 people) crossing the Salar de Arizaro (1,600 km2), the biggest of this kind in Argentina.
As travelling in this area was (is) a dangerous undertaking people set up many worshipping places alongside the roads. There seems to be no contradiction to worship at the same place Christianity, local popular saints (e.g. La Difunta Correa) or the female goddess Pachamama (Mother of Earth). For the Pachamama (which represents the native religion) each traveller shall add a stone to the pyramid and leave a bottle of wine, some coca leaves or cigarettes. But even with divine support obviously not everybody makes it safely through the salar.
From Tolar Grande (where there are only informal gas stations) a 130km road leads to the Mina la Casualidad (the Mine of Coincidence) where sulphur was mined since 1953. After the mine has been abruptly closed in 1979 the settlement of approx. 2,000 workers (at 4,000 m of altitude) and the mine (at 5,000m) have been ransacked. Staying overnight in this ghost town - which could easily function as the scenery for a remake of the film The Walking Dead - was a bit spooky. There is nobody living there except two hungry stray dogs.
Of course I tried to use my paraglider in the surrounding mountains, but the strong (tail) wind prevented me from flying.
Road trip from Tolar Grande (147 inhabitants) through the Salar de Pocitos to the Salar del Hombre Muerto (see a satellite picture of the salar) where there is an old goldmine which has already been exploited during the pre-Columbian time and was finally closed in 1943.
Road trip from Antofagasta to the Campo de Piedra Pomez, which consists of stone formations built out of white lava. With 0 % humidity year-round only wind and thermal erosion shaped the bizarre forms.
Finally a drive to the Laguna Diamante (Diamante Lake) which is located within the Galan Crater, the biggest crater in the world. The sometimes narrow and often very step road leading up to 5,100 m was only drivable with a solid 4x4 vehicle.