Journey to a prehistoric planet
25.10.2009 - 02.11.2009 -31 °C
Aside from spending time with Carlos, Nadja and the Kaplan family, Cordoba was unremarkable. I was there for too long but maybe there was a reason. I thought I would be traveling to the north of Argentina alone but as fate would have it, Jenny, the Ozzie girl whom I met skiing, was going the same week. We arranged our plans to travel together. We met in Salta city. Salta is a quaint city with beautiful architecture and a charming plaza lined with restaurants.
We arrived on a Sunday so everything was closed. Big mistake. We couldn't book any of the tours so we lost an entire day. A few hours intown are enough The north of Argentina is very poor. During a meal, there are always children who walk up to the table, placing socks, or pens or cheap objects, in hopes that someone will buy them.
We spent the entire day Monday consulting with every tour operator in search of something different than the cookie cutter tour. We arranged a tour of both Salta and Jujuy, and decided to extend the trip a few days, missing Halloween in Buenos Aires taking a chance on a little known, remote desert bordering Chile.
Our guide picked us up in the morning. The first words out of her mouth were I don't speak much English. That set the tone for the day. We cursed Christian, the smooth talking, salesman with the toothy grin, as he had promised us someone who spoke really well. He also hadn't communicated to them that we weren't interested in the typical tourist circuit and had hired a private tour so that we could see the things we wanted. We specifically said we did not want to go to handicraft markets. We were incensed at the mere mention of buying them. We set off on our journey in silence. We first headed south to Cafayate in the Calchaquí Valley . There we hiked and dazzled over stunning rock formations like the Aphitheatro and Ganganta del Diablo.
Our guide was so lazy and disinterested and we missed the best photo opportunities including the sunset we waited all day for.
We went to the town of Cachi, a small Spanish Colonial city with white Adobe homes.
We explored the cactus (cardones) desert.
The next day we traveled back north to Purmamarca. We spent the night there in a small adobe town.
Left with nothing else to do, we explored the handicrafts market. At this point I had reached my saturation point for ponchos and alpaca socks but Jenny found something she liked.
We got an early start to see the Cerro de los Siete Colores ( Seven Colors Hill ) which although very beautiful, was a disappointment as we only got out of the truck to take a photo from the road and continued on.
We stopped in Salinas Grandes, the Argentine salt flats, which doesn't hold a candle to Uyuni. The salt has a yellowish tinge making it appear dirty. The contrasts between the sky and salt are less magical. Our guide again was in a rush to get home and flat out lied to us when we asked if we could drive across the desert to a more remote section. She told us that it was too dangerous and that we could sink.. As she was saying that a large armored truck made its way across. Lazy.
We finished our tour in a dank little town called San Antonio where we were then picked up by our Tolar Grande guide. Instantaneously the trip turned around. Our guide was super enthusiastic, spoke English very well and was a lot of fun. We drove through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Puna. The driest desert in the world, we were fortunate to experience a rare occurrence of rain. Jose stopped for a sunset photo shoot in the stunning Desierto del Diablo in the Labyrinth.
We stayed at the Refugio Municipal Afapuna, which (thankfully)was nothing like the one in Bolivia. There was heat, electricity and it was really clean. Jenny and I had the whole female dorm to ourselves.
The village is tiny, but quaint. The locals take great pride in their village, they even constructed a lovely town square. We dined at the homes of the locals who were incredibly hospitable.
I couldn't resist playing with the 3 year old girl, despite the language barrier, I was able to entertain her with the universal game of "which hand am I hiding something in".
Tolar Grande has only been on the tourist map for 2 years. I feel privileged to have been there before people discover it and ruin it.
We went to see the Ojos del Mar, turquoise pools in the middle of the salar which are rich in micro-organisms. Scientists are now studying these pools as they may contain some of the oldest known organisms.
80 Km away from the town, We hiked across oddly textured salt to see Cono de Arita, a perfect cone of black lava sal at the southeastern end of the salar of Arizano.
Flavio was proud to tell us that he had won the race across the salar. Walking on the uneven surface was challenging so running across it is an impressive feat.
Tolar Grande truly is a place like no other. With such peculiar landscapes you feel like you are on another planet. It is so desolate you expect dinosaurs to go roaming by.
Tolar Grande is also home to Llullaillaco, the second highest active volcano in the world . In 1999, an expedition uncovered 3 naturally preserved mummified bodies of children that were sacrificed by the Incas 500 years ago. The mummies are astonishing and can be seen in the archeological museum in Salta. If you are interested here is a great article about Los Ninos. There is also a national geographic documentary which features many of the townspeople that we met during our stay.