As with all Latin American countries, Argentina enjoys a stunning variety of scenery, wildlife, peopleand culture and however many times you go there you will always see an discover something new. One region I had not had a chance to explore was the high altiplano region in the north west of the country, commonly known as the Puna. So when the opportunity arose to go to a two day conference in Salta, which is the gateway to the Puna, then it would have been rude not to ensure sufficient timewas set aside to head up into this region of high desert and mountains.
Salta itself is a delightful city both rich in culture and natural beauty. It was the first city to be settled by the Spanish conquistadors and has a wealth of colonial architecture in its fine houses and grand churches and also a number of pre-Hispanic ruins from the Inca period. With a number of great restaurants and lovely places to stay ranging from stylish city hotels to pretty estancias on the edge of the city, Salta is well worth visiting for a few nights.
And then the adventure really began. The Salta to Cachi road is spectacular as you pass through four ecosystems from jungle to semi-desert and through Los Cardones National Park, which is an area of positively enormous Giant cacti, surrounded by snow peaked and multi-coloured mountains. Tucked away in this remote region are some tiny, colonial villages where the inhabitants cling to their traditional way of life. However it is also an area of high altitude bodegas or vineyards and is home to the highest vineyards in the world. The town of Cafayate is famed for its superb New World wines and a great place to stop off before heading into the heart of the Puna, which is the most deserted yet arguably the most spectacular region of the country.
Route 40 is a very famous road that stretches from the country’s most northerly border with Bolivia all the way down to Tierra del Fuego in the far south. And whilst Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear team were busy filming and frustrating the locals along the southern stretches of Route 40, we headed out along its northern limits in a number of 4×4 ‘s to explore what it had to offer and it does not disappoint!
The Puna has a tiny population and as you climb up through the valleys and ravines you eventually emerge onto the high altitude plateau where you drive into some sweet, but staggeringly remote little villages where llama and sheep farmers eek out a living.
This is a world of vast skies, dramatic volcanoes, huge crusty salt pans, lagoons of vivid blue and red waters, sand dunes as high as tower blocks, pumice fields sculpted into wild shapes by the wind and huge flocks of bright pink flamingos sifting the waters of salty lakes.
As you head off piste along surprisingly smooth, untarred roads at up to 4500m, every day and every corner offers yet another astonishing sight. Whether that is a herd of wild guanacos quietly nibbling at the bright yellow grasses; the Labyrinth Desert with its 10 million year old fossil dunes, huge rock faces with more colours than the rainbow, running down giant white sand dunes, hiking up the hard black lava of ancient exploded volcanoes or a herd of wild asses trotting comically away from our vehicles, this is a rarely seen world of incredible beauty.
However what I found most astounding was that during the first three days of the trip we did not see a one single other tourist ! On the last day as we came down in altitude and headed towards civilisation we bump into a handful of others, but it is arare treat indeed to have such spectacular places completely to oneself.
Compared to the extremely luxurious hotels of the Atacama Desert on the other side of the snow tipped peaks in Chile, the accommodation on the Argentina side is very simple and rustic. It also involves a significant amount of driving, however this is more than made up for by the sheer drama, spiritual energy and beauty of the incredible Puna.If only the Top Gear team had filmed here instead !!