From the low valleys or “pampas” in the east, where you can taste maybe one of the best cow meat in the world, to the western lands of good wines, mountains, and lakes. From the southern tale places in Patagonia, to the north of astonishing waterfalls, rainforest, deserts, high colorful giants and llamas. Argentina, in its vast geography, has a wide variety of landscapes, nature, and culture. But far from the most populated urban centers, in the Altiplano (high plateau) of Andean Mountains or “puna”, going to the north, there is a region full of volcanoes, salt deserts, and colors that can make you think you are in Mars…
Feeling like in another planet
At more than 3000 meters above sea level, Antofagasta de la Sierra is a village in the puna surrounded by more than 200 actually inactive volcanoes and several salt deserts. “Galan” volcano is one of the biggest in the world. Antofalla salt desert, the most widespread. Residual rocks from eruptions occurred many thousands of years ago alternate black, white/grey and yellow. “Eyes” or holes in the earth filled with water of different colors, pink flamingos, red earth, and adobe houses
. A football court (a “must” for every Argentinian place with people), a church, a school, few shops, restaurants, houses and lot of corrals with llamas and vicunas (a special animal of this altitude, smaller, with thinner and warmer hair) fills the scene. And of course, the people, that in northwest Argentina has always special hospitality and timing.
At sunset, the colors of rocks and mountains make sometimes an unreal effect of red and suddenly you are in Mars. In the night you can hear a not so common sound nowadays; the silence. Relax, look at the clear sky full of suns. And start counting shooting stars.
How to Arrive
Argentina is divided into provinces. Antofagasta de la Sierra is 585 km far from the capital of the province of Catamarca
, San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca. You can arrive to San Fernando by plane. Or bus from Cordoba or Salta provinces. Then, to Antofagasta you can: -Take the bus “El Antofagasteño”. 6.00 AM, Mondays and Fridays. The trip can last up to 10 hours. A better option, go to Belen and visit “El Shinkal”, pre-Hispanic ruins. The bus to Antofagasta passes at midday. You can check times calling to: Transport “El Antofagasteño” +54 9383 – 4458718 / 4433294 / 4430111 -Rent a 4×4 can be useful later for visiting Antofagasta’s surroundings. -Hitchhiking. The last part from El Eje to Antofagasta has little traffic so you could wait a long time. The author of these lines luckily got a ride from Belen with the Intendant of the city and some workers.
What to see in Antofagasta de la Sierra
In the way, I was astonished first by a giant mountain of sand situated in a curvy road baptized “Cuesta de Randolfo”. Not recovering my heart yet from the last beauty, groups of vicuñas crossed the road and got lost to the sight in the rocky and dry valley. Then, black volcanoes on the horizon. We passed just beside them, and a lake full of pink flamingos appeared. Entering the village, a giant rock standing called “El peñon”. How did it arrive there? The question is a perfect pretext to start to talk with the local people. This is just the beginning.
Trekking to Antofagasta and Alumbrera Volcanoes
One and a half hour walking to arrive at the base, we can see from near pink flamingos on a lake. It is possible to trek to the top, walking above the black volcanic rock. Thousands of years lay behind your feet. Don’t hurry! You could feel without air easily. Remember you are high from sea level. In the journey going or returning you can have a face to face meeting with a curious llama.
You can also arrive at the base by vehicle, asking someone in the village to take you.
Sunset in Mars
Near the city, there’s a hill with a perfect view of the peñon, village, volcanoes and, horizon.
An exotic water spring surrounded by beautiful mountains, just 5 km far from center-village.
Around Antofagasta de la Sierra
Prepare to wake up early! The village is the departing point for several excursions to incredible places. Locals with 4×4 arrange place and price depending quantity of adventurers and desired destinations. The main expeditions are arranged in the Hosteria Municipal. Ask different locals in the village to find the best opportunities and prices!
Piedra Pomez camp
A protected area of about 150 km2 consisting of pumice rocks and hills eroded by the wind. Normally the visit takes a half day. Best moments are very early in the morning or after 15:00 to reduce the effect of strong sun optimized by reflection in the white salt of the floor.
Galan Volcano and Death Man salt desert
After some hours driving on just a track in the desert, filling the soul with Altiplano colors and nature, there it is, one of the biggest volcanoes in the world! The scene is completed by flamingos and another lake at the volcano base, just to make the picture more paradisiac. The visit takes normally all day.
Prepare to marvel after driving through the mountain; Antofalla salt desert awaits. The white loses itself in the horizon. In front, you can guess some houses at Antofalla volcano base; a native community. About 15 km far from Antofalla, the “Ojos de campo”, holes in the salty floor filled by subterranean water of many colors (blue, red, green) because of different minerals in it. Some hours distance deeper in the salty track, and we can find more unbelievable shapes, colors, thermal waters, and even people living where we would say “the middle of nothing”, with interesting stories to hear.
Where to stay
The Hosteria Municipal has plenty of rooms for staying, internet connection and restaurant. Price per person approx. 700-1000 ARS/15-20 USD. For a cheaper price and an experience nearer the people, I would recommend staying in local families houses. You may find them asking the locals. 350-500 ARS/8-10 USD.
What to eat
The Andean Region dishes involve special grains cultivated only in few other places in the world. Some recipes have hundreds of years; coming from times of the Inca and other native’s cultures. Some of these dishes are Locro, Mote, Tamales, Llama meat, Humitas, Ch’arki and Quinoa soup or Empanadas.
That’s not all folks!
The region is still quite unexplored and hides plenty of places for discovering. Also, local culture and their traditions about “Pachamama
” or mother earth, sometimes mixed with the Christian religion, or special weaving designs, or myths, legends, or learning about the adaptation to the hard desert climatic conditions, can give another worth-living face to the place. Although I felt marveled by the landscapes, my best memories are associated with the people I have known there. Open yourself, say “Hola!” every time you cross someone on the street, and let the adventure begins.