The Puna de Atacama is the high plateau of the Atacama Desert that stretches across northern Chile and Argentina. Last August, during the South American winter, we visited this eerie Mars-like landscape, where volcanoes, sand, and salt mingle. In the middle of the Puna sits one of Argentina’s highest villages, Tolar Grande, with an elevation of 11,500 feet. Surrounding it are some of the tallest peaks in the Andes, many soaring well over 20,000 feet high. We stayed in the village for a few days, experiencing how hard it is to live at high altitudes, in such a desolate and remote location.
Our trip starts from the Quebrada del Toro, a canyon valley that leads you to the heart of the Puna de Atacama. A tourist train, the tren a las nubes, crosses this valley and runs on very high and spectacular viaducts like the Viaducto del Toro. This dry landscape receives almost no rain. The surrounding mountains are populated by condors and we easily spot two of them flying overhead.
The Ruta Nacional 51 soon becomes a dirt road made of sand and gravel. One of its highest points is the Alto Chorrillo at 14,960 feet of altitude. The wind is very strong but we manage to get off the Jeep and pay a tribute to the Pachamama, a goddess of the indigenous people of the Andes. You are invited to leave her an offering every time you safely cross a mountain pass.
On our way through the Puna we come across an area named Las siete curvas, or “The seven curves.” We get off the Jeep and walk on foot. Walking through these mountains of red clay is disorienting. The strong wind that has shaped these mountains confuses our senses, and the landscape made up of red dunes makes you easily lose your sense of direction.
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Our destination is the village of Tolar Grande, at an elevation of 11,500 feet, in the heart of Argentina. In the first half of the 19th century, Tolar Grande was home to about 5,000 residents, railway workers of a now-defunct project to link the region to Chile and miners from a nearby sulfur mine. Today, with the railway project ended and the mine closed, less than 200 people live in Tolar Grande. They are 130 miles from the nearest small city, but have two schools.
Two things that never fail in any village of Argentine Puna: a dog and a satellite dish. Stray dogs are everywhere and are often well integrated with the local population. As for television, even the most isolated and remote house in the Puna have it. As strange as it may seem, guest houses have high-speed Wi-Fi connection too.
Behind the village of Tolar Grande there is a small salt flat. The water comes from springs underground that flow from the Andean range. The vegetation in this very high and arid land is composed of shrubs and small tufts of yellow grass. Vicunas feed on them and are in turn prey for pumas.
Ojos de mar are groups of small and deep ponds just outside the village. They have blue-turquoise water and are inhabited by microorganisms and cyanobacteria like the ones that started life on Earth billions of years ago. Some of these microorganisms, mixed with salt, can corrode plastic and fabrics so our shoes are thoroughly cleaned by locals after our visit.
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We can’t miss the chance of climbing a sand dune to see the landscape from above — which includes clay hills flecked with white streaks of chalk and salt that come to the surface. Climbing a sand dune that’s 11,500 feet high is easier said than done: You’re short of breath due to the thin air, your heart beats very fast, and a massive headache is just around the corner. Coca leaves are legal in this part of Argentina, and chewing on them helps us fight altitude sickness.
During our days in the Puna we cross the Salar de Arizaro,