Fine wine, folklore and gorgeous scenery make Argentina’s Puna Desert a wild road trip
In front of me, the waves rise and fall in a frothy frenzy, rising to crests stiffer than fresh meringue. The stark white ocean stretches across a horizon hazy from heat haze, and it’s hard to make sense of it – especially since I’m hundreds of kilometers out of the water, 3,500 meters above sea level.
The Campo de Piedra Pomez Nature Reserve in northwest Argentina is a bizarre natural creation, a collection of pumice stone sculptures, where shapes and patterns are constantly changing in a landscape that has been slowly shaped over millions of years. The lava cloud spewed by a volcano formed at colder temperatures, solidified and fell to Earth, making a space-age spectacle unlike anything seen before — at least on this planet.
“NASA was here to do studies,” says my guide, Lautaro, as we climb the deceptively hollow rocks, which ring like a bell when struck. “It’s conditions that are closest to those you find on Mars.”
Temperatures range from -22 degrees Celsius below zero in winter to -35 degrees Celsius in summer, with winds of up to 140 kilometers per hour, and it is uninhabitable like the Red Planet. However, just a few meters away, in the Carachi Pampa Basin, elegantly legged flamingos perform a series of ballet moves in a lagoon surrounded by twisting black lava fields.
The site is a major stop on a tour of Puna, a high-altitude plateau in Catamarca province, characterized by endless salt flats, showy lakes and ever-changing sands. Drift into the more famous Atacama Desert in neighboring Chile, it shares a similar – and perhaps more dramatic – landscape.
Recent investment in improved roads has made the area easier to access, although it is still best to travel in a 4×4 vehicle with a knowledgeable guide. Adventure specialists Socompa are one of the few operators to organize overland trips through the region. I had joined them a few days earlier in the city of Salta, a two-hour flight from the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
Driving south through lush green and rain-soaked valleys, the scenery slowly changed; The rocks reddened, the sky brightened, and collar cactus began to grow from the cracks of the cliffs. In Quebrada de las Conchas, a strait filled with fossils of seashells and fish, we stopped to explore a natural amphitheater, where a guitarist played chanting tunes and artisans sold ocarina flutes.
Our journey continued to Piatelli, the new luxury wine hotel that is writing a new chapter in the story of Salta’s wine industry. Lautaro informed me that about three percent of Argentina’s wine production comes from Salta. Dry conditions and strong sun shape the intense, full character of the wines, including those based on the world-famous Torrontes grape variety. As I watched the sunset from the roof of my new, smartly dressed villa, I gazed across the vines and watched the hummingbirds fly among the flowers.
Getting plenty of rest is vital to dealing with the high altitudes of Pune, where the average altitude is 4,500 metres. We continued our 150km long drive the next day, climbing slowly up into Catamarca Province. What looked like streaks of snow in the mountain crevasses quickly turned to sand, marking the beginning of our desert adventure.
Along the side of the road, apachetas (a type of cairn) gave thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and red flags paid tribute to Jochito Gil – the folkloric Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Towering cacti wore glowing halos in the late afternoon sun and the shadows of vicuña (a South American camel famous for its soft wool) stretched across towering sand dunes.
Hidden within an oasis of Alamo trees, planted to provide protection from the wind, El Peñón became our land base for several nights. Renovated and managed by Socompa, Hosteria de Altura El Peñón is a relaxing retreat offering fine dining powered by solar energy and welcoming smiles. Access to 24-hour electricity became available less than a year ago, and salamander stoves are still used for heating in the winter.
From here, we made our dawn trek to Campo de Piedra Pomez Nature Reserve. But that’s not the only mind-blowing sight in the area.
Covering the base of Cerro Galán, one of the largest exposed calderas in the world, is Laguna Diamante, a toxic lake where life logically should not exist. Too large to be appreciated from ground level, it has only been properly identified with the help of satellite images. We arrived to find flocks of flamingos gliding across its glass surface, evidence that resource-rich wildlife will find a way to exist even in the harshest of locations.
After leaving the Buna River, we headed towards the city of Cachi in the province of Salta, the last stop of our journey. Along the way, we stop at Bodega Colomé in the Calchaque Valley, created in 1831 and founded by the last governor of Salta to be appointed by the King of Spain, and is believed to be the oldest continuously active winery in Argentina. Now run by a Swiss family, it is also home to a gallery of works by creative artists James Turrell, known for his work with light and space. In many ways, his abstract compositions are a retrieval of the shapes and colors that adorn Bona.
I’m back down to earth with the homey scents and flavors of Finca Santana, a small guesthouse run by Adriana, a photographer and textile designer who has eschewed the fast pace of city living in Buenos Aires for a kinder, slower life. Fresh walnuts are dried in the yard along with verbena leaves used in tea. Inside the adobe home, blankets and tapestries woven by expert local weavers cover the furniture under an antique, pockmarked cactus ceiling that Adriana collected more than 20 years ago.
Although it’s far from the fierce suburbs of Puna, it’s a fitting endpoint for a journey immersed in nature, where life flourishes in unexpected places and waves – of sorts – whisk you to stunning beaches.
How to plan your trip
Jacada Travel (jacadatravel.com; 020 3514 0977) offers a private 10-night off-road expedition through the Puna Desert with Socompa, accommodation at Finca Valentina and Hosteria El Peñon from £5,639 per person on an all-inclusive basis. Extra trips.
(tags for translation)Argentina