Respect to the rock
From Tolar Grande we ventured out to Ojos del Mar (‘the eyes of the sea’), small turquoise saltwater lakes that are home to stromatolites, prehistoric living organisms. While we contemplated the elemental landscape, Jorge talked about the people of the high puña and their connection to Pachamama, Mother Earth. During August they celebrate the festival of Pachamama, digging holes in the ground and making offerings to the goddess. Jorge showed us the string tied around his wrist, known as a yoki, which acts as an amulet to protect the wearer until the next year’s festivities.
I commented that there was a church in the village. “The people are Catholic, too,” Jorge said. “In August they give their thanks to Pachamama, but in September the people walk to Salta Cathedral on a nine-day pilgrimage. It’s a way to keep harmony between the two beliefs – the indigenous and the Catholic – a synchronisation.”
Heading out across the Salar de Arizaro, one of the largest salt flats in the world, we stopped several times to admire the glittering surface, which in places looked as if it had been sprinkled with diamonds. But Jorge had promised the highlight of the puña was yet to come.
“It’s an amazing rock,” he said. “Just wait until you see it.” I was sceptical – after all, the landscape was full of incredible formations.
Then, rising from the salt flat, a volcano-shaped cone came into view, and I saw what Jorge meant. By the time we reached the sign for the ‘Cono de Arita’, I was suitably impressed by its strange beauty. How had I never heard of it before? We started to walk towards it, but soon realised its closeness was an illusion, the contrast of the brooding cone and the stark white ground playing tricks with perspective.
We thought we had this epic landscape to ourselves, but a moving cloud of dust announced another 4WD heading our way. It pulled up and its eager passengers jumped out and set off on foot towards the cone. We felt that selfish pang you sometimes feel when you’ve discovered something wonderful but want to keep it for yourself.
“Come,” said Jorge, picking up on our disappointment, “I have something special for you.” We carried on down the road, bearing off up a slope, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon playing through the speakers. “Are you ready?” Jorge asked as we emerged from behind some rocks and onto a hill, just as ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ started and Clare Torry’s soaring vocals kicked in.
The hairs on the backs of our necks rose. There below us was the cone, looking like a giant pyramid and seemingly floating on the dazzling plain. Once the song finished, we got out of the car and slowly dispersed, each of us finding our own spot to quietly sit and gaze at the otherworldly sight; each, in our own way, paying our respects to Mother Earth.
Train to the clouds
Along the route to Tolar Grande we kept spotting and crossing one of the world’s great feats of engineering: the railway track that Richard Maury designed in the early 20th century, having reputedly spent seven years travelling the mountains on a donkey to plan the route. Its highest point is 4,800m and it uses switchbacks on the gradients. Currently, the only way to experience part of the line is to take the Tren a las Nubes, a tourist service that runs two or more days a week, depending on weather conditions, demand and the seasons. Leaving the station in Salta by coach, you are bussed to San Antonio de los Cobres to board the train. Oxygen and medical staff are on board in case of altitude sickness. The highlight, not surprisingly, is crossing the jaw-dropping Polvorilla Viaduct.
Highlights of Argentina's north-west
This beautiful, historic city has a winning combination of sights and experiences, and all the modern facilities you would expect. Stroll the colonial streets and plazas, take the teleférico (cable car) for city views and visit a peña to enjoy the local music.
The journey here through spectacular red-rock scenery is reason enough to visit, but most are in search of the world’s highest wineries. Perhaps best known for the white torrontés grape, reds such as malbec are also grown. You can sample the wines in bodegas, or explore the surrounding wineries by bicycle or car.
3: Quebrada de Humahuaca
This valley has been a major trade route over the last millennium and was a vital Inca trail. Today’s visitors come for this UNESCO-listed site’s scenery, such as the ‘Mountain of Seven Colours’, as well as for an insight into its history.
4: Ride like a Gaucho
Salta is surrounded by ranches; some welcome visitors for an estancia experience, usually involving horse riding, an insight into gaucho life and a BBQ, and many offer multi-day treks. The local poncho is a rich red with a black stripe, or stripes.
5: Tren a las Nubes
Although you can currently only ride a small section of the route on train (from San Antonio de los Cobres to the Polvorilla viaduct), it is still worth it to appreciate this incredible feat of engineering and the train itself, as well as the great views. Crossing the viaduct will have you squealing with joy.
6: Cono de Arita
A natural wonder of the world. Try and ensure that you have Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon playing when you view it!
The author travelled with Argentinian, Salta-based travel company Turismo Responsable on a three-day Tolar Grande tour.
Tolar Grande has one simple ‘hotel’, the Hosteria Casa Andina (+54 93876 10 5209; no website). Otherwise, there is homestay accommodation to be found in several local houses.
When to go
Summer/ Autumn (January-April) – Chance of rain, so beware of landslides and flooding.
Low season (May and June) – Low prices. Good weather, but there will be snow in places.
Winter (July and August) – Very cold nights that can fall well below freezing.
Spring (September-December) – Good weather. Very few people in Tolar Grande in September as they are all on pilgrimage to Salta.