Is this the most surreal landscape on earth? Exploring Argentina's Puna de Atacama

A land of "devil's deserts", otherworldly volcanoes, and a town at the end of the world: Lyn Hughes visited north-west Argentina in search of jaw-dropping natural wonders you never knew existed...

7 mins

As we descended from the pass, a vast yellow-green plain opened up ahead, rippled by the wind. At first it looked empty. But every now and then there was a rapid burst of movement: a small flock of ostrich-like rhea, or a family of guanaco or vicuña – wild ancestors of llamas and alpacas respectively, and both equally skittish at the sight of our 4WD. We pulled up by some rocks where a mass of chinchillas scampered, and where pumas are known to prowl.

It was several hours since we’d driven out of the city of Salta on Route 51. My companions and I were in north-west Argentina, heading to the puña grasslands and seduced by the promise of salt flats, volcanoes and high desert plains. It was an area utterly unknown to me, except for a whisper from a knowing soul that had described its landscape as something from another planet. So here I was, winding the Rio Toro gorge in search of a hidden side to the country that few others take the time to see.

As we drove, the mountains on either side were shrouded in heavy cloud, but we could still make out their multicoloured streaks – a geologist’s dream. Gradually climbing in altitude, we eventually broke through the cloud. The sky was suddenly clear bright blue and the temperature warmed.

We shed a few layers and drove on, stopping first at a forest of giant cacti, many of which were over 100 years old. Known as cardon grande (or the Argentine saguaro), these cacti are slow growers, managing just a few centimetres a year, and have incredibly long roots to help them cope in the harsh climate. Our guide, Jorge, had already explained that temperatures in the Salta region can range from 30°C below freezing to 40°C above. Now he expressed concern at the cacti coming into bloom so early in the season: “We have had freak weather this year and these are flowering several weeks earlier than they should.” 

Driving through the red hills and rock (Lyn Hughes)

Driving through the red hills and rock (Lyn Hughes)

The mountains on either side were shrouded in heavy cloud, but we could still make out their multicoloured streaks – a geologist's dream

Into the wild

As we drove along we kept spotting train tracks. Here, the road followed the route of the Tren a las Nubes – the Train to the Clouds. In the early 20th century, Argentina wanted access to the Pacific and so reached an agreement with Chile that would see the two countries build a railway running from Salta across the Andes to the port of Antofagasta. Construction of the line, which was designed by American engineer Richard Maury, began in 1921 under some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet. Extreme weather meant that work was only possible during the summer months; even then, labourers could only work for 45 minutes at a time due to the altitude. It wasn’t until 1948 that the line was completed, only for politics and economics to lead to its quick demise.

We stopped again at the archaeological site of Tastil. Despite the arid surroundings, this spot was once home to a community of over 2,000 inhabitants, until it was conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. Today, the largest settlement in the region is the dusty, windswept town of San Antonio de Los Cobres, with a population of around 7,000. Many work as miners in this mineral-rich landscape, while some make llama-wool handicrafts. We stopped briefly for lunch – a simple choice of eggs, chicken or llama – before pressing on.

After crossing the Abra Alto Chorrillos, a high pass at 4,560m, the landscape grew increasingly wild; we really felt we’d arrived in Argentina’s high puña. There was little sign of human habitation, but the wildlife appeared to be flourishing despite the harsh conditions, especially the slender, delicate-looking vicuña. Prized for their very fine wool – the Inca would allow only royalty to wear vicuña garments – they were nearly hunted to extinction by the 1970s. Now fully protected, their numbers have increased to around 350,000.


The deep-red hills of the Devil's Desert (Lyn Hughes)

The deep-red hills of the Devil's Desert (Lyn Hughes)

The devil and the end of the world

Passing a desolate former train station, we reached the Salar de Pocitos salt flat. Only it wasn’t flat – the surface was twisted and tortured. Jorge explained that there are two types of salt flats: “You wouldn’t take salt from here; that’s from the smoother type. But they mine lithium from this.”

The landscape started to change again, the salt flat first giving way to rocks, and then to great red ridges. “Have any of you been to Jordan?” Jorge asked. “Then I have a surprise for you...” He pulled up in front of one cliff-face that was scored with markings and crevices reminiscent of the Treasury at Petra. “This is Los Colorados,” Jorge said. “To me it is perhaps the most beautiful place here.”

The road narrowed and wriggled through a deeply shadowed gorge known as the Labyrinth, before broadening out into a valley surrounded by streaked red-clay hills and myriad rock formations, the result of ten million years of erosion. We had entered the Devil’s Desert, so named because, according to local legend, the shape of a mysterious figure appears on a certain rock in a certain light. We ascended a track, hairpinning up seven curves, to be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view over the desert as it glowed a deep burnished red in the late-afternoon light.

The sun was sinking fast as we reached the remote village of Tolar Grande, far closer to Chile than to Salta. With its seemingly deserted streets and abandoned industrial buildings silhouetted against the dimming sky, it felt like The Town at the End of the Universe. This was once an important mining community and pit stop on the rail line between Chile and Argentina. Then the mines became unprofitable, and the train stopped running. But now a combination of a resurgence in mineral mining and the small but increasing number of tourists coming here, means that the population is slowly rising again.

We checked into a small but comfortable government-owned guesthouse that surpassed my expectations. But WiFi was only available at the village school, so the next morning I joined a couple of fellow visitors pacing up and down outside the building, trying to get a connection. I also explored the village’s handful of streets, its small church, its crumbling adobe dwellings. By 10am I had seen precisely three people and two dogs.

A wandering vicuña (Lyn Hughes)

A wandering vicuña (Lyn Hughes)

The red wastes of Devil's Desert (Lyn Hughes)

The red wastes of Devil's Desert (Lyn Hughes)

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.


The surreal volcano-pyramid of Cono de Arita (Lyn Hughes)

The surreal volcano-pyramid of Cono de Arita (Lyn Hughes)

“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.

Gazing out over the Polvorilla Viaduct, some 4,200m above sea level (Lyn Hughes)

Gazing out over the Polvorilla Viaduct, some 4,200m above sea level (Lyn Hughes)

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.

Alto Chorrillo sign (Lyn Hughes)

Alto Chorrillo sign (Lyn Hughes)

Highlights of Argentina's north-west

1: Salta

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.

2: Cafayate

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!

Stroll through the colonial streets and plazas of Salta (Dreamstime)

Stroll through the colonial streets and plazas of Salta (Dreamstime)

The Trip

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.

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