Excerpts from Jenny Massey’s Puna Diary
Saturday, 24th of January 2015
I’m alive, my senses are awakened, I’m energetic and inspired! (and pretty pooped right now after driving for ten and a half hours!).
We left Salta at 8.00am this morning, placing our lives in the hands of Mario, our guide. Almost immediately we start climbing in altitude and its not too many hours before we hit a high point and begin descending a little. The sky is a spectacular blue with thick white clouds, shining bright white in the sun, whilst at the same time there are heavy black rain clouds so close I can almost touch them. The landscape is red, rocky, dry, rain ravaged and carved all at the same time. Tufts of brush in varying shades of brown and green bed amongst the gravel creating interesting colours and scenery.
The wildlife consists of wild vicuna, domestic sheep and both wild and domestic donkeys. The colours of the desert are extraordinary and in one particular place it looks as if the wind has ploughed the hills creating diagonal lines just like a ploughed field.
We coast our way down to our lunch stop at San Antonio de Los Cobres, it seems so out of place in this landscape. Supposedly around 6000 people live there but there is little sign of them. It is also their lunch and siesta time. This town is the end point for the ‘Train to the Clouds’, from here it turns around and heads straight back to Salta.
Oh oh, flat tyre. So an extended photo stop whilst Mario changes the wheel (he of course won’t hear of any help). We are now in a narrow canyon of sorts where the track winds between red hills. There is a storm brewing and the thunder is deafening. I wander away keeping an eye on the weather, but the lightning is so close it is a little worrying, and I feel the first giant raindrops so I turn for the truck, running despite the altitude. Too late. Suddenly out of nowhere a massive sandstorm whips up and literally within 20 seconds I can’t even see the truck. The wind is so strong it nearly knocks me off my feet. Then, almost as quickly as it arrived, it moves past us, thank goodness.
Its been a long day when we drive under the arch saying ‘Bienvenidos a Tolar Grande’ and it is truly a welcome sight. The hot shower is truly heaven sent.
Leaving Tolar Grande we drive through very large salt flats, second biggest in the world after Uyuni in Bolivia. Im wondering how we are going to top yesterday’s experience, but real keen to try. It isn’t long until we are all snapping away, honestly you can literally take a picture every 30 seconds it is so amazing but you,really have to draw the line somewhere! The scenery is just as dramatic as it was yesterday, already, and we are only just beginning. It is impossible to know where to begin to describe it. The day viewings consist of salt flats, hills of every shape and colour imaginable, driving through tiny gorges no wider than the car through to open wide expanses of desert with mountains in the distance. The Andes are our backdrop now so we have some snow splattered on the horizon, offsetting the white salt landscape around us.
Arriving at the high point, the views are absolutely stunning. There are some old buildings here that used to accommodate the sulphur miners (shut down in 1974) and the wood of the doors and windows looks brand new. Mario treats us to lunch in the Ghost Town. This was the main town for the miners and it even had a hotel for visiting families. We lunch in luxury inside the church, tablecloth and all. But it is too lovely outside and we take wonderful veggie fritters and ham and egg pie outside on to the steps in the sun. Wandering round the deserted town I have fun taking pictures through windows and just generally playing around.
The sunsets are amazing here, bright red desert sunsets. Just gorgeous.
I love the crisp morning air. Everything looks so clean and bright in the mornings. That big blue sky is just amazing, all around the colours are so vivid. It is not long until we start climbing again, and not for the first time I’m pleased with the way I’ve handled the altitude this time. In the distance a cone starts taking shape and as we eventually draw up next to it, its just crazy. A perfectly formed cone in the middle of the salt flats. No one knows what, how or why, but here it is. Of course we stop for photos and then Mario drives us up onto a neighbouring hill for a different perspective and from there it almost looks more crazy. Getting back in the truck we now make our way at right angles to the direction we were travelling, following the edge of the salt flat. Before long we go up and over a hill and on the other side the landscape is completely different. The desert dunes here are smooth and colourful, expertly blended from one tone into the next. I feel so small in this place and once more the feeling of infinite gratitude washes over me. Suddenly, over the brow of a hill an oasis appears and it is alive with llamas, vicunas and donkeys. It looks so lush! You wouldn’t believe it was possible for the landscape to continually change like this and remain riveting for hour after hour. But it absolutely does and is.
After some time, we climb some hills and what a reward is waiting! Bursting into more expanse below, the surroundings are breath taking. Direct ahead are brilliant white mountains whilst on our left there’ a blend of brown and white. At 2 o’clock there’s a white sea of pumice to the horizon and 3 o’clock proudly presents those stunning red hills. Just breath taking. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it possible to blend so many different looks into one perfect picture. Incredible.
This afternoon we are going to the pumice field out the other side of El Penon. As we come over the hill into the lower reaches of the field, you’d swear we’ve reached the ocean. It looks just like that, with different shadows and shades, and with waves washing ashore a white sand beach, the entrance guarded by big black volcano. The wind has whipped the loose sand and gravel on top into ocean swell. And then something I’ve never seen before. The clouds light up in all the colors of the rainbow, but not in a rainbow formation. Its absolutely fascinating. The colors keep changing every 20 seconds or so, so one minute was pink, may now be orange or green or blue. Its really amazing. At this point I’m thinking just leave me here. I love this place, it’s under my fingernails and toenails, it’s in my teeth and hair. I just love it. Pick me up (or not) the next time you are passing.
Mario has warned us that it is a long day today so its breakfast at 7.30am and then on the road. We are headed in the direction of modern-ness, cities and people by the thousands. The first signs of this outside world are when we strike lines painted on the sealed road and there will be more to come. After an hour, we meet our first car. The cacti also return and before long, we strike water and horses.
At Santa Maria, Mario has a special lunch planned. Its an outdoor BBQ. Oh my god, I’ve never seen so much meat at one sitting. Not for the faint hearted!
Its not long before we are in Cafayate. It is a lovely town and clearly a tourist destination. The rest of the journey back to Salta is, whilst pretty, man made – i.e. crops, highways steadily getting bigger etc. The journey is largely made in silence. It’s a sad way for us to end our time on the road as a small group, but in some ways I guess it is actually the ultimate compliment.