It’s All About the Altitude

Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the incredible Finca Valentina boutique hotel. The property sat in the middle of some farming areas on the outskirts of Salta. I ended up with a room on the second floor of the main house with a massive balcony overlooking the yard. Before dinner, Tom and I opened one of the bottles of wine we bought earlier in the day at Cafayete and sat and watched the sunset while imbibing in the vino. And originally it looked like we were not going to have a show, but about 20 minutes after the sunset, the clouds in the sky to the west turned a bright pinky orange and and once again we were treated to a fabulous sunset.

Finca Valentina

Next morning, we met Alejandro at 9:00 a.m. to begin our tour of the high plateau or Puna region of Northern Argentina. The drive took us out of Salta and into the Quebrada del Toro. Yep that is right … Bull Gorge! Tom and I were thrilled we could once again pay homage to our good friend Denice aka the Bull.

The start of Quebrada del Toro (Bull Gorge)

Now the Quebrada del Toro extends 90 km and is so named because Argentine traders used to take their animals along the original trail to sell in Chile. I have no idea why they used Toro for the name of the gorge over other animals being traded, but we were happy to know we were travelling through Bull’s gorge!

Quebrada del Toro (Bull Gorge)
Quebrada del Toro (Bull Gorge)

And the views in the gorge were absolutely stunning with the brilliant pinks, grays, greens and whites shading the rock formations. However, the rock formations in this area was no longer the sandstone we had seen throughout our trip in the south, but rather volcanic ash and remnants from the ocean, which once covered this area, leaving mineral deposits hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Quebrada del Toro (Bull Gorge)

We stopped periodically to take in the beautiful views (and sorry if you are tired of seeing rock formations, but they formations really are spectacular). At one point, we stopped in a little village where the highland women had their knitted wares ready for sale. Tom and I did some shopping and then hopped back in the car. (Fortunately, Alejandro is very patient even though Tom and I insist on looking at every vendor’s stand wherever we stop.)

The plateau just after Abra Blanca Pass

Anyway, we continued on through the gorgeous Quebrada del Toro finally reached the Abra Blanca, the highest pass in the Quebrada del Toro at 4,080 metres (13,386 ft). At this point, Tom and I were busy swilling water and sucking on coca candies to avoid altitude sickness and fortunately, once again, we managed to avoid any affects.

After driving through the pass, we were officially in the Puna, the high flat plateau region of Northern Argentina. And it was really strange. Once we crossed the mountainous pass, we immediately hit the flat plateau region. In fact, if we weren’t reading the altitude measurement on Alejandro’s instrument he carried in the car, we could have easily mistaken the area for a simple flat plain.

So after the pass , we continued on through the high plateau, eventually reaching the little mining town of San Antonio de los Cabres. The town was made up mostly of dirt roads and lots and lots of small mud brick buildings. We made a quick bathroom stop (the challenges of drinking tons of water at the high elevations) and then continued on to the highlight of the day, Salinas Grandes (the Big Salt) aka the Bolivian Salt Flats.

Wild donkeys on the way to Salinas Grandes
Llama on the way to Salinas Grandes
Dirt Devil on the way to Salinas Grandes

The drive took us onto a dirt road and through small scrub brush. We passed many large herds of llamas and wild donkeys and even saw a few rare vicunas. And one weird phenomenon we saw repeatedly was little dirt devils: tiny tornado like swirling winds kicking up a massive amount of dust. I must have counted at least 7 dirt devils as we drove towards the salt flats.

And one of the perks of having a guide who has been at this for 18 years is that he knows all of the back routes and off the beaten path locations so instead of going the tourist route to the Salinas Grandes, we were taking a different route that took us to and through the middle of the salt flats.

Now I was in the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia in August as part my sabbatical trip and was fortunate to have experienced the magic of water on the salt flats even though it was the dry season in Bolivia (thanks Global Warming). However, Alejandro advised that there would be no water on these salt flats so I was interested to see and compare the two different views (i.e water on the flats versus no water).

Salinas Grandes

And a little bit about these Argentine salt flats. The flats are located 3350 metres (about 11,000 feet) above sea level and are the result of a lake that dried up between 11,500 and 12,000 years ago. The salt is up to a half meter thick and is in an area 525-sq-km large.

As we approached and then began to cross the salt flats, I was blinded by the “whiteness”. The dark blue sky and white sand was all we could see around us. We travelled about half way across the flats before Alejandro stopped the truck and told us this is where we would have a little snack.

Alejandro making lunch at Salinas Grandes

Tom and I got out of the truck and immediately made it clear to Alejandro that we needed to use the “Inca toilet” (the great outdoors) so I opted for in front of the truck and Tom wandered off and found his own area. Then it was time to take pictures. Tom and I were heavily coated in sunscreen, wearing long sleeves and pants (despite the heat) and hats. Alejandro had warned us about the dangers of the sun and the salt flats so we were not taking any precautions.

Salinas Grandes
At Salinas Grandes
Salinas Grandes

Now these dry salt flats were definitely different from the wet salt flats I had seen in August in Bolivia. These salt flats had massive cracks everywhere you looked and if you weren’t wearing sunglasses, it would have been impossible to see anything because the glare of the sun on the white salt made it impossible to see without protection for your eyes. Nevertheless, I was able to snap some pretty interesting pictures.

And as we took pictures, Alejandro prepared our little snack of meats, cheeses, chips and wine (in Argentina you always have wine). Alejandro filled our glasses and we snacked on the little picnic in the middle of Salinas Grandes. It was magical.

Leaving Salinas Grandes

After the snack, we began the drive to Purmamarca. We completed the drive through the middle of the salt flats and then drove north paralleling the salt flats. Eventually we left the salt flats behind and began to once again climb up into the Andes. The road took us around bend after bend and we could see down below the little road we had just traversed. As we continued higher, I could feel myself becoming a bit drowsy (the affects of the altitude). I kept drinking water and trying to pay attention to the scenery as I tried to ignore my heavy eyelids.

Abra de Potrerillos pass at 4,170 metres

Just after 3:00 p.m. we reached Abra de Potrerillos pass at 4,170 metres, the highest pass of the day (approximately 13,682 feet). We got out of the car and took a couple pictures, bought some momentos to commemorate our trip to the pass and then continued onto Purmamarca.

At 3,500 metres after Abra de Potrerillos pass
“King of the World” at 3,500 metres

We made one more stop at 3,500 metres (11,482 feet) where we had spectacular views of the valley and gorge below. As Alejandro was about to take a picture of us, Tom decided to take a page out of Titanic and thrust his harms into the air and yelled “I’m king of the world”. Cracked me up as you can see from the picture.

Looking to a valley on the way to Purmamarca
Church on the outskirts of Purmamarca

Now at this point we were, thankfully, heading to a much lower elevation. The road took us back and forth downhill where we eventually ended up at just about 7,800 feet when we passed a church and then a sign marking the road to Purmamarca. Once in the little town of 6,000 people, we checked into out little hotel (gorgeous as usual on this trip) just after 4:00 p.m., took a rest and then spent an hour or so shopping in the local artisan shop before having a lovely dinner of alpaca, vegetable soup and white wine. It had once again been another glorious day.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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