The sulphur mines and the ghost towns of Mina Julia and Mina Casualidad
April 23rd, 2016
Have you ever dreamed to visit a ghost town? Would you like to visit an abandoned mine? A trip to Puna de Atacama, in northern Argentina, offers the unique opportunity to visit the abandoned towns of Mina Casualidad and Mina Julia, whose economy was once based on the extraction of sulphur from a mine at 5200 meters of elevation, among terrible conditions as lack of oxygen, extreme sun radiation, freezing temperatures and strong winds.
The tour to Mina Casualidad and Mina Julia begins crossing the Salaro de Arizaro, just outside Tolar Grande, at 3500 meters of elevation. The mummified head of the cattle, recalls horses and cows dying on this plateau when long caravans were carrying salt and minerals between Argentina and Chile.
Photos of the Martian landscape along the Arizaro salt flat, in the Puna de Atacama.
The trip to Mina Casualidad continues along an asphalt road that winds through colourful mountains and ancient volcanic cones. It may seem strange to find an asphalt road in such a remote and desert place, but it was used to connect for a distance of 80 kilometres, Mina Casualidad (now a ghost town after the closure of the sulphur mine) to the tiny village of Caipe (which is also now abandoned) from where the minerals were continuing their journey along the railroad linking Argentina to Chile through the Andes.
The magnificent panorama of high altitude deserts in the heart of the Andes in Argentina. The yellow tones that can be seen along the top of the mountains in the background, are due to large amounts of sulphur and the goal of the day is to climb one of those peaks, that was the home for a tiny village of miners until 1979, at 5200 metres of elevation.
The ghost town of Mina Casualidad, at 4200 meters of elevation, was founded around 1952 and abandoned in 1979. Here, the sulphur extracted from Mina Julia, 1000 meters uphill, was first processed and then transported to Caipe, from where it was finally loaded on freight trains bound to Chile and Argentina. During the busiest period of activity, Mina Casualidad counted 3,000 people, but now everything is empty and abandoned.
Sulphur processing plants in Mina Casualidad, now reduced to a cumulus of rubble.
The excursion continues trying to get to Mina Julia, a sulphur mine village on top of this mountain. The track is not in good condition and requires great driving skills. Usually access is possible only from November to April when, compared to winter, there is less chance of finding snow and ice.
Along the track to Mina Julia, visitors can admire beautiful views onto Llullaillaco volcano, a famous place where three Inca mummies were found (now they are exhibited at the Museum of High Mountain Archaeology in Salta). The summit of the volcano is a destination for hikers who want to experience the thrill of climbing to 6700 meters: the ascent is relatively simple and does not require any special equipment, the challenge is represented mainly by the lack of oxygen, extreme sun radiation and potentially extreme weather.
The climb to Mina Julia continues, among the psychedelic colors of the numerous minerals present on the mountain.
A beautiful lenticular cloud.
The summit of the mountain, full of sulphur, reaches 5400 meters of altitude. This is the main sulphur mining site until 1979, when there were mining teams working in very difficult conditions.
The challenging track that climbs up to Mina Julia.
The ghost town of Mina Julia, at 5200 meters of elevation, in the immediate vicinity of the sulphur mining site. As for Mina Casualidad, even the Mina Julia buildings were spoiled for anything that could be carried elsewhere, when the village was abandoned in 1979.
Along the slopes around the top of the mountain, there are breathtaking views (really breathtaking, considering the lack of oxygen) of the surrounding mountains and valleys, but the wind may exceed 100 kilometres per hour.
How to transport sulphur from the mining site of Mina Julia to the processing plant at Mina Casualidad, 1000 meters downhill? This task was accomplished by a cable car. The 16-km-long yellow line that is visible along the mountainside, is nothing more than sulphur lost from the containers over years and years, while traveling between the two locations.
Photos of the sulphur mines in Mina Julia, Argentina.
The strange world of Mina Julia, where everything is out of the ordinary: the colors, the extremely rarefied air that makes hard even to take a few steps, the frozen strong wind, the blinding sun. I just wonder how hundreds of miners managed to work and live in such hell.
The psychedelic colors of sulphur in Mina Julia.
Photos of Mina Julia. Still more images of the sulphur mine at 5200 meters above sea level, in the heart of the Andes.
After a few hours spent in Mina Casualidad and Mina Julia, we go back to Tolar Grande, among a beautiful landscape with lenticular clouds.
Of course, I can not miss a stop at the ghost town of Caipe, with its railway station, church and few houses. Minerals extracted from Mina Julia and processed in Mina Casualidad, were transported here by road, before being loaded onto trains bound for Chile and Argentina.
The Salta-Antofagasta railway, linking Argentina with Chile.
The Caipe ghost train station, with the safe box once used for tickets and money.
Abandoned documents at Caipe ghost railway station: a window on past times. Fortunately, however, there plans to restore the entire railway line from Salta to Antofagasta (now limited to Tolar Grande), useful for both freight and passengers, as well as and to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.
Photos of the Salar de Arizaro, just before arriving at Tolar Grande.