Crossing Puna de Atacama from Tolar Grande downhill to Purmamarca
April 24th, 2016
Travel in Argentina through Puna de Atacama desert, from Tolar Grande to Purmamarca, visiting the curious lagoon of Ojos de Mar (eyes of the sea) the Labyrinth Desert and the immense salt flat of Salinas Grande. At the end of the day, descend downhill from Puna back to the Pre-Andes mountains near Purmamarca in northern Argentina.
The journey from Tolar Grande across Puna de Atacama begins by visiting a small high-altitude lagoon known as Ojos de Mar ("sea eyes") where an expanse of salt culminates in a series of deep wells, full of extremely clear hyper-saline water. In addition to representing a spectacular geological curiosity, these wells are studied as they host a rare unicellular organism present only in very few places of the planet.
More photos of Ojos de Mar, with the clear water of the wells and the salt crust covering the ground.
The Yareta (Azorella yareta
) is a plant that lives attached to the ground in the form of a dense rug to minimize heat loss. The very slow growth, about 1.5 centimetres a year, suggests that larger specimens are up to 3,000 years old. The Yareta is spread among the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, at altitudes between 3200 and 4500 meters.
The Labyrinth Desert, crossed by the track connecting Tolar Grande to San Antonio de Los Combres and Purmamarca, as its name implies, is a real labyrinth of clayey formations with intense red colour, eroded by wind and water.
The track, just before entering the Labyrinth Desert.
Photos of the Labyrinth Desert in Argentina, along the track connecting the northwestern regions of the Andean plateaux of Puna de Atacama.
The track through the Labyrinth Desert.
From Labyrinth Desert, it is enough to take just a few kilometres, to get a radical change of landscape, now dominated by a vast salt flat at 3500 meters of elevation.
A high mountain pass at 4560 meters of elevation, among an high altitude desert.
In the days when many trains were running along these rails, carrying minerals and passengers, the railroad from Salta to Antofagasta via Tolar Grande
was the third highest in the world. In these photos, a railroad pass over 4400 meters offers breathtaking scenery, but has created lot of problems to overcome obstacles and slopes. The closure of the sulphur mine at Mina Julia and the competition with faster trucks, has reduced the importance of this railway line, although there are plans to restore regular service for both tourists and for freight transport. Currently there is only passenger service, limited to the stations between Salta and Polvorilla (a railway station just below this pass).
In the afternoon, I get to Salinas Grande, a vast saline where a bar (currently closed for structural problems) was built using exclusively salt bricks.
Salinas Grande has an overall surface area of 6,000 square kilometres and is located at an average altitude of 3400 meters. It is the biggest salt flat in Argentina.
More photos of Salinas Grandes in Argentina, with collection tanks and piles of salt ready to be collected.
It's now time to say goodbye to Puna de Atacama and drive through this winding road going to Purmamarca, over 1000 meters downhill.