Taking the High Road: Salta to Salinas Grandes
While everyone else in Salta was just arriving home from a night of asado eating, singing along in a peña folkloric bar, or dancing night into day at the boliches (music clubs), I was well on my way to the Salinas Grandes in the Jujuy Province. Nine other enthused travelers and myself, piled into a tour van at 8am for a drive through some of the most stunning natural ecosystems my eyes have ever seen. In my years of travel I have hiked the Grand Canyon in Arizona, driven through giant red woods in California, stared up the face of Mnt. Everest, sailed through the jade islands of Hay-Long Bay, Vietnam, and witnessed the natural power of Iguazu Falls in Argentina; but the drive to the Salinas Grandes rivals these natural wonders with its incredible striking landscapes.
Our first stop was at one of the twenty-nine copper red bridges for the Tren de los Nubes, which weaves through the Andes at 4,200 m above sea level connecting Argentina with Chile and making it the third highest train system in the world.
After this history-making pause, we headed from lush Switzerland-esk mountain terrain to a high desert eco-system with forests of 400 year-old cactai.
A stop for llama millanesa (a breaded and pan fried llama filet) and sopa de choclo (corn soup) at the secluded mining town of San Antonio was like being transported to another world. A fun fact I learned from the leathered miner that served us our meal was that llama meat is completely fat-free, however when battered and fried the once fat-free, cholesterol-free meat is back on a par with all the other delicious fried meats of Argentina.
From San Antonio´s desolate track homes we arrived at the climax of our tour: the expansive 8,290 km salt flats of Salinas Grandes. It had recently rained so the salt bed acted as a mirror to the surrounding mountains and blue sky. After taking some creative jumping, handstand and optical illusion pictures, and purchasing a llama or cactus figurine carved from extracted salt bricks, there really isn´t much else to do here aside from standing in complete awe of the natural phenomena that surrounds you – which is just what we did!
Purmamarca was the last of our stops in the Jujuy provence before heading back to the city of Salta. I´m still kicking myself for not ditching the tour group and staying the night at one of the cozy B&Bs nestled in the shadows of the sunset colored cliffs. The minerals and sediments in the surrounding mountains create unnaturally brilliant purple, red, orange, and white stripes that swirl through the rocky mountain faces. This is a great artisanal village where you can chat with the local craftsmen and buy their pots made from bright orange clay sediment or goucho blankets woven so tightly that they become waterproof. I was recommended a sunrise hike that takes you into the Mountains of Seven Colors, where you find yourself completely enveloped in the stratified rocky terrain. Next time I make this journey, staying a night or two in Purmamarca is top on my list.