Pachamama. I love this word. It means Mother Earth; Pacha is Incan, and mama in this case is Spanish, but you can’t get more universal than mama. Over the past eight days of startling, ethereal landscapes I’ve seen a different and very special side of Pachamama.
My old friend Tony Roberts, an outstanding Arizona-based photographer who was trained by Ansel Adams, has an excellent photo-centric blog, and a short time ago he featured some images taken by a photographer from the New York area named Eric Meola of remote areas in Bolivia and Argentina. Especially compelling were his photos from the Puna, an Andean plateau at 11,300 feet that starts at Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and ends 1200 kilometers later in northwest Argentina. Friends had suggested going to Brazil, Patagonia or the Galapagos Islands for the South America segment of this trip, but more appealing to me was the fact that only about 150 people a year venture into the Puna. I found an excellent company called Socompa to handle the details, and made my way from Santiago, Chile to Salta, Argentina.
As my guide and traveling companion for the week, Socompa introduced me to Sebastian del Val, a 34-year-old new father from Salta who turned out to be the ideal partner for this trip. He studied to be a geologist and worked earlier in his career making geologic maps and charts, and then worked for a Canadian exploration company surveying for uranium, so his knowledge of the earth, and volcanic activity especially, is extensive. Unlike most guides Seba didn’t feel the need to talk all the time, which I appreciated; in this environment you wanted to spend a lot of time just letting the unique natural beauty wash over you. He is a passionate and accomplished photographer, and knew where to stop for the best shots. We had similar tastes in music and enjoyed departing on each cloudless morning to the strains of U2’s It’s a Beautiful Day. And he was an excellent driver; despite many opportunities to do so, not once did he drive us off a cliff.
This week was all about trying to pay tribute to Pachamama through photography, appropriate since it was photography that led me here. Prior to arriving I’d averaged taking 170 pictures per week, and in one week in Argentina I took 940. Everywhere we went there was something interesting or incredibly beautiful, and it was fun not thinking of anything else, not taking many notes, just pretending I knew what I was doing with a camera in my hand. I wish I had better skills, and maybe a bit more sophisticated equipment than my little fixed-lens Nikon Coolpix, but hopefully these shots will to some extent convey the extraordinary raw beauty of this undiscovered part of the world.
Sebastian and I left Salta at 3900 feet, and headed up a dramatic and serpentine mountain road through four ecosystems on our way to 11,300 feet. On one curve we passed a well-maintained shrine where a bus had lost its brakes. Well up into the clouds we parked and walked along a path out onto a mountain ridge. Seba took this outstanding picture of me taking a picture.
And this is the picture I was taking; apparently I was fascinated by the road.
When we arrived at 11,000 feet I was surprised at the desert nature of the environment, especially all the cardones: cacti. We stopped in Los Colorados, a beautiful canyon of red rocks, spent some time in the town of Cachi, and the next day visited Molinos, where the home of the last Spanish governor of Argentina is now a hotel. Later in the day we toured through two stunning canyons: Quebrada de las Fleches (Arrows), and Quebrada de las Conchas (Shells). The cacti and the rock formations and colors were reminiscent of the American southwest, but I knew something very different was just ahead.
On the third day we drove around many volcanoes, through fields of bright yellow plants, past small groups of vicunas – a graceful animal known as the Andean gazelle – and ultimately into the Puna, the grassland plateau eco-region that extends from southern Peru, through Bolivia, and into northern Argentina. And the following day was the most memorable of the trip as we walked around massive dunes made from sand blown from the nearby pumice field, and then explored the pumice field itself, where you could lose yourself for days in the 1500 square kilometers of geologic wonder.
After a picnic lunch by the side of a road that no one else was traveling, we took an hour-long bumpy, cross-country ride to the far side of Carachi Pampa, the massive volcano that dominates the landscape, to a lake red from iron and just a multitude of photo opportunities. It was Sebastian, me and one lone burro, the only other breathing thing we saw between leaving and returning to the hotel. It was so blissfully serene.
On day five we climbed from the Puna and twice hit 14000 feet. It was a good day for animals: sheep in the middle of a small salt flat, llama grazing in a foot of water, many vicunas. We had lunch at a private home in Antofalla, once a thriving mining town and now home to 15 families who raise a few animals and get support from the government.
Toward the end of the day we came upon Salar de Arizaro, the third largest salt flat in the world (Bolivia and Chile have numbers one and two respectively) at 6,000 square kilometers; it was an ocean 600 million years ago, and these salt deposits remain. At one end of the flats is a huge cone the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. It’s called Cono de Arita, and Seba said it has been there 13 million years, likely the result of an aborted volcano, but “some people think it is from aliens.”
On the long drive across the salt flats to our hotel I started getting tired; the stark whiteness just went on for as far as we could see. “Man,” I said, “everything out here is just so big.” Yes,” laughed Seba. “Except the humans.”
On day six we crossed the flats again and stopped at the abandoned train station at Caipe, where minerals taken out of the mountains left to be transported to Salta; the trains stopped running in 1979. The station wasn’t totally uninhabited though; we were greeted and followed around by two curious foxes. Then we went along some very tough mountain roads to Mina Casualidad, a mining ghost town where 3000 people lived between 1939 and 1979. It was eerie and a little sad walking around this place, seeing pieces of people’s former lives, taking pictures of a place that not that long ago had been productive and vibrant.
We drove over the back of the mountain, and stumbled into a camp of workers who mine crystals of sodium sulfite for use in glass and medicines. They were just starting their day as they work until 3 a.m. It was Saturday, their big barbeque day, and they invited us for lunch; instead of a cold omelet picnic we had steak and salad and potatoes and fruit. We felt very lucky.
We got back to Tolar Grande about 4:30 and Sebastian said we’d leave at seven for some sunset shots at a lake just outside of town. We got some nice shots and it was amazing to watch in the colors and shadows change so quickly as the sun descended.
We started out day seven by driving through the Labyrinth, a ten million year old fossil dune desert with many interesting geologic formations. We crossed a pass at 14,820 feet, the highest point of the trip, and started down toward Salinas Grande, another huge salt flat where they currently mine the salt by scraping the flat with heavy machines, trucking it to the nearby refinery, mixing it with some stuff and then sending it to a grocery store near you. The rest of the day was spent on a short climb and then a monster switchback descent off the Puna, another day at the office for Sebastian, ninety minutes of torture and sweaty palms for me.
On the final day of the trip we awoke to the news that there had been three minor earthquakes earlier in the morning close by, just over a nearby mountain range, and at lunch we learned a quake in Iran had killed some 50 people. “Pachamama is not happy,” Sebastian said. We hiked up and took some shots of The Mountain of Seven Colors, saw a very unique cemetery on the side of a small mountain, and walked to the top of the ruins of an Incan pukara, or fortress; we were on the Incan Trail, one of three paths the Incans had taken south from Peru, and this was a strategic point in the ultimately futile effort to withstand attacks from the Spanish.
In a town called Humahuaca we visited a monument to the native Indians; met a very attractive young woman who was working her way to Equador selling her ceramic wares; listened to a great Andean band in the town square; and finally, at the stroke of noon, witnessed a mechanical priest emerge from a second floor window in the local church and bless the throng below. Spiritually energized, we took off for the final stretch drive back to Salta.
I know those other places in South America that were recommended are wonderful and I hope to see them one day, but this week in northwest Argentina was special on so many levels. The scenery was stunning, the opportunity to focus on photography a joy, and the incredible peace and solitude were therapeutic. An added bonus was to enjoy all of this in the company of a guy whose friendship and knowledge I appreciated . “You, my friend, are not a tourist,” Sebastian said as we shook hands at the Salta airport. “You are an explorer.” That’s a compliment I’ll cherish for a long time, along with the memory of my days seeing Pachamama in all her Argentinian splendor.