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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Argentina's high desert - on the way in the Puna and the question whether this can be topped

10 days on the road in a hostile environment at an altitude of up to 4,600 m
One highlight after another - volcanoes, sand dunes, salt lakes and lagoons characterize the landscape
Vicuñas, alpacas and flamingos defy the strong sun, bitter cold and sparse flora
An experience report about traveling with a baby at extreme altitudes
And the answer to the question: Who actually is "Petra Pommes"?

After about 3 weeks in the camper, we got used to life in a small space, the Argentine culture and the new routines with Diego. As far as it goes. Most of the time things turn out differently anyway... Now we would like to explore the Puna, the Argentine high desert - the counterpart to the Atacama area in Chile. This means that it is almost constantly at an altitude of over 3,000 m. We haven't done anything like this yet. Sure, we were at such an altitude for a short time once or twice while hiking in Europe - but nothing more. We don't know how we'll cope with this. We heard from many travelers that they had some problems or even altitude sickness. According to statistics, one in four people experience such heights, and the extent to which varies. Headache and nausea are the usual symptoms. Then the only thing that helps is to get back down quickly. We can't even estimate how it works with Diego. The fact is, babies don't handle heights any worse than adults. He just can't say what's wrong with him. We still want to try. Sooner or later we won't be able to avoid these heights. In Chile and Bolivia at the latest we have to cross passes at around 5,000 m.

Around 800 km awaits us at an altitude of over 3,000 m. We don't know how long it will take us. We don't know the road conditions, we just suspect that they aren't particularly good. Additionally, we have no experience with our Toyota at heights. The performance will definitely decrease significantly. It also doesn't have a turbocharger; It is questionable whether we can even get over the passes with 130 hp and almost 4 tons of weight. We definitely equip ourselves with plenty of food and fill both tanks and our fresh water to the brim. So we have 200 liters of diesel and 110 liters of water on board. It must be enough. We have heard that residents in the mountain villages sell diesel from time to time, but we would rather not rely on that.

Reisen mit Baby Offroad mit Baby, extreme Höhe mit Baby El Eje Argentinien Tanken Premium Diesel
Diesel refill is Premium exclusively

And then we stock up on coca leaves. These are common among locals to help them cope with the altitude better. You chew them, put them in your cheek pouch or mix them into tea. The superfood helps to banish hunger, fatigue and cold and is very effective against altitude sickness as it improves oxygen absorption. And yes, I am still breastfeeding Diego. Studies on coca consumption in combination with breastfeeding are hard to find. But something like that too! The fact is, the leaves do not cause addiction and have no side effects. Accordingly, I assume the best! As always :-)

Our first stage of the day is relatively short and unspectacular. We chose a place to spend the night in a dry riverbed at 2,500 m. This is important to us so that we can slowly get used to the altitude. The worst are probably the nights. I'm doing great, Diego is also "normal". That means he doesn't whine any more than usual. Since he always has growth spurts and is still teething, it's all relative. However, Micha cannot sleep well and complains of nausea. Coca tea helps him somehow survive the night. However, he doesn't want to discuss turning things around. On the second day we cross beautiful plateaus.

The landscape becomes increasingly barren, but all the more interesting. The colors really shine up here. Again and again we see vicuñas, the llama species that lives in the high altitudes of the Andes. They are slightly smaller and more graceful than their related guanacos, which we encountered primarily in Patagonia. And there are always herds of alpacas and sheep. However, they are mostly “domesticated”. By the way, despite the winter, the days are super sunny and relatively warm. If there is no wind, you can walk around in a T-shirt. The sun is very intense up here. We have to moisturize ourselves well, especially Diego. The nights, on the other hand, are bitterly cold, at times down to -10°C, and the extreme dryness also makes it difficult for us and makes it really difficult to breathe. At least our auxiliary heater works smoothly and the built-in height kit is paying off.

We are absolutely thrilled by the sight that awaits us. I find it difficult to describe the landscape. Luckily, Micha took a lot of photos that we don't want to withhold from you. You almost feel like you're on the moon. The landscape is far from boring. Endless plateaus, partly lush green oases next to lava fields. Deep black volcanic cones tower up in the middle of the landscape. There are always sand dunes, lagoons and salt lakes. It all looks so unreal and hostile to life. Yet people live here.

We reach the village of El Peñón around early afternoon. Since we want to do a detour of around 150 km off-road the next day, we are trying to organize diesel. We wonder through the place and finally reach a hut with a few barrels standing in front of it. A boy, barely older than 10, says he would sell us the diesel for the equivalent of around €1.50. That's 20 cents more than the current market price in Argentina. Fair enough, in this remote area. The diesel comes from the barrel into the canister, from there with a funnel (made of a Cola bottle and a pair of tights :-)) into our tank - that's the plan. Unfortunately, our tank cannot cope with the lack of filling pressure that a mechanical tank system has and we get next to nothing in it. Well – it was still an experience. Such villages are simply a phenomenon in South America. Basically you get everything you could urgently need, such as petrol, basic food, water (and even Pampers!). You just have to know where and have enough time. First you wonder around the whole place and after a few hours you often end up back where you started. And nothing happens quickly. In addition, there is usually a siesta from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. So much for “quick refueling”.

Our place to stay overnight today is more than spectacular. We park right next to a huge lava field, perfectly in the lee. An inefficient afternoon like this is quickly forgotten J Even though I really don't have the energy for sporting activities up there, I take 15 minutes for yoga every evening. This way I can relax and at the same time feel the absolute peace and space even more intensely.

Puna Argentinien Offroad Hochebene Lavafeld Vulkan
Overnight Spot close to the Lava field
Milkyway Milchstrasse Puna Argentinien Astro
Increadible views on the Milkey way included

The next day we want to visit the Piedra Pomez nature reserve. Petra fries? Nearly. It is a huge field of pumice, created by volcanic activity and erosion. Apparently it can only be reached via a 60 km long sand road. To be honest, the first 50 km are just gravel road. Then the journey is tough. First we let off the tire pressure and switch on our four-wheel drive. At first everything goes well until the route gets steeper. Then nothing works anymore. Oh man. We really don't feel like unpacking our sand trays. Luckily, Diego is in a good mood. A situation like this in combination with a crying baby doesn't exactly help with the calm that you should keep. Fortunately, with forwards, backwards and a little pushing, we get out of the mess backwards. On the second attempt we take a small detour where the ground seems a little firmer. It works. The last 10 km are really difficult. Now we understand why the route is only recommended for 4x4 vehicles. When we arrive it is already 2 p.m. We still have to go back and to the place of our choice for the night – the Laguna Carachi Pampa. An equally demanding route on which we circle the volcano of the same name. We're pretty exhausted when we finally get there in the evening light. However, the view makes up for everything. In front of us lies a huge salt lake in front of a picturesque, glowing red rock backdrop. The water is so calm that it creates a perfect mirror. There are flamingos in the lake, and alpacas and vicuñas graze on the shore.

Puna Argentinien Laguna Carachi Pampa
Flamingos on Laguna Carachi Pampa

Laguna Carachi Pampa Flamingos

We haven't made much progress on the route yet. But who wants to rush in this landscape? Micha is doing a little better now. Chewing coca leaves helps, especially during the day. The nights also become more bearable for him. We are by no means talking about restful sleep. I don't really have that either. For me, however, it's more because I usually get up twice at night to breastfeed. Diego definitely sleeps the most and best of all of us. And we are so happy about that!

On the short morning leg, the Antofagasta volcano and the lagoon of the same name await us. It's always amazing how many highlights line up in such a short distance. With Diego we have to take a few breaks anyway, to eat, play, etc. All the better that there are so many stops worth seeing. Micha can't stop taking photos.

We are now shortly before Antofagasta de la Sierra, a small town at 3,320 m. In fact, we find something like infrastructure here. There is a small hosteria with rooms. There we can take a shower and spend the night in the parking lot for a few pesos - there is even good coffee and WiFi. And in town we find a gas station with automatic fuel pumps and a small supermarket - of course only open from 6 p.m. The short trip into civilization feels good before we head deeper into the desert. High passes, long gravel roads and difficult road sections await us, in what is still a spectacular landscape. There is more about this in the following blog.

Laguna Antofagasta
Laguna Antofagasta

Milchstrasse über der Puna Argentinien
Milky way over Puna

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