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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

The Puna - Argentina's high desert - the adventure continues

10 days on the road in a hostile environment - we feel like we're on the moon
The altitude takes its toll - and we're not the only ones struggling with it
Our Toyota Landcruiser fights its way over 4,635 m high passes and blows out white smoke

We are still traveling in the Puna, Argentina's high desert. We are now leaving the only (larger) settlement, Antofagasta de la Sierra, to drive on into no man's land. We replenished our food supplies, as well as diesel and water there. From here on, the roads get much worse. While up to now we have mostly driven on asphalt (even much better than the Argentinian average!), now Ripio awaits us. That is, a gravel road that feels like corrugated iron. You get shaken up and covered in dust. The route takes us over a pass to Antofalla, a settlement in the middle of a huge plateau, surrounded by 5,000-meter peaks. Up to now we have only driven on European passes with our car, and we have never climbed more than 2,000 meters. Today we have to cross the Kolla Atacameña at 4,635 m. The performance of our Toyota will be significantly reduced at this altitude. We notice the difference at 3,000 m. The higher we get, the more white smoke comes out of the exhaust. From around 4,200 m we use our reduction gear. We slowly trundle up at 10-20 km/h. Not so bad considering the view. The landscape is barren, but still beautiful. We are happy that our car can handle the altitude so well, and also that there is definitely still room for improvement. Even higher passes await us in Bolivia and Chile.

Antofagasta de la Sierra Puna Argentinien
Hugo fights against the altitude

The descent is spectacular. We constantly have a view of the huge plateau, which is home to salt desert, lagoons, and volcanoes. The colors are absolutely impressive. Vicuñas keep crossing our path. Once we reach the bottom, we take a rest in the village square of Antofalla. The place seems dead. Strangely enough, there is still a children's playground - like everywhere else.

We decide to head towards Laguna Verde. It is only early afternoon and we definitely want to visit the lagoon. It is only about 10 km of gravel road, we should be able to manage that easily. In fact, the water glows green in the afternoon sun, and the tributary is even a rich red.

Laguna Verde Puna Argentinien
A piece of colour in the middle of the desert

Laguna Verde Puna Argentinien Astrofotografie
Sky full of stars in the night

The next day we carry on. Our destination is the Cono di Arita, a natural pyramid, perfectly formed by nature. We can drive north from the Laguna Verde along the plateau, via the even smaller settlement of Antofallita. There really is no children's playground here anymore. Just three houses. We meet the shepherds who live there. The road first leads over a stream and then in serpentines up over the next pass. Unfortunately the sheep have trampled the stream badly. The path is muddy and slightly icy on the surface. We prefer to drive through the meadow next door, very slowly and of course with four-wheel drive. We get through quite well at a constant speed. Phew! Situations like this always make me feel uneasy. Driving a 4 tonne car safely in terrain like this is not that easy. I am often amazed at what is possible with the right vehicle. And with more off-road experience and skills it would certainly be even more so. The bends on the pass are really tight. I often have to maneuver to get around. And that's despite the fact that our vehicle is only a good 6m long.

Once again, the view from above is spectacular. You can see the Cono di Arita from afar. Why not take a short break? Then all three of us are much more relaxed as we continue our journey. The routes may seem short, but in this landscape it's easy to misjudge the distances. And we only travel very slowly on the roads and slopes. Today our goal for the day is a place with a view of the Cono di Arita. And for the perfect photo opportunity, there are even vicuñas frolicking in front of it.

Cono di Arita Puna Argentinien
Cono di Arita during sundown

Like every night, we have a breathtaking starry sky; there is hardly any light pollution up here. Rarely in our lives have we seen the Milky Way so clearly. Micha can't help but take photos every night - despite the bitter cold up there.

Cono di Arita und die Milchstrasse
Cono di Arita and the Milkyway

From now on the road gets a little better again. The reason for this is the lithium and gold mines that are located here near the Cono di Arita. Heavy trucks drive day and night with deliveries and pick-ups. The next day's stage to Tolar Grande goes accordingly quickly. We almost feel like we're on the motorway, the road is so perfectly leveled through the middle of the Salar di Arita salt desert.

Tolar Grande is another somewhat larger village, even with a school and a hospital. We buy a thick sweater made of alpaca wool for Diego there. He wears it at night, under his sleeping bag. Despite the auxiliary heating, it is not very warm in the car. We are coping better and better with the altitude. Or rather, Micha. Fortunately, Diego and I have had no problems from the start. The only thing we notice is that Diego sleeps a little more during the day. That's fine with us, considering the many hours in the car. When he is awake, we can only drive short distances and that is a "full-time job" for the passenger :-)

What is bothering us, however, is the brutally dry air up there. Our noses are very blocked, especially at night. What is only a little unpleasant for Micha and me is a real problem for Diego. Because then he can no longer drink well. We make do with wet towels that we hang over our beds at night. All in all, we had imagined the altitude to be much worse. And the spectacular landscape more than makes up for minor evils.

We do not want to spend the night in Tolar Grande. Our destination is the nearby Ojos del Mar - three turquoise-green lagoons surrounded by saline soil and the imposing dry desert as well as the distant, reddish Puno Mountains. Bacterial systems that resemble the first life forms on earth live in the "little eyes". Unfortunately, we are very disappointed when we get there. All we see is a large, shimmering reddish lagoon. As we learn from an Argentinian who has been here several times, the fragile ecosystem has been damaged by the construction of the wooden walkways. Groundwater mixed with clayey soil has flooded the area. It remains unclear whether the damage is reversible. A disgrace!

Ojos del Mar Puna Argentinien
Ojos del Mar

Now there is one last highlight on the route through the Puna: the Desierto del Diablo, the Devil's Desert. We drive through breathtaking red rock formations and once again feel like we are on another planet. The next day we unfortunately have to return to civilization. The drive through the Puna was definitely worth it. We have many great impressions and even more spectacular photos. Now we are looking forward to a shower, a large supermarket and hopefully a restful night at a lower altitude.

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