Salta to Purmamaca – the Salinas Grandes salt flats, the hill of seven colours & Quebrada de Humahuaca
Salta to Purmaca: 150km 2.5 hours (round trip with drive in desert 7 hours)
It’s kind of ironic that we’ve been travelling through the striking province of Salta in North West Argentina for three days, but it’s not until now, day four of our roadtrip (once reaching Jujuy province) that we’ve actually seen salt – and huge amounts of salt.
From Salta we took a route that ran alongside the railway track of the iconic ‘Tren a Las Nubes’, the Train to the Clouds (so called because of the original steam locomotives). The route to Chile climbs thousands of metres though valleys and mountains, so the early twentieth century engineers used a series of tunnels, viaducts, zigzags and spirals to enable the train to negotiate the natural obstacles. The viaducts were made in France and have a distinctive design, reminiscent of the Eiffel tower metalwork. (The train doesn’t operate in the summer, due to the storms that create deluges that wash stones and rocks over the tracks).
Within an hour we were in a landscape of arid scrub that continued to the distant horizon, before eventually reaching the blindingly white salt mines of ‘Salinas Grandes’. These vast plains of snowy white salt fields are more easily reached by the highway from Salta (around two half hours or so on the main road), but we had decided to explore the semi desert taking a rough track, passing grazing domesticated llamas, and the smaller, indigenous wild ‘guanacos’ – it’s a route best suited to adventurous drivers with 4x4s!
Jujuy is Argentina’s most Northern Province touching Bolivia. The area certainly feels very different, with its genuine indigenous culture. On the way we stopped to eat in the small village of San Antonio de los Cobres. At first, looking down on the place from the adjacent hill it didn’t look that appealing, but once walking its dusty streets it revealed itself to be a fascinating place with some old buildings with an Andean ambiance.
…San Antonio de los Cobres…
We ate at ‘Quinoa Real’ and tucked into a number of quinoa-based dishes, from crepes, to croquettes as well as trying dried llama meat (pretty salty I have to say) and tasty homemade bread.
Then back to the trail. The mountains running around us were immense, as one might expect heading into this part of South America; peaks reach a dizzying 5,000 metres and even the tracks we took often reached over 3,500 metres. After what was hours of driving, in the distance the immense white salt flats became visible!
Arriving at ‘Salinas Grandes’ is a memorable experience. The huge expanse of salt is surrounded by dark mountains – it’s a totally surreal place. Canals and ponds capture the salt from evaporating water; it is then collected and graded for industrial, animal and human consumption.
This extraordinary crust that covers this part of the region is the remnants left from prehistoric lakes. Surveying the scene looking towards the horizon, it does remind you of an icy, frozen expanse of water. It also made me think of Naughty Boy’s La La La video (although that film was actually shot a little further north in Bolivia, where the salt flats are even bigger!)
…the remnants left from prehistoric lakes…
To get a grasp of the size of this area, click on the ipohone panorama above.
As visitor facilities go, it’s a little grim, a few porta-loos, a shabby gift shop area and parking for buses and cars – it’s as if the people are surprised by the number of visitors.
Well, we came for the views and the unique feeling of light and space – it certainly delivered on all counts; the location is remarkable for the near endless view of white in this earthy coloured desert. As one walks out across the plains, there is the dry crisp crunch of the salt under your boots, just like powder snow on a mountain. The sun is magnified by the highly reflective nature of the ground, so you have to take care – it’s an instant suntan!
This unworldly place was not our final destination, we were heading to the ancient village of Purmamaca to check out the ‘Cerro de los Siete Colores’ – the hill of seven colours. So I got back behind the wheel and headed on down through the stunning Quebrada de Humahuaca valley. We had to negotiate yet more hairpin bends, as the road descended from a staggering 4,000 metre peak!
Purmamaca was a peaceful, indigenous village some 15 years ago, but since being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is well and truly on the tourist trail. In fact more than just the regular tourist trail, it is a pack packers stop over, and the place is buzzing with youngsters.
The main square is dedicated to an all-day open market selling crafts for undiscerning tourists. Speaking with one of the friendly stall holders she confirmed that almost all the merchandise was bought wholesale from Peru, and that not all of it was even manufactured in Peru, some came from elsewhere outside South America – there were hundreds of shawls, wraps, throws, blankets, table cloths and scarfs in ethnic styling yet each almost identical in style and glowing with factory-bright dyes. To me it all looked fake, but they were doing a roaring trade.
…sediments from the sea and rivers have combined to create a multi-coloured mountain…
Surprisingly though the gift stores throughout town were very upscale, dedicated to more sophisticated arts and crafts, many of which were actually made locally. Dyes were naturally subtle; crafting irregular and appealing. There were also beautifully crafted items made from the distinctive, perforated wood of the local cactus – lamps, holders, and sculptures. Supposedly only licenced artisans can harvest the wood from dead cactus and work it, since the ancient plants are protected.
Either way you look at it though the charming town of Purmamaca is one big shopping centre.
…Purmamaca is one big shopping centre…
So the secret it to look up – look up at the beautiful mountains that surround the town. Ancient sediments from the sea and rivers have combined to create a multi-coloured mountain range that is like nothing I have seen before – the most striking is the ‘Cerro de los Siete Colores’, the hill of seven colours that is the backdrop to the town.
We were lucky that during our visit there was a local music festival, where folk bands join together, their instruments and drums decorated with fresh basil, to make music and celebrate – a great atmosphere and one that helped make the place feel more authentic.
My suggestion is to wake early in the morning and head out before breakfast and enjoy the peaceful village before the markets stalls are set up and the retail paraphernalia covers the buildings. At this time there are just a few stray dogs and the morning sun filling the streets … the mountains seem all the more enchanting.
…the hill of seven colours that is the backdrop to the town…
The sunlight illuminates the modest village church Santa Rosa de Lima, surrounded by ancient willow trees. This is the time to stroll up to the top of one of the small hills in the town and just soak up the colourful, magical view.
…just soak up the colourful, magical view…
Then head back to the town and enjoy a coffee, served with soda water…. it’s agood way to start the day.