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Digital Subscriptions > Attitude > 298 > Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

The Argentinian puna is not only one of the most extreme locations in the world, but also one of the most majestic. Between the volcanoes and salt flats, a breath-taking adventure awaits
ANCIENT HISTORY: The 15-million-year-old Quebrada de las Flechas

In February 2011, I made a stupendous error of judgment by accidentally sending myself and my Russian travelling companion Alex up a 4,972m-high mountain pass cvx in a beat-up old Fiat Uno. We had set off in the afternoon from Cafayate, a charming little village located between Torrontés vineyards in the foothills of the Argentinian Andes, and headed north past slopes that were rammed with tall cacti, and through jagged gorges towards the even more charming village of Cachi.

In the cool shade of a cafe, with a ceiling made of cactus wood, we devised a plan for the rest of the day. The road we had followed was the legendary Ruta 40, which runs some 5,000km along the eastern side of the Andes, from the uttermost south to the uttermost north of Argentina. On this side, the journey encompassed old Inca routes through phenomenally strange landscapes, which left me wanting to see more. We weren’t due to hand in the car until the end of the next day in the provincial capital of Salta.

I had a look on Google Maps. Would we be able to continue on the Ruta 40 heading north, towards Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flats? Salt flats are common in this part of the world. They are volcanic lagoons and the last remnants of inland seas that are millions of years old, whipped up by the growing Andes.

On the photos that local tour operators had set out around the entrance to their offices, the excursions to these extensive white plains looked fascinating. As all usual points of reference were lacking within this vastness, the people and their jeeps in the images were reduced to resembling little more than some of the Seven Dwarfs and toy cars.

“If we had known what was waiting, we’d have handed the keys back in an instant”

According to Google Maps, the Salinas appeared easily reachable in a day. It seemed like a stunning drive, and the hirer of the Fiat had assured us that everything was accessible — even not using a four-wheel drive vehicle. What we didn’t realise was that he’d overlooked the mountain pass between us and the salt flats. If we had known what was waiting for us, we would probably have handed the car keys back to him in an instant. What Google Maps depicted as a short, almost invisible zigzag pattern, turned out to be the highest point of the entire Ruta 40: the Abra del Acay, close to 200m higher than Mont Blanc. Meanwhile, a swifter and safer route snaked past it via tarmacked roads.

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