Through the Argentinian Altiplano - Argentina 2017

The year 2017 was full of top grade photography locations, most of them are well known and/or well traveled. Greenland, Falkland, Bamberg, Lofoten, South Georgia to name just some of my destinations in 2017. After the South Georgia expedition in October/early November my journey did not end yet! Christina flew over to Buenos Aires to join me in a three week trip into the north of Argentina!

This sparely populated area is by far not as famous as its counterpart right across the Argentinian/Chilean border with the magical but overrun places like San Antonio de Atacama or Lauca NP. To the north you find the well known Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. But the altiplano and Argentina??? Lucky for us as travelling through the wide open and empty spaces of the altiplano is much more awesome , if you are (nearly) alone.

Moreover this area has a big advantage! In the foothills of the Andes atmospheric towns like Salta, cozy vinyards around Cafayate and buzzling subandean small towns in the Quebrada de Humahuaca are inviting stopovers before or after you head to the barren high plains and salt lakes of the Altiplano.

The plan took into acount, that after three weeks on sea level between Patagonia and South Georgia the approach of the Altiplano with its altitude of 3700 to 4900m should be very careful to allow me to get used to the tropics and the thin air in these altitudes. After Buenos Aires the next destination was Salta, by many Argentinians this town is considered to be the most beautiful in the whole of Argentina (I would not dare to say something else....). From Salta we would drive to Cafayate (about 2000m) with its famous quebrada and the just as famous wines of its vinyards (very tasty.....). From Cafayate we would climb up to the Altiplano via Cachi (2700m) crossing the highest mountain pass in the Andes (nearly 5000m) and stay in the high plains (3600-4500m) for about 8 days.

After the more stressfull days up there we would go down slowly to Salta visiting the UNESCO world heritage sites of the Quebrada de Humahuaca on the way back.

To make it short, we visited all the places I planned to go to, I acclimatized very well (this part of the plan was perfect), the photography was great, the atmosphere was unique and after a week the plan was turned upside down. More of that later....

Salta La Linda - Salta The Beautiful

Salta La Linda, that is all I have to say! I visited this town 30 years ago and I liked it then and I like it even better today. Especially after the expedition to subantarctica it was sensational to sit in the street restaurants, eat your dinner at 9 in the evening watching the locals to relax at the plaza, which is lined by palm trees! I also learned a new spanish word - manifestacion. Trust me, you will need it in Buenos Aires, Salta and in many other places. But I even liked to watch a manifestacion "Salta style" circling the plaza several times.

It is a busy town which gets it share of international and local tourism, infrastructure is very good with lots of accomodation and it makes the perfect starting point for Humahuaca, which is the biggest draw for nature lovers, or to the Altiplano. Highly recommended!

In Salta we picked up a rental car, a 4x4 SUV (Andina Car Rental, the rental was a good experience!) with two spare tires and a 40l bidon for extra fuel. As you already guess from this equipment, going into the more remote corners of the Argentinian altiplano takes some consideration and a bit of extras compared to using our autobahnen!

Driving in the argentinian altiplano

There are nearly no black roads up there, you will have dust everywhere, even if you close your windows. It will be in all corners of your car and in all your clothes and, if you are not careful in your mirrorbox and on your sensor. Most of the tracks can be navigated by 4x2 cars, but these tracks can be very rough very dusty and the next garage is maybe 200km away. There is traffic but not more than a few cars per day. A 4x4 is just more sturdy and gives you more options. Basically it is all about likelihoods, the likelihood of a breakdown, of a flat tire, a poor grading of a track and so on. Take a 4x4 even during the dry season! In the wet season some mountain passes are closed due to ice, snow and mud and even tracks, which are easy to navigate in dry season, can be quite difficult to impossible using a 4x2.

Would our trip have been possible with a 4x2? Probably yes, even if the very steep switchbacks would have been very difficult. Would the car have survived it? Probably yes, but I am not sure? Would I have liked it to drive the 5000km in a 4X2 Sedan-style? Definitly no!

A last word about the availability of fuel. We never had real problems to find fuel. However the distances between villages are often more than 200km and between listed petrol stations even more. If one station is dry and a village does not offer fuel from the drum you may push your car for 200km in the thin air of the altiplano. such an exercise may be good for your fitness but it is utter nonsense to risk to run out of fuel. The main roads are served well with fuelstations which are not likely to dry up, but the more remote parts of the altiplano, which are boasting with amazing landscapes make a bidon necessary.

Also think about fuel consumption. The mountain passes are very, very steep, the tracks consist of loose gravel or deep sand and the altitude is 4000m and higher. Forget the mileage of a car you would expect in our world!

Cafayate - wine - history - amazing colored rocks

Cafayate (no it is not Calafate in Patagonia) maybe unknown to most non-Argentinians, but that is not the case for Argentinans, Chileans and Bolivians. How shall I compare it to places we know. Take Garmisch-Partenkirchen or Zell am See or Grindelwald merge them with a top wine growing region substract the posh factor (that would be Bariloche) and now you understand what Cafayate means to Argentina!

I still had to recover a bit  from the South Georgia expedition and Cafayate was the place! It is a touristy small town, around the plaza you have lots of open air restaurants serving beef and local dishes (try them, very tasty...), street musicians are playing local music and the locals (tourists from South America) have lots of fun during their holidays. The atmosphere was just great and we listened to the music and had some wine and some more wine and some more music and when some locals started to dance and to play the drum to the tunes of the musician, we had some more wine and some more music and some more wine.....

I knew of the reputation of Cafayate aus a holiday resort, but the main reason to go there was not to relax but to see and take pictures of the colorful Quebrada de Cafayate, a long valley, sometimes more a canyon, leading from the lowlands up to Cafayate.  I am talking of 50km of colored rocks and bizarre rock erosion and it is not even a National Park.

But I have to be honest, I managed only once to get up early for the morning sun, the evenings on the plaza have been just to good and I had already 4 weeks behind the camera on my shoulders.


Quebrada de Cafayate

I knew the Quebrada from a visit long time ago, but I understimated the size of it. Good pictures do not come easy as the place is huge and the geomorphology is complex. I struggled a bit in the beginning but the results are ok. I understand now why really good pictures from the quebrada hardly exist. If you want to go for even better results, you need as usual more time, but also a local guide. Maybe next time! Moreover it was the beginning of the rainy season and clouds buildt up nearly every afternoon. We checked out the weather in Cafayate during the days after we left and  it started to rain.

I was prepared for the Quebrada, but I was not prepared for Quilmes (no not the beer, even if there is a sad connection).


Quilmes is the name of an ancient town and of a tribe which used to live there. It was mentioned just with a line in my guidebooks and I added it to the itinery only to have a more balanced picture collection. It was a real surprise, very atmospheric and very touching, especially as it was still low season and we had to share the ruins with only a handful of tourists. Highly recommended!

And yes now the link to the local Quilmes beer and brewery. Quilmes was populated by the Quilmes people who eventually surrendered after a long fight to the conquistadores. What was left from the population was expelled and sent on a devastating march to an area far south close to Buenos Aires. They had to settle there and the area, which is now a part of greater Buenos Aires was named after this tribe, and the brewery was named after this town. That is the story the guidebook was telling me.

Towards Cachi and NP Los Cardones

The "standard" tour many tourists book into or drive on their own is the round trip Salta-Cachi-Cafayate-Salta. Most of it is asphalt, it is beautiful and well worth the effort. It is a good trip for 3-5 days, do not do it faster. The dusty track between Cafayate and Cachi is rough but doable with a standard car, however it is still hard driving! Our plan was different. From Cafayate to Cachi, stay 2 days in the NP Los Cardones and then up into the true Altiplano driving up to the mountain pass Abra del Acay with its altitude of 4995m.

Between Cafayate and Cachi you cross the Quebrada de las Flechas. It is an amazing and undervisited place! Next time I would try to stay a night close to the Quebrada, in some of the accomodations, which opened during the last years. This time we just crossed it and we crossed it around noon.... It was still amazing.

Cachi was a good place to stay. The little country town has now a good infrastructure for tourists and hikers. The Hotels have often a high standard and the restaurants in the town centre offer good food. 30 years ago it was all dust, only very simple hostals, it changed dramatically!

The National Park Los Cardones was a real surprise. The asphalt road from Salta to Cachi is crossing this National Park which is dedicated to protect the Cardones cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis). I checked my picture libraries and the internet and I was quite disappointed. Always the same shots from the main road, nothing special. As I needed the stay in Cachi to get used to the altitude I all the same decided for two nights in Cachi. It was a good decision.

The scenery from the main road is quite ok, but nothing special, but as soon as you drive the smaller tracks (dust roads, of course) it starts to get very photogenic. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was hard work. Altitude about 4500m, very strong and icy cathabatic winds (remember South Georgia...) and clouds moving in from the lowlands  made it quite a hard work up there. It was well worth the effort and we even encountered our first Guanacos and Vicunas. A bit less wind however would have been appreciated.....

Towards the Altiplano and crossing Abra del Acay

Abra del Acay is famous, it is maybe the highest mountain pass in the Andes which can be driven on a "public" road. It is challenging, but if the conditions are good not very difficult. As soon as you have snow, ice or rain, it starts to get dangerous or impossible. In these altitudes it freezes every night and during the day snow will melt. This results in a wet track which will ice over during the night. There are only some bridges, smaller streams have to be forded. They will freeze as well. Fresh snow, avelanches, rock slides and frozen patches of the track are ocurring regularly. In the dry cold season it is hardly a problem, but in the wet season (means snow and warmer temperatures) it is very different. We have been at the end of the dry season and it was as smooth as it could be. Nevertheless it is a challenge and there is NO traffic. You may encounter motor bikers, mountain bikers, runners (no kidding) and some tourists, I think we have seen 5 cars for the 4 hours we needed to cross the pass.

San Antonio de los Cobres and how the whole itinery changed

San Antonio de los Cobres (3750m) is a dusty, windy, cold mining town with nothing to attract visitors. It is, however, at the crossroads of several highland roads and it is the biggest town between Salta and the border to Chile. But there is really nothing to see. We had booked our accomodation til Cachi, but due to the uncertain conditions on Abra del Acay everything else was open, no booking.

We arrived after 6 hours driving in Cobres, quite tired but full of impressions. We checked the first hostal - fully booked, we checked the (only) hotel - fully booked, we checked the second hostal - fully booked, we checked the next hostal, guess what - fully booked, we checked the Tourist Information and I think you already know the answer - not a single bed in Cobres was available! If I understood them right, there was a feria in town?! Bad luck!

Ok you might think, lets go quickly to the next village! Not in the Argentinian Altiplano. According to the Tourist Office we could go to Salta (4-5hours, down to the lowlands), to Susques (4 hours), back to Cachi/La Poma (4-6 hours) to Tolar Grande (5 hours, it was on my itinery for the next day) or to the Quebrada de Humahuaca (4-5 hours, down to the foothills). Most of the roads would have been dust tracks.

We had to sleep somewhere and we had to be very sure to get an accomodation without booking and it should at least fit into my itinery a tiny little bit. Tolar Grande or Susques are small places with not much beds (I never was there and I had no idea what to expect), back to Cachi was a nogo. What was left was Salta or Humahuaca - we decided to go to Humahuaca, which is a very touristy UNESCO world heritage site. But it was a long, long drive. We arrived in Tilcara, that is the main town in the Quebrada, at about 8:30 in a pitch dark night. We found a hotel and called it a day, a long, long day. Cachi-La Poma-Abra del Acay-Cobres-Salinas Grandes-Purmamarca-Tilcara, Not recommended!

The next day we needed a slow start and some time to reorganize our plans for the next days. But the Quebrada is a very photogenic area and was on my list anyway. But it was planned to be the end of the trip, not the middle part.

Quebrada de Humahuaca - a UNESCO world heritage site

The valley of Humahuaca is leading from the Argentinian lowlands (Salta, Jujuy) right up to the Bolivian Altiplano. It was and is a well travelled route and therefore it has a very long history in commerce, wars and culture. In addition it is close to Bolivia and you feel a bit like being in Bolivia with its colorful markets and clothing.

The masses however are drawn to this place because of its colored rocks and andean atmosphere, which is as exotic to Portenos as it is to us! It was already difficult to find very good spots for photography around Cafayate, but it was even more difficult in the Quebrada de Humahuaca. I was very disappointed 30 years ago, that changed after this visit! But is very difficult and very time consuming to produce "really" good pictures. This place is twice as big as the Quebrada de Cafayate, densely populated and full of interesting rock formations. But it is very hard to find good spots for taking pictures, you very often end up at the standard view points close to the main road. I am sure that more and better viewpoints exist, but to find them you have to invest lots of time and to drive and to walk through local communities without maps or guidebooks.

The colored rocks are beautiful and after every bend of the Quebrada there is something new. The bigger valleys leading into the Quebrada are colorful as well. It is an infinite amount of interesting location. The markets and the life in the streets was even more colorful as the rocks. But this place is to big and to complex for a couple of days!

Therefore the departure back up to the high plains came rather easy.... To emphasize it again the atmosphere in Tilcara or Purmamarca is great, especially after all the buses have left, and the landscape is breathtaking, but to make great pictures in the Quebrada is damn difficult!

The changed plan was as following. Back to the Altiplano, stay at Salinas Grandes (we found one hostal and booked it..), drive on to Cobres and stay there. From there we set out to an expedition to one of the highlights of the trip, to the very remote village of Tolar Grande. You do not know Tolar Grande, you cannot find it in guidebooks, you cannot find it on ordinary maps, then you are spot on. That is Tolar Grande and it is one of most amazing drives I ever did in the Altiplano! Back to my plan, stay in Tolar Grande for some nights, return to Cobres (again!) and go down the next day to Salta.

Salinas Grandes

Salinas Grandes is a working salt mine on one of the many salares or salt lakes in the Altiplano. The road from Humahuaca to Salinas Grandes (it is no village, just the salt lake), further on to Susques and Chile is a black road. Therefore it is one of the day trips agencies from Salta, Tilcara and Purmamarca are offering. You get plenty of small busses visiting the salt mines and the little blue ponds. Everything is organized, you hire a guide and you drive with the guide in the car across the white surface to the viewpoints. Good for ordinary visitors, but not so good for photographers. You just are not allowed wait, until some other tourists have seen the ponds, made there selfies or asked the guide to take pictures of them jumping around at 3700m.

Christina dug up a hostal close to Salinas Grandes, the Posada del Silencio. Therefore we could stay close to the salt lake and return to the photogenic spots a second time, as the first tour was a bit disappointing. The landlord was part of the community operating the salt mine and the tourist guiding and he offered us to guide us there early in the morning. I had some excellent shots until the first other tourists started to appear. Very good! The posada is highly recommended not only as it is the only place, but as it is a very good place in this area. It would have saved us 2hours driving, when we had known it on the day we had no room in Cobres!

After a brief visit to Susques we turned back towards Cobres. There is not much to talk about the night in Cobres, but we found a nice restaurant with excellent andean food, that made that stop over at least a bit of a fun!

Towards Tolar Grande and back again

Why Tolar Grande. When I did my resarch for this trip, the name was sometimes mentioned in blogs, it was offered by local travel agencies and by 4x4 trip organizers. The pictures looked promising and the remoteness of this place was very tempting. Moreover we wanted to see some more salares, not only Salinas Grandes. On the long way to Tolar Grande you pass four salt pans (and three mountain passes!). Moreover the Salar de Arizaro, the biggest salt pan in Argentina, was very close to Tolar Grande.

Was it worth while? Definitly yes. It is hard driving and very remote, a 4x4 is highly renommended, but it is one of the most memorable landscapes I have seen in the Altiplano of Argentina and Chile. In Argentina this place is much better known and Tolar Grande has developed a local tourist industry with bed and breakfasts and a good hotel (which for whatever reason cannot be booked). In this area the old traditions dating back to the Incas are still very much alife. The famous ice mummies, now on display in the MAAM in Salta where found right across the Arizaro on the peak of volcán Llullaillaco at an elevation of 6739m.

You want to know, where Tolar Grande is located, have a look on that map (taken in one of the restaurants...). The villages with the big dots are just a couple of houses... Or use this link!

But let the pictures tell you about the landscape. It is barren hot, cold, no shade, dusty, no vegetation but have a look:

In Tolar Grande I had to change a tire, as it was down to the fabric..... It is a demanding place! There are many places on the way to Tolar Grande, which must be awesome during sunrise or sunset, but you have to stay in a tent, which we did not bring. If you want to do things like that, you need water, food, fuel for a cooker, a bigger car and so on. Maybe next time, it would be worth while!

I forgot to mention that Tolar Grande has a train station, you may have seen the pictures.  It is only for freigth trains and it links Salta to the mines in the Altiplano and to Chile. In all the days we have not seen a single train, bit it is still in operation. Our days in Tolar Grande passed very quickly and we could not explore many of the tracks up there.

Back to San Antonio de los Cobres and down to Salta

It took us two days to go to Salta and we again had to stay in San Antonio de los Cobres, but this time we had booked our room in advance! I admit that I have not mentioned the one thing Cobres is famous for, the Tren a las Nubes. The already mentioned railway from Salta to Chile operates a tourist train which terminates in Cobres, to be exact on the bridge La Polverilla.
Of course I wanted to take pictures, but I was a bit late and the bridge was already half in shade. It is an amazing construction and after all the natural structures and forms it was fun to work on something else!

We had our last andean meal in Cobres and the next day we choose the direct road to Salta, which is now nearly all tarmac. My motivation to take pictures was very low after the highlights of the Altiplano.

After Cobres the only stop we had was at some ruins, which reminded us of Quilmes, the ruins of Tastil. I could not connect to this place as I did to Quilmes, but I learned that it is somehow part of an interesting UNESCO world heritage site, the Qhapaq Ñan The road system of the old Inca Empire is in large parts in decay and this world heritage site tries to protect and develop it for science and tourism. Interesting concept, but I cannot imagine how an UNESCO "site" of thousands of kilometers crossing many countries might work! All the same it is worth a try!

In Salta we had a relaxing night and day. The last stop of our journey before flying to Frankfurt was ahead of us, but that will be another story!

What else is to say?

Again this trip was extraordinary and I will never forget these three weeks!

Most of this Bolg was written 3 weeks ago, but I could not finish it before I left to guide my workshop in Iceland, my backlog in files and stories is still growing.....

I try to write my blog about Buenos Aires and Iceland before I leave Munich again. Nothing is booked right now, but it may happen soon and it will be The North again, stay tuned

Check out my workshop pages for my next workshops!


Munich February 2018