Exactly one year ago, I traveled to the Puna, a desert in northern Argentina, with my husband, Jorge. In January, when I returned to San Francisco, I took a travel writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera with the fabulous Don George. Don enjoyed the essay I wrote on the Puna so much that he decided to include it in Lonely Planet’s 2014 anthology, “The Innocent Abroad“, which was published this month. Here is the complete essay:
We drove for hours through a vast frigid desert littered with silver rubble and scraps of ancient lava. A solitary dirt path stretched before us endlessly. It snaked past incinerated volcanoes cloaked in black ash and mountains of red earth before dissolving into a tidal wave of purple peaks bobbing in a metallic sea. A fierce sun clung to every rock, mountain and grain of sand, causing my vision to blur and my temples to pulsate. There was a sinister quality to this place that permeated my body to its core.
We were in the Puna, a high-altitude desert in the extreme northwest of Argentina near the border with Chile and Bolivia. Along with the Atacama Desert to the west and the Bolivian Altiplano to the north, the Puna comprises one of the driest regions on earth, a place so hostile to life that it is frequently compared to Mars. I had come to this region drawn by the visual spectacle of otherworldly landscapes and had chosen the Puna, in particular, because it is by far the most remote and least visited of the three border regions. Now that I was here, I felt deeply unsettled. I cringed at the glaring monotony of the surroundings.
And yet, the Puna beckoned to me. At every turn, I would spot a dozen stupefying images that I wanted desperately to capture on my camera or describe in my journal. This bleak land was stranger than I could have ever imagined and every scene that horrified me fascinated me in equal measure. My curiosity propelled me forward.
My journey to the Puna began a world away in Salta, a bright and vibrant city with pleasant palm tree-filled plazas and lively cafes. There, as I lounged with my husband, Jorge, on the terrace of the elegant finca where we were staying, I fantasized about our journey to the Puna. The Puna had become the focal point of our two-week vacation to northwest Argentina after I had chanced upon a photograph of its hypnotic clay-colored dunes a few months earlier on the internet. I was immediately captivated. I imagined myself with Jorge driving through the windswept dunes in a jeep, exhilarated by the magical solitude of the desert, exploring a place that few had ever seen.
Once in Salta, I immersed myself in a book about the history of the Puna. An ancient plateau of hard crystalline rock, it had originated at sea level. During the Tertiary Age, with the formation of the Andes, the Puna erupted to its present height of 13,000 feet. Indigenous peoples settled in the Puna long before Spanish colonists arrived, including the Incas, who asserted their control over northwest Argentina for roughly sixty years. The book interspersed this historical account with spectacular photographs of dazzling salt flats and pink flamingos, both legacies of the Puna’s maritime origin, as well as volcanoes, lava fields, and undulating expanses of sand. I marveled at the exotic beauty of it all.