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.
The day of our departure for the Puna, we awoke early to meet our guide, Pompon, a jovial middle-aged Argentine with rumpled hair, dark shining eyes and a manic energy he derived from consuming large amounts of yerba mate and coca leaves. Pompon possessed the wildness of a man addicted to extremes. He thrived in the harsh conditions of the Puna. He had been there hundreds of times and his skin bore the scars of life at high altitude, creased and leathery with red cheeks permanently scorched by the sun.
As we drove south, to the province of Catamarca, the landscape emptied. Salta’s verdant tobacco fields and posh vineyards gradually disappeared, replaced by barren stretches of concrete and dust. At midday, we stopped for lunch in Hualfín, a desolate village with a fate intricately tied to the rise and fall of a nearby goldmine. Not a single restaurant was open. The truckload of groceries that arrived on a weekly basis from Salta had not come that week. Exasperated, Pompon knocked on every door until a woman at a corner store with a sign advertising empanadas agreed to scrounge through her kitchen for leftovers. She reappeared with fried eggs, mayonnaise and cold slices of breaded veal cutlet, peasant food in a land where beef is plentiful.
Leaving Hualfín, Pompon announced we were beginning our ascent into the Puna. Giddy with anticipation, I watched happily as the sad concrete houses and passing trucks slowly vanished until no signs of human presence remained. Pink mountains coated with silky white patches of sand swirled before us and unfurled into plush plains carpeted with lime green and mustard-colored grasses. Herds of vicuñas, graceful mammals of the alpaca and llama family highly desired for their soft wool, galloped in the distance, camouflaged by the muted earth tones of the plains. Eventually, the grasses cleared and only sand remained. Here, the Puna unveiled milky ponds with yellow currents flashing like electricity.
At the summit, we caught our first glimpse of our destination for the night, a tiny patch of wispy trees amidst a turbulent sea of gray rubble and scattered boulders. This oasis, Pompon told us, contained a village of shepherds called El Peñón and a spartan inn where we would be the only guests during our two-night stay. I stepped out of the jeep with my camera and struggled against a ferocious wind to photograph the village and desert sprawled beneath us. Face to face with the Puna, I suddenly felt anxious. This was not the dreamy desert of my imagination. It was a dark, foreboding place in which small pockets of life were overshadowed by monstrous emptiness. I shuddered.
On our second day in the Puna, we awoke early to drive to a large lagoon with snow-white shores, known as Laguna Grande. Our journey was bumpy and long and with each passing sand dune and field of blazing yellow grass, we dove deeper into the Puna’s hollow netherworld. A glaring sun cast an eerie haze on our surroundings. I recoiled at the accelerating immensity and monotony of this strange world, feeling as if I were plunging into a black hole from which I would not be able to return.
From the barren stillness, a colony of flamingos emerged suddenly, pastel pink with a flare of yellow on their beaks and black ruffles on their wings. They waded calmly in a lagoon of cobalt blue waters and coarse white salt. Pompon told us the lagoon contained high doses of saltpeter, a toxic chemical used to make gunpowder. Intrigued, I crept softly from the car to photograph the flamingos. Startled by my presence, they squawked and flew from me like nervous children. They knew only the pond in which they lived and were not accustomed to interaction with any other species. I commiserated with their isolation, feeling light years from the safe contours of the world I knew.
My discomfort intensified that afternoon when we drove through another interminable desert to a wasteland of dormant volcanoes and strewn chunks of lava, a cemetery of ancient volcanic eruptions. Here, the air choked with death and disaster. The yellow grasses of the morning, the lagoons, the vicuñas and flamingos had all disappeared. All that remained were shades of gray: dull gray mountains, silver rubble, pearl-colored boulders and charred volcanoes so black they appeared to be permanently obscured by passing clouds.
From among the shades of gray, our destination materialized: a sprawling city of jagged pumice stone nearly two stories high known as Campo de Piedra Pómez. I entered the city cautiously, as if surveying the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. A roaring wind thrashed against the boulders and sprayed them with faint red sand. Before me, a maze of pathways unfurled. I chose one and trod heavily through its fine gray gravel, my shadow consumed by the boulders towering overhead. In the distance, the foreboding Carachipampa Volcano stared at us vacantly. Terrified, yet mesmerized, I pressed ahead.
On our third day in the Puna, we awoke for another long drive, this time to Tolar Grande, a village about ten hours from El Peñón. There, we would behold the clay-colored dunes that had inspired our trip to the Puna. Yet, I did not look forward to this journey. Anticipating the long hours trapped in a car in a blistering desert, I felt only dread.
Even in the early morning hours, the sun beat down on us with ferocious intensity, scorching the passing hills and empty plains. The landscapes followed the same familiar pattern from the previous days: flat expanses of seared lava and freakishly black volcanoes displaced by mountains of green and yellow grasses, rising like stairs, and then uncoiling into rolling plains of pinks and browns.
This time, however, the pink plains shattered and reassembled into a long swath of luminous white salt, the first of the Puna’s giant salt flats. Two lumpy islands floated in the middle, one long and narrow, the other only a small stub, like the body and head of a giant alligator. Half buried in the salt, the alligator appeared to furtively plot his attack as we made our way across the salt flat.
Occasionally, we would pass a flowering of vegetation in the midst of a stark desert. Wherever there was green, there were people, either a hamlet or a single shepherd herding llamas. In one such oasis, amidst a sea of metallic mountains accented by purple peaks, there lived only two people—brothers—who, according to Pompon, refused to speak to each other. In another oasis, home to the village of Antofalla, we stopped for lunch. Less than fifty people lived here in wall-to-wall stone houses with miniature windows overlooking the dusty main street.
One lone tree loomed over the main street of Antofalla. Pompon had planned to spread our picnic lunch in its shadow, the only available escape from the suffocating sun. However, when we arrived, we discovered another car parked beneath this tree. Desperate to avoid the sun, we lay our picnic behind this car and teetered with our sandwiches along the tightrope of shade that remained. The sun assaulted me all the same. Overcome by a wave of nausea and fatigue, I sank woozily onto a nearby cooler.
The rest of the journey was excruciating. A powerful migraine had seized control of my head, causing my temples to throb and tears to stream from my eyes. Nausea and dehydration gripped at my throat. Pompon and Jorge repeatedly insisted I stuff my cheeks with coca leaves, the panacea for all forms of illness in the Puna. However, I refused. Early in the trip, Pompon had told us coca leaves produce a sensation of dryness in the mouth. I worried the coca would exacerbate the dehydration debilitating me.
Miserably slumped across the back seat of the jeep, I felt my hysteria rising. Yet I still felt compelled to document this place. One moment, tall heaps of blackened rubble rushed past us, and the next, the largest salt flat yet materialized, the Salar de Arizaro. In the opposite corner of the salt flat, a perfectly shaped pyramid soared like a cathedral 800 feet into the air. This, Pompon told us, was the Cono Arita. Though no one knew its origin, Pompon explained that many believed it to be a sacred ceremonial site built by the Inca.
I pleaded that we stop. My head pounding and my stomach on the verge of explosion, I stumbled towards the pyramid with my camera. Astonished by the presence of such a precisely shaped structure in the midst of this forbidding desert, I wondered if it were really manmade. What humans in their right minds would have chosen to construct a massive ceremonial site in this desiccated land?
By the time we reached Tolar Grande, a village of terracotta knolls and matching adobe houses, my agony had escalated to the point of crisis. I rushed past Jorge and Pompon and locked myself in the bathroom of our hotel. The rest of the night passed in a blur of vomiting, crying and collapsing into brief spells of fitful sleep. Everything I tried to consume, even water, I would immediately expel violently.
Soon, word had spread across the village that I was “mal de la puna,” the term for those who fall ill here, especially from altitude sickness. I awoke to Jorge insisting that I drink a steaming cup of coca tea. Several villagers had urged him to give me coca. This time I obeyed. I lifted the cup to my face and let its vapor cloud over me. The coca smelled pure, like earth, but in my nauseous state, it repulsed me. I drank it quickly and then bolted for the bathroom. There, I exploded in a final horrific convulsion. Minutes passed. Then, at long last, I sensed relief. I drifted into a deep, peaceful sleep.
The coca calmed me, but the following day I was still too weak and nervous to venture beyond the oasis. I remained in my hotel room with the shades drawn, ecstatic to lie swathed in darkness while the hot sun harassed the world beyond my windows. At the end of the afternoon, I agreed to join Jorge and Pompon for a drive to the nearby Desierto del Diablo, home of the glowing dunes that had appeared so magical to me from the screen of my computer. This would be our final excursion; the next day we would leave the Puna.
As we drove to the dunes, past mounds of clay and the tracks of a deserted railroad, I reflected on the barbarity of this place. For the past three days, the Puna had slowly devoured me, rattling my nerves and ultimately ravaging my body. Yet in doing so, it had aroused me intensely, heightening my awareness of the passing world in a way that rarely occurred when I was in my comfort zone. Was this, in fact, what I had craved?
Eventually, we reached our destination, a crumpled sea of wind-shaped ridges spread as far as the eye could see. Dark storm clouds reeled through the sky, casting a damp chill in the air. I separated from my companions and climbed a small hill with my camera. From this vantage point, a harsh, angling light pierced my skin and a flurry of sand whipped at my hair and settled on my face. A vast emptiness enveloped me. This time, I did not resist. The following day, I would once again be in a world of gentler elements. But for now, I was alone with the Puna. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the wind.