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Published: April 15th 2009
The choice at Mendoza was to head south to Patagonia or head north to deserts and mountains. Having been to New Zealand and seen lots of beautiful lakes and mountains, I decided to take a chance on north and headed to Salta. The main draw for me were the salt flats, Salinas Grandes. Most people go to Solar de Uyuni in Bolivia, which is the largest salt flats in the world and the photos look amazing. I've met a lot of people who've been there and I'm very jealous, in fact I'm regretting not going to Bolivia, you can't go everywhere I suppose - next time. Anyway, I had settled on the inferior salt flat, which was still great, but I also stumbled upon some of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen.
Salta itself is just a city, there's a hill you can climb (or take the gondola if you're lazy) and some cathedrals to look at, not as pretty as Mendoza and not much to do IN the city. Most travelers just pass through on their way to/from Bolivia and I very much doubt this place made much of an impression on them. However, if you are ever
here, I really think you should stop by for a few days because there are some beautiful places just outside Salta.
First there was the tour to Cachi from Salta. Unfortunately, it appears the only way to see the landscape is on a tour (or hire a car), the distances are too long for hiking (which might not even be allowed) or cycling. So I was just like one of those typical tourists that hops off the vehicle at every photo opportunity. Nevertheless, one can still appreciate the variation in landscape - we started off with dense forests, which thinned out to bushes as we drove over mountains, and finally ended up in deserts full of huge cacti.
Then there is the tour to Salinas Grandes. The tour followed the route of the famous Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds), which wasn't running at this time of the year. Again, mountains and cacti, cool but not that different from the tour to Cachi. Salinas Grandes, though, was worth it. When I first saw it I couldn't keep my eyes off it: a vast piece of land, brilliant white and completely flat, stretching into the distance against
a backdrop of distant grey mountains and crystal clear blue sky. Never seen anything like it. It's strange: it's just a flat, white piece of land, but it's so much more than that, just like the Grand Canyon is more than a hole in the ground. It's so beautiful. I must have wondered around it for about an hour, and probably could have stayed longer. Aside from the landscape, what was weird was that although the sun was extremely bright (they was hardly a cloud in the sky) and you'd probably suffer horrendous sun burn without sun-block, but it wasn't very hot at all, probably because we were at 3400 meters about sea-level. Of course we tried some perspective photos (I've seen some very cool ones on facebook), though with varying degrees of success as they're actually quite hard to get right. If you've missed out on Bolivia, definitely check out Salinas Grandes. Solar de Uyuni is meant to be more spectacular though, I can't imagine how beautiful it must be.
The tour dropped me off at town called Purmamarca near Salinas Grandes. There are three small towns in this region, called Quebrada de Humahuaca. Though it's not really
mentioned in the Lonely Planet (South America on a Shoestring), some Argentinians that I've met recommended this place, and since I had some spare time before Buenos Aires, I thought I'd check it out. And boy, am I glad I did!! Purmamarca is famous for the Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of seven colours), which is just incredible. There's a 3km walk around the hill and I loved it so much that I walked it twice, and both times I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The mountains are so rich in minerals that it gives them all these wonderfully vivid colours, it was like a hallucination! I can't believe that this place is not in the Lonely Planet, but I can hardly say this place is off the tourist trail - every Argentinian seem to know about it and Purmamarca, though small, is definitely touristy.
The next town was Tilcara. The landscape is less dramatic than Purmamarca, but there are lots of wilderness to explore around the town. Another strange thing was that when I was trekking I noticed that the moon, and the sun, are both visible until almost midday, maybe it's because the place is near
the equator? The town itself is quite charming too, with a nice handicraft market in the main square. I was only meant to stay for a day, but I was so taken in by the tranquility of the place that I decided to stay an extra day (I figured I should make the most of peace and quiet before hitting hassle and bustle of Buenos Aires and Rio). I stayed at the Casa los Molles, which I recommend just for the hammocks and the view from the garden. I can sat there for an age, looking at the mountains and just letting the hours drift by.
The third town is Humahuaca, which after Purmamarca and Tilcara was quite disappointing. There wasn't much to do and I actually got quite bored.
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