The search for solitude takes Ben Stubbs to the desert flats of the Puna, where isolation is a way of life.
WE WIND through the terracotta mountains of the Labyrinth Desert, watching the snow-covered volcanoes frame the valley below and packs of wild vicunas scamper across the road, the first living things we've seen for hours.
I'm looking for a holiday of isolation and I've arrived in one of the most vacant landscapes on Earth to find it.
The Puna of north-west Argentina is a high-altitude plain of ancient inland oceans, pink flamingoes and mountains closer in height to Everest than Kosciuszko. For all its beauty, the Puna is unknown to most travellers, except the occasional shepherd or Andean recluse.
I am in this remote pocket of Argentina between Chile and Bolivia with Sebastian del Val, who works for Socompa, an adventure company based in Salta, which is a day-and-a-half's drive behind us. Sebastian learnt the ways of the Puna during many years spent working in the mines as a geologist and he now takes people into the middle of nowhere to show them the harsh beauty of the Altiplano that leads upward towards the Andes. As we drive across the lunar landscape, Sebastian says no more than 100 tourists usually make it to this part of Argentina each year.
Clouds like petrol smears and ridge-back mountains that resemble overturned pappadums fill the windshield as we drive. The salt road is dead straight for 70 kilometres as it leads to the "city". As close as you get to civilisation up here, Tolar Grande is a mudbrick village of 70 people, an abandoned train station and the sort of view of mountains, primordial ponds and volcanic horizons that sucks up hours as I lose all concept of time, lost in my imagination.
The mountains are dotted with original Incan trails, cut like lightning bolts into the side of ridges that have never seen the traffic of trekking groups or package tourists.
Sebastian and I climb to the top of the town to watch the sun drop behind the mountains. The sunlight retreats across the turquoise ponds on the plain; they are called the Ojos del Mar, the Eyes of the Sea, and these salt-crusted pools contain algae discovered recently to be 472 million years old, one of the oldest forms of life on the planet.
The few living things that do remain on the Puna have all retreated inside.
The wind rips against my exposed skin and Sebastian and I return to the shelter.
The temperature is well below zero and we pull our beds close to the pot-bellied stove that burns throughout the night.
The next morning is crisp and bright. Sebastian starts the four-wheel-drive and says he wants to introduce me to some of the people of the Puna. My lips are chapped and I have a hangover from the altitude; Sebastian presses a clump of coca leaves into my hand and within a few minutes I have the required buzz to begin the day.
We cross the Salar del Diablo, the Salt Flat of the Devil, passing abandoned shepherds' huts made from salt blocks and the 6739-metre Llullaillaco volcano, where, in 1999, archaeologists found the perfectly preserved remains of three Incan children, ceremonially dressed and surrounded by artefacts from Cuzco and Lake Titicaca that date back more than 500 years. These children can still be viewed at the archaeological museum in Salta.
After more than an hour on the salt road, we encounter the first signs of a human presence in the Puna in the 21st century.
Rodriguez the hermit wakes every morning to the same treeless view across the Arizaro salt flat. Orange strands of light peek over the mountains from Bolivia as vicunas and wild donkeys begin foraging for food and Rodriguez's pyramid comes to life. The Cono de Arita is a perfectly triangular volcanic cone that would look more at home in a vista of Egypt rather than in front of a hermit's hut on the high plains of Argentina. As the ground thaws, Rodriguez exits his mudbrick home and has his breakfast of canned fruit alone in his dining room on the edge of one of the world's longest salt flats, a routine he has kept to for the past 40 years as the only resident of this remote landscape.
As we chew coca leaves and look towards the distant mountains on the Chilean border to the west, Rodriguez tells us he arrived here in 1970 as a borax miner. The company he worked for went bust and he volunteered to stay on and look after the mine while it was refinanced. That was four decades ago and Rodriguez still hasn't heard a thing. He says he likes it up here and hasn't really considered leaving. It is uncomplicated and there is always something to do. Apart from half-a-dozen travellers each year, his visitors are usually vicunas, vultures and the odd puma looking for food. Rodriguez used to ride his pushbike the 70 kilometres into Tolar Grande from his shack a few times a year when he was younger for a weeklong drinking session at the only pub.
Solitude is Rodriguez's way of life and he begins to fidget and look out the window like a boy as we chat. He makes an excuse that he has his errands to attend to and thanks us for the gift of coca and tinned fruit. He leaves us alone to admire his pyramid in the tearing wind. We are above 4000 metres and my altitude headache kicks in, eased once again by a clump of coca leaves chewed like cud.
Sebastian and I head across the salt flat towards Antofajita, an oasis a few hours further along the Puna. The only vegetation is the clumpy rica-rica plant that resembles tufts of Don King's hair on the otherwise bald plains.
We pass scavenging foxes and see the shadows of eagles gliding across the thermals searching for food among the skeletons of llamas and vicunas. We cross a volcanic rift, hundreds of metres long, that looks as if the earth has regurgitated a mountain of black basalt. From the lip of the rift we descend into the valley. Without warning, poplar trees appear and herds of sheep dot the lush, green pasture below.
At the oasis of Antofajita, we are met by Dominga and her son, Franco, who runs through the trees chasing goats in the absence of any human playmates. Dominga is looking after her mother's animals while she visits Tolar Grande or, as she calls it, "the city".
A spring bubbles from behind their sturdy hut, the only sound except for the scalpel of the wind. Dominga tells us her mother Corina has lived at Antofajita her entire life. Seldom does anyone come past and they have a radio to contact the outside world if they need to. Sebastian and I are the first visitors to Antofajita in six months. Corina lives here and her brother has a house 100 metres across the paddock that looks out to the surrounding veined cliffs.
They are the only inhabitants for hours in any direction, yet we're told Corina and her brother don't speak to each other. "They had a fight years ago and haven't uttered a word to each other since," Dominga says. The magnitude of the silence is immense and after Dominga excuses herself to round up the animals, Sebastian and I head out once again across the Puna.
This empty pocket of Argentina is harsh and beautiful and as we travel back under the shadow of the volcanoes, I turn on the radio. There is nothing but static, though it drowns out the vacant roar of the wind as Sebastian and I head back the other way, towards civilisation once again.
The writer travelled with assistance from Aerolineas Argentinas and Destino Argentina.
Aerolineas Argentinas has low-season flights from Sydney to Buenos Aires and then on to Salta from $1450. Australian citizens are charged $US100 ($99) to enter Argentina. (02) 9234 9000, aerolineas.com.
Finca Valentina is a luxury country house at the foot of the Andes just outside Salta, with an open fireplace, outdoor pool and Wi-Fi. finca-valentina.com.ar.
The custom Puna adventure is a three-day return trip from Salta with local adventure company Socompa, which can be arranged on request.
Socompa's four-day north-west adventure from Salta includes transport, an interpreter, accommodation and all food for $US543 a person.
It is possible to arrange any itinerary before you arrive to suit your preferences and time constraints, including the Bolivian Altiplano and the entire north-west of Argentina. See socompa.com for its custom journeys into the Andes.
Three (other) things to do
1. The "Train to the clouds" leaves from Salta in the early hours for a journey through the canyons and valleys of the remote north-west of Argentina. It reaches a breathless 4200 metres (oxygen is available on board) and passes through 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, two spirals and two zigzags. There are three departures a week. trenalasnubes.com.ar.
2. Take a drive up the valley from Salta through the amazing towns of Purmamarca, Humahuaca and Tilcara. These traditional "pueblos" are made mostly of mudbrick and have some of the most amazing scenery in Argentina, with wandering llamas, the "seven coloured mountains" and a vibrant arts scene. destinoargentina.com.
3. Visit a pena. These traditional folk venues are all over the north of Argentina and are a great way to experience local culture. Musicians play guitars, pan flutes and two-metre horns until the wee hours of the morning while the crowd eats traditional saltenas and tamales washed down with bitter draughts of fernet. turismosalta.gov.ar.