A word on the altitude… and the coca
The best way to avoid sickness is acclimatisation, so our trips are designed to rise gradually in altitude. It's also advisable to avoid large meals, and too much alcohol or coffee while you're travelling. Most importantly, don’t over-exert yourself, and tell your guide if you’re not feeling well.
Our guide will always have a bag of coca to hand: it's rather an acquired (and bitter) taste, but we recommend you try it. The locals will be impressed, and you'll be taking part in a holy ceremony which has existed for centuries. If you really don't like it, there's always coca tea...
Salt & Seven Colours3 or 4 days
We head north along the mountain road from Salta to San Salvador de Jujuy, a taste of the verdant sub-tropical forest to the east of the Andes mountain range, rising into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a gorge gouged out of the landscape with the eruption of the Andes between 12 and 15 million years ago.
Highlights of the Quebrada de Humahuaca include the great multi-coloured rockscape, pre-Inca ruins, numerous old colonial churches, and a Spanish fort now converted into a museum dedicated to the War of Independence: there’s also the country’s most northerly vineyard close to the Tropic of Capricorn.
And of course there’s the famous Seven Coloured Hill in Purmamarca which we’ll see in its best (morning) light, climbing up to a superb viewpoint which takes us away from the crowds.
From Purmamarca, we climb 2,000m in altitude in a winding 30km drive up the Cuesta de Lipan: a spectacular ascent of the outer Eastern range of the Andes, before descending to the Salinas Grandes.
Here you’ll see miners toiling in what must be one of the toughest jobs in the world: digging crystal salt from pools at high altitude in temperatures of 30°C plus. You’ll also meet ex-workers who, thanks to tourism, now make a living carving salt blocks into ashtrays and models of llama and cacti.
After a night in the high altitude town of Susques (3,615m), we travel along the iconic Route 40 which runs more than 5,000km from the north to the south of the country, through some stunning Altiplano scenery, before emerging at La Polvorilla viaduct, the final destination for the Train to the Clouds.
Overnight in the tough mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres (at an altitude of 3,770m), where wind whips through the streets and temperatures can drop to 15 below zero in winter: but the sky is invariably blue and clear and the sunsets can be spectacular.
On our final day, we’ll visit the pre-Inca ruins of Tastil and discover the mysterious story of what happened to the tribe of 3,000 people who lived here. If you’re feeling energetic, we can also take a hike along a rugged and little-explored section of the Inca trail. We return to Salta through the multi-coloured and sparsely populated Quebrada del Toro.
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Wine and Mountains
min 7 days
We head west towards the Andes, into the ancient landscape of the Quebrada del Toro. After a stop at the pre-Inca ruins of Santa Rosa de Tastil, we’ll visit the majestic viaduct of La Polvorilla, towering at a heady 4,200m above sea level.
After rest and altitude acclimatisation in the rugged mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres (3,770m altitude), we climb still higher the following day, reaching 4,700m, our highest point on the whole journey, on the mountain pass of Abra del Gallo, before heading through the broken salt plains of the Salar de Pocitos. From here we descend into the startling terracota lunar landscape of Tolar Grande.
Next, we carve our way through the Salar de Arizaro, Argentina’s largest salt flats, and the biggest in the Andean Altiplano after Uyuni in Bolivia and the Chilean Atacama. They’re home to the monumental Cono de Arita, a giant, naturally formed Pyramid of Salt, which was once an important place of worship for local tribes. The silence is broken only by the creaking of the salt plain as it warms in the 30˚C sun after a night of sub-zero temperatures.
From here we enter a completely different landscape of sweeping desert plains peppered with oases of green lagoons where herds of vicuña graze. If we’re lucky we’ll also see the American rhea, a flightless bird related to the ostrich and emu. We arrive in Antofagasta de la Sierra, a mountain town nestling in the shadow of two volcanoes.
Here we visit some of the most extraordinary ruins in South America: the pukara of La Alumbrera is a pre-Inca fort carved from volcanic rock, and remains of the houses, communal areas, religious shrines and grainstores are still clearly visible.
We will explore the extraordinary lunar landcape of the Piedra Pomez (pumice stone) fields before descending from the mountain plateau through rolling green fields into the Valles Calchaquies. Overnight in Hualfin, home of the tiny, pretty Nuestra Señora del Rosario church. The former chief of this historic town, Juan Chelemin, led an uprising against the Spanish in 1630, and met a predictably brutal end: we can visit the ruins of his fort.
Now it’s time to unwind from the high altitude experience and enjoy the wine region of Catamarca and Salta: you can try a rare Barbera at a tiny winery run by Augustinian monks in Santa Maria before we move onto the vineyards of Cafayate, famous for its white Torrontes. Essential stops along the way include a visit to the extraordinary architectural wonder that is the Pachamama museum at Amaicha del Valle and the pre-Inca ruins of Quilmes.
We travel up the Valles Calchaquies, through the stunning Quebrada de las Flechas, visiting the historic towns of Molinos and Cachi before returning to Salta via the Parque Nacional de los Cardones, a huge plain of candelabra cacti.
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This trip can easily be combined with FOOTSTEPS OF THE CONQUISTADORES for a 10 day exploration of the whole Altiplano
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