Visit towns where people take siestas and nature reigns.
We arrived at San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca on a spring Tuesday at noon. We had some tamales and beer, settled into our Airbnb accommodation and took a walk to the El Jumeal dam, amazed at the impressive amount of claveles del aire (Spanish mosses), cacti and trees in bloom. That same night we tried the first of many empanadas.
At noon the next day we took the bus to Belén (about 5 hours away). We enjoyed the mountainous landscape, with many varieties of cacti along the route. Belén is a very quiet town. Like all of the places we visited in Catamarca, during siesta time (most of the afternoon) we felt a pervading sense of peace and calm.
The adventure begins
Early the next morning, Carlos, our guide for the following 3 days, picked us up in his 4×4 truck to take us to Antofagasta de la Sierra. On Route 43 we passed through Puerto Viejo, an area surrounded by mountains that look like sunken ships and petrified sea shells – remnants from long ago when the whole area was under water. On the road we passed through the Dunes of Randolfo, a small desert where we came across the first of many wild vicuñas. Later, we visited Laguna Blanca and had lunch in El Peñón, a small, charming town.
In the afternoon we visited the Antofagasta and Alumbrera volcanoes, a lava field covered in black volcanic stones that provides a stark contrast with the surrounding colors in the landscape. At dusk we arrived at the town of Antofagasta, passed a lagoon with some very colorful flamingos, saw cave paintings and climbed a hill to enjoy a panoramic view of the town.
The next day brought stormy, unpredictable weather as we reached a height of 4600 meters. We started at the sulfatera, then crossed Calalasta Creek and arrived at the Salar de Antofalla (salt flats). The Salar can first be seen from above, and as we descended it gave the illusion of endlessness. We arrived at the town of Antofalla (just as charming as El Peñón) and met the family that founded it. After crossing the town, we continued to the “Ojos del Campo” (or “Eyes of the Field”) a number of small yellow, blue, green and red mineral lagunas in the middle of the desert. We enjoyed a picnic and continued towards the access of Botijuela, said to be inhabited by just one person who requests an offering in exchange for passage through the area.
Continuing, we arrived at the Quebrada del Diablo, whose picturesque landscape is difficult to compare to those we’d previously seen – it boasts multicolored mountains, vicuñas, suris, bulls and deserted areas that give way to more mountains and an even richer spectrum of colors.
We returned to Antofagasta for the night. The following day was our highly anticipated visit to Campo de Piedra Pómez, an area that’s easier to reach with the help of an experienced guide and an all-terrain vehicle – there are many stories of cars and trucks that were buried in the sand while driving through. The landscape is like something out of science fiction – incredible white and ochre mountains, total silence. Carlos, our guide, had us focus particularly on the silence in each landscape that we visited.
At the end of the day we went to Londres, where we stayed in the house that had belonged to Dolores Helguero, one of Manuel Belgrano’s wives. Facing a plaza, the old house is a starting point for visits to the ruins of Shinkal, one of the most important archaeological sites in the area. Formerly Diaguita territory, Shinkal was the southernmost Incan city, a local administrative center and provincial capital. It is now a National Historic Monument.
Wine and adobe
From Londres we traveled to Belén and left the next day for Tinogasta. We spent the day in Fiambalá, visited two wineries and talked with Arizu, a man recognized locally for his charisma and his great wines. We spent a few hours in the hot springs and toured part of the Adobe Route, with vineyards and olive groves throughout. Tinogasta seems frozen in time – some friendly neighbors explained to us that long ago the train reached the town, bringing an era of prosperity and productivity that now is long gone.
From Tinogasta we left for the “Seismiles” route – named for a number of volcanoes that surpass 6000 meters in height – on the San Francisco Pass, which connects Argentina and Chile. After all of the natural beauty that we’d seen, from the Quebrada del Diablo to the Campo de Piedra Pómez and experiencing all four seasons in one day, we thought nothing would surprise us. But these landscapes were spectacular. Luis, a new guide (M & A Turismo Aventura), not only showed us local secrets (crabs, cuises or field mice, a small waterfall and more), but also cooked us a meal in the middle of the desert.
I would go back to Catamarca, not only because there is so much more to see and experience, but also to relive every landscape and color, the animals roaming free… and the sense of peace and warmth that permeates both the local communities and the natural world that surrounds them.
María Laura Patti is a fashion designer, co-founder of DORA (www.dorashop.com.ar) and an avid traveler. She and sociologist Pablo López Fiorito spent 14 days touring this beautiful province.