With perspective-bending landscapes, ruddy pastel colors, and a harsh, remote location, Argentina’s Atacama Plateau feels downright Martian.
Although Richard Branson, NASA, and the Mars One Astronauts are working hard to make outer space a vacation destination worthy of the Jetsons, plenty of extraterrestrial landscapes can be found right here on Earth. From your rusty, Mars-like Wadi Rum to your salt-flat moonscapes in Uyuni, you can easily have an out-of-this-world experience without ever setting foot on a rocket ship. You can even find yourself in a galaxy far, far away just outside of Tozuer, Tunisia. However, you’ll likely share each of these alien-looking landscapes with enough other intrepid travelers to make up an entire moon colony.
But you don’t need to stray far from the more famous spots to find places that retain that “final frontier” feeling (for now, at least). On a recent trip to Salta, Argentina, for the Adventure Travel World Summit, a gathering of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, I had the opportunity to visit the region’s Puna de Atacama on a three-day excursion, hosted by Turismo Responsable and Turismo Salta. If you’re thinking of Chile’s Atacama Desert, you’re not far off; Argentina’s high plateau (“puna” means “plateau”) abuts the Chilean desert—and boasts similar unearthly landscapes. In fact, a visit to the arid, high-altitude region might be even more out of this world than a trip to the Atacama Desert. Here’s how:
The plateau’s elevation averages 13,000 feet above sea level. Sure, it’s not quite as extraterrestrial as lofty Mount Everest (29,035 feet above sea level), or even the nearby Andes Mountains, but it’s far closer to the edge of our atmosphere than you’ll get on a daily basis.
The journey is long.
It won’t take you light-years to reach the High Puna, but it’s not a quick day trip, either. The entry hub for the region is Salta, which is accessible by a two-hour domestic flight from Buenos Aires, or short-haul flights from neighboring Chile and Bolivia. From Salta, I endured the 10-hour drive to the heart of the High Puna along undeveloped terrain in a 4x4 truck, snuggled in with four other people.
Full of dusty, red, gumdrop-shaped bumps and irregular, popcornlike salt flats, both the Puna de Atacama and its big brother in Chile look exactly like what you’d expect to see on Mars. But the comparison doesn’t stop with the visuals; there are geologic and climatic parallels as well. In fact, because the temperature and elevation extremes are so similar to those of the red planet, NASA tests its life-detecting tools in the Atacama Desert. Although NASA isn’t testing in the Puna, the volcanic region is Mars-like in its mineral abundance. Those Martian-red colors come from iron deposits, and its many salt flats are filled with lithium, marble, copper, and onyx.
. . . and so are the early life forms.
Whether or not there is life on Mars is a question for NASA. If there is, however, it would probably look a lot like the prehistoric life forms burrowed in the salt lakes of the Puna de Atacama. The microorganisms, known as stromatolites, are among the earliest-known forms of life on Earth and continue to thrive in certain places—including in the Puna’s Ojos del Mar lakes.
Despite being a harsh, remote place, there are scattered villages across the plateau. Tolar Grande, a village in the heart of the region and surrounded by lithium-rich salt flats, was once an abandoned mining town. As the demand for lithium—used in the production of cell phone batteries—has skyrocketed since 2010, the town has been resettled. The spindly radio towers and metal-domed community center may make it look distinctly spacelike, but the town is anything but alien. With a handful of homestays, rustic restaurants, Wi-Fi (though I found that a fair amount of pacing and phone-waving was necessary to get a signal), and even a small hotel, Tolar Grande is set to receive the growing numbers of adventure travelers eager to explore the surrounding areas.
Unlike its famous desert counterpart, the Puna de Atacama hasn’t yet been trodden by quite so many pairs of feet. On our three-day adventure, we saw one other truckload of ATWS delegates, a group of motorcyclists, and a pair of travelers on a self-guided tour. Besides the residents of Tolar Grande and the other town we stopped in, San Antonio de los Cobres, we saw no one else. There were times when hiking around the sand dunes, we felt like there was no one else on the planet.
. . . and can forge your own path.
Somehow, Argentina has managed to keep these jaw-dropping landscapes a secret from the rest of the world, but Salta is becoming a destination for adventure travelers, and the secret is spreading—fast. For now, the Puna is still remote and relatively undeveloped. There are no barriers keeping you on the paths, nothing more than signs warning drivers that off-roading is illegal (and to be fair, in some spots, the off-road looks suspiciously like the road itself). But like footsteps on the moon, every little disturbance has a lasting impact. So when you visit—and you should—it’s up to you to make the effort to tread lightly to help the Puna maintain that otherworldly feeling all who visit cherish.