Catamarca, located in the northwest of Argentina, has landscapes that seem to be brought from another planet: volcanoes, salt flats, and lakes paint the lands in the southernmost part of the Puna. The Puna extends throughout all the Argentine northwest, north of Chile, Bolivia, and parts of Peru. It is characterized by its reddish landscapes, its dry climate of height, and its diverse fauna typical of the region.
Catamarca is a province that receives relatively few tourists, but it enamours everyone who visits it. This entire section of the Cordillera de Los Andes (Andes mountains) is located within the Los Seismiles region because of the more than twenty mountains and volcanoes with heights greater than 6,000 meters above sea level. Some of these summits to this day have not been climbed. In particular, the Ojos del Salado volcano reaches 6,891 m.a.s.l., which makes it the highest volcano in the world and the second highest peak in the Andes, after Aconcagua. The two unmissable cities of Catamarca are Fiambalá and Antofagasta de la Sierra, from where it is possible to travel to many of the most attractive points of the Andes Mountains.
Of easy access and just 100 km away from the National Route 40, Fiambalá is the last city before the San Francisco Pass in the border between Argentina and Chile. The city has around of 5,000 people, and you will find a lot of great places to eat. There are inns and camping sites in the city.
However, a more interesting but also more complicated journey are the paths that emerge from the route just before one arrives at the Hotel Cortaderas. One of these backroads goes to Balcón del Pissis, from where it is possible to see the Pissis’s volcano, the second highest volcano of the world, and a sequence of lagoons with colours that go from turquoise to black. A different path takes one to the base of the Ojos del Salado.
These two tours require a full-day trip, starting at night in order to get out of the backroads with the last lights of the day. The paths are dangerous, and it is not recommendable to do it without a tour guide and a 4×4 truck. Several hours of the trip are above the 3,000 meters, the reason why it is probable to get altitude sickness. Furthermore, from Fiambalá it is possible to go to the hot springs and the Tatón Dunes.
Is Aconcagua the highest point in the Andes Mountains?
Aconcagua is considered the highest mountain in South America, with an altitude of 6,962 m.a.s.l., just around 70 meters higher than the Ojos del Salado. However, before 1950 the measurements gave different results and ranked the Ojos del Salado above Aconcagua. From an experimental point of view, measuring the altitude of a mountain with high precision could be difficult, and still there is certain controversy about the exact altitude of both summits.
Antofagasta de la Sierra
Antofagasta de la Sierra is a small, quiet village that can be the base to visit many of the most interesting attractions in the area. Due to a large number of volcanoes that can be found in the region, Antofagasta de la Sierra was declared the national capital of volcanism in 2018.
One of the must-see places is the Salar de Antofalla. The salt deposit is the second longest in the world, approximately 180 km long. The whole area is stunning, and one does not cease to marvel at the variety of colors and shapes that result from the perfect harmony between salt flats, volcanoes, and mountains. One of my favorite places in this area is the Parador de Botijuela or Vega de Botijuela, a small oasis located on the edge of the salt deposit (Cover photo). Due to the vegetation and water supply provided by a geyser that has been inactive for years, llamas and sheep remain in this small plot that has a single house inhabited by the amiable Simon Morales and his dog Quique.
On the other hand, it is possible to go to the Galán volcano, a collapsed caldera whose mouth reaches an amplitude of 34 km in diameter. From within its crater, a small mountain range rises, as well as several lagoons and lakes. Due to the amplitude of the crater, it is impossible to notice the volcano unless by means of satellite images.
Another destination that can be explored starting from Antofagasta de la Sierra or from El Peñon is the Campo de Piedra Pómez (pumice field). It was formed as a result of the accumulation of the ashes from the Blanco volcano when it was still active. It is easy to get lost here.
There are many other interesting places that can be visited from Antofagasta de la Sierra. One can spend a whole week there, and there is always something new to explore. In particular, it is possible to climb the Antofagasta volcano, from which you can see the mouth of the volcano as well as the entire valley of volcanoes that surround the region.
How to arrive to Antofagasta de la Sierra?
Arriving in Antofagasta de la Sierra can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. From the bifurcation of El Eje on National Route 40 are some 200 km of route, but due to the difficulty of the road, it takes more than four hours of travel. It can be reached by car, but there is a single bus, El Antofagasteño, which departs once a week from San Fernando to Antofagasta de la Sierra. However, it takes a long time to travel, and given the low supply, this can complicate travel plans. Another option is to look for people who are traveling to Antofagasta de la Sierra and ask them to give you a ride. In general, in Catamarca people are very nice, and there is always someone willing to take you up the road. Once in Antofagasta de la Sierra, the only way to access all these destinations is by means of a 4×4 truck and a very good knowledge of the area and its inhabitants. The group excursions are not very expensive and highly recommended (for example, check out the Inn Incahuasi).
Museos del Hombre
Both Fiambalá and Antofagasta de la Sierra have two museums that are really worth checking out. In addition to objects of historical value, each of the museums has two mummies preserved in perfect condition at room temperature, which I found surprising, to say the least.
In particular, in the museum of Antofagasta de la Sierra the mummies are inside a fish tank on a plastic table and one of the windows of the room where they are directly on the central square. It is odd to walk around at night knowing that less than two meters away is a mummy in perfect condition. More interesting still is the story of the mummy stolen between November 1987 and January 1988 and that to this day it has not turned up. It should be noted, however, that everyone seems to know where it is but will not comment on its whereabouts.
Shincal Ruins (Londres)
The Shincal de Quimivil is an archeological site located about 5 km from the city of London, which is on the National Route 40. The site has a very large historical value because the ruins were part of what was the capital of the southernmost citadel of the Incan Empire. The ruins impressed me tremendously and reminded me of many archaeological remains in the city of Cusco, Peru. Easy to access and little visited, this destination is highly recommended.
The ruins represent a good example of the conflict that exists between the concept of the heritage of humanity and what these sacred places represent for many other people. On the one hand, groups of archaeologists go there to study the site, build a museum, and then the tourists follow. On the other, for the people who lived there prior to this incursion, the ruins represent a place where their history and traditions converge. Without having a clear answer, I wonder to what extent these sites belong to all of us.
Catamarca represents a true jewel of Argentina, with beautiful landscapes and with an undeniable mystery it preserves because of how little it is explored. I could write much more about places and data that I learned during my time there, but the best way to know about it is by going and letting yourself be marveled.