Salinas Grandes - Largest Salt Flats in Argentina

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Our next destination is the Salinas Grande, which at 60kms long are the largest salt flats in Argentina. The route was uphill, though the mountains - again a different style of mountain from those we have been driving through. Our little Clio wound its way up through countless hairpin bends for 40-50 kilometers and climbing some 2000 metres (and up with no other cars around). Several hours later, the Clio was losing whatever strength it may have had as the altitude zapped away its energy (it seems altitude sickness affects cars as well as people). Still up and onwards we went. With no villages or towns since we left Pumamarca, we had little choice. Luckily we had some sweeties to keep our strength up as we continued to climb higher.

Clive was seriously worried that the car would not get us back to any form of civilisation as for a large part of this section of the trip he could only use 1st and 2nd gears. This road is high! Up to 4500m high. As we get out of the car to take in the views and a few photos the wind is strong and literally takes our breath away. Then suddenly (after 4 hours of hairpin in bends and mountain roads) we drive over the crest of the mountains and experience the magnificent view of the altiplano below. At 4200m above sea level and with little human habitation or pollution the air is incredibly clear and we could see the salt flats in the distance.

The Salt flats or Salinas Grandes as they are known, are huge covering an area of approx 8300km2 - about 60 kms from end to end. A tarmac road runs across this massive expanse of white - so we drive along this to get a better view. The salt flats rather than being flat have crystallised into hexagonal crusts right across the very hard salt surface of the flats. As we drove along the road on our right, some large trucks were driving on to the fields to collect the salt (& potassium deposits) as they disappeared into the distance they look like those toy Tonka trucks. We found a slope on the left and tentatively drove down on to the salt flats themselves. (Understanding that the salt flats are a crust of salt over an expanse of water, I did have some reservations about this - especially as the trucks were on the other side of the road and nothing seemed to be on the same side as us).

We parked the car and got out. It was an eerie experience almost like walking on the surface of another planet. A little posing for photos was needed - without us, the pictures would just look like abstract art.

We got a little braver and drove further out onto the salt fields and found some rectangular pond which had been cut out of the salt. In these ponds, which were an incredible shade of blue, the salt was crystalising for harvesting. The salt crust upon which we drove was only 10cm deep but strangely solid. The salt pools and salt forming in them were sparkling in the sun, the water was extremely cold and very clear. A quite amazing site.

Back on the road, we stopped to look at some salt carvings (and a salt house) and spoke with an Argentine hitchhiker (my Spanish must be improving). When I told him where were we heading, he warned me that it was a really tough drive as he had just come that way. He said that it was 100km, took 6 hours with nowhere to get food or even water. He said that the road climbed up to around 5500 metres and that the car he had been in had barely made it and was travelling only at a walking pace due to the lack of oxygen. We decided to bear this warning in mind.

As we drove along, I was not entirely sure that I had understood all of the warning correctly and became less sure as we did not seem to be climbing up too steeply.  The next town on the map, San Antonio de los Cobres, was a town we had also been warned about (by the Polish hitchhiker) as being a rather grim place to stay. Apparently the only thing this town has going for it the closest place to the Salt flats (4 hours away).

Despite these dire warnings we just drove onwards(we must have adopted the laid back style of Argentina). We were on the infamous Route 40 after all. Along the way we spotted lots of wild donkeys and vicunas (but no people) and drove for perhaps an hour and a half alongside the edge of the salt flats.

Eventually we arrive in San Antonio de los Cobres. It was grim, very grim! It appears to be an old mining town and was very windy and very, very dusty a bit like some of the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, all that was missing was the Enio Morricone sound track and the tumbleweed blowing through the town! San Antonio is also the final destination of the very expensive Tren de la Nubes (Train to the Clouds) so named because of the altitude it climbs through the mountains (I think it reaches 4200metres making it one of the highest train journeys in the world). It was at this point that we had a choice of turning off of the road along which we had been travelling. It was also here that I realised that I had understood correctly the Argentine hitchhikers warning correctly, as I saw on the map that if we continued along our original route it would mean crossing a mountain range that peaked at over 6000 meters......... Maybe in a Land Rover but not in a Renault Clio! We decided to drive the alternative route which was on gravel roads rather than the donkey tracks marked on the map for the other route. We really did not want to stay overnight in the town and just kept going. It meant a long, long drive, but it was definitely the right decision.
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