Argentina is a huge and diverse country. So, after Patagonia and its glaciers in the south and the jungle in the center, we go to the northeast in the high mountains. Two days for a little trip in the clouds.
In fact, our main objective is the Train to the Clouds, one of the highest railways in the world, which reaches at 4,219 above sea level. To round off our stay, we chose to go to The Great Salt Flat at 3,450 meters altitude.
After getting our flight tickets and booking two nights at Salta, we left Buenos Aires.
The town of Salta
Salta is the largest city in the province of Salta with approximately 618,000 inhabitants.
Perched at 1,152 m above sea level, it was founded in 1582 by the Spanish conquistador and tyrant Hernando de Lerma as an outpost between Lima (Peru) and Buenos Aires. He named the city after him and linked it to a saint: San Felipe de Lerma, valley of Salta.
It was as a result of a popular revolution that the name Lerma disappeared and the city simply became Salta.
Why the name Salta ?
Several hypotheses exist. It could be an Indian tribe, the “Saltas”; “salla ta” or “sagtay” meaning “steep place” and “encounter of the exceptional” respectively in Quechua; or “sagta,” “very beautiful” in Aymara language. The city and its surroundings are indeed magnificent.
Our 1st-day program – The Train to the Cloud – Salta province
- Departure from Salta
- Photo breaks and visits along the way. The village of Campo Quijano, the famous Viaducto del Toro and breakfast in Quebrada del Toro
- Arrival in San Antonio de los Cobres – Train tour to the Viaduct of La Polvorilla
- Back to Salta
We left Salta at 7:00 am for a four-hour drive along the Toro Gorge to reach San Antonio de los Cobres, the location of the Train to the Clouds.
Our journey, interrupted by photo pauses and visits, finally seemed shorter than I had imagined.
The village of Quebrada del Toro
It is in the square of this village where we had our breakfast, and discovered the unique story of this place, which is very important to the area.
When we visited the church, I was surprised to find a framed football jersey. Since the Argentinians love this sport, why not? I thought Chifri was a footballer till I discovered he was Father Chifri.
He came to Quebrada del Toro in 1999 to promote the area and its people. He created several social projects, such as the Artisanal Center and the Collective of Dreams, before building the region’s first high school, Mountain Shelter. A strategic point located at equal distance from the 25 hill communities.
San Antonio de los Cobres
We arrived in San Antonio de los Cobres in the late morning.
The village is located at 3,775 meters above sea level — we’ve already climbed quite a bit from Salta.
It was named after San Antonio, the holy protector of mules and travelers — the first not being related to the second 😉 — and the nearby Sierra de Cobre or Copper Mountain, which is rich in this mineral.
We got off the bus to mingle with the crowd of other travelers already there. After a slalom between the street vendors of warm clothes and rolls, we reached our wagon to board.
This is the start for adventure…
The train to the clouds – El tren a las nubes
The railway line was created to connect northern Argentina to the Chilean coast through the Andes, in order to develop the trade of the region.
The two major difficulties of this project were the uneven terrain and especially the steep differences in altitude. They had to get the train up to the top of the mountain.
After numerous studies conducted between 1889 and 1916, the engineers adopted the zigzag climbing system. The idea is to build the track like a Z. The trains then climb back and forth parallel to the slope.
For a short distance, the middle leg of the Z, the direction of movement is reversed, before the original direction resumes.
The construction of the line began in 1921 and lasted until 1948.
As the expected commercial impact was never reached, in 1972, the Argentinian railway company decided to open the route to tourists — a three-hour round trip between San Antonio de los Cobres station and the Polvorilla viaduct, 4,220 m above sea level.
A journey through beautiful, almost desert landscapes.
On the way, we first discovered the ancient hot springs of the Termas de Pompeya. One can see in the background what remains of a small abandoned pond. The thermal baths were well-known in the 1950s, until the springs were diverted by the Concordia mine — which we will see later — and the site was closed. Back then the sulfurous waters reached temperatures between 35 and 52 degrees Celsius.
The old Concordia mine was called the “King’s Silver Mine.” After closing for the first time when fifteen workers died in an explosion, it was reopened 90 years later under the name of “El Socavón de los Muertos,” the abyss of death. But a flooding of the galleries led to its final closure in 1986.
In the distance, we see the Negro volcano of Chorrillos which covers an area of about 5.88 km2.
At last, we reached the famous Polvorilla viaduct
Because everything is about that viaduct. Moreover, our arrival was worthy of a science fiction film. “Crucial stage music” played in the background as the train slowed down to cross the bridge. By the way, if you pay attention, you can hear the music on the video!
A unique moment. Funny, but unique.
The viaduct in a few figures
It is a steel beam structure 223 meters long, 63 meters high, weighing 1,590 tonnes and located at 4,200 meters above sea level. It is one of the highest railway bridges and sections in the world.
The guide called it “the little brother of the Eiffel Tower,” but I haven’t found the link!
Two solutions were presented in order to cross a ravine that was on the railway line — make a detour of 18 km so as not to lose the altitude already gained, or build a viaduct. They opted for the latter.
The rails had to be curved as well as inclined. Therefore, the construction of six sections 14 meters long and seven 20 meters long, supported on six steel piles with a stone base.
That said, the construction of the viaduct was a real tour de force.
Why the “Train to the Clouds?”
It is true that the train is in the mountains and that the peaks are often in the clouds. But these aren’t the ones we’re talking about…
Everything started from the project of two cameramen from Tucuman, a city further south. In the 1960s, before the tourist exploitation, they made a documentary about the train.
When they reached the Polvorilla viaduct, the locomotive released a jet of steam. Due to the low outside temperature, it floated in the air for a few moments before dissipating. The journalist commentator of the film, drawn by this smoke embracing the train, baptized his documentary “The Train to the Clouds” — which was then taken up by the railway company.
After a round trip on the viaduct, we stopped for a short photo break.
What a joy to enjoy the flatbreads filled with ham and cheese and cooked on a barbecue — which I will never get tired of — in such a beautiful environment!
After this little snack, it was time to leave. On the way back, we stopped for lunch in San Antonio de los Cobres before heading back to Salta.
After this little snack, it was time to go back. On the way back, we stopped for lunch in San Antonio de los Cobres before heading back to Salta.
Our programme for the second day – Jujuy province
- Departure from Salta – Crossing the gorges of the Rio Grande
- Stop on the outskirts of Purmamarca at the Hill of Seven Colors
- Ascent of the Humahuaca gorges to reach The Great Salt Flat — Las Salinas Grandes
- Return to Salta with stop in the center of the village of Purmamarca for lunch and discover other colorful hills
The Hill of Seven Colors – Cerro de los Siete Colores
Another wonder of nature. It’s surprising to see these seven colors, really distinct from each other. The big green mountain is just as amazing.
It is the minerals contained in the rock that cause this phenomenon.
Here are some examples of which mineral/s makes which color:
- Rose — red clay, mud, and sand.
- White — substances rich in calcium carbonates.
- Red — red clays.
- Green and blue — composed of phyllites and several ferromagnesian-rich clays.
- Brown — rock and magnesium.
- Yellow — iron sulfide.
Although scientific explanation is one thing, I prefer stories and legends. The Purmamarca one is actually quite cute.
Because here, colors have nothing to do with these minerals. They come from the stubbornness of children.
At the origin of the village, the hill was plain, making it as dull as any other mountain.
The young people of Purmamarca found this too sad and unacceptable. Even if the adults explained to them that it was normal, they refused this idea and decided to act.
So they came up with a plan to fix it.
Every night, they quietly left their room and every morning, the parents woke up with a surprise; a new shade added to the hill.
Thus, on the seventh day, in order to understand what was happening, the adults got up in the night and noticed the disappearance of the children. Panicked, they started looking for them everywhere until they saw them rolling down the hill laughing and playing, carrying their cans of paint.
Since then, the hill has been completely covered with the seven colors that the children painted.
The gorges of Humahuaca
The first part of the road went smoothly. After a stop to admire the Hill of Seven Colors, we left again in the direction of the Great Salt Flat. Our guide had advised us to buy coca leaves to get ready for the altitude.
So we did it for fun.
Of course, back in the bus, we tore the bag open and threw ourselves onto the contents. We took a full bite, chewing happily. It was when our mouths were full that our guide told us not to chew them…
I agree — it is absolutely not good!
In fact, one has to make a small package that is blocked between the cheek and the gums, and the substance inside spreads slowly. It’s less strong! That said, we later discovered that its leaves are consumed differently in each country.
We just had time to get rid of the grass residue stuck in our mouths and replace them with our small package before the bus started the climb. The road was steep, so we went up very quickly, and with that the headache began… It was the only effect altitude had on me. No nausea. However, this migraine followed me every time we went over a certain point.
The view was so impressive and the landscape so different from the one we had just left. Being up so high completely changes nature. The vegetation disappears, except for a few shrubs or short bushes.
The Great Salt Flat
After an unforgettable journey, we arrived at the star attraction of the day, an impressive expanse of sparkling white salt pans.
Located at an altitude of around 3,350 m, The Great Salt Flat is the third largest salt desert in South America, after those of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and the Salar de Arizaro, also in Argentina.
It is a lake that dried up after the Ice Age, turning into a 525 km² salt crust. Thanks to the surrounding volcanoes and the rain that flows along their sides, the salt layer is renewed.
We are here on the ancestral territory of the Kolla and Atacama peoples. These salt pans represent their life, culture and history. They provide them with water and salt, the essential resources for the livelihood of the 6,500 people still living in the region.
A desert of salt that stretches to infinity, altering our vision. There is no reference point and our perspective got completely distorted.
Moreover, one of the site’s featured activities is taking completely offbeat photos. Actually, the main thing is getting your picture taken. Once the entry is paid, you are greeted by a plethora of enthusiastic “guides” offering to take photographs playing on the perspectives.
I posed standing right behind my husband, and pictured above, I became Gulliver holding a Lilliputian… Incredible!
It’s very easy to do cool photos on your own as well. I’ve got dozens of them!
There are several qualities of salt. The best is collected directly from artificially dug turquoise water pools. Then comes the salt harvested from the desert surface. Lastly, the third comes from salt blocks extracted further in depth.
It is also from these that statuettes and other handicrafts sold in the small market at the entrance of the site are created.
The village of Purmamarca
Purmamarca is famous for its daily craft market and spectacular backdrop. A short walk from the center of the village allows you to discover a magical landscape.
Going to the viewpoint of the hills, we discovered this “pyre.” It was built for the summer solstice festival, to pay tribute to the sun. If these great bonfires lit since the dawn of time had much meaning in the past, today they have become a popular youth party night.
It is after a 15-minute walk that we discovered this sublime view.
We took the time to sit down to admire the show. The legend makes sense. It really looks like a child’s drawing with unreal colors.
I would have liked to follow along the path but unfortunately, we were short on time. So a few photos later, we headed back to our bus. It was time to return to Salta.
Here we are far from the mountain landscapes of Patagonia or the jungle of Iguazu.
Indeed, culturally, the northwest of Argentina is more like its neighbors, Bolivia and Peru. This is the land of the Andes, arid valleys dominated by gaunt mountains and colorful hills. It is also the paradise of cacti.
It is this set that sometimes gives us the impression of being on another planet.
The hours traveling were long, but this fact evaporated from my mind as soon as we arrived at each destination. Without a doubt, the magic of the place!
We covered a lot of kilometers over these two days, often on winding roads. We skirted rivers, followed the railway line at the bottom of the valley, took steep passes to cross peaks, and crossed deserts.
A funny note to end.
During the return by bus, my neighbor asked innocently — or not — if it was possible to bring back coca leaves in our suitcases. Well, no! Our guide explained to us that while in South America this remedy is recognized, it is not the case in all countries!