In the previous article we explored the area around Fiambala, Catamarca. Today we’ll drive to the hamlet of El Peñon, still in the province of Catamarca. There are no services in El Peñon, so I highly recommend getting a full tank of gas in El Eje. El Eje is just a gas station right at the intersection of Ruta 40 and Ruta 36. NOTE: at the time of our visit it was cash only. Always carry Argentine pesos with you because not all gas stations can accept credit cards, more so foreign credit cards. It is also not uncommon that their internet connection does not work. The next gas station is in Antofagasta De La Sierra, but we won´t drive straight there and since we will be driving through some remote areas you should start with as much fuel as possible. Your mileage will decrease significantly when you drive in 4×4 on soft surfaces at high altitude.
This looks like a long detour but there are no real alternatives and there are some interesting places to visit on the way. If you have an interest in archeology, right as you leave Fiambala starts the “Ruta Del Adobe”. There are a number of ancient churches and buildings along Ruta 60 or close by. Some are well signed, some require a bit of effort to find. Further along I highly recommend stopping at El Shincal Inca Site, just outside the town of Londres. El Shincal was the southern capital of the Inca empire. The site is well organized and very interesting. There are guided tours available. It is possible to overnight in the parking area at the entrance of the site. We found a nice spot on the right side of the road half way between the town and the site. Londres has a couple of small supermarkets if you need groceries.
Once you have reached the hamlet of El Peñon you have a number of options. One is to head to the Laguna Diamante. This is the best route to reach it. Along the way you can overnight at the Laguna Grande, the best place to see flamingos. Here is the route in GaiaGPS. If you camp there come prepared. You will be at 16,000 feet and the temperature drops as soon as the sun goes down, no matter the time of the year. Further ahead is the volcano Galán and its laguna. This is a top spot in the region. From there you can return to El Peñon, or connect with Antofagasta, or continue north to eventually connect with the main road. This is remote and hostile territory. You will drive up to over 16,000 feet. Go well prepared.
From El Peñon we will continue a few kilometers until the intersection with the track to Campo Piedra Pómez. Here we leave the pavement for a few days. You can drive straight to the pumice field or take a worthwhile detour to the Laguna Carachi Pampa. It’s not every day that you get to drive on black volcanic rock. At the laguna you will find a few flat spots where you can park and overnight. The solitude, views and wildlife viewing are just amazing. We saw many flamingos and llamas. In the morning some of the llamas came very close to our camp. You can safely continue the track you came on to eventually arrive right in the middle of Campo Piedra Pómez. At times the track is barely visible but you can’t get lost. Just follow the GPS track and enjoy the views along the way. Campo Piedra Pómez is another breathtaking spot, a desert of white pumice rock formations. If you take the track to your left back towards the entrance of the park, you will quickly reach a sort of parking area very close to the rock formations. It is quite possible to camp there and well worth it. The rock formations change color as the light changes at sunset, and early in the morning. In any case a walk among the rocks is highly recommended.
We now retrace our steps back to the intersection and continue on the same track, to the south. We will be driving through a maze of small hills, sand dunes, and volcanos. There are many intersecting tracks, so make sure your GPS is programed with the important waypoints. In a couple of places we descended soft and steep sand dunes that I doubt we could have climbed in the other direction. If you´re in doubt about the track you’re on: stop immediately and check. You might be the only vehicle in a radius of a hundred kilometers or more with no way to contact help. There is no cell reception and nobody to call anyway. It would be great if you could team up with another vehicle. We went just my wife and I, and came out the other end without trouble. Just be aware of what you are getting yourself into. The track we are on now would take us to a hot spring and then back to Fiambala. It is a long and somewhat difficult drive but it sees more traffic now that Argentines are spending more time discovering their own country. Local tour guides take tourists to these remote places, so they go back and forth often. Still there is no guarantee that you will find help when you need it. Once we turn off this track we will probably not see anyone until we get close to Antofagasta De La Sierra. This is the GaiaGPS map of our route to the Laguna Purulla. As I just mentioned it is rarely visited. The track to the laguna is extremely remote, so take your time to navigate accurately and to avoid stressing your vehicle unnecessarily. The main attraction of this section is the White Volcano. Yes, it is in fact white and it is a volcano though it looks more like a huge sand dune. Once you have passed it, there is a sort of col where you can stop and look behind you. This is the highest point along this section of the route at about 15,000 feet. From here you are high enough that you can see the crater of the White Volcano. Eventually, if your navigation was good, you will reach a T intersection with a sign for the Laguna Purulla. You can turn left and drive down to the laguna, another 13 km. We had lunch at the laguna and turned around. If you crave camping in solitude you will find places to park for the night. Back at the intersection it is a fairly straightforward drive to Antofagasta, another 90 km or so away, following the bottom of a wide valley (Map here). We left our camp at the laguna Carachi Pampa after breakfast and arrived in Antofagasta late afternoon. It is a long and somewhat stressful drive that you might want to split with a camp somewhere if you have time, Laguna Purulla being the best choice in my opinion. Antofagasta De La Sierra can easily be your basecamp to explore the area since there are two very small gas stations. The Portal De Antofagasta is the one we used twice. It looked nicer than the YPF to us, and they accepted our foreign credit card. There are a number of small grocery stores, meat shops, and vegetable stores. There are also a number of hostels, and even a Hostería Municipal at the end of the street. Upstairs you can sit in the lounge and get a coffee, tea, snack or a meal. It is comfortable and has free wi-fi. There is NO campground in town though. We were prepared to get a room at the Hostería Municipal but it was all booked so they generously offered us to park behind the building and spend the night there at no charge. It is recommended to make reservations a number of days in advance if you want a room anywhere in town. Otherwise it is OK to park somewhere and sleep in your vehicle. We found that small towns are usually less risky than big cities. Don’t be afraid to ask permission just to be on the safe side. Argentines are used to people camping on the side of the road, or around town squares. They don’t mind foreigners because we usually leave the sites clean. Make sure you do too. Just remember that here you are at over 3300 m of altitude (almost 11,000 feet). It will be warm during the day but cold at night. Enjoy!