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Antofagasta De La Sierra

North of Belén, travelers enter the Puna Catamarqueña. Its stunning landscapes literally take one’s breath away, in part because the altitude climbs to over 3,000 meters (9,840 ft). In the midst of this no-man’s land is Antofagasta de la Sierra, a quaint village surrounded by salinas, wind-sculpted earth and mountains waiting to be explored. The bleached earth is colored by rose flamingos, ancient petroglyphs and ruins.



At El Eje, 36 kilometers (22 mi) north of Belén, is the turn-off for Ruta Provincial 43. This partially paved road winds into the Puña Catamarqueña’s breathtaking world. Guanacos wander the salt-encrusted plains shimmering under the sun, swept by silent winds. After 89 kilometers (54 mi) is Laguna Blanca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. This reserve, at 3,200-5,000 meters (10,499-16,404 ft) altitude, protects 770,000 hectares (1.9 million ac) of desert steppe populated by vicuña, foxes, Andean mountain cat, chinchilla, and a great variety of birds like Andean flamingo, Andean gull and Puna Tinamou.



Twenty-three kilometers (14 mi) further north on Ruta Provincial 43 is the region’s most famous attraction, El Peñón. Northward are Laguna Grande, a favorite haunt for flamingos, and Incahuasi, a pre-Hispanic gold mine on the southwest edge of Salar del Hombre Muerto. Volcán Galán (5,912 m / 19,321 ft) is the world’s largest volcano, with 42-kilometer (26-mi) diameter. Inside its crater is Laguna Diamante. Tours to this zone also visit fumaroles and hot springs. To the south of El Peñón is the mysterious Campos de Piedra Pómez. Ochre, yellow and rose-colored stone spires up to 50 meters (164 ft) tall, carved by the wind into fantastic shapes, emerge from the pearl-white earth.



Antofagasta de la Sierra, 60 kilometers (36 mi) further north on Ruta 43, is the base for visiting El Peñón and Puña Catamarqueña’s many other natural wonders. This village of low, white-washed homes has existed since pre-Conquest times. The tremendous mineral wealth attracted the Inca and Spaniards. The area was claimed by Chile and Bolivia up through the 19th century. Antofagasta has two museums of note travelers can visit while acclimatizing to the altitude. Museo Del Hombre has impressive Atacama ceramics, stone tools and mummies (Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-1 p.m., 6-9 p.m. Ruta Provincial 43, Tel: 47-1001. Entry: $0.60). The Museo Mineralógico’s excellent collection of minerals even draws scientists to marvel at the region’s mineral wealth (Av. San Martín s/n, Tel: 1550-2687, E-mail: cfabi2002@yahoo.com.ar).



Near Antofagasta village are Ruinas del Coyparcito, archaeological ruins of a village and Inca cemetery (4 km / 2.5 mi), and Laguna Colorada (5 km / 3 mi). Peñas Coloradas has petroglyphs of humans, llama caravans and other designs (5 km / 3 mi). Ten kilometers (6mi) south of town are the cinder-black Volcán Antofagasta (4,000 m / 13, 120 ft) and Alumbrera (3,000 m / 9,840 ft), also know as Los Negros. Before the volcanoes is Pucará La Alumbrera on Laguna Antofagasta, which has fantastic birdwatching (8 km / 5 mi).



Another circuit near Antofagasta is Circuito de Antofalla to the north. This landscape dotted by small villages is dominated by Volcán de Antofalla (6,409 m / 21,022 ft) and Salar de Antofalla, said to be the largest salt flat in the world (920 km2 / 355 mi2).



Many other volcanoes, ruins and salt plains wait the traveler willing to spend time in Antofagasta de la Sierra. Not only can those places by reached on 4x4 expeditions, but also hiking, trekking and bicycling. Mountain climbing and rappelling are other challenges to be undertaken. In February is Feria de la Puna, a huge artisan-agricultural fair. Other popular feasts are Corpachada, in honor of Pachamama (August) and Day of the Dead (November 2).



(Altitude: 3,250 m / 10,663 ft, Population: 667, Phone Code: 03833)



Services



Antofagasta’s services are tourism office (Rioja s/n, Tel: 42-2420 / 1578-7546, URL: www.antofagasta.gob.ar), police, phone, Internet and health post. There is no bank or ATM in Antofagasta de la Sierra. The town also has a tourism office in Catamarca (Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-1 p.m., 3-9 p.m. República 119, Tel: 42-2300 / 43-9497).



Tours



Check with the tourism office for guides.



Hotels



Local families rent out rooms, also.



Hospedaje Analia Secaff (Av Belgrano s/n, Tel: 43-3294)—single $8, double $14



Hostería de Antofagasta (Calle Principal s/n, Tel: 1561-9571, E-mail: clarafami@hotmail.com)—single $24, double $30-33



Restaurants



Guesthouses also fix meals. In the low season, request meals several hours in advance.



HosterĂ­a de Antofagasta (Calle Principal s/n, Tel: 47-0001)



El Puneño (main plaza, next to church)









By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

18 Oct 2010



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