Face to face with the Volcán

We had an early start to watch sunrise from the hill at Tolar Grande – bitingly cold!
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After 2 nights in Tolar Grande we now left this friendly town and headed for El Penon.
Our route took us across the Salar de Arizaro with views of the Llullaillaco, a massive volcano where the well-preserved bodies of 3 Inca children were found.
These children walked all the way from the Inca capital Cuzco (present day Peru) to sacrifice themselves and be re-united with their ancestors.
Towards the end of the salar we stopped at the strangely conical shaped Cono Arita .
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We then drove up above an onyx mine and a gold mine for some final panoramic views back across the salar.
The ground was strewn with rocks including onyx and quartz which had been dug through by the miners.
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We left the Salar de Arizaro and then we passed a vega (oasis) where we saw donkeys, llama, vicunas and spotted some ostrich heading over the hill.
We climbed over a grassy pass (4400m) with more vicunas and  the road then descended with some tight hairpin bends and a stunning view over the Antofallo Salt Flat along which we were to drive.
At the bottom was another very green vega with two houses where a brother and sister lived and were able  to grow beans, corn and vegetables amonst the trees.
We drove along the side of the salt plane with its ever changing landscapes from sandy coloured salt through to sparkly gypsum encrusted salt mounds and then to dark basalt shapes rising through the salt flat.
It is a volcanic area and we drove across lava fields at times. The surrounding mountains changed from orange to yellow to black with red. This is like driving in a painting!
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We arrived at the turning to Antofalla but turned the other way to cross the salt flat.
After having faced a dust storm just before leaving the plain, we climbed a basalt mountain which had swirling salt shapes on it created by the wind blowing the dust across it.
We climbed a bendy road, which had been built in the 1950s by a man from the village of Antofallo, to reach the Mirador Antofallo (4000m) – a windy spot with great views across to the volcanoes on the other side.
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Descending the other side we came to the Colorado (red mountain) at 4620m and the Vega Colorado where there were again many animals. We drove into the very green Quedebra Calaste where there were many groups of vicunas and a herd of llama along the road.
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We had now arrived in the Province of Catamarca and continued on to El Penon through the Puna’s capital in Catamarca, Antofagaste de la Sierra. The Hosteria in El Penon has 8 bedrooms with electricity available between 6pm and 11pm and a very patchy internet connection.

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