Argentina and Chile - Puna & Atacama Experience

Argentina and Chile - Puna & Atacama Experience

Style: PioneerGroundbreaking tours to unique destinations
Duration: 13 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


Come and discover the hidden beauty of the North West of Argentina and Chile. Located between Salta to the west and the borders of Chile and Bolivia this elevated plateau of wildly striking and desolate landscapes is filled with the sights of salt flats, flamingos, ancient Inca trails, desert labyrinths and herds of llamas and vicuñas. We travel through the magnificent Puna from Salta to San Antonio de las Cobres and Tolar Grande right down to the frontier-town of El Penon, stopping at the various sights. From salt lakes to extraordinary colours, flamingos, clay deserts, dunes, strangely eroded atolls and pumice fields you will feel like the only people in this Mars- like landscape.

Tour Rating

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●○ | Wildlife ●●●○○

Tour Pace


Tour Highlights

  • An adventurous trip through some of the most awesome landscapes on the planet
  • The feeling of isolation in the deserts of the Puna and Atacama regions
  • Amazing geological features in the Valle De La Luna
  • Historical villages and towns
  • Remarkable Stromatolites in the area around Tolar Grande

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Comfortable hotels and lodges
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Buenos Aires
End Point: Buenos Aires
Transport: 4WD
Countries: Argentina & Chile

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.

Day 1: Arrival in Buenos Aires

Arrival at Buenos Aires and transfer to your hotel. Overnight Dazzler Recoleta Hotel or similar. No meals included.

Note – If you are arriving in Buenos Aires early we would be happy to arrange any sightseeing activities or perhaps you may wish to take in a Tango show with dinner. Please contact us for details.

Buenos Aires

This sprawling metropolis that glitters in the afternoon rays from the River Plate is home to over one-third of the country's population. Founded in 1580, Buenos Aires is today the largest city in South America. Also known as the city that never sleeps, it’s many and varied around-the clock attractions never fail to surprise and impress. Here, the tango lives on not only in the breathtakingly complex movements executed by professional dancers at tango shows or in the popular plazas at the San Telmo antiques market, but also in the sensuous sway of couples from all walks of life who gather at the city’s many milongas to share their passion for the music. At weekends, the streets ring to a medley of different sounds. San Telmo, famous for its antique and knick-knack stalls; La Boca and the "Caminito" with is brightly painted walls where artists gather; Recoleta where hundreds of stands selling handicrafts fills its square; the gaucho market Mataderos where local groups perform songs from their native towns and the gauchos demonstrate their horsemanship skills.

For art and culture lovers, Buenos Aires’ 57 museums house not only some of the continent’s most impressive private collections but also preserve the local heritage of customs and traditions from ornate silver mate pots to the fashion accessories of the 19th century. The grandeur of the Colón Theatre, an opera house acclaimed world-wide for its balanced acoustic is a must for classical music buffs who will also find a surprisingly broad choice of concerts and recitals of choral, orchestral and chamber works of a very high standard at concert halls and churches throughout Buenos Aires.

Day 2: Buenos Aires - Salta (2:15 hour domestic flight – Salta Altitude: 1200m) 

Transfer to the airport for your flight to Salta, and check in to your hotel on arrival. This afternoon we will embark on a walking tour of the city visiting the Main Plaza and the historical colonial buildings in town, including the Cathedral, the Church of San Francisco and the San Bernardo Convent. We will also tour the extraordinary MAAM (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology) to find out more about the High Altitude Sanctuaries of the Andes and the Inca footprint in Salta. Overnight Design Suites or similar (BD)


Salta still has a distinctly Hispanic feel to it, an urban skyline distinguished by the colonial architecture of its original buildings and churches, which has also influenced more modern construction to the point where the main square is a charming monument to neo-colonial style. The streets in the old part of the town run between old Andalusian houses with their tiled roofs, thick whitewashed walls and wrought-iron balconies brightened by scarlet and fuchsia geraniums. A recently completed restoration of the old city centre with new restaurants has added life to the austere structures after the sun goes down. Another new addition to Salta’s attractions is the Archaeological Museum which has many fine relics of Inca civilization including ones found in 1999 at an Inca sanctuary and temple near the Llullaillaco volcano in the heart of the Andes mountain range. Archaeologists discovered the exceptionally well-preserved bodies of three children who had been part of a ritual sacrifice to Incan deities and, lying next to them, an astonishing collection of over 100 gold and silver statues, ornaments, ceremonial garments and ceramics which are now on display at the Museum.

Day 3: Salta – Tilcara – Humahuaca – Purmamarca

Journey to the Quebrada of Humahuaca, a long valley that ends near the border with Bolivia, located in the Jujuy Province, the most Andean territory of Argentina. It is famous for its beautiful coloured mountains, its geological formations and historic villages. During the journey, enjoy the best of the authentic atmosphere of this area of Argentina including the food market of Humahuaca, a small hike in an amazing hidden red gorge and the Sacred Garden of Cardones situated at 3200m. We explore the towns of Tilcara, Purmamarca and Humahuaca with their colourful craft markets, before returning to Salta. Overnight Manantial Del Silencio or similar (BL)

Distance: 320 km paved road. 70 km gravel road.

Altitude: Highest point 4.300 metres./ 14.108 feet.  Purmamarca 2.192 metres. / 7.192 feet

Estimated driving time: 6 hours

Day 4: Purmamarca | Cuesta de Lipan | Salinas Grandes | Susques | Paso de Jama| San Pedro de Atacama

Revel in a fantastic drive on a perfectly paved road navigating us across the Andes, through dry salted lakes, volcanoes, groups of wild vicunas, and the almost endless landscape of the Puna Plateau. Visit the Salinas Grandes, a salt mirror stretching for more than 30,000 acres and the old capital of the Puna, Susques with its church dating from 1598. Cross the border into Chile at the Jama Pass. At sunset, we will arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, after a thrilling 50 km downhill drive with expansive views over the Atacama Desert and the perfect cone-shaped Licancabur Volcano. Overnight Hotel Altiplanico or similar (BLD)

Distance: 430 km paved road.

Altitude: Highest point 4.700 metres/15.420 feet.  San Pedro de Atacama 2.475 metres / 8.120 feet.

Estimated driving time: 6 hours

Day 5: San Pedro de Atacama | Full Day Tour to Geysers del Tatio | Sunset in Valle de la Luna| San Pedro de Atacama

A very early departure today will take us to Geyser del Tatio. El Tatio Geyser Field (locally known as Los Geysers del Tatio) is located within the Andes Mountains of northern Chile at an altitude of around 4200m. With over 80 active geysers, El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world. Return to San Pedro de Atacama for some rest and in the afternoon we experience the sunset on the mountains of the Andes and on the Moon Valley on the outskirts of the village. Valle de la Luna is an area of stone and sand geological formations declared as a natural sanctuary and is also part of the Los Flamencos Reserve. It is a stunning place of shear isolation and desolation where the wind has sculpted mountains and ravines of salt, clay and gypsum. There is no life in this valley, no humidity; it is one of the most inhospitable but hauntingly beautiful places on the planet. Overnight at Hotel Altiplanico or similar. (BLD)

Distance: 30 km paved road. 190 km gravel road.

Altitude: Highest point 4.200 metres/13.780 feet.  San Pedro de Atacama 2.475 metres / 8.120 feet.

Estimated driving time: 5 hours

Day 6: San Pedro de Atacama | Lagunas Miscanti & Miniques | Paso de Sico | Pocitos | Desierto del Laberinto | Tolar Grande

Today will be one of the most intense days of the whole Trip. We follow one of the ancient routes made by llama’s caravans trading goods between the Oases of the Puna. Over Sico Pass, Miscanti & Miniques lagoons offer dramatic scenes, with dark blue water under a cobalt sky, flamingos and sacred Volcanoes. Back on the Argentine Plateau, the landscape changes. The labyrinth Desert, a fossil dunes desert, made by clay and gypsum crystals, is the only maritime sediment deposit of the Puna. This area is actually studied for its similarities to other planets physical characteristic (Planetary Geology). Arrive by late afternoon in the tiny village of Tolar Grande, one of the most remote places on earth. Overnight Casa Andina or similar (BLD)

Distance: 110 km paved road. 250 km gravel road.

Altitude: Highest point 4.600 metres/15.092 feet.  Tolar Grande 3.500 metres / 11.483 feet.

Estimated driving time: 6/7 hours

Day 7: Tolar Grande |Ojos del Mar | Hidden Dune | Tolar Grande | Caipe | Sunset in Tolar Grande

The morning is dedicated to exploring the surroundings of Tolar Grande. The Ojos del Mar are Blue Holes in the middle of a white salt lake, where in Feb. 2009, researchers discovered a huge colony of living stromatolites. The surroundings of Tolar Grande offer opportunities for small hikes, the best one being a hike to a hidden sand dune in the middle of the desert. From the top of the dune, be rewarded by a 360° view over the area, from the Sacred Macon Mountain to the Llullaillaco Volcano, where National Geographic discovered in 1999, situated at 6.735 meters, an Inca treasure including the bodies of 3 Inca children perfectly preserved by ice and the arid atmosphere.  We head back to Tolar Grande for lunch and afterwards we will have time to relax at the hotel. This afternoon, continue to Caipe. Caipe has an old railway station where minerals processed in the Mine city were carried by cargo train and then transported to Salta. From the abandoned station, enjoy views of the giant Salar de Arizaro. On our return to Tolar Grande, we will stop on top of a hill just outside of the village where weather permitting we will enjoy a beautiful sunset and some of the Puna’s best scenery. Overnight Casa Andina or similar (BLD)

Note – Casa Andina is the only Hosteria in Tolar Grande. It may be necessary on some tours to stay in local homes but these will also have private facilities.

Distance: 140 km earth track.

Altitude: Highest point 4.000 metres/ 13.123 feet.  Tolar Grande 3.500 metres / 11.483 feet.

Estimated driving time: 2 hours.

Day 8: Tolar Grande | Cono de Arita | Oasis de Antofallita & Antofalla | Antofagasta de la Sierra | El Peñón

The crossing of the Arizaro salted dry lake resembles the ancient journey of the Arrieros (shepherds guiding caravans of animals to Chile). Arizaro meaning Vultures Cemetery comes from a period when many animals (cows and horses) perished during the crossing of the salt flat. Antofalla is an important and spectacular example of a Puna Oasis; in the middle of a high altitude desert there is a green valley, thanks to a natural pure water spring, comprising of Poplar, Molle and Willow trees. Antofalla, together with Antofagasta and Santa Rosa, were important stations for Llama caravans connecting this part of the Andes with the Oasis of Atacama. The oasis is located at the border of the longest salt flat in the world, set amongst vivid red mountains and lava strips. Antofalla is still inhabited by a tiny community of shepherds numbering around 60 people. We will stop for lunch, and then travel across the salt lake. Above 4.200 meters with wide views over the Antofalla Volcano (6.400 metres) lays a kind of green field (Vega Colorada) home for llamas, suris (Andean ostrich), wild donkeys and vicuñas.  The valley of Calalaste, just a few kilometers away from Vega Colorada is the best spot to find wild camelids.  Antofagasta de la Sierra, was the biggest Oasis on the path connecting this side of the Andes with the Oasis of San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), it is a big village with more than 2.000 people who maintain their ancient traditions and culture. The name Antofagasta means “place where the sun shines” and it is surrounded by many volcanic peaks. Overnight Hosteria El Penon or similar (BLD)

Distance: 340 km earth track and salt road.
Altitude: Highest point 4.500 metres/ 14.764 feet. 
El Peñón 3.400 metres / 11.155 feet.

Estimated driving time: 7 hours

Day 9: El Peñón | Volcán & Laguna Carachi Pampa | Campo de Piedra Pómez | Dunas Blancas | El Peñón

Our adventure starts today at the edge of Campo de Piedra Pómez, as we reach the Carachi Pampa basin, where therein lies a volcano of the same name, surrounded by black lava fields and a lagoon, where the Andean flamingo, and the James' (or Puna) flamingo can be found. During the dry season a small salt lake is formed around the lagoon. Later, our journey will continue into the Natural Reserve Campo de Piedra Pómez, a strange and stunning landscape carved into the rock that gives rise to its name: The Pumice. Of purely igneous origin, it was produced from a massive volcanic explosion so powerful that if one could have seen it, it would be similar to the mushroom cloud produced by a nuclear bomb. This cloud has spread the ash and debris in large areas and in different directions, which crystallized by the effects of the temperature giving shape to these wonderful rocks with special features and with plenty of holes produced by the escape of gases during the cooling stage. This degassing phenomenon made the rock very easy to carve by the arid harsh winds of the Puna. Return to the Hotel, just on time to enjoy stunning sunset views from the village. Overnight Hosteria El Penon or similar (BLD)

Distance:  130 km of earth, gravel and salt tracks.
Altitude: Highest point 4.200 metres/ 13.780 feet.  El Peñón 3.400 metres. / 11.155 feet.

Estimated driving time: 7 hours.

Day 10: El Peñón | Hualfin | Santa María | Quilmes | Cafayate

After days of intense travel on the High Desert Plateau, the North West still has plenty of surprises. The paved road from El Peñón to meet Route 40 is a 150 km long yellow field of Paja Brava, white lagoons and a deserted narrow canyon filled with rich vegetation. Visit the Quilmes Ruins, probably the most interesting Pre Inca archeological site with a dramatic story that paved the way for the end to this ancient population. Continue to Cafayate. Overnight Wine Resort or similar (BL)

Distance: 250 km paved road. 50 km gravel road.

Altitude: Highest point 4.000 metres/13.123 feet.  Cafayate 1.683 metres. / 5.522 feet.

Estimated driving time: 5 hours

Day 11: Cafayate |Quebrada de las Conchas | Quebrada de las Flechas | Molinos

Cafayate will be a perfect place to visit a winery since it is the capital of the Northern wine region, most famous for its “Torrontés” variety of white wine. Visit the Quebrada de las Conchas gorge, 55 km of scenic sedimentary rock formations dating back a hundred millions years. Continue along Ruta 40, one of the most famous and longest roads in the world. The route between Cafayate and La Paya passes through the desert dotted with small ranches of local campesinos, vineyards and giant coloured mountains. The Quebrada de las Flechas is a desert of quartz ash and rocks covered by the mud of an ancient lake, the result of 500 million years of geological history. Overnight Hacienda de Molinos or similar (BL)

Distance: 100 km paved road. 90 km gravel road.

Altitude: Highest point 2.300 metres./7.546 feet.  Molinos 2.020 metres. / 6.627 feet.

Estimated driving time: 5 hours

Day 12: Molinos | Cachi | Los Cardones National Park | Cuesta del Obispo | Salta

The road from Molinos to Salta is one of the most scenic drives in North West Argentina. We’ll travel through four different eco systems; from the Green Yungas to a semi-deserted dry valley. A further 50 km’s will take us from the Piedra del Molino Pass at 3.457 meters down to Salta’s Valle de Lerma at 1.200 meters. View condors flying in the dark blue sky, guanacos and wild donkeys, as the stunning landscape of thousands of cardones – the local protected species of giant cactus – passes by. We have time to enjoy the view, take some amazing pictures and to go on a short walk in the unique red desert inside Los Cardones National Park. Overnight Design Suites or similar (BL)

Day 13, 29 September: Salta to Buenos Aires (2 hours domestic flight)

Today we travel to Salta airport for a flight back to Buenos Aires where the tour ends. (B)

Arrival and departure transfers
Internal flights
Transport throughout
All accommodation
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner) plus 1 ½ L of water per day
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary

International flights
Any airport taxes
Travel Insurance
Items of a personal nature & tips (discretionary)

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