Train to the Clouds
Along the route to Tolar Grande we kept spotting and crossing one of the world’s great feats of engineering: the railway track that Richard Maury designed in the early 20th century, having reputedly spent seven years travelling the mountains on a donkey to plan the route. Its highest point is 4,800m and it uses switchbacks on the gradients. Currently, the only way to experience part of the line is to take the Tren a las Nubes, a tourist service that runs two or more days a week, depending on weather conditions, demand and the seasons. Leaving the station in Salta by coach, you are bussed to San Antonio de los Cobres to board the train. Oxygen and medical staff are on board in case of altitude sickness. The highlight, not surprisingly, is crossing the jaw-dropping Polvorilla Viaduct.
⊳ I commented that there was a church in the village. “The people are Catholic, too,” Jorge said. “In August they give their thanks to Pachamama, but in September the people walk to Salta Cathedral on a nine-day pilgrimage. It’s a way to keep harmony between the two beliefs – the indigenous and the Catholic – a synchronisation.”
Heading out across the Salar de Arizaro, one of the largest salt flats in the world, we stopped several times to admire the glittering surface, which in places looked as if it had been sprinkled with diamonds. But Jorge had promised the highlight of the puña was yet to come.
“It’s an amazing rock,” he said. “Just wait until you see it.” I was sceptical – after all, the landscape was full of incredible formations.
Then, rising from the salt flat, a volcano-shaped cone came into view, and I saw what Jorge meant. By the time we reached the sign for the ‘Cono de Arita’, I was suitably impressed by its strange beauty. How had I never heard of it before? We started to walk towards it, but soon realised its closeness was an illusion, the contrast of the brooding cone and the stark white ground playing tricks with perspective.
We thought we had this epic landscape to ourselves, but a moving cloud of dust announced another 4WD heading our way. It pulled up and its eager passengers jumped out and set off on foot towards the cone. We felt that selfish pang you sometimes feel when you’ve discovered something wonderful but want to keep it for yourself.
“Come,” said Jorge, picking up on our disappointment, “I have something special for you.” We carried on down the road, bearing off up a slope, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon playing through the speakers. “Are you ready?” Jorge asked as we emerged from behind some rocks and onto a hill, just as ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ started and Clare Torry’s soaring vocals kicked in.
The hairs on the backs of our necks rose. There below us was the cone, looking like a giant pyramid and seemingly floating on the dazzling plain. Once the song finished, we got out of the car and slowly dispersed, each of us finding our own spot to quietly sit and gaze at the otherworldly sight; each, in our own way, paying our respects to Mother Earth.