Of the many places that spring to mind when thinking about Argentina as a travel destination, Catamarca is not one of them.
Run for decades as a mining province by corrupt politicians, its outstanding natural beauty has been very much ignored, both by locals and foreigners. But its combination of awe-inspiring beauty and rustic abandon make it a fascinating road-trip destination.
There is one flight a day to Catamarca from Buenos Aires, and the airport is a strip of old tarmac in a field. Once the plane has managed a safe landing after hitting turbulence generated by different air currents from the Andes, passengers must exit straight onto the landing strip and giddily make their own way across the tarmac to an old and badly kept building, where a single creaking baggage conveyor belt squeaks suitcases around in a loop. Forget duty free, forget cafés and air the conditioned lobbies of the world you are used to inhabiting, think serious backwards middle-of-nowhere-stuck-in-the-seventies cowboy land.
Outside the old building, over thirty old taxis await anxiously for the ride that will make their day. Squabbling amongst the drivers is a very common scene that just adds more colour to the already extremely colourful backdrop.
The capital city, San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca, has grown considerably during the past few years and there is now quite an assortment of hotels and restaurants, but the few old family-run hotels that used to be the only viable options a few years ago still hang on, and if you chose one of these, it will add more zest to your road-trip. Check into the Hotel Pucará for a real seventy’s twilight-zone experience.
Hotels are the one thing that is not cheap throughout most of Argentina, from a B&B to a big chain hotel, they are all charging more than you would expect. Under this panorama, the mediocre medium-size family run hotels are the best quality-price ratio options. You can get a double bedroom with bathroom and TV for around 400$ pesos (about 70U$).
If you’d rather ignore the seventy’s style road trip and prefer a little more quality, then The Grand Hotel might be a better option, and if you want to go all out, the Hotel Amerian is the best one can find in the small provincial capital. But beware, a room at the Amerian will cost you!
Despite the backwardness of everything, car rental is easy and efficient and there are many options, if you splurge you can even get a pick-up. Once you’ve arranged transportation, which is usually delivered the next morning at your hotel door (costing around 250AR$ a day for a car) you are ready to hit the highlands.
A few kilometres after leaving the city, you will soon find yourself on deserted highways with tussocks of grass creeping their way onto the tarmac. If you enjoy solitude, your soul will be elated with the vastness and the wonder of driving for hours without another vehicle in sight. If you are of those who posses a nagging mind with a penchant to worry about flat tires, this might not be the place for you, many of the roads are gravel on high mountain passes.
As one leaves the misty valley and climbs over the mountains, the pale shades of green give way to darker shades of green and finally browns as you drive over the cactus-strewn mountain tops and get hit by the realization that you are on the top of the world. The awe-inspiring views sprawl out in every direction for hundreds of kilometres of red earth, lightly snow-capped peaks and winding rivers.
When you need a rest, you just stop by the side of the road and turn off the engine and climb out of that bubble that connects you with civilization and allow yourself to be awed by the silence. If you walk off into the mountains, there are places where there is no human trace except the sounds of your own footsteps, the silence in between each footstep ringing in your ears.
Head for Tinogasta, a small mining town 260km from Catamarca Capital (today the Dakar goes through it, so you might want to avoid that time of the year, unless you are a Dakar fan of course), where you can stop for the night. From there you can head to Fiambalá the next day, a small town hidden in the middle of the Andes close to the Chilean border, where you can indulge in the hot water springs – another seventy’s twilight zone experience in itself.
It’s good to have some plan worked out, but the best thing is to just allow yourself to meander and let destiny and the beautiful views to guide you.