Encounters in Argentina's Atacama: Strange, Large, and Deadly

Rainforests in the north, deserts and salt flats to the west, urban hubs in the east, and glaciers in the south. Planning an overlanding expedition in Argentina is no small feat. Here, tulips bloom amidst snow, mountains boast purple hues and salt flats sprawl at the bases of volcanoes.

With so many incredible wonders to choose from, how does one decide?

For the love of immersive overland travel, Nomadic Road chose to focus on Argentina’s Atacama Plateau. It stands among the few overlanding destinations where pioneering journeys are possible. To this day. Here lies a realm brimming with superlatives — hosting the largest, the deadliest, and the most peculiar wonders.

Spanning about 2,000 kilometres, the 10-day Atacama expedition will convince you: sometimes, reality beats dreams.

The Strangest, Yet Undeliably Real

Children's drawings often portray natural elements in eccentric ways. Mountains may be pink, birds V-shaped, and abstract shapes common. Their imaginations are boundless and unrestricted by conventional norms.

The Atacama Plateau is no different. Except that it’s very much real.

At the expedition's start, travellers encounter Cerro de los Siete Colores — one of Argentina's mountains, breathtaking in its majesty. Born underwater, this mountain boasts seven distinct hues, each a testament to millions of years of geological evolution. The vastness of it all, the altitude — no picture truly captures what you feel when you stand there looking at it.

But Argentina’s eccentric marvels remain apparent throughout the expedition.

Many curious souls dream of travelling to space for an otherworldly experience. Yet, they overlook the fact that some regions on Earth itself offer the chance to journey to another planet.

On day four of this Atacama expedition, for instance, travellers venture to Tolar Grande. It’s a mystical destination home to a stunning array of natural wonders. Here, canyons, volcanoes, caves, salt flats, and turquoise lagoons co-exist.

As the expedition draws to a close, the caravan winds through mesmerising formations. Quebrada de las Conchas and Quebrada de las Flechas stand as majestic rock formations, shaped by the relentless forces of the Andean plates. This landscape boasts unique geographical features that, combined with the crimson earth, transport you to the rugged terrain of Mars.

Nature's artistry is undeniable as you traverse this stone wonderland. Wind and water have sculpted the rocks into an array of intricate shapes that spark the imagination. Here, one can discern formations resembling castles, amphitheatres, and even animals immortalised in stone.

Argentina’s Salt Flats: Vast and Breathtaking

Latin America is often synonymous with salt flats, with Bolivia typically taking the spotlight. Yet, Argentina’s salt flats are some of the largest and most stunning worldwide.

First, there's the blinding white expanse of Salinas Grandes, one of Argentina's most iconic salt flats. To fully immerse in its essence, Nomadic Road offers an exclusive private camping experience on these crystalline grounds.

The Atacama expedition also includes traversing Salar de Arizaro, Argentina’s largest salt flat, and Salar de Antofalla, the world's longest salt flat, spanning over 120 kilometres in length.

When it rains, the salt flats flawlessly mirror the surrounding landscape. When the sun shines, salt crystals glisten against the blue backdrop. Certain sections feature smooth surfaces akin to silk, while others display intricate cracks that defy capture, even by the best of the best cameras.

But what truly sets these flats apart is their vastness, leaving you feeling like a mere speck — a sensation that’s both eerie and oddly exhilarating.

The allure of overlanding on Argentina’s salt flats defies description. You enter a vast, silent expanse, a sublime desert adorned with hexagonal patterns fading into infinity. Contrasting with the deep blue sky and shifting cloud formations, it's a paradoxical landscape — inhospitable yet essential for life, shaped by salt, a vital element for all living organisms.

Life Thrives in Argentina’s Harshest Environments

Speaking of life, Argentina's Atacama Plateau ranks among the driest places on Earth, with some areas receiving minimal rainfall for years. Yet, Argentina's wildlife thrives remarkably in this seemingly bleak environment.

On the roadside, you may catch sight of herds of wild vicuñas cautiously darting away. Also amidst Argentina’s wildlife are clusters of llamas peacefully grazing.

Travellers also pass through Laguna Grande, where the largest population of James Flamingos resides. Above you, hundreds of James Flamingos take flight, their graceful wings painting the sky with bursts of colour. It's a scene of pure natural beauty that leaves you marvelling at the splendour of the world.

Naturally, the region is also home to a plethora of cacti. These remarkable succulents are highly adapted to thrive in the dry conditions of Argentina’s deserts. But we're not just talking about a few cacti here and there. Los Cardones National Park boasts one of the largest cactus forests in South America.

These towering giants can reach heights of five to seven meters, with some colonies surpassing an impressive ten meters. Remarkably, some specimens have stood for over 300 years.

Legends and beliefs surround the origin of these large cacti colonies in Northern Argentina. Some say the cacti bear a melancholic air, rooted in their static, unmoving nature amidst a changing world.

Yet, simply sitting by one of these ancient Northern watchtowers is an experience that unveils a world of new sensations.

Argentina Is Where Adventure Awaits, Beyond the Norm

With striking colours, diverse textures, and otherworldly landscapes, Nomadic Road’s Atacama expedition is a journey like no other.

It's perhaps no coincidence that elements of magical realism are found in Argentina's culture and literature, where reality and fantasy seamlessly blur.

Yet, beyond its visual splendour, Argentina’s landscapes beckon the adventurous spirit. Here, travellers dare to conquer some of the most challenging trails, navigating terrain that has tested even the boldest of souls. The country has proudly hosted the Dakar Rally, an off-road race known to trace some of the deadliest routes worldwide.

During the expedition, adventurers also embark on a journey to witness the largest exposed Caldera in the world - Volcan Galan. But reaching this natural marvel is no easy feat. It demands nerve-testing ascents and descents, pushing both vehicles and drivers to their limits.

All in all, Argentina's Atacama Plateau is a treasure trove for overlanding enthusiasts. At the same time, it holds something special for those who seek the extraordinary. There are vast salt flats that rival those of Bolivia, geological formations reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, and landscapes that evoke distant planets.

Argentina’s landscapes truly defy imagination.

It is a land often overlooked, but one that etches itself into the memory of those who venture there.