The altiplano of northwestern Catamarca Province, known as the Puna Catamarqueña (puna is the Quichoa word for altiplano, a word of Spanish coinage), stretches to the Chilean border and is one of the remotest and most deserted, but most outstandingly beautiful parts of the country. Antofagasta de la Sierra, a ghostly town of adobe-brick miners’ houses and whispering womenfolk, is far flung even from Catamarca city in this sparsely populated region, but the tiny archeological museum is worth seeing for its fantastic mummified infant. Dotted with majestic ebony volcanoes and scarred by recent lava-flows, with the Andean cordillera as a magnificent backdrop, the huge expanses of altiplano and their desiccated vegetation are grazed by hardy yet delicate-looking vicuñas, while flamingoes valiantly survive on frozen lakes.
This is staggeringly unspoilt country, with out-of-this-world landscapes, and a constantly surreal atmosphere, accentuated by the sheer remoteness and emptiness of it all; the trip out here is really more rewarding than the main destination, Antofagasta, which is primarily a place to spend the night before forging on northwards, to San Antonio de los Cobres in Salta Province, or doubling back down to Belén. As you travel, look out for apachetas, little cairns of stones piled up at the roadside as an offering to the Mother Goddess, Pachamama, and the only visible signs of any human presence.