Argentina // The Northwest //

San Antonio de los Cobres and around

A major regional crossroads at a dizzying 3775m above sea level, SAN ANTONIO DE LOS COBRES is the small, windswept “capital” of an immense but mostly empty portion of the altiplano, rich in minerals, as its name (“of the coppers”) suggests, and little else, except some breathtaking scenery. The Salinas Grandes, to the north of San Antonio de los Cobres, are among the continent’s biggest salt flats, a huge glistening expanse surrounded by brown mountains, snow-peaked volcanoes and sparse pasture.

Most people only ever see San Antonio de los Cobres from its train station – the Tren a las Nubes makes a short stop here on its way back down to the plains, during which the blue and white Argentine flag is hoisted and the national anthem played. You won’t be missing much if you don’t hop off: the town’s low houses (many of them built by the borax and lithium mining firms for their workforce in a highly utilitarian style), dusty streets and lack of vegetation make for a rather forlorn little town, not especially inviting and displaying few signs of the wealth generated by the valuable metals running in rich veins through the nearby mountains.