Puna - Day 12
Fabulous sunset last night but we were so late getting in to our hotel, El Piñon, and getting settled in that we didn't get any shots. Feeling the altitude.
Yesterday in Cafayete we were at about 1700 metres. Getting to the Puna yesterday we climbed and when we crossed the mountain pass that took us to Catamarca province in the Puna region we were, and are, at 3500 metres. When concentrating on other things altitude not particularly noticeable, but I woke up a couple of times last night very aware of being short of breath and of the need to breathe more deeply. V and I both have prescriptions for a drug that is supposed to minimize altitude symptoms which we were to have started taking two days before altitude. V has taken hers without problem, but my experience with the drug was so unpleasant, more weird mental state than physical effects, that I stopped taking mine as I felt the altitude could not make me feel worse than the cure. Adolfo, now known familiarly by his universal nickname of "Boobi" at his request, tells me that the name Puna is also a term to describe altitude sickness as much as it is a descriptor of the geographic area.
The little settlement where the hotel is located is a town of about 200 people, a couple of small shops, but no cell coverage and no gas or fuel, like moving backwards in time.
Today was one of our best days to date. In the morning we drove about 8 or 10 kilometres and then drove over the rim of an extinct volcano whose crater is 100+ k long and about 80k wide, massive. We followed a track across the crater floor with the craters rim surrounding us in the misty distance. Wild moonscape, notwithstanding that the crater is millions of years old. Wind blows constantly, wearing away the huge outcroppings of puimce and creating large dunes and waves of bright white pumice sand which, looking at pictures and with no other reference points looks like a frigid cold snowscape rather than a hot and dusty dune of startlingly white sand. In the middle of the crater stands a huge black basalt plug hundreds of metres high which finally capped off the volcano and so incredibly dense that it stubbornly resists wear and erosion.
The track through the crater was over and through drifts of windblown sand and would not have been possible without a 4 wheel drive in its lowest gear range and at moments we wondered whether we would need to man the shovels and dig ourselves out. Not a drop of water in the whole expanse of the crater and nothing living save the occasional scrubby low-lying bush struggling to hold on to life. Some fabulous landscapes and I hope, some fabulous shots.
Got back to our hotel in time for lunch, vegetable soup and llama schnitzel, and then we will be setting out to drive 60k, a 2 hour drive over bad tracks to an upland salt lagoon at 5,000 metres where there is a very large colony of flamingos who come there in spring to breed.
Bounced and rocked our way to the lagoon, with some stunning vistas along the way which we hoped to shoot on our way back, in sunset light. Arrived at the lagoon to find hundreds of flamingo wading through the very large lagoon which is surrounded by salt flats in the middle of a wide upland valley, ringed by impressive peaks, some snow covered. We moved very slowly and cautiously and managed to get within 10 or 15 metres of the water, crunching our way over the salt, but by that point the smell was becoming quite overpowering and since I was using my 300mm f/2.8 which weighs almost 3k with camera and at 5000 metres, I was really struggling. Short of breath and a little light-headed with the weight of equipment and the altitude but breathing itself no fun with the smell of the bird-enriched salt lagoon. Looking forward to seeing if any of my shots will make the cut. Shooting hundreds of anything is a compositional challenge, need to find some sort of pattern so that it doesn't feel like an undistinguished mass; in addition do you go for details and lose the landscape setting or get the wider context but capture mere pink dots where the birds are. We shall see.
While we were photographing, the clouds had rolled in and on our way home a grey overcast, so no sunset shots, but we were both very tired and short of breath and if anything the ride home was longer and rougher so both the spirit and the flesh were weak and wanting. Dinner, vegetable soup and llama stew, can you see the pattern here?, and an early bed with batteries plugged in to recharge. Hope that the power lasts long enough to get a charge in.