Salta (3): Up to the puna (highlands)!

Following our return from El Rey, we spent the night in Salta and then met a colleague, the amazing Dr Maria Farias, for an expedition to her study systems in the “puna” (highlands) to the west of Salta.  She studies an incredible set of ecosystems very high in the Andes, including the world’s highest stromatolites in Laguna Socompa, plus the microbes in some salty pools at Tolar Grande (our destination today).  A big group came along, including Maria’s husband, several of her students, and a pair making a TV special.  One goal of my trip was to gather video and photos and Gigapan imaging of her study sites for production of a “Virtual Field Trip” for the NASA Astrobiology program.  The drive to Tolar Grande was spectacular but long (12 hours?).  We started by stocking up on a couple of bags of coca leaves that Maria claimed would help stave off the effects of altitude sickness.  The drive followed the route of the famous Tren de las nubes (“Train of the clouds”), proceeding up the Quebrada del Toro (with its saguaro-like cacti!) over a couple of high passes (max: 4500 m, or 14,750 feet) up to the “city” of San Antonio de Los Cobres.  We then headed south, across a large salida (salt pan) and then into the incredible, Mars-like “Colorado” area.  Late in the day we finally reached Tolar Grande and were able to reach her study ponds as the sun began to set.  I managed to complete one Gigapan image (about 200 shots) and got some other really amazing pictures.  Unfortunately, while most of us were off at the pools, someone drove one of the vehicles off the road and, as you can see in the pics, mired it in the mud and salt.  This person spent the next day finding a tractor to haul it out.  After the photo/filming session, we scampered to the “town” of Tolar Grande (3510 m above sea level = 11,515 feet) and grabbed dinner before the lights went out (they turn the town generator off at midnight).  Next: onward and upward to Socompa!  Full set of pics HERE.  (There is also a lot of video but it is too much to pull together right now.)

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