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BLOG ENTRY 002: LITHIUM'S MIRAGE

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

An unexpected and brief journey to the massive, high-altitude Lithium's salt flats. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are believed to have 80% of the world's stock from this light metal: The core of today's Technological Revolution. Food and high-altitude poisoning, sandstorms, a sci-fi look alike road and stunning Andean textures are only a small part of this brief summer adventure. A trip with a bitter ending but definitely the beginning of a new era regarding my photographic composition.


Get to know how I got some stunning images compiled on the Unclassified Series.


Truck drivers from the mining company catch up on the side of the road waiting for assistance. Location: Pumice Field, near the town of El Peñón, Catamarca.



It is January's end, 2020 I was enjoying back home a much deserved rest after my first contract onboard. Buenos Aires was boiling. Temperatures were scraping the 100F degrees and humidity wasn't colaborating. Since I had to leave the city due to holidays during the first week of February, I had the brilliant idea of visiting, prior to that, a distant and unknown part of the country which I had never been before. I had nine days to go, get to know the place and come back.


So I made a brief research, and the only way of reaching this place was by bus. It is important to mention the last 150 miles or so, aren't covered by any public transportation line, so I would have to come up with something and probably hitchhike this last stretch.


My final destination was Antofagasta de la Sierra, a small town with less than 700 inhabitants deep into the High Andean Plains (known in Argentina and Chile as 'Puna' or 'Altiplano' in Bolivia and Peru). The whole area surrounding Antofagasta feels like you were dropped out of a rover in Mars. It is one of the remotest and most untamed sections in the Argentinian geography.


My final destination was Antofagasta de la Sierra, a small town with less than 700 inhabitants deep into the High Andean Plains. The whole area surrounding Antofagasta feels like you were dropped out of a rover in Mars. It is one of the remotest and most untamed sections in the Argentinian geography.

A sandstorm and some empanadas

I left Buenos Aires in the evening and arrived in San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca (the capital of the homonymous province) at midday. I then had to await for another bus, for hours, which would eventually leave me in Belén, the last big town. I reached the Belen's bus terminal around midnight, got a decent room, took a refreshing shower and called it for the day.

The next morning, I spent a couple of hours looking around for transportation which covered the Belen-Antofagasta route. As I mentioned before, there was nothing, so it was time to improvise. I took a last walk looking for some lunch: The surroundings of this town are beautiful, with mountains covered by uncountable cacti and little farms dedicated to the production of olive goods.


Fifteen or twenty minutes after beginning hitchhiking, a 35 year old couple or so stopped and let me into. They told me they were heading to a different destination but they could drop me in the last crossroad, which was great. The national route continues to a series of goldmine towns and the provincial route, leads to Antofagasta. I thought if I could manage to stop a vehicle over there, it would mean a successful journey.


We drove for about an hour and the routes' intersection happened to be in a little and peaceful desert town called 'Puerta del Corral Quemado'. I thanked them for the ride and began to wait for another car. It was around 3PM or so and nap time is taken pretty seriously on these northern provinces: There wasn't a single soul wandering around.


Around 5 o'clock, the idea of getting to my final destination during that day seemed pretty unlikely. Besides, some menacing clouds were threatening close the horizon. I decided to look for a bed and try better luck during the following day. A couple of minutes before reaching the adobe house which would eventually serve me as a B&B, a monstrous rain and sand thunderstorm hit the area. The scenery was apocalyptical: I could only see a couple meters away from your feet and I was lucky to reach the place before something bad happened.


I remember catching up on Twitter while waiting for the storm to pass away and hearing about the terrible accident Kobe Bryant had had. There were also incoming news from China, were a whole city called Wuhan was quarantined due to a deadly new virus. Seems crazy, right?


Before sunset, the rain had ceased and I went out for a relaxed walk to get to know the village and buy some snacks for the next day's journey. At the time I was leaving a grocery store, two men (turned out to be father and son), who were outside, started chatting with me. Since almost no one visits this distant area, they were curious about what I was doing over there, by myself.


I told them I was trying to reach Antofagasta to get some footage with my cameras. We stayed there for a while but at one point rain started pouring again and one thing led to another, they invited me to have some empanadas at their home. Hey, I couldn't say no.


So after a couple of blocks, we arrived to their home and we kept talking for a while. Even if it was not the most revealing conversation ever, I really like to listen their thoughts, their day-to-day life, what they do for a living... Sometimes we tend to forget the vastness of this country and how different life can be from a 15 million people city like mine to a small village with no more than 600 inhabitants.


I thanked them again for the empanadas and the beer, offered to pay, but they refused it. It was almost 10PM and I was exhausted, I went to bed pretty early and that was pretty much it. A big day was awaiting.


I remember catching up on Twitter while waiting for the storm to pass away and hearing about the terrible accident Kobe Bryant had had. There were also incoming news from China, were a whole city called Wuhan was quarantined due to a deadly new virus. Seems crazy, right?


Crossed paths with this little buddy while waiting for a ride



Puna's gateway


By 8:30 in the morning I was standing up along with my belongings at one side of Route 43. About half and hour later, a pick up truck stopped by and the driver asked me where I was going. He told me his final destination was a little and remote village called Laguna Blanca but he could leave me on another upcoming crossroad where supposedly, lots of trucks were passing by and they would eventually lift me up and get me into my final destination.


The cabin was full house so I, jumped into the pick up's bed where a 11 or 12 year-old boy was already enjoying the ride. As kilometres went by I started focusing on the amazing scenery around us, we were going uphill in a narrow valley while constantly passing through brown streams which were carrying the mud after the storm of the day before.


We made a full stop and when I looked up front, there was a huge river crossing the road with a menacing flow. A truck was stuck in the middle of it, and another vehicles were trying to help it's way out of the water. This was the first time the pick up driver left the vehicle in order to have a closer look at the river and decide if it was safe to cross it. He was a local priest.



The priest and the boy who was sharing the pick up's back with me take a look before crossing another muddy river


After successfully crossing the river, we were going uphill once again and a couple of minutes later, after leaving the little boy in his family's ranch, they let me into the pick up cabin and I took the front seat. Besides the priest, the back was occupied by a young mother and her children, originally from Laguna Blanca. By this time we were almost hitting the 10000ft above sea level, the wind was fresher, the sky was clearing up and after bordering a massive sand dune we glimpsed an endless high altitude plain: We had reached the Puna.


The scenery was truly mesmerizing, the previous green valley was replaced by a dry, pale grey endless plain with vicuñas (wild camelids with a similar aspect, thinner than llamas which are commonly found on these environments) at the side of the road and snowy peaks lining close to the horizon. I then started a conversation with the priest, he told me he offered service on distant churches scattered all over the department. Some of them can be reached by rural routes, but turns out other ones have a tougher gateway and you need to reach them on a donkey or a mule.


Soon we had to split roads and the priest told me that eventually someone would let me in and I would reach my final destination. By the time I got out of the car I quickly realized I was left alone absolutely in the middle of nowhere. There was a total silence, I could only visualize some curious vicuñas hundreds of meters away. Not a single vehicle was roaming the route. After half an hour, only a motorcycle heading towards the opposite direction came through, and then again, that was it. Thirty minutes later I was feeling worried: the road hadn't shown signs of being utilized by human life. But then it happened: close to the sand dune which we had encircled some moments ago, a convoy of mining trucks escorted up front by a pick up got closer to my location. Out of the three trucks, two ignored me completely, and I felt hopeless, but it was the last one which made a full stop a couple of meters away from my bag. I grabbed my belongings quickly and moved towards the immense vehicle, as the driver yelled madly at me "Come on, we are not allowed to do this!". I then climbed the truck's stairs as fast as I could and close the door.



At the time I layed down on the passenger's seat, I felt disoriented by the truck driver's attitude. He seemed really angry but almost like in a parent or relative way. Then I understood:

-Hey buddy, you lost your head along the way?

-Wait, what happened?

-You're by yourself in an empty road, more than 11000 feet above sea level. Do you know how risky that is?

-No. Besides, I don't think I'll get stolen.

-Yes, no question about that. If I haven't picked you up you could be out there for hours, you don't want to imagine what could happen to you after the sun sets.

-What do you mean?

-You're in the middle of nowhere in a high-altitude desert. You would freeze to death. We are not allowed to let hitchhikers in on the company's trucks.



The scenery was truly mesmerizing, the previous green valley was replaced by a dry, pale grey endless plain with vicuñas (wild camelids with a similar aspect, thinner than llamas which are commonly found on these environments) at the side of the road and snowy peaks lining close to the horizon.

Due to insurance regulations, everyone in the truck should be an employee from the mining company. So in case of an hypothethical accident, the driver could have had an enormous responsibility.

A few minutes later, he calmed down and the ride became more pleasant after the -now I know- pretty-well deserved daring. He told me about his job and also about the lithium mine. He was heading towards the salt flat where the lithium is distilled. Once the process is completed, he has to carry the material to Buenos Aires, more than 1000 miles away from the extraction point (quite the exact same journey I was doing but on the opposite way).

The company runs the operations year-round in two salt flats: Salar del Hombre Muerto (50 miles north from Antofagasta, the one he was heading to) and the other one is located near Susques, at the northernmost section of the country. Entering and leaving these mines is never easy: both of them are placed at more than 12000 feet above sea level, meaning tons of specific equipment, capable operators and facilities which should resist the ever challenging weather conditions, specially during winter were -5 Farenheit (-20C) degrees or less are very common.



The scenery changes abruptly as the highlands are reached


It came to surprise for me the fact we where on a Provincial route which was almost brand new. In a country where even national roads are in terrible conditions, seeing a paved path with no signs of usage felt strange. Then he explained to me this situation: About ten years ago, since the mines were employing local workforce, they pressured local authorities to pave the whole stretch of the road. At the time of my visit, only 20 miles were still a gravel section.


As we gained altitude and almost reach the 15000 feet mark, he offered me some coca leafs which helps the organism to oxygenate your lungs and reliefs the high-altitude sickness symptoms. He also took some "Bica", Sodium Bicarbonate, which supposedly enhances the coca benefits. I accepted the coca leafs, as I was aware it's use is widely spread in the Andean Geography.


The truck drivers are periodically communicating via radio, to check if there are any issues. In case one of the vehicles has any issues, the whole convoy stops, take out tools and try to solve any kind of mechanical problem.


Sooner than later, midday had arrived and I heard through the radio it was lunch time. Once again, after the trucks engines were turned off, total silence reappeared. I was carrying some snacks and water, so I offered them to the four drivers but they turned down.


They had a gas tank and where they were preparing some pasta. When lunch was ready, almost without noticing, I had a full plate of tirabuzones with tomato sauce in my hands. "It's on us this time" they said an as you may imagine, I felt completely embarrassed. Not only they have picked me up from the middle of nowhere, they were also inviting me with a delicious meal.


So I sat on a near rock and began to eat while observing my surroundings: the scenery was staggering. Golden tumbleweeds dominate the foreground and mighty snowy peaks reign in the distance. We happened to be at the highest point of the route and around 70 or 80 miles away from my final destination: They had to cover another extra 30 miles until they reached the salt flat.


Entering and leaving these mines is never easy: both of them are placed at more than 12000 feet above sea level, meaning tons of specific equipment, capable operators and facilities which should resist the ever challenging weather conditions, specially during winter were -5 Farenheit (-20C) degrees or less are very common.

We finished lunch and the road started rolling downhill. The landscape changes abruptly as you reach the last town before Antofagasta de la Sierra: El Peñón. Vegetation ceases and you enter a volcanic wonderland where reddish, jet black tones and an endless spectrum of harsh textures are the protagonists.



Some mechanical issues before the world ends


Lunch hadn't been that long ago when the radio interference popped up and a voice announced there was a mechanical issue. Again, the drivers took the trucks to the side of the road and try to solve the issue. This didn't seem to be an easy-to-fix thing because we remained there for more than an hour. It is worth mentioning the fact the trucks always work in a convoy: If one of them is broken, nobody leaves until external help shows up.


Weather conditions were rapidly changing and once again, sand began to levitate due to the strong winds at the same time dark clouds were approaching the route. A different pick up arrived and by the time the issue was solved, we were surrounded by a dust storm.


A mile apart from Antofagasta the driver told me it was my time to leave the truck as there was a police control at the town's entrance. I grabbed my things, told him if I could give him some money for the 8-hour-long ride and lunch but he refused, once again with a smile. We shook hands and before I left the cabin he told me "Don't be this stupid next time and plan your ride". I smiled.


It was almost 7PM: We left Puerta del Corral Quemado with the priest at 8:30 in the morning. You may want to know the distance between these two towns: they're 130 miles apart.


I spent three days in Antofagasta but truth is, I could only enjoy the first one due to some symptoms related either to food poisoning or high-altitude. I really don't know. Looking back, helping the truck drivers at more than 12000 feet while coming from sea level is not a great idea.


During the next day after my arrival I visited the Pumice field, with out-of-this-world sights and the Antofagasta volcano. This is where I got two of my all time favorite compositions: UNC-Layers and UNC-Pircas. Minimal and timeless framings which had a deep impact in my upcoming projects. The following two days, I had to recover and chose to stay in town since there is another excursion in the area which escalates to more than 16000 feet. Not the greatest idea considering my symptoms.


Keeping in mind it took me three entire days to reach Antofagasta, I left town a day earlier than I was expected, just to be sure to reach home on time.

Once again, hitchhiking was the way to return. Not even 20 minutes passed until a minibus, full packed with miners let me in and dropped me a couple of hours later once again in Belen after a lighting-speed ride downhill while listening a careful selected Cumbia playlist.


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Compositions framed during this trip. You can find them on the Unclassified Series







Epilogue


There is a huge debate going on regarding the consequences of outdoors' mining in our country. Environmentalists enunciate there is an irreversible soil's contamination due to distillation and an over-exploitation currently going on in these salt flats. What it's also worth mentioning is that companies like this one, provides a constant work-source opportunity to inhabitants all-year round who were until a couple of years ago, part of a community with no profitable jobs at all and also with no communication with the outside world, as the road was in terrible conditions. Antofagasta may be located in a distant section of the Puna but there is wifi, electrical connection and a variety of stores which provide food and clothing. This is pretty uncommon in similar settlements across the area.



Almost two years later after this adventure, personal names have faded away. Special thanks to the father and son in Puerta del Corral Quemado for the empanadas, to the priest and the truck driver for the rides.

Hope you can visit this staggering section of the Northern Argentinian Andes in the near future. Thank you for your lecture.





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