The 200 capita village Tolar Grande is located in 3500 metre height, in the northwest of Argentina, close to the Chilean border. Once an important train stop for cattle trade with Chile, today Tolar Grande’s economy is based on mining, handcrafting and tourism.
There is something melancholic about this place. Maybe it’s the constantly blowing wind, the defunct railway or the fact that civilisation is an 8 hour car ride away. The only other inhabitants apart from humans and the occasional dog are birds, raptors and vicuñas, a wild lama breed.
The surrounding Puna is austere above all, but within its seemingly endless deserts and mountains hide gems of unique natural beauty. From bright white saltflats, deep turquoise waters of the Ojos del mar and the rust coloured sand and mountains of el arenal, the Puna reveals its treasures little by little. A trip to the Cono di Aritar feels like stepping into a Dali painting. Behind this almost perfectly cone shaped mountain unfolds a landscape of surreal colour and mountain formations.
Tolar Grandes beauty lays in the contrasts. Despite the hostile living conditions the people of Tolar are full of warmth (eh won’t mention teophila or flavio taking all the money from cashless tourists). They share their live stories on long hikes through the area, at home over a cup of mate or in the workshop where local craftsmen and women come together to spin lama wool and turn them into artisanal goods.
And below, a more creative text I wrote about this project, that was published along with the images in the plant journal:
The first morning, I ran outside just before the sunrise. I hadn’t seen anything yet as I’d arrived the previous evening.
Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.
Taking pictures had never been so easy, every view in Tolar Grande was perfectly framed. In fact, I can’t take any credit for these photographs. It is really easy to take beautiful pictures when nature flaunts itself so overwhelmingly.
The plan was always to get to Tolar Grande. I didn’t care if I didn’t make it to any of the other planned destinations during my trip. A quick Google Images search had already convinced me in less than two minutes that I had to go there.
From the town itself, to the red hills of the Devil’s Labyrinth mountain range, to the Ojos de Mar (“Sea Eyes”) to the holy black pyramid of Cono de Arita. Some of these landscapes felt like optical illusions, or perhaps more like paintings by Dalí, who had dreamed up the Andes mountains whilst high on his visions.
This area is part of the La Puna grasslands in South America where the climate is incredibly dry. After two days there, blowing your nose becomes painful and your skin had turns into sandpaper. It’s not as hospitable to live in as it is to photograph. Nevertheless, presently, there are 150 people living in Tolar Grande.
Its inhabitants mirror its landscape in their demeanour. Silence envelops the region. They didn’t understand why I was excited to be there. It made no sense to them to be moved by the mountains, let alone the idea of being subjects in my photographs. I made friends with a local mountaineer called Flavio, who agreed to take me around. He chewed coca leaves and played the funniest cumbia music from his car stereo, which altogether added to an already surreal trip.
By my second day there, I decided to buy some cigarettes. The magic and beauty of that place was so intense that I had to numb myself with something. What a terrible idea. No one smokes in La Puna according to Flavio. It’s stupid, as it’s located at an elevation of over 3400m, your lungs are already fighting to get enough oxygen up there. Smoking just makes it more difficult. But, as stubborn as I am, I didn’t give up and carried on for the rest of the week.
Somehow, the cigarettes helped me take a break away from the infinite landscape and my trigger happy finger.
Ana Cuba moved from Barcelona to London in 2011 right after graduating in Media studies. She worked for 3 years as a Photo Editor for Monocle magazine, studied Art Direction for a year at ECAL in Switzerland, and went back to London in 2015. She has been a freelance photographer since then and works across different photography disciplines, from portraiture to fashion to travel photography.