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Crossing the Andes from Chile to Argentina

Tim Dowling
01 January 2008

From its barren landscapes to its dizzy heights and vertiginous drops, crossing the Andes is the ultimate trek for adventure junkies. Tim Dowling is left breathless by this remote, sensational corner of South America

The first morning is an object lesson in disorientation: I wake up in a spacious, well-appointed hotel room, with no idea what day it is, or even what season. Opening the door, I see a barren Martian landscape dominated by a huge volcano. Never before have I felt more justified in asking: 'Where am I?'

I am in the Atacama desert in Chile, said to be the driest place on earth. In some parts, they have not seen any rainfall for 400 years, and its forbidding vistas have indeed stood in for Mars on celluloid. It is October, so it is spring, although the seasons here don’t correspond to familiar patterns (summer, the only time it rains, is cooler than winter). It can be blazing hot in the day and freezing cold at night.

My immediate and somewhat contradictory surroundings are the grounds of Explora's Hotel de Larache, just outside the oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama. It is the first time I have seen any of this in daylight, after landing at Calama airport, two hours to the south, the previous evening. The Hotel de Larache offers a luxurious base for a range of pursuits — hiking, riding, cycling — but I am here to take up one of Explora's more daunting challenges: the Travesía, a week-long journey right across the Andes into Argentina. In the meantime, my stay here has just one purpose. I’m acclimatising.

San Pedro is 2,400m above sea level, an elevation sufficient to produce the first symptoms of altitude sickness (locally they call it ‘la puna’, which translates roughly as ‘the heights’) in those who are prone to it. Our itinerary will eventually take us much higher, so it is necessary to adjust to the marked lack of oxygen in the air. I had foolishly assumed that I would do my acclimatising while lying by one of the four swimming pools, testing the strength of various cocktails at altitude.

‘For us, the luxury is on the outside,’ says our guide Romina, as she outlines our programme for the next day. We begin with a gentle bicycle ride into town. San Pedro de Atacama is dominated by two buildings, a 16th-century church and a museum dedicated to the rich archaeological history of the area. It is strange to think that this uninviting desert, where one might travel for days before seeing a river, only to find its waters too salty to drink, has been inhabited for 12,000 years, its outposts tied together by a network of trade routes first laid out by the Incas.

From San Pedro we ride along rutted roads and river beds, through farmland irrigated by a system of canals, to Pukara de Quitor, the ruins of a hill fortress to which the locals retreated during a particularly dark period in their history. Climbing the winding path to the top, one begins to notice the dearth of oxygen, which produces a fluttering sensation in the chest akin to anticipation, if not fear.

The afternoon excursion takes us, by design, that little bit higher, trekking across the Valle de la Luna (the Valley of the Moon), a haunting, sterile landscape sculpted of salt, clay and gypsum, its every dip and gouge brimming with sand. In some places, the salt leaches out of the rock to form what looks like a dusting of snow; in others it stands in dark crystalline peaks, a testament to how little moisture this valley receives. The contrasting light sand is a geological import, blown here from the Domeyko mountain range to the west. At sunset the whole scene is bathed in a purplish glow, and our shadows stretch right across the flat valley floor. As the sun winks out, the air turns instantly cold. The only sound is the whistling of the wind in the dark.

By the next morning, the group has developed what might be described as an obsession with height. As active participants in our own acclimatisation, we ask the same questions over and over: How high are we here? How high are we going? And how high is that, exactly?

Our morning excursion traces the course of the river Puritama backwards, to the thermal springs which stand at about 3,500 metres. The route is atypically green, studded with cacti, bushes and grasses, sufficient plant life to have once supported grazing animals, as the ruins of shepherds’ shelters testify. At the top, pools of hot, sulphurous spring water await us, along with bathrobes and a picnic lunch.

At sunset, we ride out to one of the Atacama’s most popular destinations, the enormous Salar de Atacama, a salt flat the size of the city of Santiago, where flamingos stalk the evaporating lagoons feeding on the pink brine shrimp that give them their colour. Up close the salt flats are not flat at all, but a knee-high forest of jagged crystals. There is no rain to dissolve them.

The next day we are up early for an excursion that is destined to be as much a test as an adventure. After a quick breakfast (the food is excellent, though I would not necessarily recommend poached eggs at an altitude where water boils at 90°C), we climb into the van for the journey to Copa Coya, the final stage of our acclimatisation.

The curious climactic conditions of the Altiplano mean that life becomes more abundant as you go higher. Despite the cold and the altitude, there is simply more water in the mountains. At 4,200 metres, one finds the wetlands of the Rio Putana, where Andean gulls turn above the iced-over shallows. Up the bank we spot a vizcacha, a made-up looking animal with the head of a rabbit, the legs of a kangaroo, the tail of a squirrel and a greenish tinge to its fur. In the distance there is a small herd of vicuna, a wild camelid thought to be the ancestor of the domesticated alpaca. After a while one gets used to finding the most inhospitable locations positively teeming with life.

The trek begins at 4,600m, 100m higher than the pointy peak of the Matterhorn. It is all you can do to catch your breath standing still. We set off on a gentle descent, circling the barren base of a dormant volcano. Once you become accustomed to taking grandfatherly steps while panting like a dog, the going doesn’t seem quite so hard. ‘In the mountains we say, “slow is fast”’, says Nico, our guide, which I take to mean that shuffling along like a post-op patient is still quicker than being carried out on a stretcher.

Round the other side of the mountain, everything changes. Picking our way up a rocky riverbed, the gradations of colour are no longer subtle. Velvet green shrubs billow out from the hillside like brain coral. Patches of straw shoot up like flames from the cracks in the rock. The sky above is a hard blue. As we climb the wind gets stronger, the air colder, the terrain more sparse. Any extra, unplanned exertion leaves me winded and dizzy, so I’m choosing my steps with care.

The final leg is a steep and slippery climb. The group spreads out — some people at the back are getting headaches, the leaders are irritatingly untroubled. I am somewhere in the middle, having established a pace that keeps my temples throbbing nicely. As the wind hits 50mph, I am more or less blown the last few hundred metres, but I feel elated, fully acclimatised and ready for the Travesía. I arrive back at the hotel two hours later, caked in dust. Sand fills every fold in my clothes. My lips are cracked and bleeding and I’m exhausted. I open the door to my room to find a chocolate on my pillow. I’m going to miss this place.

The Travesía begins at dawn with a long van drive south, although we disembark briefly along the way so that we can stand on the Tropic of Capricorn. Before lunch there is time for a quick hike across a hill overlooking the magnificent Salar de Aguas Calientes, its blue-white surface scoured by winds which deposit the salt in icing-sugar highlights on the neighbouring mountains.

Sometime after lunch we arrive at what must be one of the most forlorn border posts in the world: the Argentine customs office at Paso Sico, a low-slung building that creaks and howls in the wind. Looking outside from inside, however, the landscape appears supremely tranquil; anything which might move in a breeze has long since blown away. Our incredibly straightforward paperwork baffles the officials. Chino, our guide, thinks they might be newly arrived and suffering with la puna.

The sun is setting by the time we reach the frontier mining town of St Antonio de los Cobres, on what appears to be the biggest night of the year: a flat-bed truck is cruising the main drag with a dozen men holding a gigantic trophy, to the cheers of assembled onlookers. It is unclear what they have won. Beyond St Antonio we start ascending into the Andes, on a terrible road made up of more than a hundred (someone counted — not me) hairpin bends overlooking vertiginous drops. I actually find the encroaching darkness comforting, although I doubt our driver does.

This is how we come to the highest point of the Travesía — in the dark, in a van. We climb out to stand by the sign verifying that the peak of the pass, Abra el Acay, lies at 4,895 metres above sea level. I am back in my seat almost as soon as I have digested this information; it’s no place to hang around.

Fourteen hours after setting off we arrive at the Quesera campsite: three well-appointed tents, hot showers, fine Argentinian wines and a kitchen where supper is being prepared. I have never been happier to get out of a car. In the morning Berta, the farmer who owns the land on which our tents are pitched, leads us like a herd of goats up a hill over the Calchequi river. No one cares how high we are anymore. The views are stunning, with the mountains we crossed the previous night looming in the distance.

From here our journey follows the Calcheqi to our base for the next two nights: Explora’s very own finca, a single-storey converted schoolhouse by a cactus-dotted riverbed. Our final trek of the week takes in the Calchequies valley, with views of the snowy peaks of the Nevado de Cachi in the distance. The group now strides about purposefully as one. There is more air here than we know what to do with.

It is, however, a long way down yet, on perilous snaking roads, to get to Salta, a bustling colonial city, which serves as our shocking reintroduction to civilisation. There is barely time for a beer in the square before we catch our flight to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires, there is barely time to shower before the Hotel Faena’s dinner and tango show which I was dreading, but which turned out to be magical. The rest of the evening is, as it should be in Buenos Aires, a bit of a brightly coloured blur. I guess all the extra oxygen went to my head.