Northern Chile and Argentina: High and Dry

Northern Chile and Argentina: High and Dry
Summer was running out of gas. Yellow leaves fell gently, and autumn nipped at the air when we left behind the vineyards and fruit plantations north of Santiago on our trip to Mendoza, in Argentina. Like ghost riders, it felt as if we were heading straight into the sky.

An ever-ascending strip of narrow tarmac snakes from the valley of the Aconcagua River to Paso del Bermejo, almost 13,000-feet high. To our left, the king of all American peaks, Cerro Aconcagua, rises yet another incredible 10,000 feet above the pass. We could only guess at its rarefied majesty - the giant's snowy aspects were hidden by clouds - as an icy wind sweeping over the desolate plain set us shivering.

At a tunnel entrance a road worker stopped us. "There's some construction going on, and it might take an hour or two until the road is reopened," he said. One of the lessons we have learned during our travels among Latin Americans is that their conceptions of time are very different from those of Europeans. When someone says "un ratito" (one moment), it usually means an hour. This flagman's "hour or two" might work out to be the equivalent of half a day - if we were lucky! Another valuable lesson kicks in, and we recognize, as most foreign travelers eventually do, that patience is the most desirable virtue to possess in times like these.

The roar of our engines died away and we drank in the breathtaking Andean scenery. In the crystal clear air of these highlands, the intensity of colors is unrivaled. But that hardly begins to describe the surreal beauty of the Altiplano. In a spot like this, the soul doesn't have to stretch very far to take flight.

My eyes were drawn to a fine grey line on the hillside to our right that turned out to be an alternate route, the old pass road, Cerro Christo, with its numerous serpentines winding dizzily into the thin air. Rising above our moderate fear of heights, we took it, climbing along the gravel of the 14,000-foot pass to the point where a large statue of Christ overlooks the valley and welcomes all with open arms: Peace be with you. Within four hours, we had clambered some 10,000 feet in elevation, and our heads were spinning. The blood pounded in our veins. A strange light-headed feeling accompanied our every move, and when the simple act of taking a photo became a feat of strength, we realized it was high time to descend for more oxygen.