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.

Alpenglow at 16,000 feet in the Atacama Desert.

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.

Paso del Agua Negra

Some hundred miles north, as the high-flying condors and crows of the Andes fly, one comes upon the Argentinean border post along the Paso del Agua Negra. The morning sun was still low when we reached it, and the two guards, plainly grateful for the distraction, invited us to share in their maté, a stimulating ritual drink derived from the aromatic infusion of herbs picked in the vicinity. They also presented us with substantial slices of fresh bread. "Up until a year ago, there were no electric lights out here," the younger officer explained. "We had to spend the long evenings playing cards together by candlelight."

After depositing a heap of luggage that we didn't need for a day trip to the pass, we promised to return before dark. They took our passports as security that we would return from the desolate miles of no man's land that separate the border posts, without illegally entering Chile, and then they raised their red-and-white barrier.

Long shadows in Lauca National Park.

The narrow gravel road followed the river's course before steadily curving uphill, where so many of the hues in nature's palette dappled the steep mountain slopes on both sides of the valley. A condor circled effortlessly high above. The national bird of Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile, the condor can fly as high as 23,000 feet and live 70 years. An adult bird weighs in at over 20 pounds, with a ten-foot wingspan, and it can drag carcasses weighing up to 40 pounds. Farther along, large scree fields cut through the track, and up around 15,000 feet, we encountered bizarre, towering columns of ice.

When we returned as promised to the border just before dusk, we couldn't possibly turn down Sergeant Nuñez's offer of a hot shower and a hearty dinner. "And tonight we will play cards in electric light," he winked.