At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
“When you get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there…the end result is absolutely useless. But every time I travel I learn something new, and hopefully I get to be a better person.”
– Yvon Chouinard, 180° South
We slept very little on account of the wind, tossing Nacho about like Shackleton’s rowboat. I drank my coffee, finished my oatmeal, and then emerged from the sliding door into the eerie, gray morning. Something was different. Alarmingly different. The sand dunes that had surrounded Nacho the previous evening were all gone. Smooth, wet ground was all that remained. The windshield and front grill were coated with sand, and a tide pool stood like a partial moat around Nacho.
While we slept, the waves had crept inward and engulfed our camp site. They were frightening waves, breaking in sets twelve at a time, white caps stripping off into the air like the licking flames of a fire by the terrorizing wind. These waves had crossed the sandy wasteland that had separated us from the ocean while we slept. While I danced with lollipops and wagons in my dream world, Nacho braved the high seas, just like Shackleton’s rowboat, in the real world. Pacific Ocean: a misnomer if there ever was one.
I paced back and forth, circling Nacho in disbelief. While I did, a couple of jacketed figures made their way up the otherwise abandoned, remote beach, fighting the oppressive wind. Inspecting the wheels and undercarriage it was impossible to tell how high the water had come. Spitting rain and ocean spray had coated everything in a fine, salty mist. The figures approached so I put up a confident façade, as if we hadn’t nearly been swept away into southern Chile’s penguin and shark infested waters in our hippie bus.
Retired German tourists. Pretty far from civilization, I thought. The whole situation had a Tim Burton air about it.
“Looks like it’s going to be a balmy day,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. The man tightened the hood of his rain jacket around his face against the wind. The woman opened her mouth to speak, and as she did I recoiled in fear. Her thin face was gray and sunken, and when she spoke, her lips parted to reveal teeth smeared with thick trails of blood.
Sweet baby Jesus H. Christ!
She said something, but the little attention I was able to spare was not enough to make heads or tails of it. It was a heinously botched flossing job, complete with swollen gums and squirting blood. I hadn’t seen anything so grotesque since the last time I tried flossing.
In the adventure documentary 180° South, a young man follows in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard on a southbound journey into Chile’s Patagonia region. The culmination of the voyage puts the traveler in Chile’s Parque Nacional Pumalín, a large swath of land put into conservation by North Face founder Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris. In the film, Chouinard accompanies the young adventurer in an attempt to ascend Cerro Corcovado – a peak which has only been summited once, by Tompkins.
Were the sky not so heavily cloaked by thick gray clouds, Corcovado would have been visible from Chiloe, the small island off the Pacific coast of southern Chile where we were camped. The park that Doug Tompkins helped create is visible from the island, only a few miles to the East. We later realized that our camp site on the windy beach, where we were nearly swept away by the tide, and where we were exposed to the gruesome floss bloodbath, was a filming location in 180° South.
Parque Nacional Pumalín, while an important conservation project, caused some navigational issues for us in our attempt to reach the island of Chiloe. When Tompkins started buying land – around two million acres in all – he raised the suspicions of the Chilean people. Upon consolidating all of his purchases into one account, it became evident that he’d acquired a tract of land stretching from sea to border; a strip that split the country in two. And by placing it into conservation, no roads would be built to connect one side to the other, effectively cutting southern Chile off from the North. In order to reach southern Chile, one would have to cross into Argentina, adding 500 miles to the trip, or else take a pretty expensive ride on a ship.
A week earlier we had made it as far South as the small Welsh town of Trevelin, in Argentina, approximately level with the bottom of Chiloe. Our plan was to cross the Andes and take the ship to the island, which would allow us to circumvent the national park. The day before we intended to sail, we were informed that the ship was down for maintenance for at least a week. Unable to drive through Pumalín, we would have to retrace our steps 500 miles through Argentina and part of Chile to reach it from the North.
The last time we were in Chile, we crossed the driest place on Earth – the Atacama desert. The first thing that we noticed upon crossing into southern Chile was the ample orographic precipitation. As soon as we crossed the border it began to rain, and it would not stop for 20 days.
The rain became the soundtrack to our drive through the Andes. The repetitive whooshing of our windshield wipers announced our arrival in Puerto Montt after the one-day 500 mile jaunt, placing us near the northern end of Chiloe. The bulbous drops battered the roof of the corrugated parking shelter where we camped for four days in the city, and the downpour continued while we explored the fish market and the water front. It rained on the drive to the ferry port, and it rained on us while we camped at the penguin colony on the northern end of the island. In the end we were sure of two things; I can’t remember what the first thing was, but the second is that it rains a lot in Chile.
The day before arriving at our windy beach outpost, we had attempted to reach the Pacific Ocean via a route that we had scoped out on our map. The map’s key described it as a secondary dirt road for the first half, turning into “huella” for the second half, indicated by a thin dashed line. The route looked tortuous, and seemed to guarantee adventure. Huella? Something less good than a secondary dirt road? “Let’s do it!” I told Sheena.
Two hours later, after leaving Sheena and Nacho near a mud bog and walking through the forest to a deep water crossing, I learned that huella is Spanish for “hiking trail”. Trial and error, I’m finding, is a highly effective method of burning new Spanish vocabulary into my brain. Thus, the night before sleeping in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, we slept near a crystal clear stream surrounded by green grass and big trees at the end of a secondary road, just where the huella to the ocean begins.
We eventually left the barren and windy beach, making our way through colorful villages and striking landscapes on our northward trajectory. An official at the ferry port informed us that the southbound ship was still down for maintenance. With Parque Pumalín in our way, we were left with no other choice than to drive the 500 miles through Argentina, back to where we had started.
This whole thing will eventually come to an end, and perhaps it will be utterly useless. But after all is said and done we may learn something new, and maybe even emerge better people.
“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”
In Ecuador I bought a painting. It was a messy chaotic scene.
In Argentina, a similar style painting would go something like this: a flat sheet of desert surrounded by snowcapped peaks. Grapes droop from a tangle of vines in one corner. Stray dogs happily run in packs down the street. In the hills gauchos ride their horses, checking the fence lines and rounding up sheep.
In another corner of the painting, siesta time is taking place. The streets are desolate and the stores are closed, with the exception of ice cream shops. People wander, licking their dulce de leche ice cream. Acquaintances meet in the street, greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek. The women all have long beautiful hair, reaching the lower vertebrae of their backbone. Men fashion long hair as well, pulling the tangle of hair high in a bun on top of their heads. In a grassy field, families cluster around an asado. The grill is stacked to capacity with ribs, bife de lomo, legs of lamb, and links of blood sausage. Bottles of Merlot sit like table centerpieces. Long after the families are gone, smoke rings linger in the air.
Alongside the grassy fields, bushes of orange flowers and stalks of purple dragonflies border the road. In a tree, red flags and ribbon hang, symbolizing yet another Gauchito Gil shrine. Down by the river, fishermen’s rods drip with trout. Mate gourds are cupped in every set of hands. Staying high on life, they sip their bitter tea from sun up to sun down.
Argentina: it was all rainbows and unicorns. Culturally, it came as a surprise as it was vastly different from its neighboring countries. The metamorphosis of culture, facial features, and cuisines that consistently took place from one neighboring country to the next ended abruptly here. Goodbye rice and potatoes. Hello wine and meat.
A short presentation of Argentina’s cultural uniqueness…
Gauchito Gil, the cowboy saint
I met the most famous saint in all of Argentina for the first time in the desert along the Ruta 40. The landscape was bare all around, yet under a mature tree, red flags, strips of fabric, and artificial flowers were strewn throughout the tree branches, announcing his presence. He sat under an arch painted in a matching red. He wore his hair long, slightly wavy with a matching wispy mustache. His blue long sleeve was pushed up to his elbows and a red scarf tied around his neck. He was five inches tall and made of a hard plastic.
While the real Gauchito Gil, a.k.a. Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, died in 1878, shrines of him number in the thousands. As the story goes, he was an outlaw who became a symbol of bravery, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Today, many people stop at the roadside shrines, giving thanks to Gauchito by leaving offerings such as water bottles, jewelry, car bumpers, and scraps of clothing. We on the other hand stopped at his shrines, using them as an excuse to stretch our legs and explore the offerings. Always colorful, always unique and intriguing.
While most shrines were dedicated to Gauchito Gil, there were others. The next most interesting were shrines for Deolinda Correa who in the 1940s set out into the desert with her infant baby, in search of her husband who was forcibly taken to join the military. She died in the desert, but as she lay down, dying of thirst, she set her baby to her nipple, who survived until her body was found by gauchos. The gauchos took in the child, raisings him on the plains driving cattle. Now, Argentineans leave bottles of water at her alters to “calm her eternal thirst”.
Argentineans are serious about siesta time. Beginning at 1 pm all businesses shut down. Grocery stores. Banks. Retail shops. Police stations. All until 5pm, Monday through Friday. The only exception here (that I noticed anyway) is ice cream shops. Always open. Always there to serve. You can only imagine how serious Argentineans are about their time off on the weekends and holidays.
And what is it like in a city where everyone is on siesta? Runners take over the sidewalks and friends ride down the street on their bikes. Young crowds sit in the town square and drink mate, and older couples rest on park benches, watching the day go by. As much as the siesta frustrated us as travelers, we could see its benefits, forcing people to focus on themselves and their relationships; a generous break from the commercial aspects of the everyday world.
Late night dinners
Dinner starts at 9:30 and many restaurants don’t open their doors until 8:30. It is not uncommon to finish dinner in the early morning hours. I wondered for quite some time if it meant that Argentineans woke up late, yet they do not. They are at work by 8 am, with little breakfast and littler sleep.
Desert oases: where wine really flows like water
Argentina’s wine regions are located within the broad valleys and sloping plains of the desert, creating oases ideal conditions for grape cultivation. Our first wine destination was in Cafayate, known for their dry white Torrontes. Day one was a success, checking off five of the six estancias which offered tastings and were within walking distance from the town square. As we continued South through Mendoza, the most important wine region in Argentina, vineyards and estancias flooded the outskirts of the city. And the wine was so incredibly cheap and plentiful. Between touring wineries, we stopped in at other establishments, such as Simone’s Olive Oil where the owner took us through his variety of olive oils, soaking cubes of bread in bowls of olive oils, tasting the varieties and their different qualities.
As for the wineries, most offered tours of the facilities and explanations of their processes. For example, what a house wine is and why it is more affordable? Simply put, wine is made through a period of aging. With more time, more flavor develops. During the life of the fermented grapes, portions of the liquid in the vats are drained. The first round of draining occurs just days after the start of the fermentation process, and this liquid is used to make a house wine. And as the fermentation time is short, the wine is not fully developed, lacking in the body and color that most people look for in a wine. This is the difference between most house wines and regular bottles, and explains why we can get house wine with our asado for only a couple of dollars.
Gauchos, Asados and 55 million cattle
In the 1500’s, Spain drastically influenced Argentina’s culture with the importation of cows. Today, Argentine beef is world famous. All we ever heard from every traveler who had made it to Argentina before us was “Oh just wait until you get to Argentina! The beef there is soooo good. You can get a steak the size of your plate and 4 inches thick!” Was it really true? Could it be?
Just a few blocks down from the main square in Cafayate, under the tall trees shading the walkway and beside the red umbrellas, a chalkboard advertised a parrilla completa for two. Inside the focal point of the restaurant was the massive grill stretched across the length of the restaurant. Atop were chunks of steak, chicken, chorizo, sausage, and ribs. We enjoyed a very meaty meal, with coals under our table top grill to keep the food warm and tender. Argentine meat was insanely good and for the next week, we ate at a parrilla every day, attempting to satisfy our incessant craving for Argentine meat.
More food culture
At a roadside stand a family worked together in an assembly line, scooping a meat filling into the center of sheets of dough, folding them over, and pinching them closed. In a wood fired ovens, dozens of dough balls went in. What came out was Argentina’s most famous street food: the empanada. This became Brad’s favorite food. It was easy to find. Every bakery, restaurant, and gas station offered their own version. My favorite? Locro soup. A warm creamy concoction of hominy, squash, spices, and chunks of stewed beef shoulder. Do yourself a favor and save this recipe for a rainy day.
Smitten for yerba mate
Everywhere we went, people drank mate. In the park, groups of friends sat in circles sharing a single vessel of yerba mate. In the stores, employees sipped their mate as tourists browsed their merchandise. On the bus, commuters poured water from their thermoses into their gourds. Over and over again. Argentineans only carry on their daily business if a mate is in hand.
The drinking of yerba mate involves a host and one or more people, beginning with the preparation of the drink. The host packs the yerba (the herb) into the mate (the vessel used for holding the tea – usually a hollowed out gourd) and once tightly packed, the bombilla (metal filtered straw) is arranged to sit firmly upright in the tea. Lastly, warm water is poured into the mate and passed to the first participating drinker. Customs as a participating drinker are to never touch the bombilla with your fingers and to drink all liquid in the mate before passing it back to the host. And it must always go back to the host. ‘Thank you’ is only whispered when you’ve had enough and are bowing out of the tea time rotation.
Interestingly, while yerba mate is insanely popular, it isn’t often a part of the tourist experience and it is not served in restaurants due to its tedious preparation process and commonality as a daily ritual.
What does it taste like? Just try to imagine the incredible tart and bitterness of a liquid produced by stuffing 10 tea bags into a single serving cup. This stuff is STRONG. We wanted to love it, but I think you have to have a little Argentina in your blood.
It was a blustery day in 1997. Brad Pitt plodded through the mountains in tattered footwear, his worn out jacket proving no match for the icy wind sweeping down from the slopes of Aconcagua – South America’s highest peak. While the film he was making was called Seven Years in Tibet, he was actually in Argentina, just a few miles outside of the small town of Uspallata. In 1997, actors staged a conflict between peaceful Tibetans and fierce Chinese soldiers bent on taking their land. Little known to Brad Pitt at the time, a similar conflict would take place 15 years later, not far from where the icy Aconcagua winds chilled him to the bone, between peaceful Americans and fierce Chilean border agents bent on taking their food.
Three days before the conflict…
We leave Mendoza and hook West toward the Andes. Scenes of vineyards and cottonwood trees soon give way to low shrubs and dry arroyos. On both sides of the road the hills grow into craggy peaks. An old railroad bed parallels the road, as does the Rio Mendoza, a wide river carrying glacial runoff to the fertile wine region below.
On the roadside we spot a shrine amid a sea of trash. Legend has it that a woman traveling with her infant child died of thirst in the desert, but her child survived by suckling the milk from her dead mother’s breast. In remembrance of the story, travelers are given free rein to throw their plastic bottles on the roadside, where the occasional whipping wind scatters them into the countryside and the Rio Mendoza.
Nine miles later, we coast into the village of Uspallata in a valley surrounded by towering peaks. We find a place near a stream and set up our home. Straight in front of Nacho, high in the towering mountains, forever roams the collective memory of Brad Pitt in his tattered jacket.
Two days before the conflict…
We explore the town – little more than a highway with a few unpaved offshoots that lead to estancias and the surrounding canyons. To protect the village from the harsh winds that come down like frozen avalanches from the Andes, extensive groves of deciduous trees have been planted around the town. The trees make the place seem tranquilo.
References to Tibet are all over the place. The Tibet bar punctuates one corner, while Tibet tours and Tibet markets abound. To someone unaware of the town’s famous recent past, the references would be very confusing indeed.
We hike to the top of a low hill outside of town where we find another shrine, this one devoid of any plastic trash.
In the evening we make a lasagna from scratch in our Dutch oven, watch a local teen flyfishing in our stream, and then retire to bed.
The day before the conflict…
I am awoken in the morning by a gaucho leading a herd of horses across the stream right in front of our camp. Throughout the day, more horses cross the stream. I am again awoken in the night by yet more horses crossing the stream, en masse. I start to wonder what’s up with all of the horses crossing the stream.
The day of the conflict…
We wake up early, have coffee and pancakes, and then tear down camp. We head West and climb farther into the Andes. The terrain looks remarkably similar to the Himalayas. I guess that explains why they chose this place to film Brad Pitt pretending to be a Himalayan mountaineer.
We eventually arrive at Aconcagua and pull over. Our plan is to hike up to the base of the mountain, but one step out the door puts those plans on the backburner; the wind is howling and it’s absolutely freezing. Springtime in the shadow of a 22,841 foot peak isn’t as balmy as we’d thought it would be. A quick walk around a field, a few minutes looking at a natural bridge and we duck inside of a tienda for some hot chocolate while sitting around a wood stove.
Back on the road we approach the Chilean border. With any luck, by nightfall we’ll be wearing fancy turtlenecks and quaffing expensive wine in a seaside restaurant in Viña del Mar. The abandoned train tracks paralleling the road are enclosed in a manmade tunnel of plate steel to protect it from the deep winter snows. The plate steel is rusty, dilapidated and sagging, giving the tracks an unreal scariness. They’re like Marilyn Manson reincarnated as train tracks.
The road approaches an unbelievably steep and towering triumvirate of mountains, seemingly impassible, and I wonder how we’ll get over them. My question is answered when the road dives into a tunnel straight through the biggest mountain. We drive for a few miles in the subterranean tunnel, icicles hanging from the roof, and then we see a sign hanging from the tunnel wall: Bienvenidos a la Republica de Chile. We’ve crossed the Chilean border underground.
Sheena ducks into the back of the van to do our routine of hiding all of the food before getting to the border guard shack. She’s getting pretty good at it by now; she tucks our meat, fruits and vegetables into every nook and cranny, while leaving a few straggling pieces of wilted vegetables in our fruit bowl as decoys for Customs to find and confiscate.
We emerge from the tunnel into an unreal scene of snow-covered mountains sweeping down to the valley where the road and the abandoned train tracks are. A few kilometers more and we arrive at the Chilean border control building. It’s a busy day, so we sit in line for close to an hour before it’s our turn to enter the enormous A-frame drive-through building.
We’re waved into vehicle control and find a place to park. We enter the building to get our passports stamped, our importation paperwork taken care of, and we sign an affidavit stating that, under penalty of a $1,000 fine, we aren’t transporting any food. It’s time for our Customs inspection.
Outside in the freezing air I scour the parking area for an inspector. I’m looking for the most relaxed and unintimidating one, so that if things start going wrong, they might be more easily distracted by shiny objects or random questions. I start going for the young girl whose inspector jacket is slightly too big, but she dodges me at the last minute, leaving me staring at a strict, intimidating-looking man in his thirties. Bollocks! Looks like he works out too.
“Ready for your inspection?” he asks. I take a deep breath and invite him over to Nacho, handing him my signed affidavit. After a cursory walk around the exterior, he asks Sheena to open the sliding door. He steps in and gets to work.
“Do you have any food in here?”
“Food? No sir, we don’t have any food in here,” I respond. I’m trying to look a little surprised by his question, as though the thought of having food inside of a car is completely stupid. My acting does nothing to convince him, so he starts opening things.
Drawer one: no food. Drawer two: no food. Drawer three: no food. Cabinet: completely stuffed with dry food. He slowly turns his head at me and shoots me a disbelieving look. The proverbial Nazi soldier has just found the proverbial stash of hidden Jews under the floorboards.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any food.” This must be very rewarding for him, watching liars like me squirm.
“Oh, right, sure that’s food. But I thought you were talking about things like fruits and vegetables. Is it illegal to cross the border with oatmeal and stuff?”
He slowly turns back and starts emptying the cabinet until every last crumb is out on the counter, and then he goes through it piece by piece.
“You signed the affidavit, right? Did you even read it?” he asks in a slightly insulting tone.
Not knowing how to break it to him that nobody ever reads anything that they sign at a border, I try to be vague. “Not very well, no.”
He begins throwing our food in a pile on the floor. Once he’s created a nice mound he moves on to Sheena’s clothing storage area under the couch. He withdraws her clothing piece by piece until, halfway through, he pulls out a bag of apples. He holds it up, turns to look at me, shakes his head, and throws the apples in the pile. A few shirts later he removes our cucumbers, cilantro, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
The inspector leans back and stretches his shoulders, and then turns his head to look at me. He’s done messing around.
“I will give you one more chance. Just tell me where all of your food is.”
I confidently explain to him that he’s found everything – that we keep all of our food up here in the front area. He definitely doesn’t believe me, and positions himself on the couch, ready to tear our whole world apart. He reaches his arm into Sheena’s sleeping bag and slowly withdraws a huge head of cabbage, and then gives me the stink eye.
“Do you always keep your cabbage in your sleeping bag?” he hisses. He lets out a disappointing sigh and starts getting rough. He claws at our belongings and throws them at me, and tells me he will remove everything from the van.
Within a few minutes, most of our belongings are on the ground in the parking lot and the pile of food on the floor has grown to include all of our meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, backpacking food, honey, and anything not in its original packaging. There’s over $200 worth of food on the ground, and he’s spilling it everywhere. Finally he looks behind a curtain and finds the carton of eggs.
“Are these eggs hard boiled or raw?” he asks.
“Raw,” Sheena says. We’re done lying; we’ve lost the battle.
Not satisfied with our too-little-too-late honesty, the inspector removes two eggs from the carton, holds them over Sheena’s pillow, and smashes them against each other. The eggs explode all over her pillow and the inspector’s hands. He wipes his hands on her pillow and hands it to me. Classy.
Sheena shoots me a furious glance; by now we’re all feeling a bit pissed off. Just like every traveler we’ve met, we always have food in our car. This is our home, after all. And just like every traveler, we always deny having food for the purpose of crossing borders. It’s a formality that no border agent has ever really cared about. This guy, however, deeply cares.
“Wait, stop. Just stop touching our stuff. We don’t want to go to Chile any more. We’re going back to Argentina.”
The inspector looks at me, eyebrows raised. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, just get out of our car.”
He jumps out of the van and asks me to follow him. I follow him to his group of inspector friends, where he informs them that we will be going back to Argentina. One of the women looks surprised and asks why we’re going back.
“We’re going back because you’re stealing all of our food,” I say. I’m still pissed about the eggs, and I’m not doing much to mask my anger. At this, our inspector’s eyes nearly pop out of his head and he charges at me, stopping an inch from my face.
“Did you say STEALING!? You signed the affidavit, right!?”
At this, I realize that in fact he’s right, and that we’re really the bad guys. In our minds we think he’s a jerk because he’s the first border Customs agent we’ve ever met who actually cares about people smuggling food over international lines. We later find out that Chile in general is very serious about crossing borders with food because of their lack of invasive insect species, and their desire to keep it that way.
Still fuming, I tell the agent that my Spanish vocabulary is lacking, and that “stealing” is the only word I know to describe the act of taking away someone else’s property. The agent scribbles “VOID” across my completed importation paperwork, and shoves it in my hand. We retrace our steps through all of the border control processes and get stamped out of Chile.
Once we arrive back at the Argentine side, we have to explain why we’re back so soon from Chile, and why we don’t have properly discharged Chilean import paperwork. When asked whether we’re carrying any food, we look a little surprised and say no. We’re casually waved through, back into good old Argentina.
When evening rolls around, we camp in the same place by the river outside of Uspallata. I drift off to sleep thinking about Tibet and Brad Pitt. It’s almost as if today never happened. A horse crosses the stream outside of our window, and I fall asleep wondering, what’s up with all of these horses?
It’s late morning and the desert sun is already high overhead. The dirt crunches under our tires and swirls up behind the van as we head out of town to the East, leaving the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama behind. We stop on the outskirts of town to surrender our importation paperwork to the Customs office; it’s 165 kilometers to the Argentine border, but nobody’s out there. This is the last sign of civilization for a very long time.
Once on the highway, I start to feel anxious. We’re already a smidge under 8,000 feet, but the pavement unfolds before us in an arrow-straight line up a mountain and out of sight. The lack of switchbacks means the road is steep. We’re in the middle of nowhere, in the driest desert on Earth, driving into no-man’s land. There is virtually no traffic. The combination makes me feel a little uneasy, but I don’t know why. We’re driving a 28 year old hippie bus with almost 300,000 miles under its wheels. Why worry?
To our left, Bolivia rises into the sky in a fantastic display of snow-capped volcanoes. It’s as if someone has placed the Andes on top of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. The volcanoes ring the northern edge of the Atacama desert, and beyond them is altiplano – the high plains from which the Andes grow – all the way to Colombia. As we climb eastward on the highway, it appears as though our trajectory will intersect the rim of volcanoes. Our GPS shows that we’re within a few kilometers of Bolivia.
It’s desolate, barren, stark land. Tufts of low grass start to show through the crushed pumice at the roadside; we’re back in the altiplano, and Nacho is feeling the elevation. As we plod slowly upward, our speed plunges slowly downward. Every mile robs our engine of precious oxygen, and soon we’re traveling at a walking pace in first gear. I glance at the GPS: we’re over 15,000 feet.
We catch a semi truck carrying a load of cars to Argentina. The elevation turns this into a slow motion race – the truck is driving as fast as an elderly person shuffling with a walker. We’re moving along somewhat faster; whereas he may be traveling at four miles per hour, we’re doing at least six. In slow motion, we pull out beside him for the long, slow pass.
A minute later, we’ve become level with his window when all of a sudden Nacho dies. We’ve found the elevation at which our engine can no longer pull enough oxygen from the intake air to cause gasoline to combust. The truck driver shoots us a confused look, but all we can do is wave and shrug our shoulders as he slowly pulls away from us. We sit in the oncoming lane with the flashers on until, a lifetime later, the truck finally passes us. We coast backward and off the side of the road.
Over the next few miles we develop a process for driving in the death zone: when Nacho dies, we pull over and let the engine rest for 10 minutes or so. Then we fire it up and ease back onto the road while slipping the clutch to get up to speed – about 5 miles per hour. We do this process repeatedly for the next several miles until we top out at 15,748 feet. After that the road drops down and levels out around 14,500 and we’re back in business.
Once on the altiplano, things get surreal. We pass orange sand dunes and salty, deep blue lagoons. Llamas monitor our slow but steady progress from nearby hillsides. We pass between dunes and our eyes come to rest on stone megaliths jutting out of the hard earth and into the sky. We find a dirt track heading toward the megaliths, so we take it. We’re driving in a bizarre, psychedelic Beatles song.
Just before reaching the first of the stone towers, we stop. We have a problem. The stone towers, as it turns out, are on the other side of a fairly vast wash, which sits at the bottom of a fairly vast hill. To get to the megaliths for the compulsory Nacho-in-action photos, we’ll have to descend the vast hill, cross the vast wash, and climb the other side – a vast embankment. Given our luck at climbing the mild paved hill earlier in the day, we’re not convinced that we’ll ever make it out alive if we drive down the hill.
I get out of Nacho and set out on foot toward another vehicle, far out on the horizon. They’ll be able to tell me what to do. Sheena hangs back to read her coming of age princess novel.
Fifteen minutes of walking brings me down the vast hill, across the vast wash, up the vast embankment, and then across a vast plain to where a 4×4 van sits. I find its driver fiddling with his radio. His t-shirt has a picture of a handgun, with the English words “point blank” emblazoned across the chest.
I introduce myself to the man and ask him, que tal? He wastes no time in telling me that I’ll never get out of this place if I go down the vast hill. I ask him if he thinks I can drive along the vast wash until it crosses the main road, and he wastes no time telling me that I’d be a fool to believe that that’s a good idea. I thank him and set out across the plain, down the vast embankment, across the vast wash, and back up the vast hill to where Sheena is still reading her coming of age princess novel.
“We’re good, I think. You know, I think we’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I think we’ll make it. It’s supposed to be an adventure, isn’t it?” Sheena’s face is the word unamused, personified. She makes it clear that this is a stupid idea, and that she totally disagrees with this decision.
I pop it in gear and drive down the vast hill. We cross the vast wash, and then I gun it. We barely make it up the vast embankment.
For the next hour we explore the stone monuments, taking numerous Nacho-in-action shots. The rocks are amazing; some force of nature has caused the skin of the rocks to have formed into elevated scales. While we snap photos and eat a picnic lunch, the 4×4 van leaves, making quick work of the vast hill, and leaving with our hopes of a courtesy tow.
It’s time. We buckle up and Nacho roars to life with the ferociousness of a lethargic houseplant. As we approach the vast hill I feel sickly. The beginning of the hill is uneven and rutted, so we can’t carry much speed into it. I realize, only now, that this was a stupid idea. As we start to climb, Sheena unconsciously starts quietly squealing under her breath. She sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film.
We start out looking good, but halfway up the vast hill it becomes clear that we won’t make it. Five miles per hour…four…three…two…almost stalling now…
“TURN LEFT!” Sheena shrieks.
“OKAY!” I yank on the steering wheel without thinking, leaving the track behind. Cutting across the sandy hill, tilted at 30 degrees, we start to pick up speed. Three miles per hour…four…five…
“TURN RIGHT!” Sheena squeals. I yank the steering wheel to the right, carving out a switchback in the rocks. It’s working! To an experienced offroad driver the sight of our hippie bus slowly slinking through the rocks up this mild hill might be enough to evoke a belly laugh. A couple more cranks on the wheel and we’re slowly putting away from the vast hill, safe. I look at the hill in the rearview mirror and think to myself, boo ya, biatch!
I only think it, because to say such things out loud would reveal how childish and pop-culturally outdated my train of thought can be.
For the next hour we glide past more lagoons studded with pink flamingoes and hills dotted with llamas. The whole thing is all very surreal. And then out of nowhere, we see it: a sign declaring “Limite Internacional Chile / Argentina“.
We made it! Arizona to Argentina! At the time we don’t consider the fact that the end of the continent is still as far away as the distance from Arizona to Nova Scotia.
On the Argentine side of the border we continue to be stricken dumb by the landscape. We pass more lagoons, flamingoes, and llamas. We drop into a valley and immediately the landscape turns pancake flat and white. Beyond us to either side there is nothing but salt for as far as the eye can see. We can hardly contain Nacho; he bolts off of the road and onto the salt plain for some roadless exploration.
By day’s end the landscape has shifted again. We descend from the altiplano and into a desert reminiscent of Tucson, Arizona. How strange it is to find this landscape, so similar to our home state, in Argentina.
We coast into the town of Purmamarca for the evening. Tourists stroll the streets of what seems like an old Western town in the shadow of colored sandstone hills. We could just as easily be in Sedona as in northern Argentina. From the driest place on Earth, to one of the highest passes in South America; salt flats, flamingoes, towering rocks, and desert. Today the sky was as blue as any sky I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect road tripping day. It was a truly epic day.
Nacho rests serenely at the mirador above the Valley of the Moon, the shadows from the jagged cliffs spilling like water into the dry valley as the sun begins its slow slide below the horizon. Inside, Brad and Sheena sit on the couch; Shakira is on the stereo. They both gyrate their hips to the music. It’s not a tasteful gyration either; it borders on crass. They each hold their t-shirts up to reveal their skinny bellies moving in and out like the pulsating chest of a dying fish to the snappy Latin-pop music. Brad has always been the better Shakira gyrator, and Sheena knows it. His hips don’t lie. Sheena pours Brad another glass of pisco, and he drinks it. Suddenly, she slams his head into the plastic shoe bin. Blindsided. Sheena flashes the lights on and off like a strobe light, making scary faces at Brad. All at once they both stop, look at each other, and one of them says it: “What would people think if they actually saw this?”
It’s hard to believe, I know. Shakira? You guys listen to Shakira? To understand this, we need to go way back.
In 2002 I found myself in the back seat of my friend Scott’s pickup truck, headed South. A mountain bike racing team from Mexico had scored some cash from the Mexican government, and had used it to bring some American riders down to compete in their racing scene. The local media was informed, and in true Mexico fashion they created a fictitious rivalry between one of our guys and their National Champion, Ziranda Madrigal. Interviews were held, and the radio blared promos about the clash between their national hero and the invader from the North as if it were some kind of lucha libre match. The stage was set – all we had to do was get there. And to do so, we did what any self respecting adventure seekers would do: we loaded a bunch of sweaty, totally macho dudes into a couple of pickup trucks and headed for the border.
Before we reached the border, the mood inside the truck was calm. We were composed. Conversations were had, speculations were made, and stories were told.
After we crossed the border, Scott did something risky. While surrounded by a bunch of sweaty, totally macho dudes, he slid a Shakira CD into the CD player. I waited for the side punch to land on Scott’s cheekbone, but it never came. Instead of filling our hearts with pain and our heads with feelings of killing Scott – the pansy – something else happened. Actually, it kind of worked. Shakira’s spicy accent narrated our journey Southward, forever linking her voice to the barren landscapes, dry arroyos, cinder block towns, and highway taco stands in our subconscious minds. Her voice sneaked through our open windows and into the passing desert like a nimble cat. And only dios knows how much I like cats.
That’s right, I’m a cat man, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And I’m also a Shakira man.
The Atacama desert in Northern Chile is a vast and expansive place. We drove for three days across lands where, throughout the entire expanse of recorded history, rain has never fallen; the only substances in all directions for as far as the eye could see were sand, pebbles, and heat waves. With nothing to do except watch the hours turn into days and stare at the skinny dotted line from steering wheel to horizon, we had to find a way to pass the time. And what better way than to wriggle our hips to the sweet meowing voice of Shakira.
Need a good start to a soundtrack for your next road trip South of the border? Here are three songs that, for me, capture the very essence of Mexico and fill my nose with the sweet smell of nostalgia for my first experiences with southward travel:
“You know, when I was a kid living in Chino Valley, I often ducked fences so that I could go and lick the salt blocks that the farmers set out for the cows. I licked them all the time. I didn’t mind sharing with the cows. They were so good.” Brad wasn’t ashamed. He loved salt.
In Nacho we have a cylindrical stainless steel salt and pepper mill. It is our most used kitchen utensil containing our most used food product. We use it every day with every meal. No traveler sets up camp without it. Our German cyclist friends carry their salt in a small canvas satchel, carefully stored in one of their waterproof pannier bike bags. With every meal, they loosen the hemp cord and take a few pinches out, sprinkling its sparkling granules on their food.
It is a magical and powerful mineral. For thousands of years humans have extracted it from the sea and searched for it on land. Wars have been fought over it and taxes on its purchase have increased the wealth of countries. It runs through our bodies. We crave it. Yet, it goes unnoticed, always in the shadows. It never takes credit for why something is so delicious; it always hears the applause from backstage.
Like many trades, the art of saltmaking has sadly been demoted, dying in the modern global economy where standardized processes rule all. Now, our option in the standard grocery store is a blue box of Morton salt, made by a company whose primary production of salt is not even for consumption, but rather for industry. Fortuantely, there are still regions in the world that have held onto their traditions. In the Sacred Valley lies one of these gems.
A saltmaking demonstration was just finishing up for a camera crew. Two women with crisp white blouses and exuberant smiles stomped their bare feet in a salt pool. They scraped the pool with their wooden boards, forming a mound of salt which they scooped up with their woven baskets. Their pool shimmered in the sunlight. And behind them, a couple thousand more pools brilliantly shimmered. We squinted, the sun’s rays ricocheting off of every particle of evaporating salt.
It was an insanely beautiful sight; ponds terracing down the hillsides like puzzle pieces, separated by salt covered borders and trenched canals. Main arteries of salt-laden water ran alongside the walkways, splitting off into capillaries which reached each and every excavating pond. There was no organization to the mess, just a myriad of salt pools, all in different stages of the evaporation process; varying from puddles of water, to clumping blossoms of salt formation, to ripe and ready, scrape me now. Like miniature pyramids, salt mounds neatly rested, letting the sun’s rays suck them dry one last time. There were also walking arteries; made for traversing down into no man’s land. They were almost indistinguishable, yet there were well worn routes the locals used; like a climbing wall, some super sketchy, balancing with your arms out, scrambling up the sides of walls, and others meant to cover distance quickly.
A few hundred meters down the valley, an older man and wife with tired faces harvested from their pool. Why the camera crew wasn’t recording the true workers of the ponds was beyond me. With a dowel in hand, the man patted the top of his salt mound flat. They loaded their riches into canvas bags and secured them onto their backs with a long piece of fabric. They scrambled their way through the maze of salt pools, rubber sandals gripping the slippery surface. This couple owned one salt pool out of the thousands as Salinas de Maras was owned by hundreds of families; plots which had been passed on through the generations, sometimes sectioned off to other family members.
So why salt pools here? It all seemed so random. A dry desolate landscape and then BOOOOOM!! Nothing you’d ever expect to see with the crest of one hillside. It turns out, however, that it is not so random. Salt has been cultivated in the Peruvian Andes since well before the arrival of the Incas. Higher up in the mountains, off of a tributary on the Urubamaba river, rain and snowmelt makes its way through subterranean streams, passing through a deposit of salt dating back tens of millions of years. Water saltier than the sea. Diverted from the river, the water meets its resting place at 10,000 feet, trapped in place, left to slowly evaporate in thousands of terraced ponds along the valley’s narrow slopes.
After leaving Salinas de Maras I was curious about salt. I knew nothing of it; only that I liked to grind it in my salt and pepper mill. From a brief reading, I discovered there are two main types of salt: evaporative and rock. Rock salts are mined while evaporative salts are crystallized from saltwater seas, lakes, or springs. Countless varieties of salt arise from these two processes, but most artisan salts are evaporative. Some salts form in an instant while others take years. For evaporative, wind is vital, increasing the water vapor which is needed to crystallize the salt.
Location definitely made sense now. Did I mention the scary wind? I was in a constant state of fright, fearing I’d lose balance, ragdoll off a terrace, and fall into someone’s salt pool.
If I would have fallen, I would have been covered in irregular and unevenly shaped “Sel Gris” salt. This was the type of salt here; solar harvested by evaporating saline water with the sun and wind. The blossoms of their fine crystals were then raked into a pile, allowing the lingering water to dry. The end result was a salt high in trace minerals, deepening the flavor of food, high in moisture, and complexity with its “tart boldness, mild sweetness, and light funk of clay”. Here, in a book called “Salted” is where I found this profile along with dozens of others. I also came to the realization there is a world of salt connoisseurs out there that I never knew existed.
With a few packs of mixed salt rubs in hand, we were on our way. Like all days in the week, the Quechan people were out and about. Young girls walked their sheep home and women herded fleets of livestock, whether it be pigs, sheep, or cows, showing domination with their tree branch whips. They always stood out like pops of color, their skirts radiating in a rainbow of hues.
No doubt about it – their life was hard in the manual labor sense. Working and living overlapped to such an extreme that the two were nearly indistinguishable. They never rested, always working the fields, transporting livestock, selling livestock, buying food, growing food, cooking food. Even for the children. They grew up in the fields, involved fully in the economic and household tasks. They swung their picks high, tilling the land alongside their parents, breaking when it was time for lunch.
So many things to miss in Peru; like the women in the fields spinning wool, pickup trucks full off sheep’s wool, sheep in taxis, young boys wearing ponchos, animal trading events, sheep skin drying on the walls of adobe homes, homes turned billboard, and the all encompassing people watching while driving. Also not to be forgotten are the herds of llama with tassels on their ears, elegant vicunas, and flamingoes wading in lakes.
…And just the unexpectedness of every day occurrences.
When I was in sixth grade I went on a school field trip to Peru. When I say it out loud it sounds like I was one of those kids that everyone loves to hate; some spoiled brat who went to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms. In reality I lived in the quaint meth lab town of Chino Valley, Arizona, and went to school in a converted mini-mart. It really all came down to my mom being totally rad.
See, in sixth grade my mom was my teacher. And my mom, being a totally rad teacher, marches to the beat of a different drummer. She figured our class ought to have a theme for the year. Our math would be themed, our science would be themed, et cetera, and she decided that the theme of every subject would be the rainforest. It’s kind of like that Our Lady Peace album on which every song is written about the novel The Age of Spiritual Machines. And what better way to keep a bunch of hyper kids focused on learning about the rainforest than by giving them an incentive to actually learn something? Our incentive was that we would actually go to the rainforest at the end of the year to experience what we’d been learning about.
But how do you send a bunch of sixth graders to the rainforest when they don’t have parents with the income to even send them to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms? Two words: child exploitation. As a part of our math and physical education classes, we spent the year organizing bake sales, bike-a-thons, silent auctions, and other fund raisers with the goal of raising $1,800 each. At the end of the year we held a benefit dinner at John McCain’s house and auctioned off a Jaguar automobile to finish off our fundraising. We earned every penny without parental funding.
When school ended, we all flew Iquitos, Peru, and took a long boat trip down a tributary of the Amazon until we reached a lodge, where we would spend a week hanging out with scientists, fishing for piranhas, learning from indigenous people, and meeting with jungle tribes. And who said teachers can’t make a difference?
Years later my mom told me that for $800 more we could have stayed another week and gone to Machu Picchu. “Eight hundred dollars!?” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t we do it?” She explained that she didn’t want to dishearten us with such a big number. Twelve year olds are fickle, after all, so she just let it be. Now, seventeen years later, it was time to make things right.
Unfortunately, over the last seventeen years something happened: seventeen years of inflation. Now $800 will merely earn you the privilege of walking the Inca Trail to the ruins. The tourist train from Cuzco to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits would run us close to $400. We would clearly have to find a better way, and this time child exploitation wasn’t an option.
We decided we would go to Machu Picchu, but we would forego the welcome mat and enter through the lesser known broken screen door behind the grease pit in the alley. Machu Picchu, deep down, has all of the ingredients of a great adventure, and we were ready to stumble face first into it with our eyes closed and our hands tightly clasped behind our backs.
Following our idealistic vision of Andean adventure, we found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk under the excruciating sun waiting for an unlikely bus during a surprise bus strike. The few collectivos that passed by our roadside outpost in the town of Ollantaytambo were covered in the splatter of used motor oil, thrown by the striking transport workers as the minibuses charged through the picket line in Cuzco.
“Your bus will never come! HA HA HA!” The taxi driver across the plaza had tried to convince us that we should pay him $100 for a ride to the next town, and seemed to think that laughing at us would convince us that it was a good deal. I scowled at him like a mean high school girl, and swore to Sheena that we’d skip going to Machu Picchu before we’d pay him for a ride.
A small indigenous woman with droopy shoulders and a funny Yosemite Sam hat sat on a log, waiting for the same bus.
“Will the bus come?” I repeatedly asked as the hours ticked by. She shrugged her shoulders each time. We were waiting for the one local bus that went to Santa Maria each day, but were unsure if it had made it out of Cuzco. It was already two hours late. This was the first step in getting to Machu Picchu without using the tourist train.
The ruins at Machu Picchu are located at quite an inconvenient location for tourism. No roads go there, and the train is a relatively recent addition. It used to be that the only option was to hike for five days to get there. Given the agonizing price of the hike, we decided to take a medley of local transportation routes to get us close, and then walk the rest of the way. The transport strike was putting unneeded strain on our already shoddy travel plans.
All at once the Yosemite Sam lady jumped up and sprinted into the street, her plastic shopping bag flailing behind her. “This is the bus! Run!” Two ladies from a shop were yelling at us, not wanting us to miss the only bus of the day, which, as we found out, only slows down in Ollantaytambo long enough for those at the ready to jump aboard.
Inside the bus we found every seat full, with a few unfortunate latecomers sprawled out in the aisle. The bus driver’s assistant snagged Sheena as she went by and told her she could sit in the front with them, while I clambered into the back and found an open place in the aisle for the four hour ride. The bus was too short for me to stand comfortably, so I crouched down and jammed my elbows into the seats on either side, giving me a somewhat sturdy restraint for the winding mountain road ahead.
Scouring the bus, I realized that we were off to a good start in eschewing the tourist trail; on a bus of fifty passengers, we were the only milk faces. Indigenous women sat with bags full of sheep’s wool and vegetables, while men stared blank-eyed at the seat in front of them. A small yellow sign on the front wall of the bus read “Viajar como rico, pagar como pobre“: Travel like you’re rich, pay like you’re poor.
I made friends with Ricardo, the man to my left, who ran a small kiosk that sold things made of plastic. “All types of things,” he told me, “as long as they’re made of plastic.” We chatted as the bus wound upward into the mountains, but after a half an hour the bus driver’s assistant came to find me.
“You can come sit in the front,” he told me, and then turned around and walked back up the aisle. I saw that the people sitting around me were excited for my good fortune. I’d been cherry picked out of the group for the privilege of a front row seat. The driver, it seemed, was proud to have tourists on his bus, and wanted to show us a good time.
The front of the bus was separated from the rear by a wall and a door. The driver and two assistants were visibly excited to be able to entertain us for the trip over the mountains. The driver pointed to the landmarks and archeological sites that dotted the roadside as we ascended the mountain. “See that rock? It is shaped like the Virgin Mary. See that one? It’s shaped like a condor!” He told us that he used to be a tour guide. “On the right you see agricultural terraces from the Inca!” He pulled a USB drive from his pocket and plugged it into his stereo deck. The vivacious pulse of Andean polka filled the small compartment as we wound up the switchbacks into the clouds.
At first the music was normal enough. I imagined the band as a group of Peruvian men wearing matching white suits, stepping in time to a simple dance while they sang and played their xylophones and accordions. And then the eagle squawking started and I broke into an uncontrollable laughing fit. These things happen at the most inopportune times. The music was just too gosh damned hilarious.
(simple tinkle of xylophone)
Yo quiero que me quieres, y te quiero que sí te quiero
Tu me quieres? Tu me quieres? Mi amoooooooooorrrrrr!
(eagle squaaaaaaawk…simple tinkle of xylophone…accordion jam)
Tu me quieres mi amoooooooooorrrrrr?
(majestic echoing eagle squaaaaaaaaaawk)
At the most dramatic xylophone riffs and eagle squawks the young assistant would pound his fist on the railing while bobbing his head to the beat. My efforts to hide my uncontrollable laughter from our hosts while listening to a mixed tape of majestic eagle squawks and xylophones prompted Sheena to shoot this short video.
After a couple of hours the bus ascended into the clouds and finally pulled over at the top of the mountain pass. A cold wind drove rain pellets into the passengers as everyone disembarked for a leg stretch. The driver motioned for me to follow him, so I walked with him away from the group and toward a small chapel next to the road. As we entered the chapel, he turned to me and whispered the exact phrase that every unseatbelted bus passenger fears most:
“I must pray so that we make it down the other side.”
My body spasmed in fear, but a quick response from my lower abdominal muscles somehow kept me from soiling myself. I managed to enter the church without spontaneously combusting or being struck by lightning, which put me in an awkward situation; I wasn’t sure what to do. Did he expect me to pray with him? Our safe passage down the mountain was really none of my business, and I wasn’t interested in dabbling in the world of the superstitious. I stood there awkwardly in the middle of the church as our driver lowered his head in front of the flickering candles of the shrine. He whispered in Quechua for a minute while I shifted my eyes between him and the door, still not sure what to do. As he finished I coolly swiveled on my heels and joined him in stride.
“So, we safe now?” I said, only half joking. Before boarding the bus I bought some wafer cookies from a lady at a kiosk to share with Sheena, the driver, and his assistants. A hastily chosen last meal.
The prayer must have worked, as the trip down the mountain went off without a hitch. The bus careened around switchback after switchback to the soundtrack of xylophones, accordions, and majestic squawking eagles. We ate wafer cookies and nuggets of puffed corn while the terrain transitioned from treeless high Andean mountaintops, to high elevation forest, and finally to semitropical jungle. When the bus stopped at the muddy roadside in the tiny Quechua village of Santa Maria the bus driver flashed a huge grin and shook our hands. We said goodbye to the assistants and thanked them for their kindness. I ran quickly into the back of the bus and said goodbye to Ricardo, who beamed a giant smile when he saw me coming, and gripped my hand firmly as he wished me good luck.
We had gone into this ordeal as anyone should enter any kind of adventure: without all of the necessary information. We only knew that we needed to find a ride from the tiny village of Santa Maria to the even tinier village of Santa Teresa, an hour and a half away by dilapidated dirt road.
“Santa Teresa?” The toothless man looked homeless, and his battered minivan looked like the minivan of a homeless person. “I’ll take you there. Get in!” He seemed eager for us to get in his van, already full with indigenous people and workers from the hydroelectric dam. After a three minute rest from the last leg, we tossed our backpacks aboard and squeezed in between the indigenous ladies in the back. The clapped out minivan whimpered to life and we lurched forward, along with our dozen fellow passengers, onto the rocky dirt road.
From the back of the jankety minivan we watched helplessly as the sides of the road dropped away into escarpments, terminating in the river far below. The indigenous lady’s goat hide jacket tickled my ear. I longingly considered the comfort and luxury in which our fellow visitors traveled the primary route in their tourist train. The men with their trimmed and coiffed moustaches and double breasted suits, custom tailored and freshly starched. The women in their silk gowns and tightly strung girdles; their clean, curly locks whimsically brushing their powdered faces as they laughed at all of the dapper men’s funniest jokes. They would just now be ordering their second round of Scotch, sagaciously disputing investment strategy while occasionally pestering the peasant help for an extra napkin, or a fresh cube of ice for their drink. Or perhaps my discomfort and the smell of rank goat made me imagine that the tourist train was some kind of luxurious flashback to the roaring 20’s.
Without incident the jalopy van dropped us in the middle of Santa Teresa – a tiny village perched on a crumbling geographical shelf with a commanding view of the river below. At this point we slid into the back of the death taxi; a tiny white hatchback piloted by a teenage Peruvian kid, all jacked up on coca leaves. And why take just two measly tourists when the car can legally seat four? After the seventh passenger was crammed aboard we were thudding and slamming our way out of town, the suspension completely bottomed out, the gears grinding, the driver continuously fiddling with the stereo in his jacked up state. From here it would be a forty five minute ride to the hydroelectric dam, and would be as far as we could go by car. From there we would walk, if we ever made it that far.
Not long after leaving town I realized that we had made a grave mistake. Coca Boy liked to drive his car fast like it was a video game. And to make matters worse, the road was a one lane, rocky as hell, level 9 death road. After a short but very fast section of forest, we emerged from the trees and clung to the edge of a sheer cliff face in a full-on Tokyo drift. I began to wonder how we had come to find ourselves in another death road situation in the span of only a few short weeks, but fear kept me from thinking about much other than our impending demise and how much it would hurt.
The road had been carved into an impossibly steep and inaccessible rock face, and as such the single lane was tight and narrow. Its outside edge terminated at the cliff; there was no shoulder or berm, and there was certainly no room for a guard rail. There were no straight sections, most corners were blind, and the road’s surface was rough and littered with marble-sized gravel. My pesky engineering degree keeps me thinking of silly things like coefficients of static and kinetic friction on roads like these, and I subconsciously choose a safe speed so as not to cause my tires to switch from one to the other. On this road, a safe speed would have been around 20 or 25 miles per hour, but even then it would have been quite scary due to the exposure. If I were driving Nacho, we would stay in second gear and under 20 miles per hour. Clearly our coca-jacked teenage driver knew nothing of coefficients of friction, as evidenced by his exceedingly fast video game driving speed.
Coca Boy approached every blind corner with the driver’s side tires only inches from the cliff edge, driving on the wrong side of the road. This, we assumed, would allow him to see ever so slightly farther around each blind corner to increase his reaction time to oncoming traffic. Before long my whole body felt fatigued and realized that every one of my muscles was flexed; my fingers were like pencils, digging into the armrest on the door, my teeth were grinding, and my abdominal muscles were constricted like someone with terminal constipation. Each time we drifted into a corner I involuntarily swallowed hard, as if constricting my airway could somehow help to reduce the severity of my injuries in the impending car crash. I reached back and zipped my rear pants pocket shut so my identification wouldn’t be separated from my remains during the accident. I forced myself to look at the speedometer: it read 60kph. We were traveling around these tight corners, on this single lane rocky road, along this cliff, hundreds of feet in the air, at 45 miles per hour. I swallowed hard.
Just then, we flew around a blind corner and found ourselves staring into the grill of an oncoming collectivo van at full speed. I watched our driver hesitate, not knowing whether to put it into the cliff wall or take the head-on collision. The whole world became silent as he slammed his foot to the floor, sending the car into a skid. Rocks and dust enveloped us and I could see baseball-sized stones flipping into the air all around us. I stopped breathing and my throat started clicking, as if trying unsuccessfully to utter the word “uh”. In the dust we could no longer see, but we knew that we had come to a stop. When the dust cleared we were staring at the van’s grill, only a couple of inches from our hood.
“Slow down, pendejo!“, the other driver yelled as he pulled around us.
Coca boy, embarrassed by his near “Game Over”, tried to save face by fiddling with the radio and driving even faster. When we were deposited at the hydroelectric dam we knew we’d cheated fate. We also agreed that a long trip across the continent, such as the one in which we were engaged, would never be survived on public transportation. We slung our backpacks across our backs, found the railroad tracks, and walked into the jungle.
Some time ago, a hydroelectric plant was built into the side of the mountain adjacent to the one on which Machu Picchu was built. By chance, the train tracks going to Aguas Calientes – the tourist town built to serve the ruins – pass right by the hydroelectric plant. By walking into the jungle and finding the tracks, we were able to walk like a couple of hobos toward the village; the final step in creating our own Huckleberry Finn style adventure. Without the floating down a river. Or the racism.
Two hours after putting on our hobo hats we emerged at Aguas Calientes. The sun had set and darkness was settling in. As we entered town I grabbed the business card from a fast talking hotelier and continued walking. It would be my silver bullet in winning us a cheap hotel room. As we entered the town plaza we identified a nice hotel and waited for the hotel shark to latch onto us; every business in Aguas Calientes comes with its very own hawker out front, who tries anything to get you inside.
“Hotel? You want hotel? 100 Soles!” With dozens of hotels to choose from, these people will get desperate, and I knew that. I pulled the business card from my pocket.
“Actually we’ve already chosen a hotel. Here’s where we’re staying, and it’s only 30 soles per night. You said yours was 100?” It was a white lie, and the place on the business card was actually 75 soles per night.
“They told you 30 soles? It’s all the way down by the river. There’s nothing to do down there. For you, I can do 35 soles. But don’t tell anybody, okay?” My scam had worked! We were shown to our private room with three beds – clean, nice smelling, hot shower, and on the town plaza – for which we would pay $17.
Next it was time to eat dinner, and I was beginning to have fun. Most of the restaurants in town had been empty at dinner time. We’d heard many a story of people paying $100 in Aguas Calientes for crappy pizza and beer, and we, being in the middle of Operation Cheapskate, weren’t ready to submit. I decided a bidding war was the best approach. I approached the hawker in front of a nice restaurant.
“How much for the set dinner?” I asked. Each place had a set meal price with various options for main dishes, and they were all exorbitantly priced.
“Dinner menu for 75 soles each. Free pisco sour!” At this point she did what every food hawker does, and spouted the contents of her menu at lightning speed. “Hay alpaca, hay cuyes, hay gallina, hay bisteck, hay trucha!”
I thanked her and walked two steps across the walkway to the closest restaurant and asked the same question.
“Dinner for two 75 soles each! Free pisco sour! Hay alpaca, hay cuyes…”
“Wait!” I said, interrupting her. That lady says she has the best food, but you’re the same price. Can you go lower?
“For you, 65 soles, come inside! Table waiting! Free pisco sour!” I thanked her and walked the two steps back to the other lady.
“She says 65 soles. Can you go lower?” It was a dirty trick, but knowing that these meals could be had in any other place in Peru for a few soles made it feel all right. In the end we managed to get our $75 dinner down to $28. It was still double what it should have been by Peruvian standards, but good for this place.
At the end of the meal our sneaky waiter tried to tack on a 20% “fork tax”, which I outright refused to pay. Not knowing what to do with me, he relented.
Five o’clock in the morning was announced by the metallic clunking of the amusement park turnstyle at the park entrance, clunking away like a time clock admitting hordes of people into the ruins like the dull minutes of a workday. We had woken up before dawn in hopes of beating the first tourist train and salvaging a bit of peace and quiet for ourselves within the ruins. Several hundred others had the same idea, and the turnstyles admitted us one by one like United Auto Workers clocking in to build Cadillacs.
The ruins at Machu Picchu are impressive, but not because of the ruins themselves. When compared to those at Palenque or Tikal, they pale in comparison. They aren’t grandiose or awe inspiring in their size, scope, or detail; what makes them interesting is the setting in which they were built. They are perched atop a mountain ridge, surrounded by shear peaks on all sides. Looking out at the ruins is awe inspiring not because the ruins are amazing, but because the mountains are amazing. And because there happen to be ruins in such unlikely and awe inspiring mountains, and because of the photo. You know the one; the signature photo of Machu Picchu that shows up just about everywhere.
For me, the best part of the ruins was the Inca Drawbridge. This bridge is accessed by a long cliff side trail that terminates at an overlook of a wooden bridge built over a crevasse, clinging precariously to the side of a thousand foot vertical rock face. It had Indiana Jones written all over it, but more importantly it was far away from the rest of the ruins, by now already crawling like a human ant farm. We stared at the bridge for a few minutes, and then decided we’d better rejoin the hordes.
While we were away the ruins had become a zoo. Park officials walked the grounds holding traffic whistles. Whenever someone touched the wrong thing, they blew their whistles, giving the place the feel of Picadilly Circus at rush hour. On the path through the ruins, tourists are only allowed to walk in one direction. At one point we decided to go back and look at something a second time, but were scolded by a park official and told only to walk forward.
“But we wanted to see…”
“NO! ONE WAY ONLY!”
We invariably found ourselves sandwiched between tour groups led by Peruvian guides, who, by my best estimation, were making up most of the information that they fed to their groups. After a while I became more entertained by the tour groups than by the ruins, and my focus shifted to a Machu Picchu study in sociology.
“My fraings,” one guide said using his best enchanted forest voice, “you are standing…in the most magestic place… on earth…(wait for it)…Machu Picchuuuuuu (fade to whispering silence)”
We rounded a corner and found a group huddled in a circle, the guide getting ready to speak.
“My fraings, have a look at that mountaing…what do you see?” The tourists looked at the mountain. A young brunette looked intently, perhaps hoping to unlock the secret before being told by the guide.
“My fraings, this mountain is a condooooor…” His enchanted forest voice was quite, well, enchanting, especially when saying things like condor, or Machu Picchu.
“Oh yeah! I see it! See, Hank? That hump there is a wing, and I think that other one could be the head!”
“Yeah, a condor!”
“My fraings,” the guide was just buttering them up for the grand finale. “Who has a map?” Someone provided a map. “Please, my fraings, gather around. Yes, gather around. Do you see this map? It is a map of Machu Picchuuuuu. What do you see? (silence/confusion) These ruins are shaped like a condoooor!” I swear, to this man everything looked like a damn condor.
“Oh yeah, Hank, see? If you twist the map like this it kind of does, right? I could see that. Yeah, like a condor!”
Next we followed the group to a big rock sitting on the ground.
“My fraings, this is a rock. But it is not just a regular rock. This rock is an energy roooocccckkkk. Please, my fraings, let me explain. From this rock the Inca got eeennnnneeerrrgyyyyy. If you rub your hands together very fast and then place your hands near the rock you can feel the eeennnnneeerrrggyyyyy!”
At this point the tourists rubbed their hands together and got serious with the rock. One tourist forgot to rub her hands together, but was still able to feel the energy.
“Oh yeah, I can totally feel it, right? This is, like, so awesome.” At this the guide interrupted her.
“My fraing, it only works if you rub your hands together first!” He pantomimed what to do, at which she tried it and continued to feel the placebo. Doh! I mean the energy.
We continued walking and found another tour group in a regular looking room with blocked out windows around its perimeter. Each window, it seemed, may have been a place to put something on display. The tour guide had made up his own story though; one that would make the place seem much more enchanted.
“My fraings, please, do you see these holes? Please, place your heads inside.” At this the tourists seemed to think the guide was out of his damn mind. He persisted.
“Now, please, my fraings, place one of your heads inside each hole. Yes you, and you. Head in the hole. All right, everyone ready?” The tourists stood there like ostriches with their heads inside of the display cases. “Now everybody at the same time, say ‘ommmmmmm…ommmmmmm’ ” He made a sound like a stereotypical Buddhist monk meditating. The tourists all made this noise in unison.
“You see my fraings? This room is very maaaagicaaaallll. When everybody meditates at the same time, the whole room hums. This is the meditation room, my fraings.”
To leave the ruins we pushed our way through the entry/exit tunnel against the flow of hundreds of new tourists streaming out of fresh buses from Aguas Calientes. We had found our Andean adventure all right. And for that I owe Coca Boy a thank you letter. Oh, and thanks for the motivation Mom; as twenty nine year olds we’re still fickle.
For my detailed description of how to do Machu Picchu on the cheap, click here.