Baking-hot valleys and bone-chilling peaks. Gauchos and geysers. Mineral springs and moonscapes. The Andes have one hell of a range, says Ciara Parkes
First, an admission: I’m not the fittest person. I like a good, bracing walk – who doesn’t? — but five hours of vertical climbing? At high altitude? In 30°C heat? Not so much.
But I was in the Andes, and that’s what you do in the Andes. You walk, as they have done here for thousands of years. We were at the crossroads of Argentina’s most ancient trade routes, where the pre-Inca peoples hawked their wares, and walked their walks, across the mountains and into Chile. I was here to do the same (minus the wares) — a seven-night nomadic travesia, or passage, across the border with South American adventure-tour operator Explora. So, yes, perhaps I should have expected a bit of exertion.
We arrived at Finca Rancagua, in the Calchaqui Valley, after a bone-rattling, arse-punishing, five-hour drive from the city of Salta. This is the Andes proper, all cactus-studded moonscapes and dusty adobe villages. Our lodge was a simple stone affair and we slept that night under chunky knitted blankets, waking to a killer view of the sun rising pinkly over the snaking river below us, chains of mountains soaring all around.
This was not the time to be gazing out of windows, however. It was the time to be walking, led by guides Adriana and Alejandro. Have I mentioned that it was tough? And hot? And really quite steep? My boyfriend Gus, a proper gentleman, kept his hand firmly on my backside for most of the walk in order to (a) help me, (b) shut me up and (c) stop me from flipping over the edge of a ridge to certain death below. The rewards? — (a) incredible views of the Calchaqui Valley, (b) making it back without dying (result!) and (c) waiting at the bottom, a lunch of homemade empanadas, a side of beef and some colourful salads, all of which we scoffed with relish.
The next few days were spent exploring the valley on foot, which knocked me into shape no end. The area was once home to the Calchaqui, who fattened cattle before running them hundreds of miles across to Chile. Their descendants still thrive in these hills — stocky, muscular farmers made for tramping across craggy mountains. Not a bit like me.
But those Calchaqui — and Incas and pre-Incas — were onto something. OK, so they didn’t have much choice, but walking here makes you see things you wouldn’t see any other way: wild donkeys, eagles’ perches, bright yellow sunbirds and ancient farmsteads hidden away on hilltops. One afternoon was spent climbing up to a farm owned by a family of boys in their teens and early 20s whose parents had died some years before. Their family had farmed this place since Inca times — over 500 years — and very little had changed. The boys raised goats, fattened pigs and grew vegetables and flowers, which they took down the steep valley as their ancestors had, hiking to market every 10 days or so.
Our evenings were blissfully sedentary, spent massaging our weary thighs, sipping sundowners on the lodge’s terrace and warming ourselves with local stew. On our last night, there was a spectacular asado — everyone feasted on huge sides of beef and pork straight off the wood fire outside.
Then it was off by 4×4 towards the Chilean border. The air thinned and we sucked sweets to help our popping ears, climbing through guanaco pastures, past groups of llamas and then, suddenly, spotting a bunch of rheas, ostrich-like birds that sped off, their legs a blur, at our approach.
At about 4,000m, we reached a cluster of tiny stone barns, our base for the night, and off we went down the mountain to explore some more. We discovered a farm marooned on the other side of a fast-flowing river, accessible only by wobbling across a felled tree. Clambering up to a plateau, to the delight of a group of beaming, filthy children and hundreds of bleating goats, we met a woman and her sister-in-law, both abandoned by their husbands and raising their children alone in this tumbledown farmstead, making huge rounds of fresh goat’s cheese that they sold at market.
Back at camp, we bundled into a lamplit bunkhouse — there was neither heating nor electricity — for soup and gnocchi. The bedrooms had just enough space for a solar lamp and two camp beds covered in gaily striped blankets. The beds, it turned out, creaked horrendously and, after a sleepless night (Gus kindly remarked that, every time I turned over, it was ‘like the Marie Celeste coming around’), we rose early to drive the six-hour journey for the final push to the Chilean border. Vicuna — cousins to the llama — grazed on the steep mountainsides and the air grew even thinner as we climbed to the highest pass on a national route anywhere in the world — Abra del Acay, at 4,972m. The grasses were frozen straight and the streams were solid ice. Chattering with cold, we pulled on hats and jumpers and eventually arrived at an outpost where a suspicious, gun-toting guard duly stamped our passports.
The drive across the Altiplano to the final staging post of our journey was surreal — like speeding through the set of a Sixties episode of Star Trek: sun-blasted rock-and-sand plains and mountains blackened by mineral deposits and banded by acid-green vegetation. The camp was just as unusual — a collection of sea containers dropped in a neat line at the base of a mountain and overlooking a salt flat dotted with flamingos. Designed by Chilean architect Jose Cruz Ovalle, they were beautifully fitted out with wood, canvas and Andean blankets, the bathrooms a fabulous mix of teak, steel and endless hot water.
Although I was accustomed to all that walking by now, the altitude and bone-dry air made everything — moving about, even taking a shower — a trial. So it was with some relief that we drove off the next morning, whistling our way through a whole CD of Andean pan pipes, stopping to hike around the edges of the fragile Aguas Calientes salt flats and then pushing on past towering volcanoes until cacti started to appear again. We had reached the Atacama Desert — the driest place on earth.
We dipped into San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town with low adobe walls and gauchos thundering through the lanes on their horses, and then ascended to see the Altiplano’s vast geysers. Sulphurous streams shot skyward and a tourist, jumping over the corners of the bubbling cauldrons, stopped abruptly when told about a German who had fallen into one recently. When his friends tried to pull him out, his skin had sloughed off in their hands and he slipped to an agonising death.
We made our final stop at an ancient ravine where the hot springs cascading along a gorge had been dammed to create pools, complete with changing rooms, stone tables and benches. We plunged and bobbed in the glassy waters, which were buffered with reeds and rock, and marvelled at the mountains.
Our last night was spent at Hotel de Larache, a gorgeous eco-contemporary structure sitting in the shadow of 12 snow-capped volcanoes. As we stood and smoked cigarettes on the terrace, Gus sang Bob Dylan: ‘I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways…’