The route out of Salta kick-started with a warm send off from our Hostel Salta Por Siempre’s obliging manager, after which wended us once again on the frilly edges that is ruta 9’s rah-rah skirt. Its snaking width narrowed down to four metres at best and three at worst. I intimately encountered three fly-sized hapless individuals that left a smarting sting after pinging straight onto my face. I think I swallowed one. That coupled with an all-consuming tortuous road, which when taken unawares by a speeding oncoming four-by-four kept any emerging hunger locked up til lunch.
The skirting road’s silver lining however was two-fold. We met Lloyd from France who was in the middle of pedalling his way from Peru to the southernmost city of the world, Ushuaia. Not an inch of fat was visible on this guy, he was just bones wrapped up in enthusiasm. I rather liked his blonde dreads that hung down his back. The guy’s high-octane vigour was contagious and we blitzed through some banter at a high-energy speed. The second positive – post the Kamikaze driver oblivious to one and all – was scrubbing my new tyre in. It’s surprising me more to confess such a declaration. What good road manners this shiny ‘straight from the mould’ tyre had; Pearl now cornered like she was on rails.
Route 9 we were heading on was taking us the 288 kilometres to Iruya, northwestern Argentina. Pearl never skipped a beat for the whole duration. We descended a whopping 1,220 metres over 19 kilometres through an intense set of gravel and sandy hairpins. I lost count to the number we twisted tightly around but I’d guess in the ballpark of around 50. Practice I was getting but improving I was not. The terrain around most of the hairpin bends was a whisker above my skill level or at least they were on that day, changing every turn into a near-mis-adventure a shade too close to the edge. The nervous tremors in my major organs became serious quakes on a couple of occasions. Fortunate for me, Pearl’s innate aplomb as well as instinct kicked in and more than once, saved me from myself.
Reaching this faraway town obscured from the mainstream became a real escapade; we totally underestimated the time it’d take to reach based on the distance. Maps give little and less clues on the conditions of the road; mayhaps I should be rising earlier than I had been. Much of the road to get there kept us neatly inside Jujuy province territory, until we met the town of Humahuaca. This is where we came upon the diversion to Iruya, deliciously tucked away from the masses.
Psyched to take the diversion, the first interesting point was the Iturbe Station. After endless curves and always climbing, we peaked at the highest point of the trail, Abra del Condor 4,000 metres above sea level, which served as a natural boundary between the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. The view of gargantuan mountains brightly streaked in ribbons of reds, pinks and a browny green moss – the green of moss in deep woods at dusk just before the light fades – evoked an awe-inspiring reaction. By now we were getting supremely spoiled with beautiful riding roads and it took something special to lure our sights.
Iruya was a tiny town accommodating around 1,000 people. An old town too, whose name means ‘Place of high grassland’, was surrounded by two rivers: Milmahuasi from which our hostel took its name and The Coranzulí. We caught sight of a colonial-style building that was dominated by mud, stones and straw for its construction. Its streets were exceptionally narrow, steep and cobbled to prevent erosion of water. The most curious and wonderfully heartening aspect of the place was that its residents still retained their dress, values and traditions from over 250 years ago. A magical place where the odd traveller doesn’t pass unnoticed.
Chin cocked up in the air, Hostel Milmahuasi was half way up a sharp slope. This is where my day commenced its crescendo on a note of melodic mayhem. Obliged into dodging donkeys, excitable children darting like a shoal of minnows in shallow water and the odd parked vehicle consuming the width of the road, I had to ride 100 metres past them all. Up a hill of rough-hewn cobbles protruding like chunky ice cubes. I stood on the foot pegs intent on giving Pearl enough momentum to power us both up, balanced with the required flair to skirt around all the local obstacles and avoid scraping if not altogether colliding into them. Zooming up, it felt like a 45 degree angle to Pearl and me. I was assured it most certainly was not. Not altogether sure how, Pearl and I negotiated the 30 degree bobbled incline, circled around the obstructions and dealt with a couple of sharp turns part way up – signalled by the local whistle-blowing police officer thrown in for helpful measure. Jason was leading me a merry dance up to the town’s highest point.
At the summit, I wondered about the effect of adrenaline spiking through me. I rapidly removed a glove to determine how shaky my hand was trembling. I think after the day we’d both just enjoyed as much as I’d endured, my body was in a calmer state than I’d anticipated. My hand was as still as a statue. Suffused with the glow of success, the swell of triumph expanded under my heart. A trace of ecstasy in my heart manifested itself as I grinned at the vista from the top of town, which was radiant in the late afternoon ephemeral light. Wow. It bowled us over epitomizing the beauty that is Argentina.
The day’s enchanting marvels mingled with a handful of misdemeanours over, we checked in at our lodging. A happy fatigue ran from my fingers, up my arms, down my back and through my lower limbs. My stomach had pretty much run on empty a while back; nothing but wariness lay behind my overworked muscles. The bed duvet was downy and heavy, I slept like a baby full on milk.
We took a rest day of pootling strolls down the zigzagging, tiered layers of Iruya. Past every stony switchback, I saw children playing with mud, sticks and stones sat on their haunches while their parents were busy with work. What looked like big natural buttresses – underneath those typically offering up Gothic style cathedrals – formed the hillsides, eroded by water and weather. Docile donkeys drifted past us with curious eyes to any nibble of food on offer and old looking men took their packed lunch to the town’s hub, a small cobbled square overlooking the never-ending magnificence of the valley.
We spent a pleasant evening with an Australian couple Neil and Mel that treated us to a couple of crisp beers in their plush hotel. Lovely people from Perth visiting their son after nudging him to take off and see a bit of the world. What a parenting pair! And another night with Cristina and Dora, two ‘larger than life’ women from Buenos Aires. They reminded me of school dinner ladies, singing away to themselves during the kitchen preparation: ‘Just keep cooking, just keep cooking!’. They rustled up a plethora of homemade pizza for us and a handful of other travellers, which after a day of gorging my senses outdoors my stomach followed suit on the lovingly prepared feast. We were all fit to burst in a foodies’ corner of heaven. Over a babble of excited people, dozens of questions were cast out of the inquisitive crowd; we swopped stories, supped on the local red wine and gregariously laughed the night away with one another.
Two hikes up both sides of the towns’ noble mountains turned into a pair of extraordinarily errant albeit furious footslogs. The first one we spotted a hummingbird, heard a chirping grasshopper and watched a couple of condors riding the thermals. High atop a ridge on the sloping edge of a sheer drop, we chanced upon a lady called Terradora whose makeshift windowless house boasted Iruya’s most enviable view. She calmed her dogs into a muted quiescence, kindly acquainted me to her one-year old daughter Evelyn – wrapped up in warm layers from her head of tousled hair to toe – and continued washing clothes in the front yard.
It didn’t take more than a thimble of sense to realise this woman had endured a life of hardship living off the land. I catalogued her face; deep wrinkles hatched her hollow cheeks and her mouth had thinned. She appeared well into the autumn of her days although was clearly of child bearing age. Her features were etched in weathered lines that were hard like drawn wires but somehow softened by intrigue. Her face was quiet and she gave me a curious look through eyes like the timeless eyes of a statue. I liked her a lot.
We chatted for a while when Terradora gestured for me to feed her kid, the baby goat variety not her child. I tentatively enquired if it’d be okay to capture a photograph and although her smile remained infectious, gently shook her head from side to side. I’ve read that in some cultures taking a permanent image of someone is tantamount to taking their soul. Seeing the interplay of emotions on Terradora’s face, Jase popped his camera away and we thought nothing more of it. Up here time had stood still, it washed over me and washed me away.
My eyes leapt across the velvety landscape adorned in rich fragments of burnt oranges, sienna and deepening rusts and reds. A warm wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water. The greyish pinks looked the most striking against the spearmint and pistachio greens amid an unknown violet presence piercing through the ribs of rock. The colours were so rich in the light they might have been shades cast by another world. On a precipice, I mused this must be the most kaleidoscopic land in which I’ve been immersed. If Jason was Joseph, he was definitely cloaked in a technicoloured dream coat living out his own photographer’s fantasy. It was ample to make me fall in love with Argentina all over again; I already couldn’t wait to revisit the region.
Crossing the river, slogging up the hillside through a labyrinth of twists and turns on trek number two, we met Izara. I admired the character reflected in his face – a picture of two hamster cheeks bulging with cocoa leaves sandwiching an almost toothless smile – thrilled that he was happy to pass the time of day with us. I deciphered the gist of his conversation, slightly distorted by a mouth preoccupied with chewing; the pronunciation practically impossible to wrap the human tongue around. He introduced us to his workhorses and pack donkeys including a pregnant one loaded up with supplies; presuming by his direction of travel for trading with the town folk. With legs like wood, I took my time traipsing along the mountain trails. Picking my way carefully not just because they were steep and we were at altitude but some were gravelly ruts no wider than half a foot across accompanied by a fatal drop. I marvelled at how sure footed the donkeys we’d encountered were on the treacherous terrain and surmised they only needed a hoof-width to get just about anywhere. I didn’t hear a single one’s braying call from these beasts of burden.
By four in the afternoon, we meandered around jagged peaks that rose as if to scrape the sky, passed the odd mud bricked house on open land home to man and his donkeys – Izara’s of whose had led their way back by themselves – and made it to San Juan. It was a village only accessible by the precipitous mountains we’d climbed; the inhabitants had no electricity and such folks had to face the long arduous journey back and forth to Iruya to replenish their provisions and supplies. This corner of the world blew my mind another notch. It whet an insatiable appetite for more of these pearlers, those as solitary as they were special. That night I lay deep in sleep drained of physical strength. Weariness still hung in my muscles at the sun’s first smile, the night’s rest hardly a payment on the debt I owed my body for the unyielding hours of uphill trekking. My well-being however was reawakened and revived.
The finale took place when my ears pricked up to some singing piquing my interest – emanating from a small town hall. Towards the end of a ceremony or service of some kind, people began shaking hands with one another in time to some appeasing Argentinian music. As well as exchanging polite kisses, pecking one person on the cheek to another. Someone noticed me peering half a head in and didn’t think twice in greeting me in the same manner. Before I had chance to discern my whereabouts, I was inside a sea of warmth and tactile reception, friendliness flowing from every direction. I got this incredible feeling of togetherness, family ties bound in a congregation of fellowship and companionship. It was overwhelming yet I felt calm, in possession of the moment. I was received by every local, dark haired member of the room, about 50 in all from a community of: waddling toddlers; curious children stroking my face and hair; young boys carrying out their obligations towards both the familiar and a strange white woman wondering through; teenage girls and elders well into the winter of their days; the women organisers of the event and parents pleased to see an unknown face. To this day, I have no idea what I walked into, I just know it made me feel wonderfully wanted and part of something.
Iruya was a grand-scale projection of the human mind onto a petite piece of landscape. To my mind, its form wasn’t accidental or random but an enigmatic reflection of shared vision of the peoples’ physical as well as spiritual world, their kinship systems. A gem buried deep within Argentina’s trove of treasures whose soul-enriching and life-rejuvenating energy was impossible to miss.
Sometime during the trip, my nickname and I mysteriously parted company, ‘Captain Slow’ merely evaporated like a ghost out of my being. I hoped to high heaven that was indicative that Pearl and I had begun to finally get a ‘wriggle on’ as and when required. It wasn’t rocket science picking my preferred of the remaining ones, courtesy of Jason: ‘Snot dispenser’ – doesn’t everyone have a runny hooter in cold weather? ‘Afternoon shadow’ from all the dirt and dust clinging to my face after a day in the saddle like iron filings on a magnet. ‘Princess’ when I’m being told to “Suck it up” on the sand or ‘Mozza’, an adaptation of my surname Morris. I might have some choice alternatives for my ‘marvellous other’ too.
Terms of endearment aside, the ride from Susques like the last time we tackled it, started in -6 degrees. We had more or less acclimatised so didn’t feel as beaten by altitude’s clenched fist. As gluttons for offbeat travel, we decided to take the old ruta 40 that joined the 51. What we were prepared for was 176 miles of tarmac giving way to unpaved roads drawing a conclusion in Salta’s sunnier clime. A lovely little ride you could say – ignorance is the opposite of truth, is it not?
What we were in store for was an earthy, rollicking, lip-licking feast of fun. We bobbled over loose gravel, streams crusted over in ice, slushy mud and lashings of slippery sand. My sand skills must have been on the up that afternoon when Jase casually observed, ‘Some of what I’m telling you must be going in”. That was good, one straw at least I could clutch. The ride was worth it just to see what we labelled ‘Boulder world’, bestowed on us in its breathtaking enormity. There sat an incredible legion of stand-alone rocks bigger than our old house. Some the size of ships. It was a movie set from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The unpaved road became a dirt road, which became a track and the track a mere suggestion of one. Narrowly escaping big gaping holes and negotiating mounds of compacted dirt, I dropped my bike and somehow twisted my leg beneath one of my panniers. Jason jumped to my rescue and relieved a smiling damsel wedged in the dirt. My leg was surprisingly bendy but I was more reassured by the fact it hadn’t knocked my confidence. Jason uncharacteristically lost control over an icy stream, the front wheel caught and he head-slammed into the ground. His noggin remained unharmed by his helmet, albeit his ego was a little dented. Both bikes went down now and again but survived the animated fun. Day-dreaming in a sleepy state 25 miles to Salta, I almost micro-slept while riding on the road. I saved myself in time and pulled over for a 10 minute ‘Nana nap’. Sleep came to me like an unseen assailant.
Weeks ago, we took the initiative to purchase two tyres in Santiago having seen the hammering to my back tyre and the wear on Jason’s front wheel. A fabulous friend Juan-Pi in Mendoza had offered to send them to Salta, which fit with our direction of travel and carrying them on the bikes to Bolivia. We received delivery confirmation from Juan-Pi; the tyres were awaiting our pick up. It would be like Christmas knowing how difficult it was to source the brand of tyres we wanted in Argentina. Wonderfully, Argentinians have a service whereby you can just about wrap anything up and the local bus service will deliver it anywhere inside the country. You simply need a tracking number and a few pesos upon delivery for the privilege. Another aspect I adored about Argentina.
Just 23 miles from reaching Salta, we each got a flat tyre. At the same time. On the aforementioned tyres that needed replacing. That left me tickled pink for the entire day. My Heidenau K60 Scout dual sports tyre had done over 10,500 miles; I was thrilled we’d decided to replace one with the same brand. My new back tyre boasted a 140mm width, a mere 10mm more than my previous but Pearl would benefit from a noticeably greater ground clearance, stronger grip and wider footprint. She would also be faster and handle corners much happier putting us both in our Zen place.
After a thrill ride from Susques, it took the rest of my reserves to wobble the 23 miles over loose gravel and blunder our way into town without totally destroying the rims. Riding with a flat made sand-riding look positively simple. Jason and I stopped nine times in 23 miles beneath Salta’s baking heat in order to buoy up and cajole our abraded tyres back to base. Jason indulged in a quietly smug second in having brought an air compressor. A priceless item saving him a patch repair job on the inner tubes, by a remote roadside. We were battered. It had been an ace day though, same again on the morrow Jase?
Another Argentinian friend of ours Toto confirmed my long overdue parcel had finally been released from customs. Hurrah – there is a mitigating god! It had only taken 75 days to reach me. After preposterous levels of persuasion and copious amounts of paperwork, Toto told me how it took time to convince the customs official that it was in fact a ‘gift’ eventually saving the daylight robbery expense of forking out 50 per cent of the contents’ value. Moreover, coaxing customs to finally release the package would fulfill Toto’s yearly quota for overseas deliveries by default. Namely because of me, Toto wouldn’t be allowed to receive anything further as an Argentinian citizen until the following year. He exclaimed, “Lisa, I feel like I live in Cuba!!” Toto and Juan-Pi were salt of the earth guys whose friendship we’d made with them, I hoped would be life-long.
Departing San Pedro for the fourth time funnily enough felt like the final time. We waved a fond farewell to a woolly band of domestic llamas, sauntering over the tarmac and grazing atop the hillocks against an arresting backdrop of Lickancabur volcano. It was Siberia, the wind was screaming at the top of her lungs and the air hitting us at punishing temperatures. Whether Mother Nature was ticked off at something, I couldn’t quite tell but she was determined to ‘get my knee down’ on the straight as an arrow desert ruta 27. I wondered if she was playing with me because the more I leaned into her, the more she pushed back. My grunts made those of Venus Williams during her US Open tennis tournaments sound like soft newborn whimpers.
There were no weathervanes, trees or wind socks present but at that moment, if I’d been able to perceive the wind’s movements with an equivalent infrared spray: namely its raging swirls, violent thermals, currents blowing from all directions, hostile gusts crossing this way and that, I would not have ridden my motorbike. This began as a blessing in disguise, short-lived and replaced with a white-knuckle ride, testing my resolve to bite through it and chew harder than I’ve ever gnawed before. I knew that six months previous, I would’ve ‘lost it’ – Pearl and my nerve would have been blown off the road. Now I was 15,000 miles into my riding career, two thirds of which comprised capricious roads and challenging conditions such as these. I was in no mood to give in so easily. The Venus Williams’ standard grunting continued, Jason pressed me to keep counteracting; leaning into an imaginary corner so lean on Pearl I did – against a vicious wind with an inner-strength I didn’t know I had.
Off the plateau we came, twisting tightly and descending around a corner. Low and behold, an oncoming white minibus driver faced me square on. Same lane. Both of us exchanged a startled split-second glance ‘What the hell…!’ and swerved at 40 miles per hour – me into the hard shoulder and him back into his own lane. There goes yet another of my nine cat lives, how many had I spent already? I decided not to dwell on my spiralling number of near misses.
Our neck-straining efforts against the gusts were rewarded with a geological genital looking monolith, ‘The Indian Stone’, near Salar de Tararock. The last of our longed-for ‘Wish to see’ sights in Chile. It didn’t disappoint. Discovered by happy accident we were overjoyed despite our precarious position on a nearby plateau; it was still raining down a savage wind lashing at any traces of exposed skin. At least its substantial presence meant I could get a good enough look from afar – size on that occasion undeniably mattered. Approaching Argentina we were lulled onto a calmer road having left the plateau. We took a renewed pleasure in lifting the visors. Out of nowhere, a zooming freighter whizzed past and sandblasted us both in the faces. Still invigorated by the bracing wind and now exfoliated, these were the instant gratifications of two-wheeled travel.
At the border, a bonny Chilean lady who spoke superb English greeted us. She processed us in record time while remarking how well the pair of us must be doing in such merciless winds and cool climes. She winked at me as I handed her Pearl’s registration document and revealed, “I can’t even ride a push bike in this weather, I think you’re cool.” What a lovely lasting impression of Chile.
The next lady to process us at the counter assumed an officious persona. Lets call her ‘Miss Customs’. With a warm menace in her narrowed eyes, she sharply beckoned Jason over. No time-wasting pleasantries, her hard-boiled instructions were, “Come here. Documentation. Passport.” No problem señorita, as Jason handed her the said items with passport open on the photo identification page.
“Where is your passport number?” she bridled. I was surprised to hear the question coming from as official customs officer. She spoke swiftly in Spanish at Jason and her rhetoric was unmistakably clear, “Why are you travelling through South America without speaking Spanish? You don’t understand do you, do YOU?!” she barked in a moue of distaste.
“Er, umn, sorry”, Jason apologised – his eyes darting as his mind raced wildly with excuses.
“Why do you NOT speak Spanish? This is BIG problem”, she said with eyes that swam with rage. Jason simply stared back at this lady.
“Where are your friends that speak Spanish?”, she continues to glower down at Jason. Without coming up for air Miss Customs wanted to determine, “Which border you use to exit Argentina?”
“One closest to Salar de Uyuni, south of Bolivia.”
“Yes but what is the name of the border there?” The scowling intensifies another notch.
“I have no idea.”
“Urgh! How long are you staying here in my country?” Jason had already stated three months so confirmed this again in his most lucid Spanish.
“Mmn”, she bristled again with a look that could’ve boiled cheese.
Projecting a profound loathing of Jason whose face clearly didn’t fit with this woman, she continued to harangue him. It appeared she was playing a game of billiards with us as the caroming cue ball successively striking two other hapless balls. This was not going to end well. Or was she just sick and tired of foreign travellers whose Spanish was ‘work-in-progress’? I made a mental note to learn more of the language and rapido.
This woman was a study in ego. Jason sat on the receiving end of more unfathomably fast Spanish in a tone that was patently taking pleasure that what she was saying would not be understood. Miss Customs was getting her Schadenfreude-induced kicks in reducing Jason to a scolded child. She was a living Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Jason royally failing to please at Crunchem Hall Academy in standing before her. I had to hand it to her, she was enjoying herself immensely and a character I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Jason was getting increasingly riled even if this individual was our gateway to the rest of our road trip. And as well, he really had no choice but to eat all this excrement and praise the taste; just bite your tongue Jason, graciously swallow it whole and smile sweetly. Miss Customs eventually processed Jason’s paperwork despite her reluctant misgivings. For her, he was clearly disappointing in the most gormless gringo approach possible. She had a tortured soul and I wondered what hidden truths lay beneath all that hostility.
As a ‘forgetting nothing and forgiving less’ type, I thought I better try and curry a little favour with this lady. Otherwise, I’d be toast. My turn. Oh Lordy Lou, here goes nothing. I tried to change tactics and initiated a well-intentioned conversation in the best of my limited Spanish. I knew full well she could speak a little English although being conscious of this fact was as useful as mudguards on a tortoise. I unleashed my most disarming smile under hopeful eyes and politely informed her in Española, “We speak a little Spanish but it is difficult when learning from zero. It is a pleasure to meet you in your very beautiful country and thank you so much for stamping my documentation.” To my surprise, she relaxed a little, measured out a small smile and responded, “No problem chica”. I was free to go.
Our final encounter before entering Argentina comprised a 20 minute wait for the barrier to be lifted. I asked a casually dressed young man in a sports cap if it would be possible to let us through. Boom! It was if I’d whacked a wasps’ nest with a stick. The guy exploded in a Spanish tongue, spat out that I needed my paperwork processing and gestured aggressively which way I needed to go. It reminded me of the sound of a hornets’ nest might make an instant before the hornets all came boiling out. It took everything I had not to get rankled and rapidly produced my stamped documentation. It seemed to semi-appease him somewhat and annoy.
We rocked up to Susques, a spit and sawdust settlement we’d once stayed overnight in the Jujuy region. Our hostel was called ‘El Cactus’, very befitting as the ladies hadn’t been overly obliging the first time round. What a comeback! Exhausted after a long day, we settled quickly in our spartan room and Jason thanked the woman. Cue a deadpan expression. Our heater didn’t work and in desert-dropping temperatures, Jase didn’t hesitate to appeal for one that emitted heat. Not too unreasonable? The lady liked his request not one iota. She threw a dart in his balloon of hope and waved him off like an irritating fly. Jase looked at me in despair to try the Morris powers of persuasion. I walked to the nearest unlocked and unoccupied room and helped myself to a functioning heater.
With our fair of share of warped misogyny and misandry consumed, we could only laugh about it afterwards. What an unparalleled obscenely comical day – there’s nowt as queer as folk.
If you’re planning on visiting Argentina, Chile and Bolivia – here’s our ‘Top Ten’ offbeat travel hot spots:
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
The southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Antártida e Islas del Atlántico Sur Province, Argentina. After some incredible hiking in this PATA-God-of-Peaks-GONIA, you surely won’t forget to have your photograph taken at the ‘Fin del el Mundo’ (End of the World) sign in Tierra del Fuego National Park – you may even spot a Fuegian red fox! While you’re there, why not indulge in a traditional asado with cordero (a barbeque with Patagonian lamb), visit the Harberton Estancia to learn all about missionary pioneer Tommy Bridges and the inspiring biologist Natalie Prosser whose museum she founded is home to some of the world’s finest specimens of whale, dolphin and other marine life. It would also be a missed opportunity not to visit the Ushuaia’s museums and immerse yourself in the lives of the Yámana and other Indian tribal peoples that lived in harmony for centuries.
Valle de la Luna – Valley of the Moon, Argentina
Ischigualasto Provincial Park, also called Valle de la Luna is a provincial protected area in the north-east of San Juan Province, north-western Argentina, limiting to the north with the Talampaya National Park, in La Rioja Province. Valley of the moon is a 630 square km UNESCO park, a desert valley that sits between mountain ranges Cerros Colorados in the east and Cerro Los Rastros in the west.
We rode into a sandy scene of cacti and rock formations steeped in rich mineral layers: creamy white calcium, pistachio green copper, bile yellow sulphur and terracotta-tinged iron, which looked super-imposed against a cloudless blue sky. During a 40 km paid tour on us astride our bikes following a procession of cars, we listened intently to how complete specimens of dinosaur skeletons had been found from the Triassic period, preserved so perfectly inside the layered sedimentary rock infused with its safeguarding substances. Fortunately, our tour guide Florencia was relaxed and allowed us to hang back, disappearing from view more oft than not and foremost the throng of tourists.
Over millennia at every meander in the canyon, the waters of the dry River Ischigualasto had carved shapes in the malleable red sandstone, monochrome clay and volcanic ash. I didn’t think much to the ‘submarine’ or ‘worm’ but rather liked the ‘Sphinx’ with an uncanny resemblance to a lion’s body wearing a woman’s head. It was an incredibly raw remnant of the Mesozoic Era, representing an ancient segment of our evolution. Riding around the place on two wheels was a fittingly first rate way to see the place although four wheels would suffice just as well.
Atacama desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a plateau in South America, covering a 1,000 km strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world. San Pedro de Atacama makes an ideal base for daily sorties including: Salar de Talar, Valley of the Moon, Laguna Chaxa – a flamingo breeding site, Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche near Ojos del Salar sinkholes and ‘The Indian Stone’, a geological monolith, near Salar de Tararock. There’s a wealth of wonderful sights to see in the Atacama, the place really got under our skin and it was a wrench to leave.
El Tatio, Chile
El Tatio is a geyser field located within the Andes Mountains of northern Chile at 4,320 meters above sea level. Its name means ‘the grandfather’. It is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. You’ll be in geyser seventh heaven here. Fumaroles bubble all over the geyser field, plumes of scalding hot water gush upwards and arresting towers of steam rise from the rocks making a spectacular sight. There’s even a hot spring you can warm up your cockles in, it’s bliss. Just beware of early morning temperatures, which can go as low as -20 degrees Celsius! No one had a problem with us taking our wheels down onto the geyser field, we stayed mostly on the designated paths – what a rare ride out of the norm!
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square km. Need I say more? It is located in the Potosí and Oruro departments in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes and is at an elevation of 3,656 metres above sea level. Superlatives are not needed for this astounding site…
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Torres del Paine National Park is a national park encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in southern Chilean Patagonia. What more could you ask for? The Cordillera del Paine is the centerpiece of the park. Hike the ‘W’ trail to get an intimate encounter with ‘The Horns’ and ‘The Towers’ but be warned, it’s an intense five day footslog of around 70 km. You may want to opt for the full ten day circuit, which lots do and love. Without stating the obvious, a
decent backpack and proper hiking boots are essential, I’d say so are dry bags too to hang your food in nearby trees when camping away from the pesky mice! The vistas however will have your soul singing so it’s worth the strenuous effort. Pack plenty of high-energy (lightweight) foods and second skins for those blisters.
Perito Moreno glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
The neck-craning, jaw-dropping Perito Moreno Glacier is a glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz province, Argentina. It’s iconic and staggeringly beautiful that will send your heart soaring. The 250 km2 ice formation and 30 km in length, is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field located in the Andes system shared with Chile. This icefield is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The Perito Moreno glacier, located 78 km from El Calafate, was named after the explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 19th century and played a major role in defending the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile.
Mount Fitz Roy, El Chaltén village between Argentina and Chile
The magnificent Monte Fitz Roy is a mountain located near El Chaltén village, in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Patagonia, on the border between Argentina and Chile.
Taking a pre-dawn hour-long hike up to Lake Capri will give you a good warm-up. It facilitates a rich opportunity to watch the sun rise over Mount Fitz Roy from afar, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We stayed until the first light bathed the tip of the peak at over 3,400 metres; its meringue smooth snow was the whitest I’d ever seen. It was bitterly cold in May 2014 first thing but the German, Dutch and Argentinian trio of chaps accompanying us agreed, it was well worth the chilly 14 km walked.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll be itching for a closer look. The two of us took the 25 km round trek over to Laguna de Los Tres. This was about the closest we were going to get to Mount Fitz Roy, which afforded the most intimate vantage point overlooking the lagoon. As soon as we’d caught our breath from the slog endured to climb up there, the sight took our breath away once more. The lagoon was incredible, so clear and gorgeous – it was all I could do not to leap into those placid waters. Mother have mercy though, we were walking on hot coals for the last ten miles to get back – plodding heavily down unforgiving stones salted with white on the snow-speckled trail. These peaks of Patagonia certainly make you earn it.
Peeling ourselves away from El Chaltén, we rode alongside the sun-flecked waters of Lago Argentina for what seemed like an eternity. This lake was at least fifty miles long. As sure as eggs are eggs though, the smooth tarmac gives way to more interesting gravelly terrain shortly before Lago Cardiel. Enjoy!
Mano del Desierto – The Hand of the Desert, Chile
The Mano de Desierto is a large-scale sculpture of a hand located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, 75 km to the south of the city of Antofagasta, on the Pan American Highway. The nearest point of reference is the “Ciudad Empresarial La Negra”. A spectacular sight to behold at 11 metres high. It looked like a last vestige of a lost civilization. The entity as a whole put back an artful finesse into the striking sculpture that the mindless scribblings had tried to take away. Mario Irarrázabal the sculptor, symbolised the enigmatic sculpture as a sorrowful sentinel intended to evoke the tragic reality of the human condition. Emotions such as injustice, loneliness, human vulnerability and helplessness are embodied, it’s striking and unique.
10. Purmamarca, Argentina
As a flyspeck town in the Tumbaya Department of the Jujuy Province, Purmamarca we re-labelled ‘Permanent marker’ is no broader than the tip of one. It sits against Cerro de los Siete Colores – the Hill of Seven Colours, which can only be described as a jagged rock formation resembling the marzipan fantasy of an over-zealous pastry chef. The village makes its coin by the congruent rainbow of colours interlaced through woven goods and handicrafts on offer. You could buy anything from a hat, poncho and slippers with a matching hippy handbag. A straggle of ochre adobe houses and age-old algarrobo trees next to a bijou 17th century church surrounded the hubbub of the central plaza. I loved weaving around the hills to get a better look at the place, coming away from the hordes of holiday-makers for a more relaxing ride by ourselves to just well, soak it all up.
My motorbike to me is many things. She’s so much more than my trusty steed; she’s my home, an unbelievable icebreaker, a ‘Get out of jail’ free card and sometimes a swift little lifesaver. She is decidedly my ticket to travel, enlightenment and empowerment. Without Pearl, I’d have a gaping hole in my soul, a chunk eaten away like the hungry bite of a sandwich. It suddenly dawned on me astride the saddle – my moving world – that on English soil, my view of the planet was constantly narrowed by the media’s perception. On the road, my outlook is shaped by a world of perspectives, constantly evolving because I am continually changing where I am. Travel for me is the one thing you can buy that will make you rich.
Packing up our ‘Dome Sweet Dome’, we meandered back from our intensive little visit to Mano del Desierto. Back in the saddle I cruised at an unrushed speed, not overly aware that Jason was feeling the fatigue a shade more than me. Seconds pass and unbeknown to either of us, he fell into a micro-sleep. At 50 miles per hour. To his horror, he wakes up to the jolting realisation of what had but more so could have happened sending a 240-volt shock through his core. In less than 20 metres, he pulls over under a ‘no arguments’ instruction from me after which Jase passes out on the roadside. He is soundly snoring seconds after his head hits the ground, assuming the stance of a slumbering starfish. It was a wake up call needed to shock us both into realising we were overdoing it. Best not let that happen again. Seeking refuge in Pearl’s shade and on bike watch, it seemed silly not to utilise the time in defuzzing my abandoned brows. A job long overdue!
It was time to leave San Pedro de Atacama, third time lucky. We’d probably be back, the place had gotten under our skin. Our aim: hit the Ruta del Desierto and ride the 145 miles on route 23 up to Paso de Sico. It was our exit plan from Chile on a more interesting road, a dirt one under construction. A sound plan being that our last border crossing at Jama – to get to San Pedro de Atacama – was a straightforward ‘Exit Argentina’ and ‘Enter Chile’ dual process.
As someone unseasoned in sand riding, I wasn’t exactly crazy over route 23’s abundance of sand and deep corrugations on our way to Paso de Sico. For some reason, I’d stopped advancing on the learning curve. In fact, I think I’d fallen off the damn thing. I was stuck on a skill level plateau having taken one step forward, two steps back. I was simply unable to take that incremental but crucial leap of faith astride Pearl; she and I felt every bone shaking, back jarring and suspension killing corrugation. Trying gamely to be strong fluttered off on my radar leaving my stomach cramped with frenzied butterflies; why couldn’t I ride this stretch of sand and all its unsavoury accomplices? The sand was insurmountable and I was task loaded. My confidence was shot, I was on a serious ‘off day’. I arrived at the border broken, saddle sore and sour. The border official’s first question was, “Where is your exit stamp from San Pedro de Atacama?”
‘You are kidding me senor. QUE?’, we both wondered as our grave mistake dawned on us. Pearl and I had just ridden the most gruelling off road riding to date and it had been a royal waste of time. I had to face the return ride the following morning, we were going nowhere. The error was all ours in not being aware about a ‘No man’s land’ of 145 miles between this particular border crossing – the size of some countries! We’d encountered a 20 kilometre long No man’s land between each of the country’s customs before now but not one of this distance. The Argentinian customs official at Paso de Sico explained that it costs too much money to run both the Exit and Enter processes at that particular border.
I was out of sorts with my rainbow of riding issues and waded deeper into a destructive thought pattern, blindsided by anger and frustration. In my mind’s eye, it was simple enough to process what Jason had been urging me to do while off roading but the physical application of such advice was hindered by waning confidence and clutching onto fear like a ragdoll.
Jase sat down and dropped a truth bomb on me. The bomb landed, exploded and after a delay I did quick search for mortal wounds. Finding none, I was left unscathed at least physically anyway. He gave me the pep talk of my riding career, spoke some harsh but necessary words and drilled into me where I was at. It brought home the magnitude of our undertaking, as well as the serious implications of riding slowly all day in desert isolation. Because of me our susceptibility of: being stranded in the middle of nowhere, provisions running dry and bikes failing from overheating and dangerously slow desert riding, was soaring. I didn’t want to hear it but needed to. We slept fitfully in sub zero temperatures at over 4,000 metres.
Dawn broke. I unwillingly awoke to feeling fearful of repeating the day on a fractious note of frayed nerves. I had spent the night jumping hoops through the 300 circus rings of my irrational imagination. After an acutely progressive ten minute warm up, Pearl tuned into my muscle memory kicking in. It was she that decided to take things into her own hands. I trusted her implicitly and have found time and time again that Pearl ends up saving me from myself. An hour’s ride into the return journey, unbeknown to me I’d lost my front mudguard, a crucial bolt off my sub-frame and one of my panniers had incurred a porridge explosion. Pearl had a different day in store for me, she showed me that opening up our shared potential was safer, less strenuous and put me in a heightened state of control. Despite the biting cold, I was warmed by the thought that a great deal of angst had been purified from my soul.
Jason yelled down the helmet intercom to slow down and said, “Lise, you’re riding like a pro today and I’m act-ually trying to keep up with you. See, you can do it.” It motivated and inspired me to keep forging ahead with the help of Pearl’s riding prowess although I do hope Jason abstains from calling me ‘Captain Slow’ again. I dared to dream the dream in a moment of unbridled ambition and thank Pearl, it paid off.
I looked around me for the first time. I was inside a pastel watercolour painting of soft textures, the landscape intermingled by a myriad of harmonious hues on the colour wheel. Chiefly creamy mochas, milk chocolate and swirling dark browns. I was staring fondly at an appetising arrangement of Guylian Belgian truffles longing to be savoured by my sweet-starved tastebuds. I was on a natural high in a slice of heaven and hungry for more of this sugar. Thanks to our unplanned blunder, we chanced upon Laguna Miscanti & Miniques. Two sparkling salty lakes, one was a blue curacao liqueur and the other starkly beautiful in its crystallised white but beckoning us by its inky midnight blue.
Not satisfied with luxuriating us in such phenomenally featured landscape, Karma took us next to Salar de Talar. Another glittering salty lake in the same aquamarine blue found in the Indian Ocean. Musing how far I’d come, I dangled my legs over the edge of iron red rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the blasting winds. If these gleaming colours could be prescribed as treatment, medical bills would pail into insignificance.
The same route back was velvety; it was a breeze to skim over the corrugations, glide over the sand and flash over the coarse gravel. Where was that vexing road that had me in bits? I had no idea what had gotten into Pearl, she was flying me forward in a way I never imagined possible, not if the previous day’s standard was anything to go by. Jason asked me to “calm it” a couple of times; Pearl and I had never really ridden ‘hard’ before and it was fascinating to experience how it felt at a notch more speed. I was on the edge, for me anyway. It was easier, less taxing on my body and a purge for the soul. Pearl thanked me no end for keeping up with her desired pace. The pleasure was all mine. It put me on a new peg of riding contentment. It deepened my understanding – my skill level had reached a plateau and I finally claimed a right to pass it.
Someone I once had to work alongside casually inquired where I took my main summer holiday one year. After outlining a fortnight’s touring the north west coast of Scotland on two wheels: with a bunch of male biking friends, living out of two panniers and a roll bag, wild camping most nights and covering around 3,000 miles, they informed me with a startling assertion as to how utterly horrendous that must have been. I couldn’t have related less to a person at that moment. I surmised one person’s version of horrific is another’s idea of heaven but could only wonder what they’d be thinking of someone doing this full time? I suspect it’d be uncomprehendingly challenging for them or worse still, trigger an irrecoverable meltdown from shock. I do hope that hasn’t happened.
Taking deep lungfuls of unburdened air in descending El Tatio’s dizzying heights back to a more sane 2,300 metres at San Pedro de Atacama was well, a breath of fresh if not fuller air. No sooner did my argument with altitude recede when Pearl lost her ability to provide a functioning front brake. Mayhaps she needed more attention than I was giving her. Despite our return journey requiring us to come down 2,000 metres with only a back brake and gears for control, it didn’t render panic waves on the radar. Truth to be told, I was too happy to be back astride the saddle bearing witness to deep yellow grassy plains curving in from the left and red rock rearing up from the right against a blindingly blue sky. Landscape of this simple but immense magnitude in a three part colour scheme set to ‘vibrant’ was a tonic to the system. Having only 50 per cent brake power was a triviality that wasn’t going to forestall my day. Pearl was performing to the best of her two wheeled ability, which left me grateful to the point of not gloating. Getting Pearl fixed would be a routine matter of mechanics; a bit of brake fluid and a tot of oil to once again bring her up to par.
We left sunny San Pedro de Atacama in the early twenties, our 190 mile ride to Antofagasta peaked preposterously in the mid thirties and cooled down into the mid-teens by a blowy sea breeze on arrival. The temperatures were starting to twist my melon, albeit in a bemused way. Hit by punishing gusts into Antofagasta, the wind became a lash as cruel as any bullwhip. Our first impressions of the port capital comprised an anti-climax of ghastly industrial sprawl amid retail park utopia, a haven for huge container ships all tantamount to a refuse site riddled with rubbish. What’s more, we soon determined a grim lack of affordable lodgings amid the shabby spread.
Within the hour, our attention was caught by a snug inlet of sandy beach, kids splashing their dads in the sea and mums content in their ten minutes off duty. A gregarious flock of pelicans were perched quizzically high atop streetlights, another basking in perfect harmony soaking up the sun’s last offerings. A little man who’d established himself a cozy residence on the beach within a tunnel in the wall, gestured to wrangle the amenable waterbirds like they were his own livestock. The birds seemed happy to oblige this quirky guy waddling on banded legs towards them, anticipating they’d be thrown a morsel or two from his bucket. I named him the pelican man.
Back in his stone wall side shelter, out popped a middle-aged lady clutching a month old puppy. Quivering in terror this poor little pup shone in the sunlight, its black glossy coat shimmering. I couldn’t remember last seeing anything so dinky, defenseless and ‘dunk in my coffee, could eat ya right up’ lovable. The lady was keen to let me have a hold, offered her up like The Lion King’s Simba to which I couldn’t resist the woman’s harmless intentions, sweet nature and sunny smile. As I petted the helpless creature with one hand in the vain hope of calming her in the palm of my other, the lady propositioned me, “You want it, have it! You want it, you want it!” With a sympathetic smile, I motioned towards the moto and apologised that it would be impossible. Although Pearl would trump over puppies any day, I thanked her all the same. I handed the babe back in her vulnerable state but looked longingly at the wide-eyed pup, where was her mum and what’d happened to her?
A few layers away from the coastline into Antofagasta’s centre, a man strode towards us with a visibly keen interest in making contact. We’d just made our fourth acquaintance in the space of forty minutes; this hodgepodge of a place wasn’t so unpleasant on second thoughts. Eager to marry us up with affordable accommodation, we raced to keep pace behind his Yamaha Tenere through a quaint, colonial and intimate part of the capital. The place came alive with moving colour; cheerful people pootling along, children hopping and skipping on their way home from school among people from all walks of port town life catching sight of us – wondering from where we’d originated while occasionally waving in our direction. There was much and more to this messy metropolis than initially met my eye. Blinkered, I guess I’d failed to lift the visor and look beyond the end of my nose.
Ashamed that I’d initially formed such a negative opinion of Antofagasta, I will know better next time. Jason expressed joint gratitude for our temporary guide’s troubles and although the guy’s choices of hostels were too pricey or fully occupied, we’d been given an interesting tour of his town we would’ve altogether missed. Back to the seafront just metres shy from the water’s edge, we pitched the tent and bedded down for the night to the soothing sound of the sea. The pair of us had forgotten how much we’d missed the sight of the ocean and of course what lies beneath. The day vouched to be a value-added one and as first impressions go, I relish when I’m so royally proved wrong.
Turning Pearl’s back on the Pacific, I loaded her like a pack mule and made a sharp exit as we sped onto the Pan-American highway without delay. We rode on route 5 through a haze of sand being blown by the mining in full operation. It was time to go and high five that hand projecting from the ground in the desert. Although plastered in artless graffiti from feet to over head-height, Mano del Desierto was still a sight to behold at 11 metres high. It looked like a last vestige of a lost civilization. The entity as a whole put back an artful finesse into the striking sculpture that the mindless scribblings had tried to take away. Sure enough, it was still deplorable to see such disrespect on display; this sight was easy prey for some reason – garbage infested and graffitied galore.
I put blinkers on my peripheral senses too, which composed a noisy racket of road train after relentless road train coming and going. A booming arterial highway running through a vast expanse of desert wasn’t really what I’d imagined; naïvely an absence of: buildings, conveyor belt of vehicles and civilization at the very least. Ugly mining excavation sites and cars in their truck load were however in abundance. Distraction deliciously took over when late afternoon light began to dance with the hand, drawing out pointed shadows from its elegant fingers and adding lustre to the location. We took our leave from the clamorous traffic and saw the sunset at the bottom of the hilly plateau, retaining a twilight view of the hand. No one knew of our whereabouts in the world, which more oft than not is just how I liked it.
Deeper into the dead of night, neither of us failed to notice the comings and goings of unexpected visitors. The hand became a magnet in attracting those that fancied a few drinks, a soirée with substances a lot stronger than Pisco Sours, some in-car frolicking and a smoke. We felt like brazen imposters trying to slink into the shadows of the place, go unnoticed and stay inconspicuous.
Dawn broke, all traces of delinquency had disappeared even if its vandalism and the party remnants remained. We woke up to the sun playfully flickering between the hand’s fingers. Jason got chatting to the hand’s newest guest, a Chilean ex-copper called Carlos. He now worked on one of the nearby mines and informally inquired whether Jason was alone. After learning I was tucked up inside the tent, he asked if I was sick. I had to laugh, may be I was sick to forego the first light; it was 7.15am and sadly I was still slumbering pushing up zzZs.
Carlos expressed a deep fondness for his country but was sickened by some of his own people that continued to show zero respect for what they have; namely go out of their way to deliberately deface sights such as the hand, protruding so profoundly on an isolated desert plateau. Irarrázabal the sculptor, symbolised the enigmatic sculpture as a sorrowful sentinel intended to evoke the tragic reality of the human condition. If emotions such as injustice, loneliness, human vulnerability and helplessness were being embodied, I couldn’t help wonder about the state of mind of those that had so visibly trashed something so striking and unique. Like the stains and imbecilic marks blotted over the the hand, it left a blemish on the experience.
Upon registering Pearl’s mileage clock 10,000 miles, without conscious volition I stopped seeing our trip as an extended holiday. This had now become a way of life for us. The honeymoon period wasn’t altogether over, it was simply the start of a new chapter having learnt the basic ropes of two wheeled travel. Namely journeying into the unknown and coping with all its capricious twists and turns – coming out the other end all the richer for it. So far, South America was adorned by many pleasurable experiences mingled with the odd misadventure thrown in for good measure. We were able to carry all we needed on the back of two motorcycles, which wonderfully excluded all those unnecessary societal burdens. I’m done with those. My new mantra naturally emerged: to wring out as much fun from life in the most gutsy, earthy, rollicking, lip-licking way. Philosopher Alan Watts said exactly that – let go and be hung up on nothing and I would add, by nobody. We felt free.
The 50 mile ride from San Pedro de Atacama took us north longitudinally in ascent to the Antofagasta region. The sky was an animated arrangement of clouds straight from an episode opening of The Simpsons. En route to El Tatio, we were ungrudgingly slowed by a herd of goats consuming the width of the road. Watching the mature ones amble and kids toddling along bum-to-bum, my heart went out to commuters back home in murderous bumper-to-bumper traffic. Straggling behind a frisky band of bearded goats was my kind of traffic jam. In eventually skirting around the herd we blasted through our first ford; my lower half got drenched. The splash Pearl and I had created soaked my legs trickling into the top my boots. Over-zealous sprays and wet feet forgotten, we were favoured with clusters of vicuña dotted on the mountainous plains – a wild relative of the llama, supposedly valued for its fine silky wool. Like the llama, vicuña are a lot less skittish than the similar looking but larger guanaco. It gave us a moment to marvel at them in the altiplano Andean pastures against a brilliant blue sky backdrop.
Pearl may’ve been crying out for some much needed attention but with everything else going on around me, I’d neglected to notice that a battery connection had become loose. I spent the remaining four miles towards our destination in anxiety of presaging disaster. Cue the rider involuntarily lurching and spotting someone’s resistance to ride, Pearl was not a happy soul. Ordinarily, I would have sought instant roadside assistance from my marvellous mechanic, Jason, only arm’s length away at my constant beck and call. But with only four miles to go, I gently and slowly coaxed Pearl over the day’s most unforgiving stretch of the coarsest corrugations, relentless ruts and up hill sandy struggles. She neither thanked me nor denied me; Pearl was forever my perfect riding companion. I owed everything to her and of course Jason’s prerequisite knowledge of what makes Pearl tick.
Back at serious elevation we rocked up at El Tatio, a geothermic basin. Pearl had out-performed herself on the high tableland’s tough terrain. Jason rapidly remedied her ailments giving us both peace of mind. Trying my utmost to shun the fatigue, dodge the dizziness and other bothersome symptoms of altitude, we surveyed our surroundings. “Oh look!” I said, pointing to four grey foxes advancing on reddish legs that were long staring at us if not any potential meals at hand. We were in geyser seventh heaven, thanks to the frozen underground rivers making contact with sizzling hot rocks.
I tentatively asked a member of the Tatio Mallku Society whose job it was to administer the natural heritage – a woman in charge of patrolling the activity around such fragile ground – if we might sleep in her stone floored office. She responded warmly by offering to accommodate our request for a negligible fee. This lady was in the winter of her days, she seemed obliging so I also inquired if there might be a hot shower nearby. She smiled knowingly, pointed a mile down the hill and kindly explained, “There is hot spring.” I laughed heartily at the self-evidence all around me and mentally applauded the utilisation of natural resources. Without toiletries in tow, we headed straight there for a cat lick and dip. By late afternoon, the ambient temperature had to be in single figures but what the heck, the pool was steaming away at a ‘Come to daddy’ 40 degrees Celsius.
Before reaching the hot spring, we took the time to recce the place. Fumaroles bubbled all over the geyser field, plumes of scalding hot water gushed upwards and arresting towers of steam rose from the rocks making a spectacular sight. Especially so, as we watchfully weaved through on the bikes. Towers of boiling steam were intensely striking early morning at the crack of sparrows, contrasting with the air temperature of -12 degrees and shrouding Jason amongst a sea of other bodies in an eggy stench of fetid vapours. I was content to give that one a miss despite being well-informed that typical temperatures started at around -20 first thing. Lucky Jason! At 4,320 metres above sea level, we were gazing on the world’s highest geysers. I had forgotten to bring my ‘boil in the bag’ rice, I’d just have to plunge myself in instead.
By dusk tourists were disappearing leaving the hot spring serenely still, just for us. My heart was racing and I found it difficult to slow my resting pulse; acclimatisation was strenuous work-in-progress I mused. My mind for some reason was behaving like a monkey, jabbering up and down continuously. Mindful? I’d had a gutful of my mind, it was all but at boiling point. The hot spring soothed and settled me. Its hot surface water caressed my neck, my body remained lukewarm below the waterline but once my toes gently disturbed the sand on the bottom, it got ‘feet hopping’ hot again. It stopped the compulsive musings compounded by the head-banging at elevation and emptied all thought from the hinterland of my mind. In leaving the 300 circus rings of my mental faculty alone, it quietened itself – like the tourist turbulent muddy pool upon our arrival; when left undisturbed sooner or later stopped rippling.
Clocks used to rule my weekdays; I couldn’t remember when I last possessed a sharp sense of time. As we reluctantly peeled out from the hot spring, our exit rudely brought home where we were: in desert-dropping temperatures post the last smile of sunset. I’d taken two minutes to dress that was two minutes too long. The hot aches in my hands came on with a vengeance – I never knew blood being beckoned back to one’s fingers could be such agony. My world vanished in a red roar of pain. On came that inexplicable feminine ability to produce tears without appearing to cry, face fixed in a frown. Ouch! The night was growing perilously cold and in a cloudless sky, a full moon floated fat and white as a snowball. After a fitful sleep the sun started to rise, it was good to see the light summoning the day from the dragging darkness of the night.
I surfaced like a bear roused from hibernation, lethargically coming out of my cocoon. Our one day sojourn in El Tatio extended into an unplanned second day. The afternoon saw us race back toward the geysers; there were over 500 of the thermal manifestations. A lot of them boiling away at 86 degrees Celsius, less than a kettle’s boiling point at sea level due to the altitude. How the bacteria survives in such scorching waters, I’ll never know. We stuck our fingers in as many bubbling mud pools, perpetual spouters, steamy waterholes and hot springs as we dared. With the Andean gulls soaring and not a soul in sight, Jason boldly sneaked a skinny dip as we basked in another tranquil bathe together.
Carelessly, we’d almost run our provisions dry. As I was about to prepare our only evening meal of porridge and powdered milk – making a mental note to restock the ‘rainy day’ dry shelf goods – the lady whose stone cold office we were camping out in, mercifully took pity on us. She urgently ushered me towards the staff kitchen with her arm sympathetically around my shoulder. Hoping she couldn’t hear my stomach growl, she gave us a simple square meal. After a 20 hour fast, it had to be about the tastiest spaghetti and sauce with a pannier-bruised avocado we’d ever chowed down. A befitting depiction of our two day stopover in El Tatio? A toe-tingling sizzler!