Through the desert to wisdom

By Mike Fox

The trip started as a pipe dream. A coastal Chilean city where a James Bond movie was filmed, the world’s largest salt flats and the center of the exploration of the northern Argentine desert were all about 300 miles from each other. So I figured that with a week and a half I could have a sojourn through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth and emerge from it with a “clear” perception of everything about life.

So when a free week came up, I left Buenos Aires on a plane headed north, ready to make the trip work. I wanted to travel as far as possible to be able to say that I made it there and then return. I wanted to push the limits of where it seemed possible for me to be. When I arrived in the city of Salta, Argentina, rich with Colonial heritage, I booked passage on a two-day tour through the province. For the rest of the day, I debated whether it was a good idea, since I could just ride cheap busses through the region instead.

An hour after leaving the city, I was riding through the Andes Mountains at altitudes of 10,000 feet, admiring what I saw on either side of the road. Throughout the trip, we would stop to hike, take photos or simply marvel at the high altitude vistas.

The most magical of these scenes was a chapel at the highest elevation of the ride. We walked along a cliff to the chapel with clouds drifting past us. We looked down at the path and saw miles of roads weaving along the cliff, down into the farms and villages below.

At the end of the tour, after I said good-bye to my companions, the tour guide gave me advice on how to continue further into the deserts north of the city and left me with the message, “nunca olvides nada,” or, “never forget anything.”

I continued north to a small village on the traditional tourist route through Purmamarca, Argentina. As I rode the bus through the night, it was obvious that I was the only person not from the area.

I arrived at the village after dark and could only make out the faint outlines of its famous mountains. Few people meandered down the dimly lit streets flanked by adobe buildings.

After booking a room for the night, I followed the faint sound of music to a little bar where a table of Argentines and backpackers were listening to a folk duo. I went in, ordered some wine and empanadas and started to write before being interrupted by an old lady who was playing hostess at the other table. She invited me to join them and we shared several hours of cheap wine, beer and conversation with the singers, sharing road stories. I bought a recording from the singers, who had circled a specific song dedicated to people like me, people searching for the gifts that travel brings.

The next day, I discovered that the village was nestled in a canyon, surrounded by ridges of innumerable shades of red, orange, yellow and blue. I split a taxi with another tourist to ride out to the Salinas Grandes, the world’s third largest salt flats. It was a desolate plane stretching far into the horizon that it was able to create illusions of perspective.

I passed through Tilcara, an overly developed tourist town, until I arrived in Humahuaca, a town with a heavy native population that serves as the gateway for the even more sparsely populated Andean highlands. When I arrived, I hopped on a random bus that seemed full of adventure (read: incredibly run down and without a working speedometer).

What followed was the bus ride from hell. The bus climbed up dirt Andean roads that hugged cliff sides. It made its descent at night in a lightning storm. The PVTA seemed pretty good at the moment.

However, the bus eventually arrived at an Andean Shangri-La called Iruya. I spent the next day hiking through the valley with a group of Spanish and Argentine backpackers.

Returning, I had to deal with a four-hour layover in Humahuaca. I realized something important. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the scenery along the side of the road. It’s about everything and everyone you see and meet in between. That’s where the true lessons of travel come from; from others, more so than from within.

I looked at the little TV in the convenience store where I was waiting. ESPN was broadcasting a Boston Celtics game back home. I have one month left to experience everything in between home and my destination. One more month to learn what’s left on the road.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]