Published in the Globe and Mail
“Thank you, Pachamama, for allowing us to reach this sacred place,” I say through chattering teeth while offering coca leaves to the matriarchal deity revered by many Andean indigenous peoples. Benevolent Mother Earth and goddess of fertility, Pachamama’s omniscient spirit is still believed by some to preside over the natural world –– including here on the freezing summit of Cerro Toco, a 5,600-metre-high volcano in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.
After paying my respects to the Incan goddess, I stuff a wad of coca leaves into my mouth, tucking it into my cheek to marinate like chewing tobacco. The Andean plant from which cocaine is extracted, coca has been consumed for centuries to combat the effects of altitude. And it’s working – I haven’t had a headache since departing northwestern Argentina’s Salta Province for the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama a week ago on a Travesía, Spanish for journey or crossing.
Offered by Explora, a Chilean company that owns all-inclusive ‘luxury adventure’ hotels in Patagonia, Rapa Nui, Peru’s Sacred Valley and the Atacama, Travesías are fully guided, small-group overland expeditions through some of the wildest parts of southern South America.
Before reaching the Atacama’s dunes, snow-capped volcanoes and shimmering salt flats called salars, I will cross fertile subtropical valleys and jagged, mineral-streaked red-rock canyons before ascending toward the Puna, a Quechua name for the arid, treeless plateau that rises up to meet the central Andes. Here, violent windstorms known as pamperos scour the land, condors cruise cloudless indigo skies, and wild guanacos and red foxes roam across the bofedales – the Puna’s scruffy, slow-growing grasslands studded with giant candelabra cacti known locally as Cardon.
Into the high country
T.S. Eliot famously wrote that ‘the journey, not the arrival matters.’ Alejandro Tardel couldn’t agree more. As Explora’s chief planner, Tardel overseas its Travesías, which he calls “a form of freedom, where you don’t know what course you will take tomorrow.” Over plates piled high with barbequed beef at Finca Rancagua, Explora’s ranch near the beautifully preserved colonial town of Cachi, he adds that trying to combine enough information for guests in advance with an authentic element of surprise is the Travesía philosophy.
Explora purchased Finca Rancagua a decade ago, transforming it from a derelict ranch into a luxe Travesía basecamp, while maintaining the herds of wild horses and goats that still roam the property’s five thousand hectares. We spend our initial three days here climbing rock formations, hiking through slot-canyons and most importantly, acclimatizing before ascending higher into the mythical Puna, a place that Tardel says will “purify your soul as the wind blows through you.”
Classic road trips require classic roads, preferably less travelled. Argentina’s Ruta National 40 (RN40) is one of the world’s longest and most spectacular highways, stretching from the southernmost tip of Patagonia to the northern highlands bordering Bolivia. Like America’s legendary Route 66 – but longer and reaching much higher altitudes – RN40 has long been celebrated in song, story and myth. From Rancho Rancagua, we set off on it through the Calchaquíes River Valleys, a stunning series of canyons and rock formations named for the indigenous Calchaquí people who fiercely resisted the invading Spanish conquistadors.
Subtropical rain forests become scrublands as we climb Cuesta del Obispo (Bishop’s Slope), a twisty, unpaved mountain road named for a Catholic missionary who passed through here in the early 17th century. At the top is otherworldly Los Cardones National Park, sixty-five thousand square protected hectares of desolate natural beauty where giant two story high cacti, some hundreds of years old, stand like a prickly army of sentinels guarding the approaches to the windswept Puna.
The snow-capped summit of 6380-metre Nevado de Cachi, the highest mountain in the region, dominates the horizon. Also visible is the cone of Llullaillaco, a 6,739-metre-high volcano where the mummified remains of three Incan children were discovered by archaeologists in 1999. Sacrificed to the gods circa 1500 by being drugged and left to freeze on top of the mountain, their remarkably well-preserved bodies now rest in Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology.
Your own private Argentina
Each stage of our Travesía offers challenging, multi-hour treks through increasingly wild terrain. We cross thistle-covered natural pasturelands dotted with Saguaro cacti. Scramble up steep, stony hillsides and over fantastic rock formations, their mineral layers the colours of Neapolitan ice cream. Descend into pink gorges to soak our feet in icy streams. And one afternoon, summit the windblown crater between a pair of dormant volcanoes called Los Gemelos (The Twins).
Incredibly, we don’t encounter anyone on these ancient mountain pathways long frequented by traders and soldiers, save for an old woman hawking fresh goat cheese along the trailside. “Few outsiders know about these trails,” explains our guide, Estaban Cabanillas as we lunch on roast beef sandwiches on a saddle between the wind-whipped Los Gemelos. It feels like we have all of northwestern Argentina all to ourselves.
Thankfully, venturing so far off the grid doesn’t have to mean roughing it. Hot showers and hearty food await us at our second camp, La Quesera, a quadrangle of stone cabins tucked into an alpine ravine. An adjacent corral holds sheep guarded by three dogs trained to fend off hungry pumas. After dining on grilled pork strips, minestrone soup, gnocchi and fresh oranges smothered in mascarpone cheese and rosemary, I step out into the courtyard. Weary from climbing Los Gemelos but buoyed by several glasses of excellent local vino tinto, I’m looking forward to a solid night’s sleep. On this cold, clear, subzero evening, the southern celestial canopy is streaked with countless stars and galaxies.
Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s description of the moon could also describe the increasingly otherworldly environment we enter next on the highest highway in the Americas – an unpaved stretch of RN 40 that reaches nearly 5000 metres at a pass called Abra del Acay. It then descends into the Atacama, the driest non-polar desert on earth, where in some parts not a single drop of precipitation has been recorded in more than four centuries.
At the Chilean frontier, we switch vehicles and guides to drive about twenty kilometres to our final Travesía camp. At 4200 metres, El Laco comprises a row of six-metre-long steel shipping containers, mere specs occupying a vast lunar-like expanse at the foot of an extinct volcano. Fitted with thermal insulation, which is critical here where winter temperatures can drop to minus thirty degrees Celsius, each ‘cabin’ has two camp beds, thick down Marmot sleeping bags and kerosene lamps (there is no electricity). All also have private washrooms, and communal meals are served in the ‘cookhouse container’. El Laco feels like glamping on the moon.
“Travesías follow the ancient trails used by the first humans who came to San Pedro, and later by the caravans that moved between Argentina and Chile,” explains our new guide, Oscar Moya, as we depart El Laco to explore a nearby salt flat called Salar de Aguas Calientes. Part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, a high altitude, volcano-ringed wetland and protected habitat for rare and endangered wildlife like the vicuña and Darwin’s rhea, a type of flightless bird, Aguas Calientes also draws thousands of pink flamingos who flock here to feed on microscopic algae in Tuyajito Lagoon. As we approach the lagoon, hundreds of them stand on single stick legs, their bodies reflected in its shallow, shimmering waters.
Journey’s end comes in the form of on a tranquil 17-hectare compound on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacamca, the oasis that has become one of Chile’s prime tourist destinations. Explora’s all-inclusive luxury lodge here caters to an upscale clientele expecting to return from daily excursions to a three-course meal, a bottle of Malbec and a king size bed.
The lodge’s extensive menu of daily guided excursions ranges from gentle to rigorous, and include mountain biking, desert horseback riding, trekking and climbing. Guests are encouraged to push their physical limits while always respecting the Atacama’s X factor – altitude. “You can be fit and confident, but how you react to altitude is always a gamble because not everyone reacts the same way,” says Oscar as depart for one final Travesías challenge – summiting Cerro Toco, where Pachamama’s spirit awaits.
As transformative journeys go, this Travesía has checked all the boxes – authentic adventures, physical challenges, camaraderie, and a lingering sense of wonder. I’m not alone in that sentiment. “Standing on the top of Los Gemelos, I put my hands in the air and let the wind rush through and felt so alone in the world. There are so few places you can experience that anymore,” wistfully recalls one of my Travesía companions, photographer Lina Stock. Throughout our trek across this harshly beautiful backbone of the Andes, I’ve often felt Lina’s same sense of sublime solitude. Maybe Pachamama has been listening.
IF YOU GO
Air Canada offers direct daily service from Toronto to Buenos Aires via Santiago. The return flight can be joined in Santiago. Flights are considerably cheaper between the Atacama capital of Calama and Santiago than Calama and Salta. Several Aerolineas Argentinas flights a day connect BA with Salta, from where Explora’s Travesía begins.This writer flew business class aboard Air Canada’s new 787-8 Dreamliner, which made the nearly 14-hour overnight journey infinitely more bearable.
Explora’s 9 day, 8 night Travesía between Salta and San Pedro de Atacama can be taken either from Argentina or Chile, following the same itinerary. It includes 3 nights in Explora’s all-inclusive Atacama hotel and 5 nights in their remote Andean camps. Vans carry up to six guests per group between countries, and routes access hiking trails in some of South America’s most isolated and beautiful landscapes. Salta-Atacama Travesías run from March through December, with double occupancy rates starting from $USD 6500.00 per person. The price includes all explorations, accommodation, meals and bar, transportation and National Parks entrance fees. For more, visit www.explora.com.