How I found shelter in an abandoned tourist information house, in the middle of a desolate desert in direction to the driest place on earth. With just a peanut bar, an apple and a yogurt in my backpack, I hitchhiked during 4 days across 415 km of desert, salt flats, mines, and snowy mountains.
I find myself in Purmamarca, a small pintoresque town in Jujuy, Argentina. After spending two days hiking and enjoying the hill of seven colours, the next destination is San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, a beautiful small village in the middle of the driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert. It is a common spot for travellers and very touristic too, because of the different attractions that surrounds it. Between the main places of interest, you can find volcanos, natural reserves, tours to the ALMA Observatory, and activities such as stargazing, as it’s one of the places with less light pollution in the world.
Today, in 2022, there are two possible ways to get to San Pedro from Purmamarca. One, is to go all the way up to La Quiaca, next to the Bolivian border, then take Route 40 to Susques, Jujuy, continue to the west and end in Paso de Jama, a small town in the Andes Mountains. The second option is to cross through Santuario de Tres Pozos, Jujuy, close to the Salinas Grandes salt flats, then Susques and conclude in Jama.
The first option is 550 km (341.75 miles) long and takes approximately 10 hrs by car.
The second option is 134 km (83.26 miles) long and takes about 2 hrs.
This panorama brought back the memory of discussing the matter with someone when I was in a hostel in Cafayate, Salta. The owner, a lady who hitchhiked through the Salinas Grandes in the 90s, suggested me going north and do the 550 km (341.75 miles). The reason was the inhospitable nature of the area along the shortest route—134 km of desert, salt flats, mines, and desolate landscapes with nearly no vehicle traffic.
With this in mind, I opted for the option that I thought would take me the least time to complete.
It's 8 in the morning, and I'm standing in the National Route 52 direction to Susques, when two young ladies from France, who decided to rent a car and travel around northwestern Argentina, stop. Their plan is to spend the day in the salt flats, and they kindly invite me to go together.
Along with a very complete tour, where the guide explained the formation of the salt flats and showed us how they extract the salt from the water pools, we spent half-day taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful and unique scenery.
At 12 noon, we finish the excursion, and they go back to Purmamarca. As for me, I stand on the road while watching at the cars go by in the opposite direction to Susques.
With the sun already setting at 8:45 pm, and after an exhausting six-hour wait under the desert hot weather, I arrived aboard a bus in a small village of clay houses. First thing I do is to buy some fruits, as the only meal I had was a sandwich a family gave me while I was hitchhiking in Salinas Grandes.
With no hostels or small hotels where to rent a room, the only viable option I saw was to knock in a tourist information house. A lady kindly greet me, and allows me to set up my tent next to the building, under a roof. With all ready for the night, I begin to feel the harsh weather that is awaiting me ahead.
My feet are freezing, it's 6 in the morning and I hear a hubbub in the distance as if a festivity is in progress.
It is important to mention that, at this point, I still have my watch working, which helps me give the exact time of when events happened.
Indeed, the locals are having a celebration, marching through the village in direction to a nearby hill. They have bass drums, maracas, and other percussion instruments, dressed up in colourful clothes, and holding crosses with small statues of Mary. I can't go back to sleep, so I stay to watch their performance.
The hour is getting to 7 in the morning, while a few rays are visible as the sun rises from the high hills. I have a small breakfast, with a yogurt, a peanut bar, and a red apple. Right now, all the remaining food in my backpack is an energy bar. With my belly full, I extend my arm for the first vehicle to come.
While standing on the road, a big feeling of peace takes hold of me. In front of me, under a dry lake, a huge hill rises in the immensity of a blue sky. From the few water pools left from the lake, animals get close to drink water, and I hear nothing else but silence.
Two hours have passed, when a truck stops with a big and heavy load at the back. I go running to the cabin to talk with the driver and ask him where he is going. He points to the route and states “A few kilometres ahead, to a mine”.
We travelled for around 2 hours. Talking and crossing a few stories about our travels, the hours passed unnoticed.
Approaching the destination, he tells me about an abandoned tourist information house, next to the entrance of a gravel road that continues to the mine. He warns me about the importance of finding shelter in there, as pumas come down the hills at night for food.
It's 12 noon, and I see the truck getting lost in the horizon covered by a clear blue sky. I take a look around to see where I am. To my right, I notice four workers in what it looks to be a mine warehouse, who seem too busy to pay attention to me. To my left, it's the abandoned house, an old building made with big rocks and clay, quite well maintained to be abandoned.
Unlike the previous day, where the sun was strong, there was no wind, and the weather was very hot, in this flat bare desert with no vegetation nor dunes, the breeze is very strong and cold. I sit by a mileage sign, holding my hat so it doesn't fly off, while trying to get some cover from the wind.
During my wait, a young woman on her motorbike stops and asks me what in god's sake I was doing there, in the middle of nowhere, alone. I explain that I'm going to San Pedro de Atacama and decided to take the shorter way from Purmamarca. She's on her way to Chile too, and before leaving, offers me an apple and an orange. New food to add to my backpack, with just an energy bar left.
Between 6 and 10 vehicles have passed along the day. Now it's 6 o'clock in the evening and the sun starts to set. I have to find shelter before it gets too dark, and think about going to scout the house the trucker told me about.
In the entrance of the abandoned building, there are signs and posters about the fauna and flora of the area. The place has a yard, surrounded by big walls, a perfect refuge for the wind. I am looking around, discovering that there are doors leading to small rooms, when suddenly, an old man comes out from one of them. He certainly lives here and asks, a bit flabbergasted, what am I doing. In a few words, I explain my situation, and he kindly agrees with me to set up camp and use the place as shelter for the night.
With everything ready for the evening, I decide to go for a last walk and enjoy the scenery. In the distance, I see a group of five “vicugnas”, a beautiful wild South American “camelid”, that lives in the high alpine areas of the Andes. They are eating while being aware of my presence, even though I was around 200 meters (218.72 yards) far from them.
I continue exploring the area, seeing some small oil rigs, and enjoying being out there in the immensity of the landscape.
The desert is vast, naked, and the only sound that can be heard is the fast wind running through the dry plants on the ground. A feeling of delight and ecstasy invades my body, and I start screaming and running full of joy. Time has vanished, and a sense of total freedom is present. Life is simply beauty.
Tonight, a very cold and hard weather is awaiting.
I wake up at what I think is 3 am, it’s pitch black, and I can’t even look at my watch. I take the lantern next to my sleeping bag and illuminate my wrist. The needles have stopped working.
It’s from this moment, that I can not tell at what time events happened, I can just look at the position of the sun, my watch from now on.
I try to reconcile my sleep, but I can not possibly do. The wind is too strong, and the temperature has dropped heavily. My ears, nose, and feet are freezing.
I wake up very early in the morning, the wind has stopped, and the sun is rising up. From the position of it, seems to be between 6 and 7 in the morning.
As I am breaking camp, the old man from the previous day comes out of his room with hot water and a bun of bread. I am very hungry and cold. While filling up my bottle with hot water, my hands start feeling again. My mouth is burning because of the water, and my eyes wide open while the warmth fills my body. I dip the bread in the water, and my belly starts to move and making subtle noises. The bread touches my mouth and my stomach relieves.
Here, words fail to describe the feeling. A great gesture can come from a small action, but a small action, in everyday life, might mean very little. At that moment, it meant the world to me.
We travelled for around 2 hours with my new Chilean friend who is driving a truck straight to Paso de Jama, the small town in the mountains between the borders of Argentina and Chile. Throughout the journey, I am noticing the landscapes and weather changing. It is getting colder, and one can start seeing snow at the top of enormous mountains that are getting closer and closer each kilometre. It is spring in Argentina, but at these altitudes you would believe winter is just beginning.
He drops me off in the border. The town looks like a ghost town, there are a few houses made of clay, a post guard and a gas station. First thing I do is to try to pass through by foot, but the military guard declines it, as it is not allow because of how dangerous it is to try to commit such adventure. However, he tells me that if I needed something, such as spending the night there or any help, to tell him, and he will give me a hand.
I have been spending the entire day exploring the area around, while watching the cars go by. Now the sun is setting, and the temperature is heavily dropping. I look at the sky, and the stars begin to appear all over the place, illuminating the beauty of the dark blue sky.
I take my two backpacks and go for shelter and food to the gas station, just crossing the road. As I open the door, the first thing I feel is the warmth coming from the interior and the subtle smell of freshly brewed coffee. Inside, all I see is an employee at the cash register and an old man sitting at a table with the petrol station attendant's jacket covered in paint. He looks at me and beckons me to take a seat with him. Kindly, he offers me a coffee and two croissants.
— “Thanks for the croissants, and the coffee, it’s really cold out there, and I haven’t eaten since this morning”, I say.
— “No worries, I understand, I’m also a traveller.”
— “Where are travelling to and what are you doing up here? Do you work in the gas station?”
— “Yes, kind of. I was travelling with my family in my van, when it broke down. We spent a few days together, but my daughters had to go back to the university and continue with their jobs, so I stayed to try to find a mechanic.
This happened three months ago, and I’ve been staying here since then. I’m working in the gas station in order to save money and finally repair it. I also need to find a mechanic that is willing to come up here, there is nearly nobody living in this ghost town. Luckily, I found someone, I’m expecting him in the following four days.”
We continued talking for an hour or so. He taught me basic survival skills, like how to stop an artery from bleeding, what to do if you get diarrhoea in a survival situation, and something that he called “Highlander's tea”. Here are the explanations:
1) How to stop a bleeding if a wound gets an artery:
It basically consists in making two tourniquets, one on top of the injury and the other below. The one on top is made to stop the blood moving forward, reach the injury and continue loosing blood. The one below is to let the blood pass through, continue to the rest of the body, and prevent the blood to go up again.
Let’s say that we cut our thigh, we would tie a piece of cloth on top and other below the wound. If we see that our low leg is getting out of blood, we would open the low tourniquet first, then the top one, then close the one above and once the blood passes through, we would close the one below.
2) Stopping diarrhoea in a survival situation:
One of the basics in survival is to get water as soon as possible, in order to prevent a dehydration. If we are in a situation where we are loosing big amounts of water from a stomach sickness, one way to stop it is to start a fire, take a piece of charred wood, and eat it. This will prevent us from keep loosing water, salts, and minerals from our body, until reach a place where we can be treated.
3) Highlander’s tea:
If we, or a partner, find ourselves in a situation where we are suffering from severe hypothermia, and we need to warm our bodies instantly, we can prepare a highlander’s tea. This consists in starting a fire, take a bowl, fill it with sugar and water, take a coal from the fire and dip it into the bowl. After a few seconds, the water will get enough heat for us to consume it, and we will drink it in one shot, filling our bodies with heat and energy.
Finally, some tips to have in your aid kit:
• Hydrogen peroxide is better than alcohol for treating infections and wounds, because alcohol irritates the injury, hydrogen peroxide disinfects without damaging the surrounding skin.
• Always have surgical gloves, in order to treat any wound without the risk of infecting the area.
Now the sun has completely set, and we go outside to look at the sky. He points me at the horizon, where the last reds can be seen getting lost between the mountains. On top of one of them, a strong light is standing – “It’s a space station, that is why its brightness and size”, he says.
As I still need to find a refuge for the night, he shows me an abandoned house at the back of the gas station. It's a place with rubbish all around, broken walls, and rooms with no ceiling. The windows are covered with wooden planks, similar to a barricaded building. We turn right and enter a room, with cans in the floor, a grill, and a piece of carton. “You can use the carton as an insulator to protect yourself from the cold floor”, he says, and leaves me alone so I can prepare myself for the night.
With all ready, I go back into the gas station. We talk for an hour or so. He tells me about a hallucinogen cactus, called “San Pedro”, which tried once in the hills of “La Rioja”, a province in Northwest Argentina. Furthermore, when younger, he travelled around Argentina by horse, and emphasized the relationship between them, similar to two souls travelling together. The horse could sense his emotions, whether he was afraid of something, hungry or tired and act accordingly. The same way around, he could understand the horse's feelings, when he needed water, food, or rest. One day he realized that the luggage was too heavy and decided to let go many belongings so that the horse could walk lighter.
The conversation went on for many minutes more, and we ended by philosophizing about life, in a fascinating and charming talk.
I wake up, it is still very early in the morning, and the sun is just raising up. The temperature has dropped to less than minus 0 degrees Celsius during the night, and the tent is frozen.
My first stop is at the gas station, but my friend is not there, only two truckers who are drinking coffee and having breakfast.
I cross the road, go next to the border and decide to continue the way to Chile. It doesn’t take long until a vehicle stops. It is a small Jeep with three guys. They instantly ask me where I am going and tells me to jump in. They are from Cochabamba, Bolivia, and are travelling around the Puna Atacameña in order to publish a magazine about the fauna and flora of the area. Their plan is to make a stop, only for the day, in San Pedro de Atacama, and the next day go climb a volcano called by the locals, Licancabur, meaning, “mountain of the people”.
We pass the border, get off the car, do the paper work and checks. All good and back to the journey.
On the way down the mountains, we stopped at places with breathtakingly beautiful scenery, where they could take pictures for the magazine and fly their drone. As we were still high up in the mountains, we could see large chunks of ice fallen from the top of the huge Andes mountains, along with vicuñas, dunes, and small lakes in the area.
As we reach the end of our journey, I am invited for a beer and French fries at a local bar. With tales and laughs, they give me their card in case I would need something in the town, and we say goodbye. It was a memorable morning along with beautiful people, I couldn’t have asked for more from my first day in Chile.
When I was 16 years old, I planted a question in my mind, which led me through different paths in life and to be very decisive in certain aspects. That essential question was, what is freedom?
Sometimes events happen without asking or expecting for them, people can appear at the right time in the right place, even in the middle of nowhere. When we expect nothing, we are open to things that we don't know and have never seen before, we are free to learn, act, and move. Maybe that simplicity of living is what is called freedom.