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Hitchhiking across the Andes range

“I don’t know if to call this moment freedom, I don’t if it has something to do with it, but it definitely is one of those that will stay in my mind forever.”

Argentina - Chile

My Story

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 attractions, you can find volcanos, natural reserves, tours to the ALMA Observatory, and activities such as stargazing and enjoying the night sky, as it’s one of the places with less light pollution in the world.

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Published
29th of July

***

Nowadays, in 2022 there are two possible ways to cross to Chile from Purmamarca, and reach San Pedro. One, is to go all the way up to La Quiaca, next to the border with Bolivia, then take Route 40 and go to Susques, Jujuy. Finally, we will get to the border in the Andes range, called Jama. 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 will take you around 10 hrs 9 min from what Google Maps says.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing the largest route to go from Purmamarca to Susques.

The second option is 134 km (83.26 miles) long and will take you around 2 hrs and 9 min by car.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing the shortest route to go from Purmamarca to Susques.

With this panorama in mind, I first remembered asking in a hostel in Cafayate, Salta, which route to take after Purmamarca. The owner, a lady that hitchhiked through the Salinas Grandes salt flats in the 90s, didn’t recommend the second option. This was because of the low vehicle traffic, no cars or trucks take that way, only if they have to go to a mine to leave a cargo. In addition, there was a high probability that I was going to spend some nights in an inhospitable area. Therefore, she recommended me to take the first option, go north, and do the 550 km (341.75 miles).

Having given the matter some thought, I took the decision to go for the 2ndoption. Choosing this meant to cross 134 km of desert, salt flats, mines, and desolate landscapes of great beauty.

First Day

As Purmamarca is a small town, I didn’t have to walk much to find the National Route 52, and start again the journey, it was just crossing the town. Around 30 minutes have passed when a car stops. They were two young ladies from France who decided to rent a car and travel around northwestern Argentina. They were going to Salinas Grandes and planned to spend the day there. After talking a bit, I explained to them that my plan was to go straight to Chile, but they invited me to spend the day together, to which I accepted. As I was travelling with a small budget, I did not originally plan to go to Salinas Grandes, but luckily for us, it was way cheaper than we were expecting. This was because they charged per vehicle, so it ended up being the price of the entrance divided by three.

It was a lovely half-day taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful landscapes, along with a great tour, where they explained us two theories about the formation of the salt flats.

Later that day, at around 12 pm, they go back to Purmamarca and I start again hitchhiking with direction to Chile.

***

Six hours have passed, the sun gave me no rest, and no vehicle was going into that direction. During this six hours waiting, a family came forward to speak to me, and gave me a sandwich with a soda. While we were crossing a few words, they told me that a local bus use to pass at around 6 pm in direction to the next town, Susques.
At approximately 6:30 pm, I see the bus in the distance, I extend my arm, and it passes me. Thinking that the bus driver missed me, to my luck, it stops a few meters ahead. I head straight over to talk to him, and ask him if Susques was the next destination, to which he affirms. I get on, pay the fare, which at the time was 20 ARS (about 1 USD or less), and continue the journey, expecting to arrive in Susques around 8 pm.

The bus gets into destination at 8.45 pm. The sun is setting, and I get off into a small village with houses are made of clay. There are no hostels or small hotels at first sight, only a small market to my left where I enter to buy some food. My only meal that day was the sandwich, and a small breakfast in the morning.
I continue looking for a place to spend the night or set up camp, but no luck. While wandering around the village, I see a tourist information house, knock the door, and to my luck (as it is Friday night) there are some people inside. I ask them if I can set myself somewhere, and they agree. A lady shows me a place next to the building, under a roof, in case it rains during the night. They warn me that it was going to be a cold night.

Once everything is ready to go to sleep, I decide to rest after a long day… That night, I began to feel the cold desert nights that were awaiting ahead.

Second Day

I wake up at 6 in the morning as I feel my feet freezing, while hearing a hubbub in the distance as it 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 noise comes from a celebration the locals are having. I unzip my tent, peek my head out, and see them marching through the village streets with bass drums, maracas, and other percussion instruments.
I get out, stretch with the morning sun, while watching how beautifully were the people dressed up in colourful clothes, holding crosses and small statues of Mary. Seems that they are going to a nearby hill that has a small altar with a big statue of Mary, I remember seeing it when getting off the bus the day before.

With my hands hard and dry because of the cold weather, I decide to walk around to gain some heat in the body, before having a small breakfast and breaking camp.

***

It’s 7 o’clock, and the sun has risen enough to start seeing some rays coming through the high hills, while warming the spot I am in. Finally, with some heat in the body I have a small breakfast, with a yogurt, a peanut bar, and a red apple. As for now, all the remaining food in my backpack is another peanut bar.
After a quick breakfast, I start preparing my self for the new day, saving my sleeping bag and dismantling my small house.

Having the backpack ready, I go ask for a bathroom to brush my teeth, and wash my face, in the tourist information house, but nobody is there. Later on, at 8 am, two ladies open the door and let me in. I ask them if I can use the toilet, and they kindly agree to it.
Finally, ready to go to the road again, I ask them which route to take, and they indicate me with a map, to cross the town and take the first route to the right. I greet and thank them for their help and for letting me spend the night there. With no delay, I start hitchhiking again.

***

At this moment, the first thing that comes to my mind is the landscape.

While standing on the road, a big feeling of joy takes hold of me for a moment. I would describe this moment, if that would be even possible, as peace.
In front of me, under a dry lake, a huge hill rises with the immensity of a blue sky on top. 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 load at the back. I go running to the cabin to talk with the driver. Asking him where he was going, he signals me the road and states “A few kilometres further, to a mine”. Then, tells me to put the backpack in the trailer, between the big machine he was carrying, to what I proceed. A bit concerned about my backpack not falling from the truck, he tells me not to worry, as he needed to go slow because of the heavy load.

We travelled for around 2 hours. Talking and crossing a few stories about our travels, the hours passed unnoticed.

While we are getting closer to the destination, he tells me that he is going to drop me in an abandoned tourist information house, as next to it was the entrance to a gravel route directed to the mine. He warns me about spending the night there, as pumas used to come down from the hills at night for food, nevertheless, he informs that I could find shelter in the abandoned house.

***

We arrive at 12 in the afternoon. While shaking hands, I thank him for the ride and he wishes me good luck. With my luggage ready, I greet him again while watching the truck getting lost in the horizon.

I look around to see where I am. Endless horizons stretch along high hills and mountains, covered by a clear blue sky. Next to the mine's road entrance, I notice around 4 workers in what it looks to be a mine warehouse. They seem too busy to pay attention to me, so with no further ado, I start hitchhiking in the never-ending road for the next vehicle to come.

Unlike the previous day, where the sun was strong, there was no wind and the temperature was high, in this flat bare desert, with no trees, dunes, or big rocks, the wind is very strong and cold.

During my wait, a young woman stops with her motorbike a few meters ahead, and she calls out to me. I approach and greet her with a smile. She asks me what in god’s sake I was doing there, in the middle of nowhere, alone. I tell her that I’m going to San Pedro de Atacama and decided to take this route as it was shorter. She tells that she is also going there too and that hopes to see me there again. Before leaving, she gives me an apple and an orange to eat. We greet each other and hope to see us again in Chile.

After 6 hours of waiting, I recall seeing from 6 to 10, at most, vehicles passing along the road towards Chile. At 6 o’clock in the evening, I start to see the sun setting in. At that point, I decide to go to the abandoned house to put up my tent and prepare myself for the night. In the entrance, there were signs and posters telling about the fauna and flora of the area. Believing that the place was abandoned, I start setting my things up for the night, without knocking any door or making much noise. Suddenly, an old man comes from one of the doors, and asks me what I am doing there, while looking flabbergasted. I tell him that I’m planning to spend the night there and use the walls as a refuge, because of the strong and cold wind. He kindly allows me to continue while going back to his dorm.

With everything ready for the evening, I decide to go for a last walk before the sky goes dark, 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, while enjoying being out there in the immensity of the landscape. I look up at the sky, and the vastness of the naked desert fills my body with a tremendous energy. A second later, I start running, and screaming full of joy.

I don’t know if to call this moment freedom, I don’t if it has something to do with it, but it definitely is one of those that will stay in my mind forever.

***

This night was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever had.

***

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 watch. The needles have stopped working.

It’s from this moment, that I can’t tell at what time events happened, I could just look at the position of the sun, that was my watch from now on.

I try to reconcile my sleep, but I can not possibly do. The wind was too strong, and the temperature has dropped heavily. My ears, nose, and feet were freezing.

Somehow, I manage to gain some warmth in my body, and I fall asleep again.

Third Day

I wake up very early in the morning, the wind has stopped, and the sun is rising up again. From the position of the sun, I believe it is 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 piece of bread. I am very hungry and cold. I remember dipping the bread in the hot water and eating it. Here, words fail to describe the feeling, that bread and hot water meant a lot.

I ask him for a bathroom, and he allows me to use his. Once ready, I thank him and say goodbye.

***

On the road again. It does not take too long until a truck stops. It is a Chilean truck, going to Paso de Jama, the border.

We travel for around 2 hours, and finally reach the small town in the mountains. Throughout the journey, I’ve been noticing the landscapes and weather changing. It was getting colder, and you could start seeing some snow at the top of enormous mountains that were getting closer and closer each kilometre. It is spring in Argentina, but at these altitudes you believe it is plain winter.

Before dropping me off, the trucker tells me that he can not pass the border with me in the truck, because I could get him into trouble with his company, and the same will be with other trucks. So trucks will not pick me up.

With that in mind, first thing first, I go have a small breakfast at a nearby restaurant. I order three empanadas, and go to the border post to talk with the military guard. I ask him if I can pass through, and he declines it, as crossing by foot was not allowed, because of how dangerous it was. We speak a bit more, and 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 a gas station that was just crossing the road. While opening the door, and entering the place, I can feel the warmth from inside. Looking around, I see only one employee in the cashier and an old man sitting at a table, with the gas station’s employee's jacket covered with paint. He looks at me and invites me to take a seat.

— “Where are you going?”, he asks.
— “I’m going to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile”, I answer.
— “How are you travelling, by bike?”.
— “No, I’m hitchhiking. I couldn’t get a ride today, so I’m planning on spending the night here”
He nods, and goes:
— “Please sit, I'll be right back”.


After a few minutes, he returns with two croissants and a coffee, and we continue our conversation:

— “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 did you travel 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 told them to go back, and I stay 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 here, it's like a ghost town. Luckily, I found someone, I’m expecting him to come in the following four days.”


We continue talking for an hour or so. He taught me basic survival skills, like how to stop an artery 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.

***

Some hours have passed, and we are still talking. Now the sun has completely set, and he invites me to go outside. He points me to the horizon, where we can still see the last reds of the sky getting lost in the mountains. On top of a mountain, a strong light is standing, and he indicates me, “It’s a space station, that is why its brightness”. You could easily distinguish it from the others because of its light and size.

We admired the sky for a while, and he asks me if I have a place where to spend the night, which I answer that I still need to set my things up, and he indicates to follow him. We turn around the gas station and go to an abandoned house. While entering the place, you can see some rubbish in the floor, broken walls, and rooms with no ceiling. We turn right and enter a room with the windows closed by pieces of wood, similar to a barricaded building. The room has cans in the floor, a grill, and a piece of carton. He tells me that before me, he helped another traveller, and invited him to spend the night there as well. Pointing at the carton, he indicates that I can use it as an insulator to protect me a bit from the cold floor. The old man that now became a fellow traveller friend, leaves me alone to get things ready for the night.

With all prepared for the night, I go back into the gas station. We talk for an hour or so. He tells me about a hallucinogen cactus, called “San Pedro”, that he tried once in the hills of “La Rioja”, a province in Argentina, and about his travels around Argentina by horse. We also philosophized about life, quite an interesting and lovely talk.

Now I am too tired, and decide to go to sleep. We say bye to each other, and I ask him if we will see each other again the next day, to he answers “I don’t know, maybe”. I give him a hug, and thank him for everything.

I never learnt his name.

Final Day

This was a hard night, temperature has dropped to less than minus 0 degrees Celsius. The tent is frozen by the cold weather. I have to wait before dismantling it and get ready for the new day. It is very early in the morning, the sun is just raising up.

Finally, I get some heat in my body and hands, so to start saving my stuff.

Out in the road again. I first make a stop at the gas station, but my old friend is not there, only two truckers drinking coffee and having breakfast.

I cross the road, go next to the border and start hitchhiking again. To my surprise, it doesn’t take long until a Jeep stops. It is a small van 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 so to publish a magazine about the fauna and flora from 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.

Picture from Marcelo Quinan on Unsplash, showing the Licancabur volcano from the Chilean side.

Photo by Marcelo Quinan on Unsplash.

We pass the border, get off the car, do the paper work and checks. All good and back to the journey.

While talking, they ask me if it was okay for me to make some stops, so they can fly their drone and take some great photos, to which I assert of course. We stopped in outstanding spots, with such beautiful landscapes. As we are still high in the mountains, we can see vicugnas, dunes, small lakes, and big pieces of ice which fell probably from the peak of the huge Andes mountains.

Finally, in our destination, and they invite me to drink some beers with French fries at a local bar. It was a lovely morning, with such beautiful people. They gave me their card in case I needed something in the town, and we say goodbye to each other.

I couldn’t ask for more to my first day in Chile.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing my entire journey, from Purmamarca, Jujuy, to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The journey.