Going Places: Tales from the road: Andean Adventure

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

El zonda
June 24, 1997

We had finally landed in the province of La Rioja
We had finally landed in the province of La Rioja, where the red and green mountains appeared and cactus suddenly sprouted out of nowhere. All I knew is we were back on ripio and climbing each and every day. This I expected, since we are heading into the stomach of the Andes. What I did not expect was the infamous zonda.

It's always a bad sign when the wind has a name.

We thought our wind-racked days were behind us. No one warned us or even mentioned the zonda, that beast that comes down from the altiplano in the winter. My first glimpse of it from 50 kilometers away while drinking wine with the guardia, or police control of Huaco. We all watched the pinkish band across the sky making a direct line to the east. It was pretty, that zonda.

After a night filled with wine and zonda horror stories, we set off toward Villa Union, relishing the fresh asphalt and gentle tailwinds. We set up camp for the night amid the trees at our familiar YPF, and took a walk to the center of town. It was only 2 miles, and we welcomed a chance off the bikes. We'd remarked earlier how everyone's eyes are red and bloated, even the dogs.

Suddenly we learned the reason. It was as if we were punched in the face. Hot, sand-filled air whipping in every direction. Covering our heads and burying our faces in near-panic, we rushed through the tempest seeking shelter. An old man passes us on his bicycle, riding full-on in the face of the sand with the nonchalance of a Sunday pedal.

No one else is bothered of course, just the two North Americans. With doors and windows shaking, we take refuge in the tourist office, where we can hear the sand whipping against the glass windows. Through the rattling the tourist woman begins informing us of local attractions. We stare, incredulously, still unable to believe life can continue while the town is being buried under sand.

When the pink wind subsides we hurry back to our tent, eyes now red and bloodshot like the locals. Still dazed, we've just squirmed into our bags, when we hear it whistling through the tops of the trees. Here it comes again, furiously pelting stones against our meager shelter. Sticks slung from above threaten to puncture our tent. We can't sleep, hoping somehow that our alertness will prevent a tree from falling on us.

Finally, after hours of rage the zonda has stopped. We leave our cocoon in the morning to find the campground in disaster. A huge poplar, victim to the zonda, lies broken not more than 30 feet away. Torn branches, leaves, piles of sand, rocks, and garbage are strewn everywhere as if a tornado has struck. We immediately head inside the service station, seeking someone to verify the intensity of our experience. We find the encargado (manager), who glances outside at the fallen giant and piles of debris. He smiles and looks at us. His only response: "Si. El zonda."

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