Climbing toward Bolivia

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Climbing toward Bolivia
July 16, 1997

We battled our way through
the valley into Bolivia
A narrow river valley descending from the altiplano at 12,000 feet and winding down some 80 miles in 8,000 feet to the town of Jujuy, Humahuaca has always been a natural corridor to enter Argentina. Through here came the Spanish conquistadors from Bolivia and Peru in the Great War of Independence. Before them came the Incas, pushing their empire to the south. Archaeological evidence suggests people have lived in this valley for over 10,000 years, and undoubtedly it has been the scene of countless struggles.

We, too, are battling our way through the valley, our hearts and heads pounding as our lungs fight to extract oxygen from the thin air. The incredible temperature change between day and night — sometimes more than 80 degrees — has manifested itself as a bronchial infection that has got me popping antibiotics. Our bikes, too, fresh from an overhaul, show signs of strain, with five broken chains and one front derailleur. The latter, however, is of little importance, as I don't think I'll change from my granny gears from here through Peru.

Not that we didn't anticipate trouble. All through the provinces south of here, concerned people warned us of troubles in these northern provinces. "Oh, the people are so poor. Turn your head and they'll rob you blind."

What no one told us of was the incredibly beautiful scenery, like the unexpected cloud forest hiding a narrow, twisting road from Salta to Jujuy. Or the mountains of Purmamarca, swirling technicolored strata of mineral-rich rocks. Not to mention the small thermal springs tucked into the mountain, where we soothed our tired muscles under the blanket of the Milky Way.

The towns epitomize tranquility, with small colonial churches, elegant in their simplicity, and narrow cobblestone streets. Houses of terra cotta harmonize with the environment, behind the upraised arms of the ever-present cactus.

Life appears unchanged here for centuries, the pace moving in a slow procession like the natural rhythm of the sun arcing across the sky. And as we climb toward Bolivia, it's only fitting that we, too, are moving slow, our bodies and minds taking the time to adapt to life on the altiplano.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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