A Blast from the Past Trip: A Thirst for the Desert

I said before that I would try to finish some posts from our last trip and put them up even if they weren’t in chronological order.  So here we have the second post regarding our time in Putre.  If you want to refresh your memory about the people/place, you can read my first post on Putre: Out of the Desert and into…the Desert. So here it goes…

Besides being beset in all directions by wondrous natural beauty, the town of Putre is also filled with some of the friendliest locals that we encountered on our trip – people who literally go out of their way to help you.  People say things like,“You want bread?  Well, I don’t have any right now, let me walk you to the store that does.”  The small store that I frequented most often was run by a rather mirthful man who liked to make jokes whether the tourists understood him or not.  I totally understand how he feels – most of the time in the classroom my jokes are just for my amusement.  For instance, some European tourists came in to buy some tissue.  After a lot of motioning, he finally figured out what they wanted.  He handed them the box with feigned horror – “Gripe de Cerdo!” he shouted, and then started laughing hysterically.  The tourists had no idea what was going on and left with a puzzled look on their faces.  I giggled despite the fact that swine flu was being taken quite seriously at the time – we had been scrupulously interrogated at the border crossing to make sure we weren’t going to cause an epidemic.

We were also pointed towards a tour that we probably otherwise would not have taken through Lauca National Park to see the Parinacota volcano and Lago Chungara.  Although, as I’ve explained before, tours are not exactly the ideal way for us to see things, this tour happened to be rather pleasant.  First, it was ludicrously cheap – something like $25 per person for an all day tour.  Second, it was small.  Just us, the tour guide, another guy who was staying at La Chakana, and a couple from France.  Since there were three different languages between the people in the van, it was decided for us that we would speak the only language that we all had in common – Spanish.  I was transported back to the first time that Adam and I went to Peru and our very first day we went on a tour – all in Spanish.  At that point I think that the guide could have been speaking Klingon for all I understood.  But here we were understanding everything that this guy was telling us.  I couldn’t believe how far we had come.

The first place that we stopped on a tour was a cave which is always exciting because of the possibility that I might see some bats. “Hay murcielagos?” I asked enthusiastically when we got inside.  The tour guide looked at me slightly puzzled, not because he didn’t understand what I said, but because I hadn’t spoken the whole drive there and now all of a sudden I’m asking about bats.  What can I say?  I clearly remember the Halloween vocabulary that was taught in Spanish one.  Sadly, there were not any murcielagos in the cave, and we moved on to our next stop: checking in at park headquarters.

Now this is where it really pays to have a tour guide – to take you through the administrative procedures.  Even the national parks are huge logistical headaches: passport, tickets, copies of everything, stamps in thirty different places, forms to fill out and sign and copy.  All the while tame llamas are sticking their heads through the windows of the van hoping for a little handout.

Delightfully, the park had more wildlife than llamas.  Guanacos and vicunas grazed on the numerous tufts of grass sprouting up around the plains and vizcachas (which look like a cross between a rabbit and a chinchilla) darted swiftly between the rocks.

After the entrance of the park, we came to an enormous sculpture of a pan flute.  It wasn’t enough that the pan flute was three stories high.  It had to be painted in bright red, blue, and yellow just to make sure that you didn’t miss it.  It was rather incongruous—a sort of postmodern enigma.  However, we stopped and got out and while we looked around, our tour guide pulled out a small stringed instrument like a guitar and started singing songs in Aymara, one of the native languages.  It was great, but these situations where unsolicited singing is happening, always make me a tad bit uncomfortable.  Where am I supposed to be looking?  Do I look at him the whole time?  Smile?  Look thoughtful?  Tap my foot?  Do I look around?

After applauding the interesting yet awkward serenade, we packed into the van and set off to get a closer look at the Parinacota volcano and have a walk around Lake Chungara where I implausibly found a kitten wandering out in the dry and barren flats which we took back to the owner who was surprised to find out how far the cat had wandered.

And, of course, I might never have climbed above 16,000 feet if it weren’t for our very helpful hosts.  When we climbed our first series of peaks in Putre, we could see in the distance a mountain range virtually glowing in rusts, oranges, browns, and golds.  Adam wanted to climb it and I admit I was enchanted, if not a bit terrified, to try a climb that would take us that high.  George and Marisol called it Cerro Milagro, but I have since looked it up and cannot find a record of that name.  Whatever it is officially called, it did end up being a miracle…a miracle that I didn’t pee myself going up or coming down that insane mountain.

George volunteered to take us to the spot where we would begin our ascent of Cerro Milagro.  As we bumped along the tracks that he had made especially for the purpose of getting to that spot, he and Marisol talked to us about the land and the weather, they argued about politics, and Marisol gave us some dubious information about ants not living at that altitude.  Well, I saw some ants, but I didn’t want to crush her theory.  When they dropped us off they left us with instructions to follow the canyon back to the hot springs where Marisol would be waiting to pick us up.

When we were, at last, standing at the base of the mountain looking up at it, I swore that we were going to be attempting to climb something that looked to be at about an 85 degree angle.  Adam assured me that it was more like 35 degrees, but I couldn’t be convinced of that at the time.  Adding to what appeared to be an impossible angle and the altitude that I had never actually tested was the fact that the entire mountain was covered in scree, making it seem as if with one wrong step I would be propelled swiftly to the bottom on my ass much like losing spectacularly in Chutes and Ladders. But knowing that there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity, I stuffed some coca leaves in my cheek, took as deep a breath as the altitude would allow, and started up the mountain following in Adam’s footsteps.

It seemed as though the hike up the mountain took days.  I was so short of breath that every few feet I would have to stop which allowed me to recall anew all of my fears of plummeting to my death.  Mind you, I realize looking back that my life was not in danger, but in the moment it is always much more dramatic.

Making it to the top of that mountain was a gigantic accomplishment for me and something that I never thought I would be able to do.  At the top we goggled at the scenery – it looked as if we were on another planet.  For as far as the eye could see, mountains that looked like giant scoops of ice cream swirled with ripples of rust and brown and burnished orange dominated the landscape.  These were all dotted with bright green llareta – plants (some likely to be over 3000 years old) that look more like alien pods than earthly plant life.  The moon hung low, shining bright white against the bluest sky I can ever remember seeing.  And since I doubt that I will ever really be able to leave the planet, I let myself be carried away by the notion that we were on a distant planet in the Galactic Empire and that soon some fantastic creature would swoop down to deposit me safely back at the base of the mountain.  Because, as I have said, the only thing more frightening than climbing up an imposing mountain is climbing down said mountain.

Obviously, I lived to tell, but not without slight trauma.  When we got to the bottom Adam looked up and noted, “Hehe, that was a little steep.  Probably should have gone a different way.”

Hehe, indeed.  Yet I climbed up two more smaller peaks right after that and was rewarded in the end by a soak in the hot springs that were very close to the middle of nowhere. I would say that Putre and its surroundings have no equal in the world and I would have been willing to bet good money on that fact as we soothed our sore feet in the warm water and looked upon the silent desert landscape that spread out around us like a dream.

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