Walk Across The South American Altiplano – 2010

Jeff After Eight Nights on Altiplano, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región) Walk Across The South American Altiplano 2010 – Part 1 – Socaire, Chile to Paso de Jama, Argentina

In 2005, a rare blood condition I had was diagnosed as possibly fatal, but which was eventually cured. During this period, I took a serious look at my life. Yes, I had fulfilled some dreams, but I had so much more to do. Ten years earlier, my Everest experience had made me question what my limits really were. Facing death piqued my ponderings about limitations. I vowed to myself to try to do the extraordinary.

Given my love of adventure, I set my sights on doing an expedition yearly, each one more epic than the last, to test my limits, even though I knew that there was serious risk, especially in solo walks across desolate territories.

Playing into this idea of epic expeditions was the concept of World Parks, an idea I conceived in 1983 in the Highlands of New Guinea: to preserve in perpetuity what was remaining of the world’s untouched areas so that our descendants could always enjoy the mystery of the unknown.

These two ideas, Expeditions and World Parks, seemed to go together. I could find candidate areas for World Parks, then explore them on foot. Because such areas were by definition remote, it would fulfill my thirst for adventure. I began to scour maps to search for undeveloped wildernesses as candidate areas for World Parks.

One area with very little infrastructure that I considered was the South American Altiplano. It is the most extensive area of high plateau on Earth outside of Tibet. Its average elevation above sea level is 3,750 meters, or 12,300 feet. It is virtually devoid of fresh groundwater. I had never heard of anyone walking there. I decided to try to cross it on foot by myself.

World Map*12 with the Altiplano shown in red Chile-Peru-Bolivia

Map*13 of walk showing route from Socaire to Tilcara Chile

The journey was done in several stages in November and December of 2010. I began in Socaire, Chile, at an elevation of 3250 meters. Since it was uncertain if I could find water on the way, I pulled a two-wheeled cart carrying almost 30 liters of it. A combined total of 23 days brought me over the Andes, a distance on the ground of about 555 kilometers. The map above shows the route as accomplished from Sociare, Chile to Libertador, Argentina in red.

November 6, 2010 7:14pm
Camped a few kilometers outside of Socaire, Chile 3270m (10,726 feet)

I begin my journey. The day is warm. The breeze is cool. The sun is just off the west horizon. All is quiet except for the air rushing by my ears, the slap of the paper I am writing on, the faint sounds of birds and the occasional distant murmur of the civilization that I am at the edge of. I will be walking, far away from all I know, out of touch. I feel calm. I want to revel in these mountains. I want this to be a stroll for enjoyment. I am on this journey to think, to gather my soul, to get away from the pounding of the societal machine.*10

Day 3 – Abandoned Road in Altiplano, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

November 7, 2010
Camped on a bluff, Antofagasta Province, Chile – 11:24pm

The day was tough. I pulled 70 kilograms (155 pounds) up an incline, largely in gravel. To make matters worse, I was not really acclimatized. I thought I went further, but when I closely examined the map, I realized I had only moved about four or five kilometers towards Paso de Jama. This was paltry, considering it is about 112 kilometers to the safety of the main road leading there. I stopped frequently. I would walk for a minute, stop, rest, one knee bent, huffing and puffing. Later, I did not even walk one minute before feeling compelled to stop. Then there were only steps between rests. When the ground was hard, it was easy to pull the cart. But when the ground was soft, it was very difficult. As the day wore on, the last evidence of the town of Socaire faded away until the folds of the mountain hid it completely.

So far it has been a perfect evening. Total silence here. Total. No planes. No birds. No sounds of animals. Nothing. The stars are brilliant.

November 8, 2010
Camped in a patch of sand, Antofagasta Province, Chile – elevation about 4300 meters

One of the great days of my life. A total high… From last night’s camp, the track descended. Then I started a long slog upwards. Finally, it leveled off. I descended again into a wide valley. The tufts of grass were a brilliant gold in the direct sunlight. Beauty beyond belief. Solitude. Heaven on Earth. This was what I was seeking.

Although it was late in the day, the summer sun was still high off the horizon. Longing for a hot drink, I stopped and heated water in the shelter of my cart under a powder blue sky.

I continued east. Shadows grew longer. I put on my after-sunset clothing. The wind blew at about 20 knots.

At Dusk, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

I continued. When darkness came, I dropped my cart. Leaving all my gear behind except my headlamp, I walked upwards, looking for the lake shown on my outdated map. As the road started descending, I could make out a depression in the distance. I satisfied myself that it was the lake. It seemed a long way off. I abandoned the idea of trying to get there tonight. I walked back to my cart.

I looked for a sheltered spot where I could camp. Finding a barely adequate but less-than-ideal place, I tried to position my cart in a way so as to block the breeze. This proved ineffective. I laid my bag down on a patch of sand and crawled inside. I dozed off to sleep.

The night was miserable. Even though I had all my clothes on inside my sleeping bag, I was still cold. I woke at 1am and made noodles to warm myself, then went off to sleep again.

November 9, 2010
Camped at “Rock Fortress” near Salar de Aguas Calientes, 4224 meters

This morning, not long after I began to walk, I reached the crest that I’d been on last night. I saw that indeed it was the lake below. The water had a greenish hue. I conjectured it was made so by plankton or other microbial growth. I descended. On the way there, I saw a small truck below me on the road to Paso Sico. It was to be the only sign of human life I was to see until I got to the highway to Paso de Jama over four days later.

A small herd of vicuña ran to my left. There were a few birds along the salt-laden shore. The area was very desolate. No buildings, no people. An arid setting devoid of anything that looked hospitable.

Salar Lake, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región) In the vicinity of northern Chile and Argentina, there are many great “salars.” A salar is an ancient sea that has evaporated, sometimes leaving brinish lakes. There is little life. One of the exceptions is the vicuña (vye-cun-ya), one of the four South American camels (the others being guanaco, llama and alpaca). Of them, the vicuña has the finest wool. In ancient Inca times, only royalty could wear clothing made from vicuña. The Altiplano also supports flamingos and “zuri,” a large flightless bird (also known as Darwin’s rhea or Rhea pennata).

The sun beat down. I dreaded the sandy flat parts of the road, as it made pulling the cart more difficult. In the distance, I saw road signs. As I approached, some were so old that there was nothing left to read. One said that Paso Sico was 70 kilometers away. This disturbed me, because I was on my way to Paso de Jama, not Paso Sico. Both are border posts with Argentina, but Paso Sico is much farther south than Paso de Jama.

The road curved around to the left, bordering the lake. Then it went upward. I hoped it would level off at every turn, but around each bend, it went up, then up again. Finally, the road straightened out, but the incline continued unabated. It appeared that I was reaching a pass. I dropped my cart, walked up to it, mounted my video on the tripod, then descended to my cart. I shot a video of myself pulling the cart up the last hundred meters, with the lake visible below and the mountain in the distance.

Pastel Terrain, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

At top, the terrain leveled off. The gravely road turned dark. In the distance to the left there were sandy hills of different shades. I marveled at them, thinking the different colors were beautiful backdropped by the sky. I came to cairns. My altimeter read about 4500 meters (14,760 feet). The road continued flat, then began a long descent. I could see a wide flat valley at the bottom. It took a good amount of time to get there. Once on the flat, the road was hard. I was happy to make good time through the valley.

The map indicated a place called Aguas Calientes. I tried to imagine where I was in relationship to it. I imagined that there was a settlement of some sort, even daydreaming that there was food and a hot springs at “Aguas Calientes.” I was hoping that I was close to this imagined settlement, but as I passed the point on the map where it was supposed to be, I realized I had been mistaken. The only signs of human presence were small semi-circular walls. These were not high enough to have been houses. I imagined what purpose they might have served. To contain water to create baths? Bunkers for war?

I could see several kilometers into the distance. I passed a road that went left. I stopped to look at my map. I was quite sure that the main road curving to the right was not the right way to Paso de Jama, since it went southeast, whereas I really needed to go northeast. So I thought I should chance the small road that went left.

Salar de Aguas Calientes, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

Not long afterward, the road began to descend, revealing the huge Salar de Aguas Calientes, which spread out below me. Its water was a beautiful blue. Now I was certain of my position. The Salar De Aguas Calientes was an unmistakable landmark.

I came abreast of some beautiful rock outcroppings to my right, I decided that this would be a good place to camp.

The “Rock Fortress” near Salar de Aguas Calientes, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

November 10, 2010
Camped at “Rock Fortress” in view of Salar de Aguas Calientes, Antofagasta Province, Chile

Today was tough. I ended up feeling quite nervous about my situation… I woke in the “Rock Fortress,” packed up my camp, then wheeled my cart to the “road.” I continued west around the salar. I saw vicuña. I spotted a “zuri,” a large flightless bird, running away at breakneck speed then disappearing along with the vicuña into a fold in the landscape… I noticed that the cart seemed hard to pull – even harder than normal. A tire was flat. I stopped. I tried to pump it up. My effort was only partially successful.

Flamingos in Flight, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región) To get a photo of the flamingos was not easy. They were far away and easily startled when I tried to get closer to them. My method of photographing animals is to approach them very slowly, not moving left nor right nor up nor down. True especially of birds, animals tend to look from only one eye. If moving slowly directly toward their line of vision, they are unsure if you are an an animal of prey or a fixed object.

Flamingos Flee Salar Watering Hole, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región) When I stop, I set my camera up on the tripod and use a slow shutter speed for high resolution. Before moving forward, I set my camera at a higher shutter speed (e.g., 1/2000th second) so that when the animals fly or run away, there will be less blur from movement. I like to take images of birds when they are in flight, since this is the optimal time to capture their magnificent form and character. When I get close enough, I ready the camera, then stand up to induce them to fly. On occasion, my feathered subjects ignore my presence and continue feeding. When that happens, I make a commotion!

Munition on the Salar, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región) One of the sad remnants from the conflict between Chile and Argentina in the 70s are the land mines. I was told that there were 800,000 land mines along the border. It defies common sense why a country would deliberately mine their own territory, permanently rendering it unsafe. Land mines are amongst the most unsacred of man-made devices. They are an affront to sacred Mother Earth.

I saw flamingos. They were some distance off, feeding on organisms in the brinish water. I went over to photograph them. I was about 50 meters from the road, when, to my surprise, I saw a blue plastic shell half-buried in the white earth. I felt concerned, recalling the stories I’d been told about land mines in the area. The edges of the shell showed age. I moved gingerly by it. I was following the track when just a short while later I noted another type of munition. It was a corroded metal shell whose end was rounded like a gas cylinder. At the other end it narrowed to a stub. As I’d never seen a land mine before, I wasn’t sure if this was one. It looked like it could have been lying there since the time of the Chilean-Argentinian conflict 30 years ago. It looked intact. I felt spooked.

I walked on. The road made a very wide arc west then north around the large salt plain. I decided to chance crossing the salar directly, even though I was concerned that there might be hidden water blocking my path that might force me to retrace my steps. There was a large mountain off to the west. I figured it was a good landmark.

The salt floor of the salar was not flat. The cart bounced up and down as I pulled it. While the opposite side of the salar didn’t appear so far away, the distances were deceiving because of the clear air and the lack of any recognizable objects to give things perspective. I developed a method of judging distance: when I can see detail it means I am getting closer. No detail means I am still far away. About an hour and fifteen minutes later, I neared the road on the other side of the salar. Just before reaching it, I noticed a small pocket of water in the ground.

I dropped my cart. I got out my pump. I pumped a liter of the water. The pocket of water was completely used up. I felt a little guilty. Maybe this water was needed by the local animals. A moment later, I noted that the water was back up to its original level! So I pumped another liter of water, then continued on.

Shadows lengthened, signifying the approach of dusk. I dropped my cart. I walked up the slope to a group of rocks. I scouted for a suitable place to camp. None was great. Nevertheless, I decided the place was adequate.

I went back to get my cart. Then I went systematically about trying to set up a shelter.

Lenticular Clouds Over Salar de Aguas Calientes, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

My first priority however was photographing the beautiful land and clouds to the east. The shadow from the mountain above me stretched across the Salar. Above it was a lenticular cloud of vast dimensions. Later, there was red in the distance with blue-gray clouds hovering above the dark eastern horizon. After eating dinner, I looked at the map, then dozed off to sleep.

Cart At Saline River on Salar de Aguas Calientes, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

November 11, 2010
Camped at the western end of the Pampas de Chivato Muertos. Spent the night in the gravel at 4350 meters, too tired to set up my tent.

At 2:30am, I woke. A closer examination of the map filled me with anxiety. I had traveled very little compared to what I had previously thought. A sobering situation. To save time, I contemplated short-cutting across the next section of the salar. But I decided that to do so would be foolish. Not only was there the possibility of impassable marsh – there was also the possibility of land mines. I figured it was a good idea to get up and start preparations for the coming day’s walk while it was still dark. If so, I would be ready to depart by daybreak.

I jettisoned a large amount of food. I reasoned that I could replenish it later. The important thing was to lighten my load so that I could reduce travel time. At about 4am, I worked on fixing the flat tire.

Fueled by fear, I set out shortly after sunrise. The ground was fairly hard and flat, so I made good progress. The map showed a river ahead. I assumed that its water was undrinkable. According to the map, the road went very far north then reversed its direction practically 180 degrees, returning south. It was a long way to go just to get around the river.

As I approached, I saw that it was really only a stream, about 3 meters wide on average. I decided to try to cross it. Doing so would save about 10 kilometers of walking. I pulled my cart to its bank, then ferried my things across. I made several trips. My cart, once emptied, was light enough to pick up. I carried it to the other side.

The water was clear and looked inviting. I bathed. Afterward, I went upstream a little and tested it for taste. It was not sweet water. It had a definite salty taste. But although it was heavily mineralized, it was drinkable, so I filled two of my empty liter bottles. After photography, I packed up my cart. I was now 10 kilometers closer to Paso de Jama.

It was only 1pm. I felt I’d made good progress. As I continued on, the road rose above the salar. Looking down, I could see that indeed there were marshes and complicated waterways. If I had tried to cross it in the wrong spot, I would have run into difficulty. There were animals – probably vicuña or llama – far off, distributed in small groups on the salar. Whites, greens, deep blues, browns, and reds were the colors of the landscape.

Although there was the occasional breeze, the day was hot and dry. I developed a technique to soothe my dry mouth without consuming a large quantity of water. I let the water reside for awhile in my mouth, and then I slowly let it run down my throat.

The road began to rise. I pulled my cart upward through gravel and sand. I rounded a crest. The climb continued. Ever-present in my mind were the land mines. I was told that the land mines lie between two mountains and were marked with a sign.

As the incline became steeper, the sand became deeper. The going became difficult. I moved slowly. When I got about 200 meters above the Salar, I came to a small pass. But beyond that, the trail descended only for a short while. Then it continued climbing on a broad sloping plain that fell from the hills on my left down to the salar on my right. I could not see where the trail led to in the distance. I resigned myself to doggedly traversing upward along the large sloping gravel plain.

The whole while I was wondering where the land mines were. I’d been eying two large peaks. Finally I was going up between them. I traveled eastward up a gully. To my right was a gray wall of rock, bearing some interesting shapes. Now the ground undulated but was more or less level.

After about a half hour of this, I spied something in the distance. Yes! It was the mines! There were two clearly demarcated, fenced-off areas, one on each side of the little valley I was in. It was slightly above me and about a half kilometer off.

As I approached, I saw that the track I was on went within meters of the mine areas. A sign warned, “Peligro.” (Danger.) It was creepy. I was afraid to walk off the track. I was also afraid to walk on it. After photos, I walked slowly between the fences. I moved on, glad to be past them.

I walked on sloping flat rock. Ahead was a sandy mountain. It looked like No Man’s Land. As I started a broad turn to the left of it, the track became sandy. I was entering the valley of Chivato Muertos.

The wind spit sand in my face. I would have liked to walk all night, but now I was getting thoroughly fatigued. I struggled forward till dusk. As darkness came, I simply threw my sleeping bag on the ground, crawled in it, and passed out till morning.

I was quite satisfied. I had passed the mines. Everything was in accordance with what I’d been told, so I was clearly on the right road. This meant that my survival was almost certain.

Pampas de Chivato Muertos, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

November 12, 2010
Camped at 4198 meters next to a stream at the eastern end of Pampas de Chivatos Muertos

Woke at dawn. I had a little to eat. Then I packed up and headed north into the Valley of Chivatos Muertos. I felt the name was appropriate. I didn’t know what the meaning of Chivatos was, but I knew Muertos meant “dead.” I imagined that some people had died going up this valley.

I dreaded the day. But I was determined to reach the Salar de Quisquiro, which was shown on the map to lie at the eastern end of this valley. I came up a small rise and then slowly descended. To the left was a salt pan, a remnant of a small lake that had dried up. I looked on the map, but could not find it mentioned. The valley and the track shifted to the right. It was not inviting. Not at all. It was just sand and gravel and rock. Desolation. Sometimes, though, I did see large bird tracks.

My day’s goal was to reach the eastern end of the valley. While I plied through gravel, I tried to figure out how I could save energy. I tried to spot the hardest parts of ground, for when the ground was firm, it was easier to pull the cart. An area of rocky slabs off to my right looked more inviting than the ground I was traveling on. I dragged my cart there. I traversed the rocky slabs eastward. This was easier than traveling on loose sand and gravel. Sometimes, I had to pull the cart wheels over rocks. I especially tried to avoid sharp edges pointing towards me. I could ill afford another flat tire. I walked on the rocky slabs for a kilometer or so.

Once back in the gravel and sand “ocean,” the terrain undulated. I dipped down then climbed up. At the top of the “waves” in the landscape, I could usually make out the signs of the next crest but usually not the crest itself. The topography was deceiving.

There was supposed to be a lake on my right. I had gone up this valley for almost two hours. But still, there was no lake. I began to question myself. I became worried. The map and the landmarks did not seem to match up. What if the map was wrong? What if the previous matching landmarks were not the actual ones on the map as I’d thought? These kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. The most probable thing, I realized, was that the lake was simply much farther up this valley of than I’d thought. Finally, the lake appeared, about 2 kilometers off to the right. Now, I felt assured I would be OK, except if there was an unforeseen accident.

I continued eastward for some time. Far off in the distance ahead, I could see a large, flat area: the Salar de Quisquiro. Before reaching the salar, I came to a river. I presumed it was saline. I could see a track on the other side of it, but I could not see how to get there. I pulled my cart down to the bank of the river, then shuttled my gear across it in stages.

It seemed that every afternoon before sundown, the winds would reach their peak. This evening was no exception. I looked for a place to camp, figuring it better to bed down before dusk. I kicked loose the hard and uneven covering of salt, clearing an area about three times the size of my tent so as to give myself a flat area to sleep. I set up my tripod to film “how efficient” I’d gotten at setting up my tent. The wind defeated my plan! Instead of “looking cool,” I looked so incompetent! It was comical. After tying down my tent, I arranged my things, took photos and crawled inside. I made dinner then fell asleep.

November 13, 2010
Slept in a ditch on the highway to Paso de Jama

When I woke in the morning, I noticed that ice had formed on the surface of the river. Also, my water bottles were full of ice. When I went to put on my gloves, I saw that the backs of my hands were red. They were so swollen that I could not see the bones. Walking all day with my hands outstretched on the pulling levers of the cart had exposed them not only to the direct sun, but also to the sun’s reflection off of the sand.

I looked at my face in the compass mirror. The “white of my eye” appeared to be bulging out and discolored a brownish red. Below my eyes I had incredibly large “bags.” I felt frightened. I wondered if the condition of my eyes was related to the water that I’d pumped from the ground two days ago. I’d drunk about a liter of it. I wondered if the water carried some disease. Now I was motivated more than ever to get to Paso de Jama.

I spent the day circling the Salar de Quisquiro. By sunset, I was on the main highway.

November 14, 2010
Slept at the gas station in Paso de Jama, Argentina (It is the only settlement for a hundred kilometers in any direction. They even had rooms!)

Woke in the ditch on the side of highway like a newborn calf, barely able to stand up. Left without breakfast, only a few sips of water… 25 kilometers along an asphalt road later, I arrived in Paso de Jama.


I can barely write. My hand is unsteady. I am worn out, half-defeated. Several times this past week, I was quite frightened. The first time was when I realized that I had traveled so little and that, while I still had over 100 kilometers to walk before I could reach the highway to Paso de Jama, I was not certain I had enough water to make it there. The second time was when I saw the condition of my face yesterday morning.

This attempt to walk across the South American Altiplano – which I have scarcely begun – has a unique combination of characteristics that I had not previously anticipated. 1. It is high (over 4000 meters) 2. dry – bordering the Atacama, the driest desert in the world 3. virtually without water – except some highly mineralized water found occasionally in the salars, and 4. one of the most desolate regions on the planet.

Psychologically, I am beaten… or at least partly… or temporarily. Physically: 1) Cuticles on my thumbs, index finger, and middle finger are split. They sting every time I grab something. This is even though I tried to apply cream every day. 2) The tips of all my fingers seem swollen and strangely “bald.” (I think I have frost nip on the ends of my fingers.) 3) The backs of both of my hands are still swollen. 4) My lips are dried and chapped. 5) My eyes are discolored and have large bags under them. 6) I have a big blister and infection on my right foot… But all these issues are trivial. What has really affected me most are: a) total exhaustion, b) dehydration, c) fear and d) the concern that I might quit.

If I could make it to Susques, it would be a triumph because it would mean that I had covered more than 1/3rd of my goal to walk across the Altiplano. But it would be very, very easy to die out here. For example, if I injured myself, it is not certain that anyone would come to find me – even if my satellite phone worked – or that the brutal elements would not suck the life out of me before I could be found. Those elements include i) very hot sun, ii) totally dry climate and, worse, iii) bitterly cold nights, with iv) occasional high winds, especially at dusk. Last week I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Now, I am only thinking about survival. The harshness of the environment is sobering.

Despite all these negatives, experiencing the Altiplano firsthand has been wonderful. The beauty was astounding. Still, I don’t know whether to continue or not. What I do know is that I need to rest. I need to sleep and let the situation settle in my mind. Probably, by tomorrow night I will be more clear.

Vortex Universe – Night Sky Near Pueblo Cobres, 2010 Argentina, Salta Province, “Quebrada Nest” before Pueblo Cobres Walk Across the South American Altiplano 2010 – Part 2 – Paso de Jama to Pueblo Cobres

Once I reached Paso de Jama, Argentina, on foot, the next leg of my journey took me to Pueblo Cobres, a village on the edge of Salar de Olaroz. This area of the world was once inhabited by the Incas. Having read that the Chaski, the Inca runners, ran 7 kilo-meters between rest stations, I endeavored to try that. From Paso de Jama to the Salar de Olaroz, a distance of 43 kilometers, I ran in 7 kilometer intervals up to an altitude of over 15,000 feet. I enlisted the help of a beautiful companion to provide food and water at the stops along the way, following me in a 4-Wheel Drive. At Salar de Olaroz, I resumed my solo adventure using my water-filled cart. I walked to the small town of Susques, then through the mountains to Pueblo Cobres. The night I took the photograph above, I was not sure where I was. After a short walk the next morning, I found Pueblo Cobres.

What I Learned: That the path we walk in the pursuit of our dreams, like a trail, meanders – sometimes even going in the opposite direction – and that awareness and patience can help us evaluate and stay the course until the goal is attained.

November 16, 2010
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

My thought was this: Lila and I would rent a 4WD and go to Paso de Jama. From there, we would try to find a way across the mountains to Susques. I would run, she would drive. As this area was steeped in Inca history, in their honor, I would try to emulate the Inca runners who – according to my studies on the internet, prompted by Lila’s suggestion to look up the Inca Route – ran between stations about 7 kilometers apart. The idea was that I would run for 7 kilometers and then stop and rest, just like they – in my imagination, and somewhat supported by recorded history – did in the past.

The question was, how to go across the mountains. All I had was a road map, and no matter how I tried, even after extensive searching on the internet, I could not find one with more detail. I spent several hours there going through the route page by page on Google Earth with a helper marking the “waypoints” (which I did not end up using for route-finding.) By night, at the time Lila was about to arrive, I was still trying to print out the pages and use them as a sort of pseudo-map.

Lila in San Pedro de Atacama, 2010 Chile, Antofagasta Province (Región)

November 19, 2010
Paso de Jama, Jujuy province, Argentina via an attempt to cover the first 7 kilometers at night

By the time Lila and I stamped out of the Chilean border and started our drive to Paso de Jama, it was already early afternoon. The Altiplano was sunny, breezy, and cold. We stopped at the place where there were vicuña and flamingos. Then we continued along the alpine highway to Paso de Jama.

When we got there, I asked Lila if we could go out for an hour so that I could begin my “run” to Susques today. She was reluctant. For one thing, it was cold. But ultimately, she agreed. By the time we were ready, it was almost dusk. David from the gas station walked across the road and showed me where the old road to Susques was. I mean, there were no signs.

I started to run. This was wonderful! I said to myself that Lila was now part of the blood of the expedition. I thought it was the best night of my life. There I was, under the stars in the remote Andean mountains, running in memory and honor of the ancient Incas, with a beautiful woman – no, not only that, but a true love – following me in the car. Nevertheless, I was not exactly comfortable. The elevation was 4200 meters, and it was dark and bitterly cold.

Lila notified me that I had reached the 7 km point, as I’d asked her to do. I ran on a bit more. When about 55 minutes had elapsed, I reached a point that I thought was a good stopping place. I set up a small cairn to mark my place in order to identify it the next morning.

November 20, 2012
Paso de Jama, Jujuy province, Argentina via going over the pass to Susques

Today was an adventure. We got our things ready and headed out, arriving at the rocks I’d placed last night. I began running from there. The first seven kilometers seemed awfully difficult for me, but I resigned myself to the task. Lila signaled me that my first leg was done. I joined her in the car. I drank and ate.

After this first rest stop, I continued on. I took a shortcut over a hill, leaving the road then rejoining it. The road came out to a wide valley. There were about a hundred llamas. In the distance was the pass over the mountains. Just after a depression in the road, Lila notified me that 7 km more had passed. (Mind you, this was 7 kilometers of road whereas I was probably covering less on foot, given my shortcuts.)

I got in the car again. Inside I was protected from the wind. I drank hot fluids and I rested. After a rest of about half an hour, I got out of the car again and continued. Now I mostly did cross-country. The road ahead winding up to the pass was quite clear, although I could no longer see the pass itself. So I just headed off straight for a point where the road curved along the mountainside. Meanwhile, Lila drove on the road, passed the point I was headed for, and disappeared. As the slope got steeper, I stopped running and just walked rapidly. My thoughts ran in many directions, sometimes whimsical. Who had stepped along my path over the centuries? Was there something, possibly, to discover as I walked? What lie beyond the pass?

I rejoined the road and used it for hundreds of meters as I approached the top. I saw Lila in the truck. The wind blew very hard. It was a bit frightening, really. It must have been 70 knots or higher. (The only time I can remember winds so high was when I traversed the ridge from Camp 1 (7200m) to Camp 2 (7600m) on Mount Everest, where gusts of screaming wind sapped all of my strength.)

I arrived at the truck. Lila was not in good spirits. For one thing, the altitude was getting to her. The GPS registered 4635 meters (15,203 feet). She’d just come from sea level a few days ago. No wonder she felt sick. I, on the other hand, was acclimatized. Besides, I was used to altitude and high wind.

From the pass, we could see the Salar de Olaroz off in the distance. There were two choices for descent. The road that went down to the left was steep. The prospect of her driving down it was scary. I went out to survey the one on the right. As the one on the right descended in switchbacks, we opted for it for safety.

I cut straight down, bypassing the switchbacks, going ahead of her. When we got down near the bottom, I was not sure which way to go. I thought we might have to go all the way back up, a distance of maybe 3 or 4 km. I told her to wait. I walked the length of the road to the east. Then it reversed itself, turning to the west. I got to a point that I was not sure the truck could pass. The road had turned into a sort of river wash, where rains in the past had virtually destroyed parts of it. I thought it possible, but questionable.

I motioned to her with my hands to proceed then walked on. I purposefully did not watch her. I didn’t want to see. The worst that could happen, it seemed, was that we would get stuck. Maybe if I watched her, she might get nervous, and if I was nervous, it might distract her. So, I cast fate to the wind and walked without looking back. Just beyond, I could see the road was good.

The last 100 meters, however, was the most questionable of all. I stopped and turned around. I gave her directions. I stood looking at her as she negotiated the truck down the gully. At one point, at the crux, her left tire stood on a piece of earth only as wide as the tire and the earth began to crush away from the weight of the truck. I signaled her to turn the wheel right to hug the remaining earth, which she did. Remarkably, she brought the small truck to the flat crossing of the dry stream bed. From there I continued walking down, feeling we probably could make it to the salar. The road was now gradual. We had escaped the canyon!

I got the camera out and walked with it. Lila alternately waited for me or went on ahead. We ended up at a mine, maybe abandoned, maybe not. There was no one there.

Before twenty minutes was up, we came to a fence. This did not prevent me from going on, but it certainly would stop the truck. Now, Lila and I had to consider our options. For one thing, there was only about one hour of daylight left. One thing was clear to me and that was that we could not return on the route we took to get here. The last bit of the gully she had driven down was probably impassable. At the very least, trying to go up it was quite inadvisable. So, the answer was getting beyond the fence. Since it was not possible to go around it, the only solution was to go through it.

We examined the posts, which were timber set in the earth. One piece was movable. We tried to twist it down, as it was not attached. But it was chained to the permanent post on that side, and it would only move so far. We stomped on the wire that held it, and were able to work the post free. I got into the truck. Lila adjusted the fence so that I could pass over it. Voila! My second attempt to drive the truck over the wire fence was successful! The truck was now on the other side. We tried to put the fence back up as best as we could.

I jogged down the road, which headed more or less straight in the direction of the salar. After about three kilometers, I realized there was no way I could get to the salar today before dark. I set up a cairn of stones to mark my stopping point and took photos of the spot in case I had trouble locating it tomorrow.

At the main road, we turned right and headed back towards Paso de Jama. It was dark and bitterly cold outside. A beautiful cloud sat over the salar south of Jama. I wondered how unpleasant it would be if the truck broke down.

November 21, 2010
San Pedro de Atacama, Antofagasta province, Chile via Salar de Olaroz, Argentina

In the morning, I was very eager to go back to the point we’d stopped at last night and continue my run to the main road bordering the salar. Ideally, I would be able to get to the turnoff to Susques. I figured that if I could get that far today, then, when I returned, I could find transportation to bring me to the point where I’d left off so that I could continue my journey on foot. Lila was game to try, as long as we returned at a reasonable hour to San Pedro, as she was leaving in the morning.

Lila and I drove the truck back to route 70, then about 40 kilometers north. There was a clearly marked sign to Susques, 46 km distant. I told Lila I’d like to go back and run to here. We drove to yesterday’s termination point. Then I got out and started to run again.

I tried not to stop till I reached the main road. Lila lagged behind in the truck. I kept running till I reached route 70, then waited for her. When she arrived, I had a drink. Then I continued the last three kilometers or so to the turn off to Susques. I was pretty happy to reach it, and I celebrated with photographs. Lila poured a fresh water shower for me out of a bottle.

We returned to Paso de Jama. We crossed the border before closing time and got to San Pedro de Atacama in time to find dinner.

Two days later…

November 23, 2010
Slept on pass to Susques, Jujuy province, Argentina

I took a bus to Susques, then hired a taxi to return me to the crossroads. I began walking about 7pm. I walked till I reached the pass to Susques at about 3am. There, I bed down in sand for the night.

November 24, 2010
One kilometer outside Susques, on floor of hotel, Jujuy province, Argentina

I walked about three kilometers to the main road, and then the 20 kilometers into town.

November 25, 2010
Casa Viejo, on road about six kilometers from Susques, Jujuy province, Argentina

I spent the day getting organized, doing email, especially sending John the details he needed if I he was going to meet me. I sewed the hole in my down sweater. I left at about 7pm from the hotel. I walked to the road to Huancar, turned left onto it, and then walked in the dark. I stopped because I thought the cliff above the road might be beautiful in the day. I noticed old houses, and I bed down for the night.

November 26, 2010
Slept at “Quebrada’s Nest,” Jujuy province, Argentina

The sun had not risen yet, but there was light in the sky. I got up, admiring the fine place I’d chosen to sleep last night. I marveled at the cliffs of red with white tops. All day the trail changed directions. This kind of bothered me. Then I reflected that paths sometimes meander, just like my life. Sometimes, when I want to go someplace, I end up going in the opposite direction for a while. Funny, how that is. At about 4pm, I came to pass. With my block of cheese and bread and what little amenities I could pull out of my cart, I prepared a humble meal. I filmed and photographed. Then I descended into the canyon.

I had been told to follow the “playa,” that is, the beach.

“Do you know what I mean?” the man had asked.

“Ah, yeah, I know.” He meant a sandy riverbed.

I went down a slope heading to the ‘playa’. The road now became worse, with some portions washed out. As far as I could tell, it wound south into a canyon not yet visible to me. As I neared the canyon, I stopped to take photographs of a tiny flower in a shrub. I noticed a beautiful little beetle feeding on its nectar, holding the flower cup with both front legs. What a wondrous world this is when we take the time to view it through a microscope – in this case, the viewing port of my macro lens. But the day was wearing on and I knew I must hurry, so I made short work of it and moved on.

I made good time along the riverbed. It was not exactly straightforward. The tracks and remnants of road wound right and left, split, hugged little walls of rock on one side or another, became invisible and reappeared. Sometimes the terrain required me to roll my cart over little heaps of rock. This all seemed fine, but then I came to an area that seemed impossible to pass. I studied the ground and could not quite figure ‘the route’, so I just dragged my cart as best I could over rough ground, over stumps of pampas grass, etc.

Later, the rocks became so difficult to pass that I filmed myself as best as I could maneuvering the cart, as I thought it was interesting and illustrative of the difficulties I faced.

I walked and I walked. As I continued, the going got so difficult, I was afraid that I was on the wrong path. But it was beautiful. I began to see cactus everywhere. (I was later told that this is cardón, not cactus. A man told me that there is no water in it. The locals use the wood of cardón for building things. For example, I saw doors to houses made of this material.) Somehow, the stature of a cactus gives it the appearance of a human being, especially in the twilight. So, it was as if I was entering a canyon full of sentinels, all watching me. The cardón was quite tall. This ‘tree’ occasionally had flowers, and I stopped to photograph one such specimen, balancing above it on a slope in order to secure a photo, quite fascinated with its beauty. The shadows grew long.

I was hoping that I would come out upon Cobres, but this gully was going south and the mountain range I was trying to pass was above me to my east, meaning that I had not yet gotten over to the side of the next salar (Salinas Grande). I got past the difficult part of the gully and now moved quite quickly on relatively flat ground. But I still had to negotiate sand and find the easiest way along the riverbed. Night closed in.

I came upon some black donkeys. This signified there were probably humans in the vicinity. When I finally checked my compass, I was going southeast or south, which meant that earlier in the canyon, I was going south, or even a bit southwest. This concerned me because Cobres was supposed to be southeast.

The mountain in front of me was silhouetted against the sky. When I got to it, I was relieved to find that the “road” I was on indeed turned left, which was east, my desired direction. I turned on my headlamp.

The road went into a depression, surrounded on both sides by tall grasses. I became less confident about the path I was on. I came to a sandy patch of ground with a little wall of rock and sand on the right. I decided it was time to call it a day. I made camp.

There were insects. I hadn’t really seen insects, except for the little tiny beetles holding on to flowers earlier today. It was also warmer here than last night. I felt like I had gotten to some kind of a new climate. And like most nights, I had little energy to do more than just throw my bag down, open it up and crawl inside. But the stars were abundant, so I got out of my bag and set my camera up on a rock in order to do time exposures of the night sky. Later… Cozy back in my new sleeping bag, I had a simple meal. And then I just went off to sleep.

Self Portrait: Jeff Shea Pulling Cart in Salinas Grande, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province Walk Across The South American Altiplano 2010 – Part 3 – Pueblo Cobres to Salinas Grande

My first long walk was across the South American Altiplano. It is a dry area bordering the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. (See songs Baby and Global Village for Atacama story.) The first week of this journey, I almost ran out of water. Here, I am shown crossing the Salinas Grandes, a large, dry “salar” near the village of Tres Morros in Jujuy Province in northwestern Argentina. I set the camera up on a tripod to take this self-portrait.

November 27, 2010
Slept outside Campamiento de Lithio, on edge of Salar Salinas Grandes… Today was one of the most wonderful of days, walking on the salar, the weather perfect, the lighting enticing.

I woke in the Quebrada, wondering where I was. Five hundred meters later, a road emerged from the riverbed. A laundry line was tied between two huge cardón (cactus). An adobe house. Only recently, a man named Santos and his family had moved back to this old homestead. I talked with him quite awhile. He told me how his family had owned this property for many generations, perhaps two centuries. When he was a child, he said, the river was running all year long. Now, as I could clearly see, it was dry. He said it had not rained in a long time – two years or so. There were some wells, and that is how they got water. I asked him what he thought had caused things to dry up. He surmised, “Contaminación.”

He agreed to be interviewed. His mother brought me a chair and a bowl of llama stew. The llama meat was about as tough as the sole of a shoe! But I ate every last morsel as a sign of appreciation! Then she brought me another bowl, this time noodles with llama meat. I ate that too. But I declined a third bowl!!

Santos was reluctant on film to say that the “contamination” (that he claimed had dried up the area) was caused by man, but said that it was his opinion.

I came to Pueblo Cobres. There were few people out and about. I got water. I tried earnestly to get information as to how to cross the salar, but unfortunately it was inadequate.

I followed a dirt road out of Pueblo Cobres in the direction of the salar. As far as I was able to glean from various conversations with people, I was supposed to follow the road until I came to a “casa blanca,” a white house. That landmark would confirm I was on the right road to the campo lithio (or lithium mining camp) on the other side of the salar. Soon, I got tired of struggling in the powdered earth, even though I had now reduced my load to only 90 pounds including water. I went off to the right, avoiding as much as possible the burrs of cactus, lest I suffer another flat tire. I had a sense of being disoriented – not unusual in the salars – even though one would think it would be easy to know where you are, given the wide-open spaces. Several times I wondered if I had gone too far, as I thought I should have seen the white house by then.

The salar was green, white and brown, in varying degrees of subtlety. The road morphed from brown to white and back to brown again. When I passed a place where the sides of the road were green, I became fascinated with the complex details of the tiny plants.

Cobbled Ground, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province

The salty ground was cracked into cobblestones of dried earth. The mountains stood like a row of somber sentinels bordering the salar. The afternoon sun yawned its great light over the hills to the south. The wind whipped up the dust and sent it shooting towards me, backlit by the sun. Water rippled in large ponds, changing formation in rhythm with the wind. It was all a fountain of beauty to my eyes.

The sun skipped off the hills in the west, and the last light of day faded. Even though the skies were clear overhead, far off, perhaps 40 miles distant, there was a thunderstorm. There, the skies raged. To escape the dusk-driven winds, I pulled over to the left of the road and used the cart to shelter myself. Darkness having fully set in, I walked eastward into the night for a long time, protected from the wind by my gear. I contemplated where I would stop to have a rest, finally having hot soup and cheese at 1:00am. I continued on. Later, I bed down on the outskirts of a Lithium Mining Camp.

November 28, 2010
Slept in Salar de Salinas Grandes, near Tres Morros

Today was wonderful, but I did not get to Tres Morros.

I woke in the sand, groggy. I looked over. About 200 meters away was a man. He was taking measurements in a kind of raised pool. I went over and looked. Floating in it were white/clear crystals. He said it was lithio, i.e., lithium.

I was invited to breakfast. Before leaving, I requested a photograph of the adopted baby llama. The llama was picked up & placed in the hall.

Llama in Mining Camp, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province

I headed out… I crossed the salar and found a road, which turned into a path. The wind was strong. I had the idea that I could use my old tent’s rain fly as a sail to help me pull my cart. I thought, if I am ever to try it, I might as well try it now. I got out the rain fly and tried to open it to the wind. The wind caught it and it bellowed open for a moment, then deflated. I tied it to the handles of my cart and tried to open the “sail.” Like all inventions, this required trial, failure and reapplication of effort! Truthfully, not all ideas work! I tried and tried, then tried to film it too, and it was probably pretty ridiculous, but sometimes folly leads to something good. Who knows! I eventually abandoned the effort! I resigned myself to pulling the cart again.

I went upwards. The road seemed to go on forever. A young man came towards me pushing a bicycle. He had a radio hanging around his neck. He asked if I had water, and I gave him a bottle of mine to drink. He in turn helped me to inflate my flattened tire. I asked him what was the fastest way to get to Tres Morros. He said there was a road on the salar, and he pointed out the way.

Following his instructions, I walked past a fence post then turned left. There were many little cacti, and I tried to avoid them, lest my tire go flat again. I got down to the salar proper and beyond the line of old fence posts. I still did not see the road. I continued in a northerly direction. I walked on goat trails. I became concerned that there was no road after all. I kept heading towards the north. The sun was getting low in the sky. Finally, when I was almost sure that the road did not exist, I came to a clear set of tracks on hard, white ground.

I had noticed some time before that my tire was flat. I had to fix it.

After that, I tried to go quickly, confident that this was the road on the salar to Tres Morros. I conjectured that this was the road that I had I had been told about yesterday morning, and I felt disappointed to have missed out on the opportunity to go directly across the salar all the way from Pueblo Cobres.

The sun set. The hard track turned into deep sand. I plowed through it, applying all my might, yet moving very little with each step. I wondered how long this would go on. There was something sort of classic about the moment: the approach of night, the thick sand, struggling against the wind with each step.

Thereafter, the road was hard and easy to walk on. I was content to continue on into the night, but I was a bit concerned whether or not I was on the right road. I continued on for maybe an hour or so. Finally, I determined that it was best to stop. I pulled a few feet off the road to my right, I lay my things on the ground, opened my sleeping bag, got in and fell asleep.

Looking at the eastern horizon, there were hills, but I could not make out where I was. It was likely that there was a road somewhere at the base of them.

Tent with Chariot under Stars, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province Walk Across the South American Altiplano 2010 In this photograph, I lay in my tent, a mere silhouette. To the right is my chariot, which I used to pull water across the Altiplano of South America. In this time exposure, the stars are shown as trails in the sky, a result of the turning of the earth.

Alone, I felt exalted. My mind was free to travel.

November 29, 2010
Alone, I felt exalted. My mind was free to travel.

Slept at trail head to the Golden Road, before the Quebrada de Humahuaca, on the way to Tilcara, 11:24pm

In the late afternoon, I had walked up, up, up towards the pass until the sun fully set. I pulled my cart, my camera dangling around my neck. I stopped when I saw a winding road heading to the northeast. I toyed with the idea to follow it, because it looked like a direct route through the mountains to Tilcara. But how could I be sure? I considered camping there. Maybe in the morning someone might come by. If so, I could ask them if this way indeed led to Tilcara.

Slept at trail head to the Golden Road, before the Quebrada de Humahuaca, on the way to Tilcara, 11:24pm

Jeff at Golden Road, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province

Although I had planned to “cover some ground” and “make some progress”, this was my dream, and in a dream, one doesn’t need to make progress! So, I decided to abandon my original idea to walk through the night. I made camp at the foot of “The Golden Road,” as I had so dubbed it.

I was warm and cozy inside the tent. The wind died down. It was totally calm. I filled myself up with hot liquids, then went back outside and shot a night photograph of the sky with my tent and my cart in the foreground. (See photo previous page.)

Back inside, I looked out at the night sky through the porthole of my tent. The silhouette of the mountains was almost completely black. On the horizon, there was just a bit of color, a bit of light. But it wasn’t from a city. I don’t think it was from the moon. The light was in the west and the moon was in the east.

Did I ever really take the time before to look at the sky? I did. I did do that… and ponder, like men and women and children have done, since the beginning of time, to look at the sky and wonder what it all means – all these heavenly bodies. In the day-to-day bustle now, who takes the time? And, anyway, the city lights, they dim out the stars. It’s as if civilization kills everything. As if it obscures the clarity of our vision…

Back inside, I looked out at the night sky through the porthole of my tent. The silhouette of the mountains was almost completely black. On the horizon, there was just a bit of color, a bit of light. But it wasn’t from a city. I don’t think it was from the moon. The light was in the west and the moon was in the east.

Out here there is no one to answer to. I have no phone calls to make. I left all that behind. Tonight was mine. All mine. My reality felt like a dream. Staring at the stars, I felt like the lord of the earth. I felt like the lord of the sky. I felt in touch and communion with everything, at one with everything, in a mutual harmony, in a fine balance that could not be disturbed if my attitude was right, which it was, because I appreciated all that was before me.

I felt I could do anything… I lay there, one elbow propping my body up, my head resting on my shoulder, looking out at the sky, feeling unbelievable. I reached out and I touched the stars. I grabbed a whole bunch of them with my hand and pulled them into my tent, and then I opened my hand and I (phew!) blew them towards the hill, and they bounced off the hill and back into the sky.

Waira Wasi Valley Night, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province Walk Across the South American Altiplano 2010 – Part 5 – Tilcara to Waira Wasi This shot was taken before I bedded down for the night on the side of a vast canyon.

I didn’t end up taking the “Golden Road” after all. Instead, I pulled my cart up over the pass at the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Once in Tilcara, a llama keeper explained to me how to find my way across the mountain range leading to the termination point of the Andes. My broken-down cart now abandoned, I reduced my gear to fit into my backpack and set off on foot to conclude what I had started (i.e., the walk across the Altiplano).

December 15, 2010
Between Molulu and San Lucas
Today was easily one of the most fantastic days of my life. I woke above Waira Wasi at 6am to see the sun rising, then slept till 8am. A woman in Waira Wasi gave me a stern lecture about taking her photograph and got 30 pesos from me as compensation.

Night Walk On Way To San Lucas, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province Walk Across the South American Altiplano 2010 – Part 6 – Waira Wasi to Libertador Near the end of my 2010 walk across the South American Altiplano, I decided to do a night walk on the ridge that eventually led down towards San Lucas, a village in the mountains.

December 15, 2010
Between Molulu and San Lucas
I walked to the pass on the way to Molulu.

Andean Falcon at the Pass to Molulu, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province

I sat down to rest. An owl-like bird flew by. I put on my 70-200 mm lens, set it to 400 ASA and put it on moving focus. It circled above my head and I got a shot of it against strong sunlight.

After some time, I worried where I was. An old woman came walking by. She communicated minimally with me, then moved on with her dogs.

Condor near Pass to Molulu, 2010 Argentina, Jujuy Province

I reached another pass. A condor flew by. I got out my 70-200 mm lens again. The condor flew below me and then above me. It was fantastic. Snap, snap, snap.

I walked down a steep hillside because I saw smoke coming from a dwelling below. The old man and woman that lived there gave me water. They said this area was Molulu. I left at about 5pm or 6pm. I walked into the night around picturesque, coned mountaintops, reminding me of Machu Picchu. Later, I walked in the moonlight. It was fantastic!

I stopped mid-trail and lay down in the dirt, then made myself comfortable and made a romantic satellite phone call. I am so in love with her. I slept awhile laying with my jacket over me, then put it on, then slept more, then cooked and ate.

Sometime after midnight, I resumed walking. Off to my left, the mountainside fell off to unseen distances below. Bathed in half-light, my cry of joy echoed off the moon and the Man-Who-Would-Be-King landscape. I passed the first tree I had seen in more than a month!! Finally, the trail descended into forest. I stopped, worried where I was, blew up my mat, and made camp.

Two days later, I reached civilization.

Two years later, in 2012, I incorporated World Parks, Inc., a non-profit, public benefit corporation, with the end to preserve vast tracts of land on each continent.