Even though our Spanish wasn’t that good, and no one at La Posada spoke much English, the message was clear. We shouldn’t hike from the high-altitude desert of Argentina’s northern Jujuy provence, over the ridge line and down into the rain forest on the other side of the enormous 12,000 ft peaks.
But we couldn’t help ourselves. My wife and I were confident: we were experienced hikers and backpackers, had most recently lived in northern Montana’s Rockies and spent a lot of time backpacking Glacier National Park. And we were curious. Not only did this trip somehow take you from desert to jungle just by crossing a ridge line, it also went through an old ghost town, and small inhabited town that was only accessible by foot or horseback.
The owner of La Posada urged us to hire a guide, explaining “no hay sendero,” there is no path, and the weather is unpredictable. We were camping in La Posada’s yard at night, and knew that it got cold. Despite 70 degree days, our water bottles had an ice film over the top in the morning.
My wife and I had decent sleeping bags though, and had found a description of the route on top of the microwave in the kitchen at La Posada that appeared to have been photocopied from a guide book. So we went for it. The evening before we set out we picked up fruit and nuts at the local shops – easy light foods that didn’t need cooking – and a few bags of coca leaves to fight altitude sickness.
The next morning we got on a crowded bus that took us – very slowly – to the tiny town of Uquía. From what I remember, the guide book told us to walk up a dirt road in Uquía, cross a bridge, take a right, follow another road to the left, and at the top of the hill on the last road, we’d see a trail that went straight into the mountains.
We missed a turn, and ended up walking for an hour before realizing it. After back tracking, we found the trail that exited the road. This trail quickly faded out in a criss cross of game trails and wash outs as we walked into the desert of giant cacti and llamas, toward huge peaks with bands of red, gold and purple color running through them. After a couple hours of walking and wandering, we found the trace of a dirt road that meandered in the direction of Capla, the ghost town where we planned to spend the night and get water.
At this point we realized that, between the bus ride and our wanderings, we didn’t have much time if we wanted to get to the town before nightfall, so we hiked fast down the road, despite being out of water and thirsty. Within a few hours, we came on a collection old broken down clay buildings at the top of a small draw, dwarfed by the ridge line we were supposed to cross the next day.
Walking into town, we heard dogs barking, and found a well-worn foot trail, with food scraps littering the ground. We decided that if there were still people here, we’d better introduce ourselves before setting up camp.
Soon we came across two old ranching dogs, guarding a round stone corral. Inside the corral a herd of goats nervously watched us, and as we came around the edge of the corral, we could see one home that was clearly still being maintained. The dogs approached us, still barking, and the plank door of the house opened a crack.
“Hola?” I called out.
The door didn’t move.
“Hola… estamos buscando agua,” I tried.
An old woman came out, dressed in several layers of wool clothes with irregularities that suggested she’d made them herself. She had the dark, deeply wrinkled skin of someone who’d spent a lifetime working outside in a brutal sun. I was at least a foot and a half taller than her, wearing a bright red T-shirt, sunglasses, shorts, and a huge orange backpack. She stared at me like I’d just stepped out of a space ship.
“¿Que quieren?” she asked brusquely, staying about 5 feet away.
“Estamos buscando agua, ” I said, “y un lugar en lo que podríamos acampar.”
I don’t think my grammar was too bad, but my horrible accent threw her off, and I had to repeat myself several times, slowly, before she got it. She waved toward the high end of the draw and said we could find water that way, waved toward the entrance to the town and said we could camp over there. Then she turned her back, and called the dogs to follow her back to the home.
We hiked back to the town entrance, and found a spot to camp in the footprint of a long-gone structure, next to another crumbling home. I went to find water while my wife started setting up camp.
The stars were amazing that night. We stayed out as long as we could in the cold desert air watching them and wondering about this woman, why she was up there, apparently alone. Why she had held out so far from the rest of humanity. When it got too cold, we finally crawled into our tent, exhausted.
But I didn’t sleep. I felt odd all night, and laid in my sleeping bag listening as the wind outside began to howl. The next morning when I crawled out of the tent and stood, I felt so dizzy I thought I would black out or vomit. Altitude sickness had definitely set in. Meanwhile, the wind had kicked up to tornado speeds, and the peaks above us had been erased by all the sand whipping through the air.
We tried waiting it out in the tent for a few hours, with me chewing coca leaves and drinking water. As we listened, hoping the wind would die down. It didn’t. By noon, I still felt terrible. It was time to bag this attempt. We packed up and headed back down, but decided that we would definitely see the jungle, even if we had to ride a bus there.