Desert Solitude

Quite often, the desert can be a difficult thing to appreciate. It can bake you to the core; there are nasty dust storms; it is full of spiders, snakes and scorpions; there are more thorny, poky plants than imaginable; water sources are scarce; the barren, desolate landscape makes you vulnerable. However, despite all these hardships, the desert country we traveled through the past week left us in awe of it's imposing mountains and raw, untamed beauty.

the vastness of the desert 
that is some seriously dry earth - kind of resembles our desert-dry skin! 
feeling ruggedly alive at this moment

We were introduced to the harsh climate of the Argentine desert the day we traveled to Caviahue. After unsuccessfully hitch hiking for two hours in the middle of stinking nowhere, we ended up hitch hiking for an additional hour or so through an eye-blinding, skin-lashing dust storm. We had dust in places one should never have dust. Eventually, we arrived in 3am and at the start of a 36-hour chilly rain spell. When it finally rains in the desert, it rains with force. We spent our "rest" day avoiding the rain and planning our route north to Chos Malal. The next day the clouds parted and rain cleared as we headed to the awkward, random little village of Copahue. There is an actual hiking trail as well as a road connecting the two towns, but we thought, hey, why not take the more direct route and just go up and over the mountain? Because, as we later learned, the thorn filled bushes are so dense your legs will be bleeding and it will take you just as long to hike 10kms as 20kms. Check - good to know.

worst hitch hiking experience ever - so much dust! 
Trin celebrating as we were breaking our way through to a small clearing 

From Copahue (we originally planned to spend the night but upon arrival quickly decided to camp a few kilometers outside of town) we found a horse trail and followed it up and over a pass where it vanished into a pasture and hidden-mud-filled bowl. We meandered through the desert marshes, past tierra built puestos (huts) and down into appropriately named Valle Aurora (Sunset Valley). While hiking on a dirt road through the expansive and stunning valley, a man in a Jeep Wrangler stopped and chatted us up for a bit. It turned out that his name was Don Carlos (or Nuno), and he was the "owner of all this land" - needless to say, it was a LOT of land. He set us up for the night in a partially constructed house further down the road. We were greeted at the site by three generous workers who immediately offered us matetorta frita, and dinner, which was greatly appreciated after a long day of sloshing-esque bushwhacking.

Shelley figuring out the best spot to cross the mallin 
pasture land leading down into Valle Aurora 

Our next stop along the way was Estancia Ranquilco. It is a 100,000 acre ranch owned by an American, Ashley Carrithers. We had prearranged this stop while in Junin de los Andes through our scientist, Peter, as he and Ashley are acquaintances who met here in Argentina about 30 years ago. Everyone at Ranquilco was extremely generous and welcoming to "the walkers", as we were known as there. We ate mouth-watering meals, swam in the cliff-graced swimming hole, enjoyed the company of wonderful people, drank superb wine, and generally had a relaxing and hospitable stay. We enjoyed our time so much that on our departure day we lingered until 6:30pm when we decided we should finally get back on the trail.

relaxing on the porch of the "Casa Grande" at Ranquilco while
visiting with new friends
the view of Ranquilco as we were leaving 

From Ranquilco we trekked through the cliffed-out Rio Trocoman and onto the vast, desolate, windy desert mountains, eventually making our way to the town of El Cholar. We stopped in at the Gendarmeria (ranger/sheriff/border patrol of Argentina) to inquire about camping and to see if a seed/nut we had picked from one of the poky bushes was edible (it was). While sharing mate and watching a storm brew outside, we were invited to sleep in the extra guest dorm room for the evening. The next morning, due to timing and reappearing colds, we accepted a ride with one of the Gendarms for half the distance to Chos Malal, our destination.  As the car was hugging the curvy and plunging canyon walls, we couldn't help but be incredibly thankful that we were not hiking through this seemingly forbidding and austere landscape. Once the valley opened up and leveled out we started making our way along the deep, muddy river leading to Chos Malal. We trudged through thorns and stickers, climbed up and down rocks, and snaked through five-foot-tall grasses only to realize that we were stuck on the wrong side of the looming, impassible river (deep, wide, muddy, and strong). Damn. Practicing flexibility as usual, we camped on the river bank and hiked 12 very hot and dry kilometers over, down and around to the road (and bridge) the next day.

stunning desert landscapes - makes it look not quite as barren as it can feel 
the sheer canyon walls and muddy river we decided not walk through -
we are so high up that  this photo does not even do the extremeness of it justice 
Entering Chos Malal, we were greeted with another surge of graciousness. Upon recommendation from an employee at Ranquilco, we tracked down the local honey business. Mr. Honey Man, Mirko, gave us the full honey process tour complete with our own huge jar of honey (which we have long devoured). We also were able to stay the night in the washing machine repair shop adjacent to the honey shop (it's a side biz). Mirko and friends didn't stop there - they had a goat asado for us the day we left and sent us off with three massive jars of rich, amber honey. In continuation of the theme of Trinity's previous post, the hospitality we received throughout this leg has been of the utmost generosity and kindness. As much as this trip is about hiking, it is turning more and more into an appreciation and grateful understanding for the people and cultures we encounter along the way.

with Mirko, the honey man! 
After a 13 hour bus ride (made tolerable by sporadic spoonfuls of honey throughout the trip) we have arrived in Mendoza, land of wine. Tomorrow morning, Trinity's sisters, Electra and Sonnet, will be meeting us! We are so looking forward to fresh converstaion, new gear, and good ol' American food - like peanut butter and Clif Builder Bars!!

  • Continued outstanding hospitality 
  • Sleeping inside when it's storming outside 
  • Trinity getting her entire lower leg sucked into a mud hole (this may be a lowlight for her, but it was quite entertaining for Shelley and me)
  • Goats! They are super cute when they run...and quite delicious to eat
  • Playing a lively game of soccer at Ranquilco - it felt SO good to run!!!
  • Eating the best honey ever by the spoonfuls - it's like liquid crack 
  • Shelley's booty is getting bigger!!! (this is a good thing)  
  • Grasshoppers - Shelley thinks they look magical 
  • Some people we hitch hiked with gave us two bags of large, juicy, sweet apples!
  • Getting the full tour of Ranquilco from Ashley's brilliant 30-year-old-stuck-in-a-9-year-olds-body grandson, Kindcaid. Our tour ended up being the "food" tour as we were shown all the best bushes and trees from which to pick fruit 
  • Having hot tea, mate, or coffee in the morning - such a treat!
  • The resplendent desert in the late afternoon sunlight - 
  • Painting our fingernails - we look so feminine (and it hides the dirt so well)
  • Being handed mate first thing in the morning and immediately post-hiking. We need to figure out a way to make the happen more often...
  • Seeing chunky little guinea pigs scampering through the desert

  • Poky, thorny EVERYTHING
  •  Mallins (marshes) in the middle of the desert - it's like the muddy water appears out of thin air and laughs as you slosh through it
  • Finding out that there are poisonous transparent scorpions in the area. Um, no thank you.
  • Creepy, gigantic, yellow and black spiders 
  •  Realizing that although we are in great hiking shape, our running shape may have dwindled slightly in the last 5 months
  • Copahue - it smelled like sulfur and made you feel oddly uncomfortable
  • Not capturing the ultra-splendid sunset in Valle Aurora because the camera battery was dead and the spare was deep in Trinity's backpack
  • While in Caviahue, Trinity waited 20 minutes outside in the freezing rain in just her dress and rain coat (laundry day) for the Internet cafe to open up. Note: the hours posted said it would reopen at 4:00pm and she was told by the owner that he would be there at 4 to open it up. Also, the Internet cafe consisted of ONE computer 
  • As we were sitting in the Internet cafe calmly writing about our travels, we were sharply brought back to reality as a tag-team attempted to rob me. One guy asked me a question while the other grabbed my purse/bag thing. Shelley was up and after him so quickly, as she recognized the voice from a potentinal try on her. We aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto. 

Volcan Copahue - there is an ultra hot termas
towards the top that creates a massive steam plume
scouting for a campsite outside of Copahue
hiking into Ranquilco 
Rio Trocoman, one of the five times we crossed it 
walking with that desert solemnity
the crew at the Gendarmeria 
small obstacles 
Trinity made a quite successful wind-block for our stove out of petrified cow pies 
almost to Chos Malal...


  1. Ill take good care of Pali while Electra's there..have fun!!

  2. Great narration Sarah! Sounds insane and amazing all at once! Enjoy :)

  3. great pictures narration and wonderful places