Epic Serendipity

The plan: Laguna Blanca to Molinos for an easy six day trek. Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter, is an international spring break in the predominantly Catholic countries of South America- everyone and their mother (literally) are traveling. We seldom run on a schedule and reservations are near-impossible. Packed and ready to go, the only bus to Laguna Blanca from Belén was sold-out and the next bus was four days later. Stuck. We divided in the overcrowded bus terminal to attempt to conquer piecing together a new plan: buses, taxis, hitching or possibly a ride on the embarrassed burro dressed in a sombrero and sequins out front- any way to get north out of Belén. Finally, my new amigo, an old man on a bike, waved me over, "Bus is here, out front! Go!" Enough said! We boarded before even knowing where we were heading. New plan: hike the extra 70km from Villa Vil to Laguna Blanca, then on to Molinos. If we have learned anything in South America, it is to not get too attached to plans...

Crammed into a sliver of standing room on the bus to who-knows-where, we were dropped off at a random intersection, picked up by a semi and with heads still spinning, we made it to Villa Vil and back onto our own eight feet. Well, at least for half a mile. Out of the dust a BMW biker gang materialized and plans changed again. New plan: ride in their support truck to the Laguna Blanca cut-off to save a few extra days. A few introductions, some maté and an offer for the two already booked rooms (not being used) in their Peñón hotel later and before we knew it we were heading to Antofagasta. New-est plan: enjoy being "kidnapped" by the best group of Argentinian guys we've met, sight-see for a day ("Piedra de Pomez") and continue on to Antofagasta de la Sierra, hopeful that we would be able to snake our way through the 4,000 and 5,000 meter peaks east to Molinos. With the wind in our hair and unparalleled views flashing by in every direction, we couldn't help but cry out gleefully!

Our compadres through the incompatible, desolate Antofagasta
The truth is that we had desperately wanted to see Antofagasta but the landscape is so vast that most people hire 4x4 excursions. Regretfully, we concluded we would have to save it for another trip: there's practically no water, other than salt water (from the salt flats), and it was too far out of the way- costly in both time and money to side trip to. Our impromptu pickup was the perfect excuse we needed in order to see this secret sanctuary so far removed from the hand of man. If we had gotten that initial bus ticket, none of this would have happened. We openly accept the serendipity life throws our way.

Every direction we looked, the landscape was widely diverse but equally stunning. South: the valley filled with pumice stones. West: the polychromatic haphazardly painted range. East: the monochromatic desert drifts. North: peaks as high as 6,000 meters looming in the distance. No cars. No people. No sound. Where the water left off in shaping this harsh environment, the wind painted it with an air-brushed quality- erasing all harsh lines- blending the volcanic reds and blacks with the desert palette. These pictures were literally taken all from the same area:

While debating which route to take east and/or north, we discovered the hotel owner in Antofagasta had made a 5 foot by 5 foot 3-dimensional foam topo-map of the entire region, each layer representing 500 meters of altitude. By far the best "map" we have seen on our travels, unbelievable!  Descriptions such as "past the dead lion to the dead man salt flat" left our newest companions assuming a fatherly role and skeptical to let us venture off alone. When the police came to summon us for "a talk" we knew we had worried more than just a few people. After much discussion, we were hesitantly dropped off at yet another intersection in our nomadic lives. Our route basically planned itself, based entirely around water availability: day one a fresh water pond alongside a salt lake, day two at the one house with the señora, day three the salt mine, and day four at Cienaga Redonda (a town with six families). The visual aid and firsthand knowledge gave us enough direction for at least the first four days...

Hard to believe this was not a fake backdrop
Our first sight of natural water in weeks!
Tres Chicas Locas taking in the sun and the void
The lava looked like it was still flowing
Welcome to Antofagasta!
First day in and we understood how people see mirages- that vegetation had no water
Ascending through the pass, we left the charcoal drawings behind us and eagerly approached the vibrant purple mountains dramatically sandwiched between stark-white salt flats and snow-capped peaks. Around every corner was the unexpected that took our breath away... or perhaps that was the thin air in the 4,400 meter (14,500 foot) valleys. With the massive ridges still looming another 2,000 feet above it was easy to forget we were actually hiking higher than any of us had ever been before- "peaking" in one pass around 14,700 feet and camping consistently at 13,400 feet.

Descending to the Laguna- salt? water? ice?
Sarah and I had a heated debate whether this was the best sunset of the trip (I say yes)
Morning and proximity provided a clearer view of the Laguna, there was water! But... it was salt water.
Luckily, we followed herds of vicuñas and burros to find the source of fresh water on the far side of the lake
Spotting the Vicuñas from miles away is easy when there is nothing blocking the view...
Wonderful morning sun, reflection separated by the salt line, life is goooooooood!
I think the paint is still drying on this ever-changing panorama
Optical illusions everywhere! The Salar is not really under my feet but several kilometers away, down the valley
Hombre Muerto Salar (Dead Man Salt Flats) 
These two ladies, living so far from anything, have their drinking water shipped in via truck. Thank you for sharing!!
Inspecting the salt crystals- this was unlike anything we have ever seen before!
To top it off- flamingos. This has to be some kind of dream!?
Apparently we aren't the only ones out here wandering in serach of water...
There was a clear difference between the parts  of the salt flat that had been mined and had not
Unreal beauty. Shhh... It can be our little secret...
Through the notch and into the mountains- one full day of flat hiking in the wide open was enough for us
Cienaga Redonda down in the right corner
Cienaga Redonda was the end of the line for our first half of directions. When looking at the GPS, the contour lines to Molinos looked impassible. The closest intersection to hitch from was over 100km north and the only truck that comes and goes from this corner of the world would be back in 15 days. Stuck. While trying to figure out the slope of the mountains (I opted for the "rise over run" approach while the math majors Trinity and Sonnet discussed the Sin/Cos/Tan), we realized the quickest way to figure out if it was passable was to ask the locals. "Molinos? Yes. Easy. Up and over." Only problem is we were running low on food and the town seemed to run on rations. With some pleading and awkward interactions, we were able to buy some crackers from the local families and head out. Up and Over!

An example of our typical map: Up and over that valley (Check), turn right at the end of the salt flat (Check), follow the river (Check), turn left at the tire tracks (Check), through the valley of sand (Check) and turn right at the pile of rocks (hmmm... never did find that one...)
Spongy, muddy, lumpy, GORGEOUS wide valley
Sarah ridge walking through paradise
Trying to spot the tire tracks in the vast valley

Purple mountain majesty... and lava rock and sand dunes... What planet are we on!?
Trinity in search of the "rock pile" 
Having missed the "rock pile" along the way, we decided to follow the river instead. As the sprawling valley narrowed into a canyon, we had to scout out a constriction and what appeared to be a waterfall ahead. Stuck. Since the water was low, it was passable. Boulder hopping through the lupin lined gorge we felt like kids on a playground. The next day and only 1.9 km from the mouth, the canyon continued to narrow and we opted to take the high road- up and over again. 2,000 foot vertical climb at 14,000 feet to "get some perspective" will get your heart pumping! The wide valley below was so close, yet so far. Wandering down the steep hillside, over the multiple ridges we stumbled onto a trail that had to have been built by an army. We're thinkin' Incan. Although it was fairly overgrown, the switchbacks built up with rocks passed several abandoned wind shelters and provided a safe escape down the mountain. Looking back where we had just come from we let our jaws hang low at the sight of the multi-tiered waterfall and the size of the peaks.

Snaking our way through the growing canyon, eventually opted to just walk through the water instead of getting cliffed out over and over again
The aromatic mixture of thousands of lupins and mint the last couple days was heavenly 
Slowly but surely the canyon got narrower and steeper, but it was wonderful while it lasted!
Almost there... just a few obstacles...
The shortest day in distance was by far the toughest day on our bodies, as it usually is. But we didn't stop there. We were motivated by visions of pizzas, beers and beds and hiked by light of the full moon. When we got to "el pueblo" on Saturday night before Easter and the party was raging. People apparently celebrate the rise of Jesus in the unlit streets by getting completely inebriated and jamming to a concert in the plaza until 5am. Beers were not going to be a problem, the pizza and beds a little more so. At the only diner in town, we ordered the only thing on the menu- Milanesa. With aching feet and pounding heads, we pleaded our homelessness to the police until they offered us up a corner on the tile floor in a empty room. We were thrilled to have a wall between us and the band.

More, please:
- After a quick lesson in how to find the Southern Cross, Sonnet loves playing the "I found it first" game
- Seeing a flamingo soaring so high that we thought it was a condor at first- we didn't really know they flew!
- Vicuñas everywhere! (the high altitude cousin of guanacos)
- The adorable Viscacha coming out of their caves and scampering up the rocks
- Watching the full moon rise over the 5,000 meter peaks
- Not seeing anymore tarantulas!
- Among the bikers was a professional photographer- Rodrigo Vergara. I was stoked to handle his monstrous cameras and even more excited to see the pictures he took! (we can't wait to buy his books!)
- Benefit to not being a huge tourist attraction yet is we found little to no trash in Antofagasta!
- The biggest Milanesa Completa: beef-fried steak sandwich topped with a fried egg and french fries, all for under US$3!
- A bag full of bon-bons as a parting gift from our favorite bikers
- Our tent held up under the high winds of high altitude!
- Having extra fuel for hot tea in the morning to warm our souls (we usually only cook at night)
- Stopping into the salt mine for a refill on water and leaving with full bellies after lunch!
- Cavernous rocks and wonderful sculptures seeming to grow and twist from the ground up
- The dirt ridges in the salt flats that gave the appearance of the spine of a mythical creature swimming below the surface
- A heat lightening storm centralized on top of a volcano in the distance
- Sarah and Trinity got to pet a baby vicuña! A pet in the strange little village of Cienaga Redonda
- NFT (new fav thing): Donkeys, we are all debating getting one as a pet when we get home
- Silky smooth volcanic rock and gorgeous crystal quartz
- Sleeping inside the super nice new school at Cienaga Redonda (sad irony that it was a gift from the mining company who discovered gold in their back yard)
- Stumbling onto an Incan Trail and finding a safe way down the cliffy mountain
- Trying coca leaves for the first time (very common in Northern Argentina and Bolivia), Trin loves the tea
- The laundry lady asked if we were archaeologists because all our things were so full of sand.

Less, please:
- Inner thigh chaffage from our super dry skin
- Hiking through sand turns out to be very tiring and hard on the joints
- Cacti on the rocks right where we want to put our hands to help the boulder hopping
- Sink holes when stepping a little too close to lizard holes in the soft ground
- High altitude, low temperatures. Winter is just around the corner!
- After a wonderful dinner and wine over candlelight and live music, Sarah and I reunited in the hostal lobby at 5am with matching stomach pains... no bueno!
- Trinity and Sonnet have matching "sister blisters" on their heals
- Realizing that even our salt comes from a place that is destroying the natural beauty. FMC is an American company and they export the majority of the salt farmed in Antofagasta to the US
- Walking in the dark past barking dogs really got our stress levels up
- Seeing a scorpion and unsure if it is the poisonous kind we were warned about, we will just play it safe and steer clear of all scorpions...
- "The town" ended up being "La Puerta" and although Molinos wsa only 22km via GPS it was actually 2+ hours via bus and our planned taxi there was not an option.
- While enjoying the scenery of our last of many rides in the truck bed, the tailgate opened! (don´t worry, we were all well in and rapped on the window with a hiking pole to resecure).
- Learning that Kansas lost in the championship game... ROCKCHALK!

We hoped to be able to hike from Cachi north, a charming little town with white-washed buildings, iron signs, cobblestone streets and stone archways lining the plaza all flanked by nine massive peaks called the "Nevado de Cachi." Alas, no internet in the town (we needed to let people know we were alive!) had us catching the next bus back into civilization and down through the clouds, quite literally. It is amazing from boulder hopping along a river and clinging to a cliff side by grass roots, that the scariest part of the entire trip was taking the dilapidated bus on the "Cuesta de Obispo", a road seemed to be built by someone with a dark sense of humor to raise adrenaline in people who don't seek adventure on their own two feet: winding through the enchanted valley with, of course, bottomless cliffs on all sides. The cherry on top was the car sick 3 year old and mom throwing the bag-o-vomit right out the window (we later learned that a bus had rolled down the 2,000 foot cliff just a few days earlier).

There's only one week left for us in Argentina and lots of ground to cover before we need to be in Uyuni to meet up with Sydney, my friend who is coming to hike with us through all of Bolivia! When we arrived in Salta, we were too car sick and dirty to want to shower and then do it all over again the next day so we hopped the next bus to Jujuy. After an epic week we are toning things down and heading to a Nature Reserve north of town to volunteer at Aldea Luna- 6.5 months of constant travel and we are extremely looking forward to homecooked veggie-full meals and some meditative gardening.

High on Life, We are stoked that Sonnet was with us for such an epic leg!

Cuatro Chicas Locas... soon to be FIVE!


  1. Thank you for this epic piece of writing Shelley! You are expanding my understanding of the words adventure, friendship, beauty, and strength. Enjoy Aldea Luna. love, M.

  2. wow wow wow! So amazing. So pretty. You are 4 lucky girls!

    xo maya