On the upper deck of the trans-Andes bus, the gap-year backpackers from every advanced economy of the globe did not appreciate the danger we were in. Not yet. When I looked back from my seat at the front, I saw that many of them were busy with iPads and iPhones, a few were asleep and the rest were chatting.
No one was watching the digital display that recorded the outside temperature. It had been falling ever since we left behind the last human habitation, in Argentina. Now it was below zero and still dropping. Rolling sheets of ice particles were scouring the road, while the midday sky remained an imperturbable blue.
We had spent several hours winding westwards towards Chile, up into inhospitable realms, passing vast salt lakes presided over by snow-capped peaks and seeing signs of life disappear. Now there were no more vicuña and guanaco, the wild llamas of the Andes, no suri, the giant flightless bird. At 4,800m, even the golden tussock grass had given up and there was nothing, only the jagged peaks rising from a barren plain. The bus lowed, then gave a shudder as an icy blast hit it broadsides.
Crossings are often the best part of any journey, whether it’s over a border or pass, or through straits. Humans have long known that such moments require the greatest concentration, for in those crossings comes the greatest danger – and the greatest pleasure. My favourites have always been mountain passes: the modest Lake District, or the dizzying Rockies or Himalayas.
I was looking forward to my first journey over the Andes, and to this pass, from Purmamarca in Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I was expecting something special from the 10-hour bus ride. But I had not considered that a journey over a barrier like the Andes can take a traveller over subtler barriers too – like the one that separates you from the local culture.
The woman across the aisle let out a howl of frustration: “No signal!” Along the deck, headphones were flung aside, screens tapped, phones raised. The bus kept grinding upwards and the temperature gauge settled for -10C. The sheets of ice had become storms of blinding white. Then, with a lurch, we stopped. Ahead of us a lorry was jammed into a bank of driven ice. There was no way past, and our coach could not reverse or turn around. I saw the driver, or one of his assistants, struggling through the blizzard.
Lorries struggle through icy winds. Photograph: Kevin Rushby
“There’s this girl I know on Facebook,” said someone behind me, “she was stuck for two days and then they went back to Purmamarca.”
This news caused alarm: “They shouldn’t allow the buses to go if it’s dangerous!” “I’ve got a flight to catch.”
I pulled on my boots and jacket, grabbed my camera and set off to the lower deck. On the stairs the transition from tourism to adventure travel was drawing differing responses. A few passengers were embracing the excitement, but most were grim-faced. “The toilet’s blocked.” “I’m cold.” We’d been stopped less than 10 minutes.
Fortunately for me the adventure had started a day earlier and I was already in the mood. Sometimes a trip does that: jumbling any plans and demanding that you leap from tourist to traveller. My plan had read: “Transfer by car from Salta to Purmamarca via the famous tourist attraction of Humahuaca Gorge, then take the bus across the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.” That was not exactly what had happened.
I’d driven out of Salta early the previous morning with Edgar, my guide there. We were talking about the astonishing Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in the town square.
“It’s still controversial with some people,” Edgar had said. “They don’t like their ancestors to be disturbed.”
Five centuries ago the Incas, revering the eternal sun and the restless volcanoes, had sacrificed children by leaving them to die on the top of particular mountains.
“It’s not a human sacrifice,” said Edgar. “Don’t call it that.”
Their diminutive corpses were discovered in 1999 – preserved by severe cold and depleted oxygen – and removed to Salta. In the museum the story of how they came to be on a remote, 6,700m mountaintop builds to a remarkable moment of ghastly drama, when you come face to face with one of the children. It is a moving experience, giving a glimpse into ancient times, when people believed that mountains were living beings who made war on each other. In those times the few humans who passed that way came as supplicants, filled with a sense of awe and magic.
“Some people still revere the mountains,” said Edgar. “They wanted those children to be left alone.”
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