HOLLOW BE THY NAME
PAYING HIGH-ALTITUDE PENANCE IN ARGENTINA’S PUNA DE ATACAMA
Editor’s Note: Trek gave Bike the opportunity to experience the Full Stache firsthand in Argentina’s Puna de Atacama region, emulating the rugged high-alpine environment where it was designed to excel.
IT TOOK US THREE FULL DAYS TO GET HERE. NONSTOP TRAVEL. I’M tired and the riding hasn’t even begun. Now I’m watching the altimeter of our guide’s GPS spin like the reels of an old gas pump. Three thousand eight hundred; 3,850; 3,900; now … wait for it … 4,000. Four thousand fifty; 4,075. The diesel burbles to a stop on a rise. Four thousand one hundred sixteen meters. Thirteen thousand five hundred feet. Our starting point. I creak open the door and am blasted by a gust. My head swims in heat, stifled.
The landscape has the eerie haunt of Highway 50 in Nevada. Huge rounded lumps taking their time to rise out of high, dry, desert. A monotony to emptiness—hollow that evokes helplessness and drains eyes upon viewing. Francisco José hoists his pack over his shoulder. Lunchtime is over.
Photographer Dan Milner, Trek’s Travis Brown and I follow José down the loose, dusty fire road dodging runnels while spilling into the valley’s base. Víctor Cuezzo is driving the truck the unavoidably very long way around to Coranzuli, a tiny, nearly deserted former mining and military outpost roughly 60 miles east of the Chilean border. It’ll be our stop for the evening. Facing us is a low-mileage, high-effort, even-higher-elevation trudge over an ancient footpath dating back to pre-Incan times. The maze of footpaths we’ll link over the next three days acted as trade routes, connecting Chile’s ocean to our west and Argentina’s jungles to our east, passing through where we are in the desolate Puna de Atacama plateau region.
The one thing I don’t have is bear spray. Our faint singletrack has led us up a drainage. To our right is a vacant outcrop of low, stone houses penned in by a disheveled rock wall. Lining our trail are charred stumps of scrub bushes. José addresses our looks of confusion over navigating the fire-roasted remains, “They burn them to scare away the puma, to protect the herd,” he states, his arm gesturing for effect in a broad horizontal sweep. There are probably close to 15 blackened heaps surrounding us. How many pumas did they need to fend off?
As my stomach gurgles on empty, tartas missing, we’re thrust onto a spacious upper plateau—somehow more
vacant and expansive than our starting valley and after a few pedal strokes along its flank, our entry drainage is all but invisible behind us. We’re in, open and airy, but somehow in, or at least upon—hoisted onto a limitless table. Committed. This now feels committed. Across is the scar of our footpath, illogically etched vertically into the next mountain’s broad shoulder. Brown’s fading figure pedals closer.
Before my bike hits the ground, I’m already swiveling my pack around, exhaling loudly and eying my landing. The metallic ping of my cleats’ release hasn’t left the air before I’m already seated. Summit. Snack time. We were at well over 14,000 feet.
The sky darkens bringing with it a cool tinge, our microwave has turned off. Far below us, a wide riverbed takes long, lackadaisical bends with shimmering ribbons of water creasing its serpentine shape. Layered ridges line the horizon and shadowed hills darken its sides. In the sunlight’s reprieve, the arid landscape has a strangely Alaskan feel.
The next morning, while I’m huffing and puffing up switchbacks and Brown again fades from view, we come across a short elderly woman traditionally attired—not to be confused with tired, which is how I feel while vaguely battling a high-altitude headache. The woman balances her box of goods on her hip and strikes up a conversation with José. I can see her eyes glinting in the morning rays beneath her widely brimmed hat. I instinctively feel constrictive tightening in my chest. This is her footpath. We shouldn’t be here. It’s worse than poaching singletrack in the States, it’s sacrilegious.
But despite the conversation occurring in Spanish, I can tell it’s positive. José smiles, nods, banters back and she retorts in undulating, vivacious bubbling. I have no idea what is said, but both are beaming.
“I came here two weeks ago,” explains José. “She was very upset. She did not want tourism coming to this region and doubted I would actually guide people here with me, she did not understand bicycles. Now she sees that here we are and we have supported the local town,” he smiles.
“We will see her daughter and husband down the trail at her home, they will not be expecting us but she is pleased we will meet them.”
As the day progresses, we traverse a high crust, erosion deeply clawing into sunbaked gray conglomerate. We pass springs spilling over with vibrant, velveteen-soft, Kelly-green patches of vega, and hardened llareta plants enveloping the landscape. I feel moisture in the air. Stone ruins peek from crevices and folds. The stark contrast between parched land and babbling brook is intoxicating.
Three significant stone buildings surround our healthiest tributary of the day. Rock heaps pressed together by fenceposts form an elevated wall, guarded by an ailing shade awning. We’re in the courtyard of the compound before we realize otherwise, unnecessarily feeling voyeuristic from our footpath’s invasion of privacy.
We gently lay our bikes on the vega, a peaceful act of self-disarmament and Milner and José approach the wall as we hear goats bleating. A young woman and older man peer over the fence. The woman’s eyes flicker as José offers an innocuous hola and she jumps behind the fencepost, safeguarded from view. The old man stays planted, unaffected. Milner converses with him and slowly, cautiously, the young woman withdraws from her post, fear of the unknown still evident on her young face. This is the home of our elderly tourism advocate.
In today’s age of found gems, it’s pretty hard to not follow the footsteps of somebody Instagram Famous. I will never forget the look on the young woman’s face.
Day three breaks and we’re in a tangle of red-rock canyons before we know it, beneath an unrelenting maze of rims and it hazes over any hint of orientation I once had. Beyond that, it’s hot. Really hot. The trail has all but vanished, it’s a guessing game of which ridgetop is right, how to cobble together cairns across slabs that seem devoid of organization. How could Incans ever line up this mess?
We eat lunch atop a rise that gives a bit of vantage. There seems no end to this sea. The red rock ruffles for eternity, filling the horizon. Plump lumps in the distance beneath patchy clouds still indifferently wall us in. As I stare at hunks of salami, hunger depleted by heat, I can see them sweating. How will I muster the gumption to finish?
This is the landscape where cowboys die. When the canteen tumbles from their shoulder, last drop trickling onto red sand and they slump, deposited in a heap off their horse, never to move again. We’re there. I recognize the walls surrounding us.
After another scratchy scramble, we buoyantly pop onto an eroding orange ridge skirting a canyon. Across, its pocked walls contort into a million gruesome faces. Is it the heat, or is it me? They almost look foggy. We press on, crunching across sandstone, shrubs and granular trail. My water is hot.
It feels like an out-of-body experience. I can’t see myself from above, but I don’t believe I’m connected to what I see bumbling and feeling for traction. I walk down tech sections I could easily ride. Doesn’t matter, I’m observing anyway.
Our rock fin fades into the chasm of faces, at its base is liquid, formerly water. I flop and fill my reservoir, water striders skittering the surface. Gulping shamelessly, I look up. The sky has turned. I ask José if he’s ever ridden this before. He pauses, “Yes …” he seems wary to commit to my accusation. “Why?” I ask, I can’t hide my disdain. “I love the land,” he says calmly, looking away. I can almost feel his eyes roll, though I’m sure they don’t. This white kid just doesn’t get it. Can’t hack it.