Gettin’ High in Argentina

Wow, altitude! I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere high above sea level without a pressurized cabin, as I would have noticed it! Yesterday we biked from Salta, a meager 1,259m above seal level, to Purmamarca, (2,192m) and I got high man!

Upon arrival in town, I was so beat, but we went into town anyway. After 20 minutes, I was about to collapse. Jeff, on the other hand, felt fine, but he’s a bit more seasoned at high-altitude activity, having completed 3 weeks trekkking in Nepal last year and lighting up a cigarette when he reached the highest pass. He insisted that anything under 4000m is not significant, but I was sure feeling funny. I crashed out hard around 9pm, and at 7am then next day (plenty of sleep later ya?) we got up to go see the sunrise over the 7 Colored Hills. Groggy as I’ve ever been, I dragged myself to the easy lookout, and it was stunning: the hills’ hues, as their name imply, are intensely varied, each of a different age (600-50 million years ago), the highest ones blue, originally from the sea, full of ocean fossils. Green, turquoise, orange, red, purple, white… it was worth getting a closer look. There was an hour-walk through this rainbow valley, and I told Jeff to go without me… I only wanted to go back to camp and either drink maté or nap, completely unsure how I was to hit the pavement in an hours time. But a couple minutes later I changed my mind and ambled down from the lookout after Jeff, (equally reluctant to drag myself back to camp), and of course the walk and photos were fab and I’m so glad I went. In the end, a strong maté helped clear my head and aching body significantly; caffeine is supposedly great for battling altitude sickness.

Cerros de Siete Colores
Cerro de Siete Colores

Flash forward 27km to Tilcara (2461m). Jeff is ILL, nauseous, with headache and upset stomach. (And I’m fully recovered.) Now with earnest about the altitude, he declares the next day Off for acclimatization. After a beautiful, all-day siesta, evening descends, and we decided to hike to the nearby Garganta de Diablo (Devil’s throat). This is what’s cool: I’m so energetic it’s silly, bounding up the dirt paths, ascending another 300m easily, bounding across the streams and through the canyon. I don’t quite understand how a deficiency of oxygen creates euphoria, but when it manifests energy and I feel great, I’m a fan! At the apex of our hike, I had a great epiphany which might become my next great business venture… I can’t tell you now but this idea is pure gold… and all I’ll say is that it’ll make hiking to high places more rewarding than ever.

As I was photographing the waterfall at the end of the hike, which tinted the red walls with a startling red-to-green spectrum, I noticed Jeff throwing stones through the gorge. Smiling, he handed me a rock and said “throw this”. I aimed high, and my rock fell short, pathetically crashing down less than half-way to my mark. It’s amazing how the effects aren’t quite noticeable until you try doing some physical activity. I did notice in my giggly state that I felt high as a kite, and as I was taking trippy pictures of the rock cliffs and cacti in the post-sunset glow, I realized I better get a move on or I’d be stuck out there in the dark.

Garganta de Diablo
Garganta de Diablo

I was testing out an iphone app called Run Keeper, which uses GPS data to track your pace and draw a map of your adventure. At 5km into the hike, I was averaging only 2.5km/hr (due to my frequent photo-pauses), and in my supercharged state I began to run, watching my speed graph soar. Jeff described to me an phenomenon of descending from high altitude, where you are getting more oxygen than you’re used to, creating a superman-effect… I do believe this was what I was experiencing this evening. (By the way, the free Run-Keeper app kicks ass ‐ if you run, walk, trek, or bike, give it a try: it makes exercise super fun, and it’s beautifully authored.)

The hike to the Devil’s throat puts the gorge in gorgeous, and I was in cactus heaven for the first time in my life, so impressed by their anthropomorphic beauty. During the final moments of ambient daylight I decided to become a cactus-hugger and pose for a picture along with a nice tall onbe just off the path. The irony of this whole ridiculous act is that, as I scurried up onto the embankment, I put my hand down on a seemingly benign patch of ground and filled the palm of my hand with 50+ prickly thorns. Doh! I was going to tie my bandana around the cactus for our photo, but it was way too fat up close, and I didn’t feel like getting needled again after all, with a few souvenirs I still had in my hand!


Today I woke up groggy again, but i reckon it’s more because we drank wine last night with campsite neighbors (despite my no-drinking-before-a-ride policy). Whereas we’ve adopted to honor the genius of siesta and bike early OR late, not in-between, we decided to bike late today, as we only have 40km to our next acclimatization point: Humahuaca (2936m!) I’m super-psyched about taking-on high altitudes, as the landscape is new and beautiful, it’s feels different, I feel funny, and it’s yet another horizon to bust open and make mine. This town is so cool-looking too, all mud-brick and monochromatic, (no wood to build with, and senseless to paint on mud as it’ll just blow away with the next strong wind!) And it’s only going to get more dramatic as we climb into Bolivia. Ultimately I hope to pedal-into La Paz, well-known for being the world’s highest city. The mission doesn’t sound too peachy from the bike-logs I’ve read, but I put the peach in peachy so we’ll see.


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