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Walk the Rainbow - Canyons of Bolivia

July 5th, 2006

Although my luck hadn't been stellar in the past month, I decided to test fate on a two-day minitrek and see if I could avoid killing myself. Starting in the dusty hamlet of Humahuaca in NW Argentina (though it might as well be Bolivia), I caught an early bus to Iruya, a town folded between cliffs gorged from the high plan by erosion. Most tourists just pop into Iruya and back -- 6hrs round trip, with a spectacular descent from a 4000m pass (13100ft) down to Iruya at roughly 3000m. The gentle slopes of the green-yellow scrub vanish into red-rock gashes and the valley below. The town itself wraps itself around an iconic, postcard church and has narrow, steep cobblestone streets.

For me, the plan was a little different. I grabbed a quick goat stew at Comedor Iruya, an extension of a family's kitchen and set out to find the way to San Isidro. What I'd planned, based on a tip from Thomas, a Frenchman I'd met in Patagonia, was first San Isidro, and then over a pass to San Juan, a lost town with a few tough families and many more goats. Then, returning to Iruya in time for the last bus the next day, at 3:15pm. Thomas was insistent that I do this hike, as there was a "secret" that I'd be sure to discover.

I hadn't worked out where I'd stay for the night (San Juan has one family with accommodation, but was between 4 and 12 hours away, depending on the source). And my knee was still stiff and annoyed from the bicycle adventure. But, I was off up a canyon of bizarre red and grey rocks, stomping back and forth over the river.

As this was my first hike in a while, and certainly my first at higher altitude (3000m/10000ft), I trudged up slowly, feeling the remarkable rays of a tropical sun, just a little closer than one would like. After about two hours at 4pm, San Isidro appeared, a village strapped to a bluff at the intersection of two valleys. Up until this point, a 4x4 road ran beside my trail. At its terminus, switchbacks led up to San Isidro; they bore 10 donkeys, bearing at least 10 loads of coke, coca leaves and other important staples. I'd thought about continuing to San Juan, but faced a dusk arrival and a 1000m climb over a ridgeback mountain. So, I found one of two families offering accommodation (Hospedaje Teresa) and ate empanadas by candlelight, snug under bright stars clearer for the cold night.

At 8am, as the sun made itself known, the hike began for real. Following locals' advice, I walked past informal horse pastures up the valley, crossing over the river and up the path where it zigzagged like lightning up the opposing slope. For the next hour and change, I climbed steadily on steep switchbacks. Teresa had informed me there was no food or water in San Juan, and I had one round bread, a few cuts of cheese and two waters to deliver me back to Iruya.

Without so much as a yelp from my knee, I crested the ridge, about 3800m, at 10, I crested the ridge that divides the San Isidro valley from that of San Juan. Looking over San Juan, the secret greeted me: Mar de Nubes, the sea of clouds that hangs over the surrounding valleys. A weird meteorological relic of humidity and mysticism, it stretched as far as the eye could see. Foolish and free, I posed for the tripod, and scarfed down a mandarin orange, unaware that the hike would continue to get better.

Making my way down the equally steep slope to San Juan, an old woman screeched that under no circumstances was I to take her photo. But she also directed me across the gorge to San Juan proper. Passing a significantly friendlier girl skinning a goat, I got directions down the valley and down to Iruya. San Juan has no electricity, and for the wetter half the year, is utterly unpassable for its raging valley river. It has the feeling of a town lost to the modern world, with corn drying in huge straw baskets, and potatoes ripening on tin roofs in the sun. Electric wires, the scourge of my photography, were nowhere to be seen.

Following the directions from the goat-girl, I thought I'd be following the valley out, and intersecting. I trudged down the valley until meeting a female shepherd who smiled and shook her head as I explained my plan. She pantomimed (couldn't bridge my Spanish to her Quechua) that if I continued down the valley I would fall over a waterfall cliff to my death. The only road back to Iruya was over the mountains again. 3 to 4 hours away. It was noon, and I was worried. 3:15 would be tough.

So, I climbed. I passed circling condors (a scavenger bird), ruins of homes, goat pens, and a family heading the other way from Iruya. At least 3 hours into the hike, and the father was carrying a DOOR. Not a light one, but a wooden, stained, mahogany door. I gawked in amazement, and resolved not be tired. I pumped through the rest of the switchbacks, and crested the hill -- to be treated to my second moment of gawking amazement. The path clung tightly to the cliff, with a foot or two of give before plunging into the valley below.

The setting was dramatic enough, but my mouth hung open as I looked at the path ahead. As it was cut into sharp hills, it borrowed the color of each hill.. it passed through a rainbow -- red dust, orange, green, blue, purple. Walking the rainbow on a tightwire. I was loving it. The path crested, and then opened onto a plateau like an unrolled tongue of green, like those I'd seen on the bus descent. I padded down, pinching myself for the high-mountain beauty. To my right, a mountain of 10, 11? colors, all folded together like saltwater toffee. A burro stood stiffly in my path, but offered no directions or resistance to Iruya. My watch said 2:15. I had an hour.

Kicking the hike into overdrive, I budgeted 30 minutes to descend into the valley below, and another 30 to charge up the final valley to Iruya and the 3:15 bus. Coming off the plateau, I was skipping and hopping through red and white dust as the path wound down. I couldn't help but imagine the man with the door ascending, but my focus was simple: don't trip. The path spilled out onto the valley below at 2:45. I had no water left, but charged up the valley, now hot and quiet in the afternoon sun.

My heart was pounding, but in even, strong rhythm as I passed by Iruya's fetid animal pens, and up into the main plaza. 3:10pm. The bus sat there, surrounded by complacent passengers, waiting for the hour of ignition. I gasped, asking in clumsy Spanish how much time I had. 6 minutes. Enough to buy water. I did. It was Sweet. Refreshing. Perfect. Hopped onto the bus, and was back on the road, speeding north towards the future.

(All Argentina)
Wild West Cactus!
Posing at Sunset
Holy Clouds Batman!
Erosion - Fun
Wanted: Hinges
Look at da Colors
. .