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.