“In the desert, you can remember your name, cause there ain’t no one to give you no pain”, says the song we’ve been listening during this road trip. The problem is that there ain’t no one to help you if you get into trouble, or in our case if your car gets stuck in something similar to quick sand and you are over 50km away from the closest thing to civilization; a small village with 5 houses.
Our ordeal of 4 days and 3 nights in the middle of the desert at 4700m over the sea level in Jujuy, north of Argentina, started when we decided to go to San Pedro de Atacama from La Quiaca. That day we had traveled from Humahuaca, a charming little town which has become so famous that it’s made for tourism nowadays, and had picked up a couple of hitchhikers who were traveling to Bolivia. Talking about destinations and traveling, we decided to change our plans and go directly to Atacama desert instead of crossing Bolivia to go to the Uyuni Salt Flats. This meant crossing the north west of Jujuy, which is pretty much inhabited by vicuñas and flamingos, but not many humans, therefore the roads are made for animals or very crazy 4×4 vehicles a.k.a. Marko and I, who until yesterday had a thing for off-road and remote places.
We started traveling down the Ruta Nacional 40, a very famous route as it connects Ushuaia with La Quiaca crossing the whole country through extremely beautiful landscapes parallel to the Andes mountains. If you ever want to see Argentina, just traveling those 5194km will show you everything you need to see, and probably more. The problem is that the last few hundred kilometers of RN40 are kind of forgotten as it doesn’t cross the most famous towns of Jujuy, so they are not paved, and although the road still goes through the most amazing landscapes I’ve ever seen, you need to be very careful and our average speed was 30km per hour.
Around 19.30 it was getting dark and we saw a llama shepherd putting his llamas in their shelter so we decided to ask him if we could camp for the night in his property, as we were still far from our next destination, Valle de la Luna in Jujuy. He was a little suspicious at first seeing Marko, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, and me just casually wandering the area, which is not visited very often. Still, he let us camp and even invited us to his little house, where we met his wife and four out of his five daughters, including the cutest five year old girl who could not stop talking, singing songs in English and even helped Marko with his Spanish. We had a wonderful evening talking about life in general and eating a delicious llama belly stew the family shared with us.
When we told the shepherd our plans of going to Atacama, he told us that we shouldn’t miss the Laguna Vilama, a desert lagoon full with flamingos 100km away from where we were in the middle of nowhere, and kind of in the way of San Pedro de Atacama if you don’t mind a 150km detour. We were ecstatic, this meant a place to discover which not many people, apart from very local people, knew about! We had been in the “Puna Catamarqueña” and fallen in love with the landscape, and here was this man telling us that there was an even more amazing place somewhere 100km away from us. We couldn’t resist!
The landscapes were incredible, it truly looked out of this world or that someone with a big love for Photoshop had created the view. It was crazy going up and up the mountains through this ridiculous small road to find the mysterious lagoon the shepherd had talked so much about. Of course, the conditions of the road allowed us to drive at 20km per hour, but that meant that it was even more worth visiting it.
After finally reaching the lagoon, having lunch and taking a few pictures, we started to head back to RN40 taking a “shortcut” which would have saved us around 2hs of driving according to our estimations. Everything was fine until we arrived to a tiny pond of water, which was not marked on maps.me, and the road seemed to cross right through the middle. Marko tried going around it as he was suspicious of crossing the water even with a 4×4. The ground looked very dry and rocky, but this was our death trap, the moment the car got on it, it sunk to 3/4 of the wheels. We were stuck in something similar to quick sand, which its top layer would dry almost instantly and look like concrete, but underneath it would still be wet and almost liquid.
It was 17.30 and we started to dig with our hands to try to get the car out of that mess. But the mud kept covering the wheels and looked like we were making a bigger problem than anything else. We also realized that we were stuck in the desert, where as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature can drop to -15ºC and we would need to spend the night up there. Luckily we had all of our camping gear and could pitch the tent a few meters away from the car, put all of our warm clothes and get inside before it got too cold. The tent was already rocking due to the wind once we got in, the vastness of the land had no resistance for it, so when the cold air hit us, we could feel it everywhere. We waited until the morning trying to sleep and figuring out what to do next. We knew we were in big trouble, but neither of us was going to give up.
The next morning we woke up with the sunrise and prepared to walk to the nearest village, which was supposed to be 8km away from our car. We didn’t know if we could find the help we needed there, so we prepared for the hike thinking we would spend the night in someone’s house or ask for a ride to the another larger town. We took our sleeping bags, 4.5 liters of water, oatmeal cookies and a salami. I hate carrying extra weight while hiking, so I resisted on bringing more food as 8km was supposed to be a short walk, not knowing that by the end of that day we would had walked much more.
When we reached the 8km mark, we were in the middle of nowhere with no signs of civilization. We searched for at least a goat trail to take us to where the village was supposed to be, but we couldn’t even find ruins of an old house. Later we would realized that it was wrongly marked in the map as a village when that name really belongs to a small lagoon. At that time, we had to keep walking, we had to find help. This meant walking another 8km to the intersection with the State Route 70, even when we were exhausted after only 8km, with hopes of finding someone passing by that could help us tow our car out of the mud.
We walked another 8km under the scorching sun, breathing slowly and walking even slower. It took us 4.5 hours to reach the intersection since the moment we left our car, but it felt like a lifetime. I kept picturing a car passing by, and the sound of wind coming from the distance resembled an engine, in our desperate minds, so much that we would stop and look around in vain hoping to find another person nearby.
The next closest thing down the road was called Rosario de Susques and it looked like just a church on the map. But no one builds a church in the middle of the desert with no houses around, so we took our chances and walk an extra 9km with hopes of finally finding someone, or at least breaking into the church to spend the night.
We walked, and walked and walked. We saw more vicuñas and flamingos than we could even care. The landscapes were still spectacular but I could only focus on the ground, breathing in and out and following Marko who helped me to keep walking by carrying my backpack as I was about to collapse.
Two kilometers before the village we saw some llamas, which were decorated in the typical manner of the region and a herd of sheep or goats up the mountains. They were a clear sign that people had to be around, so it gave us strengths to walk a little faster. Almost tears came rolling down our cheeks, if we had had any energy to cry, when we saw the church in the distance and that several houses were around it. There even was a solar panel on top of one of the roofs. We had walked 25 kilometers in the desert, but we were going to get the help we were looking for.
It was around 15.30 when we got to that place, which is during the middle of the “siesta” in Jujuy, so I didn’t think of much when we couldn’t see a soul around. They were probably sleeping or afraid of the couple of strangers that had just arrived to their eight room hamlet, and weren’t coming out until they saw that we didn’t mean any harm.
While I was trying to recover in the shades next to a black cat who wanted to cuddle, Marko roamed around trying to find someone. Two hours and a couple of “AYUDA” (help) screams later, it became more clear that no one had been there in at least a couple of months, if not more, as everything looked abandoned and desolated with all the locks outside the doors. I still couldn’t understand how the cat had managed to survived alone in the desert and was expecting someone to show up at the end of the working day. Marko decided to break in the room with the solar panel in hopes of finding a radio or some other means of communication. We also needed a place to spend the night, as it was too late to go back to the car and we wouldn’t survive the night outdoors.
He figured out how the lock of the door was built, after trying to break in like in movies didn’t work, and opened the door by unscrewing the handle. Once inside we knew the place had been abandoned long time ago. Everything was messy, there was dry llama meat and bones everywhere, open packs of pasta and expired powder milk. Dirty pots, pans and llamas and sheep skins piled to the roof. There was also a bunch of keys which wasn’t hard to realize could open other rooms and even the church, so we tried to open as many doors as possible just to see if we could find anything that could be useful.
We found a room where fire had been made, another one with two beds made out of piles of wool blankets, several dirty and empty rooms and two very strange rooms with special doors and modern locks which could not be opened, but from a small window we could see they were some kind of storage rooms someone had made an effort to keep out of sight. There was even a room with a big sign saying “Welcome Pilgrims” which was the only room that looked clean but we also couldn’t open, and the church which was empty and had a notebook which its last entry had been on June 2016. There was a lot of trash around and many, many bottles of alcohol everywhere. It was very surreal to be in such a place in the middle of the desert, which looked as it had been religious but no one had taken cared of it in a long time. This was a true ghost town.
When we finished exploring, we collected the things that could be useful to us; a closed pack of pasta, a pot, detergent and a shovel, which could be our lifesaver. We managed to make a fire and boiled some water to cook pasta. We ate the food as if it was medicine, as we weren’t hungry, it wasn’t fully cooked and had only a bit of salt, but we knew we had to walk back to the car another 25km the next morning. Then we prepared a bed for both of us to sleep in and spend our second night in the desert.
The next morning we woke up at 6am trying to get to our car as soon as possible and start with our new plan: Dig the car out with the shovel and pave under it with rocks to get it out of the mud. The alternative was to walk to a town called Nuevos Pirquitas over 50km away from the car on the opposite direction of where we were, by camping on the road and carrying as much water and food as we could, but considering how hard it had been to walk with less weight, that was our last option.
We only had an open pack of oatmeal cookies and half a salami left for the day, which we decided to ration by eating one cookie and a bite of salami each every two hours during our hike, leaving the last two cookies until we saw the car, where we had more food and water to survive for a couple more days.
The walk back to the car was long. This time we knew from the start it was going to be 25km until we reached our destination and we were carrying a shovel which we would take turns to carry. My focus was again on the ground and the breathing. Two short breaths in, one long breath out, two short breaths in, one long breath out, this was the only way I could manage to keep walking. We walked quite fast and managed to do the first 6km before sunrise, the air was cold, but it was easier to walk than under the burning sun. When the sun came out it was a different story, we kept our pace as much as we could, but we would take short breaks a little more frequently every time. During the last 8km we had to take a break every kilometer to sit down, breath and drink a sip of water to be able to keep walking for one extra kilometer. Our goal was to reach the car, even though we weren’t sure if we would be successful in digging it out with just one shovel. Still, the car meant food and water which we were running short of. Also during the whole way we could see our own tracks, meaning that no one had passed through that road in the last day, we were alone, we had to get out of there by ourselves.
There was a moment, during the middle of our hike, when we were both sitting on the ground trying to catch our breaths, that I realized that we were walking away for civilization and into nothingness. We were surrounded by silence, the deepest silence I have ever heard. So quiet that I could hear the buzz of my own ears and again, the wind in the far distance coming would sound like an engine which only a few minutes later would blow on us with all its freezing strength and would leave us back in complete silence. Nothing was around us, only stones and small bushes and even though we knew we were walking away from a chance of finding someone, we kept walking towards the car. I think my mind was never quieter that during that walk, I was not thinking, only breathing.
Around 14hs we saw the car from 700m away next to that little pond of water that had cause us so many problems. Everything was fine, for some reason we felt relieved, even if we were in the exact same position as we had started the day before, still stuck in that “quick mud”.
I started to prepare food while Marko started to dig around the car, we hadn’t had more than 4 cookies and a few bites of salami each during the whole day. I was moving slowly and quite light headed only thinking in preparing chicken noodle soup, saving as much water as possible by using the water from canned vegetables to boil the pasta. We only had 6 liters of water left, the lagoon water was salty and unusable, even with Marko’s water filter, and we had spent over 4.5 liters of water per day as the dry conditions would make our throats hurt and be in constant need of water. We had to keep drinking water, but only small sips each time to make it last as long as possible. That was the first time I realized we had to make the digging plan work, as I wasn’t sure we would have enough water to walk the 2 days we needed to reach Nuevos Piriquitas, the next town in the map.
Marko just kept digging taking short breaks as the lack of oxygen would make him get tired much quicker than in normal conditions. He managed to clear a whole tire by the time I finished the soup, but it was in that moment that an approching storm covered us with thunders and lightings. We had to get in the car, where we would be safe and could eat a bit, although none of us could really eat much thinking that if it rained too much, we would be flooded and it would be hard, to not say imposible, to dig out the car. Again we ate as if it was medicine, we needed the energy but had absolutely no appetite. We ate a few spoons each and watched the dark clouds, drops of water and snow fall from the sky.
An hour or so later, the rain seemed to stop and Marko got off the car to keep digging. I followed a bit after and we started removing stones and dirt from under the car and around the tires. Our objective was to clear the place where we could put the jack and lift each tire to put stones under them in hopes of giving them grip and being able to get out from that place as soon as possible. Our tools were a shovel, a spoon and our hands. Our problem was that dirt was everywhere and the car was sunken in it.
The wind was blowing and the storm was still around us, although it was not raining. We had managed to put some rocks under the two right tires. But the sunset was approching, which meant the cold was coming and we had to prepare for another night. We pitched our tent, prepared our sleeping bags and call it a day. The next day was going to be another long day, and we both wanted it to be the last one on that place.
That night, it rained again. The drops of water falling on the tent woke me up as, in the absolute silence, that sound was deafening and the fear of the mud getting wetter wouldn’t let me sleep. We were so close of getting the car out, but it wouldn’t be possible if we got flooded.
The next morning we waited until the sun was out to leave the tent. Strangely enough we were excited about the day finally starting, and feeling energetic even after a bad night and little food during the past few days. We had been in the tent for over 10 hours and couldn’t wait to start working and leave that place. We both woke up confident that this would be our last day in the Puna.
Once again I was incharge of fixing food for both of us, while Marko kept shoveling and preparing the car. I made one portion of oatmeal with a big spoonful of Dulce de Leche, as we were still not hungry but the sweetness made it easier to eat and had enough calories to keep us moving.
After breakfast the real work started. We didn’t stop during the next 5 or 6 hours. We removed all the stones and dirt from under the car, so it wouldn’t be touching the ground. We jacked up the two left tires, which required a complicated strategy of placing a big stone on top of smaller stones, using the jack to sink the rocks in the mud, removing the jack and putting new rocks on top of the previous ones until it would be a strong enough base to lift the car. We followed the same procedure to place the rocks under the tires, placing flat large stones on top of smaller stones to prevent them of sinking too much and keep the car from getting buried. Then we kept doing the same thing for the two right tires, which we had prepared the day before, but the rain had accumulated around them so we had to start all over again.
In total we lifted the car six times and carefully placed tens of stones until we had a well defined trail under it, keeping an eye on the jack which tended to slip under so much pressure and such an unstable ground.
The storm happened to be a snow storm, so we drove carefully over the road that we had walked twice during the past two days. We knew every single meter of the first 16km and where the dangerous parts were, after all we had been focusing only on the ground while walking on it. Still, I would get off the car to test the conditions of the trail and make sure we wouldn’t get stuck again as the snow and water could have made them worse. When we finally reached the State Route 70, we turned left in the opposite direction of Rosario de Susques, to the unknown. We still had 34km to go before arriving to Nuevo Pirquitas, driving slowly through a mountain trail with a snow storm on our backs. Everything seemed a threat and although we had been in much worse roads than this one, we were scared of every rock and river we crossed. We didn’t want anything to keep us in that desert a minute longer.
It took us over 2hs to finally get out and as soon as we reached the RN40, which was still a dirt road, we got phone reception, we knew we were safe. We called our parents and let them know where we were, in case anything happened again, we wanted them to know where to find us. After that we drove down to San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital city of the province, 330km away. We wanted asphalt roads and civilization. We wanted to see people around us. And especially we wanted a hot shower.