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I’m almost in tears in the Houston airport. I look at the gate at the E Terminal, the words “Buenos Aires” formed by a collection of red dots behind the gate agents. I can’t breathe.

 

“I can’t get on the plane. I don’t want to go to South America.” I hyperventilate.

 

“What are you afraid of?” My friend Rachel is on the other end of the phone, trying to calm me down.

Heading to Andes Mountains UA counter

“Flying. Landing. The Andes Mountains. Traveling alone in general.” I’m fully irrational now, shaking as I try to understand this panic that has washed over me like a sixty-foot wave, knocking me off balance and pushing the air out of my lungs.

 

“Your gut is telling you something.” My mom says into my ear. “Maybe you should just go back home because this trip isn’t safe. Find a flight back to Los Angeles.” She’s trying to be supportive but now I feel like a loser on top of being a coward.

 

I stand rooted in the white terrazzo airport, watching other passengers walk the jetway like nothing in the world is wrong. Get it together, Dever. You do this every month.

 

I inhale slowly and deeply and parse everything into small, actionable steps: Get in line. Scan the boarding pass. Walk the jetway. Step onto the plane. Find my seat. Order a glass of wine. Search the faces of the cabin attendants for signs of concern.

 

The captain walks by. I ask him how the skies look tonight. “It’s usually always bumpy over the equator, and again over the Andes Mountains, but otherwise it’s fairly clear.”

 

I grill him on his flying experience as if I’m interviewing him for the job. He rarely flies this route because he trains pilots. They’re lofty credentials.

 

“This isn’t your regular route?!?” Maybe he’s not familiar with the little trouble spots or, I don’t know, Central American updrafts or something. He gives me a sympathy smile like I’m talking while shaking off anesthesia.

 

There’s no way around this but through it. We take off.

 

“They have a range of serial-killer mountains in their backyard.”

I think I did this to myself. I did the wrong kind of research to prepare for my trip. My impression of the Andes was shaped by book titles I Googled:

 

Death in the Andes

Life and Death in the Andes

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (which means the rest of their crew experienced, you guessed it, DEATH IN THE ANDES.)

 

The catalyst for this particular journey to South America was the Adventure Travel World Summit. I joined the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a community of travel professionals (that are way more adventurous than me), hoping to find my tribe.

 

This year the World Summit was meeting in Salta, Argentina at the base of the Andes Mountains for a week of communing over tourism and adrenaline-fueled activities like biking, rafting, mountaineering (them), and wine drinking and llama petting (me).

 

Salta, a charming folkloric village in the far northern reaches of Argentina is filled with colorful colonial buildings, guitar music and heel-stomping dance. That’s all I knew. Well, that and they have a range of serial-killer mountains in their backyard.

 

Before leaving I was supposed to sign up for one of the pre-conference tours. My friend Sherry Ott and I are traveling together so it seemed like a good idea to go on the same tour. “That way we can take pictures of each other!” I suggested.

 

She picked three days in Tolar Grande. The marketing photos are breathtaking. Gleaming salt flats, mirage-like deep green lagoons, and sienna-colored rock formations filled the skyline. It’s so unearthly looking; it’s the closest I’ll ever get to space travel.

 

Andes Mountains Tolar Grande - Ojos del Mar

 

Then I read the details: it’s a 10-hour jeep drive each way almost 16,000ft /4,880m above sea level. We’re staying in an all-but-abandoned mining town in the heart of the Andes Mountains, the place where all the books about death are written. Why are my friends so much more daring than me? I curse her name as I sign up.

 

“We’re staying in an all-but-abandoned mining town in the heart of the Andes Mountains, the place where all the books about death are written.”

Sebastian, our guide, arrives at our hotel to pick us up for the journey into the heart of the Andes. He strikes me as the survivalist type. Which, in my urban opinion, is evidenced by his khaki outfit and aviator sunglasses.

 

Sherry and I are groggy at 7:30 am despite the fact that we’ve packed up, eaten breakfast and checked out of the hotel already. We are not morning people.

 

Sebastian’s truck cab is small. We climb in and set out to retrieve our other two tour mates. I sit next to Sebastian, getting a slew of anxiety-fueled questions out of the way so I don’t embarrass myself in front of new people.

 

“Are we driving along cliffs? How bad does the high altitude affect one’s ability to breathe? How often do people get lost in the mountains? Have you heard about all this death in the Andes? Why don’t you have stop signs?”

 

Patient and kind, Sebastian assures me that there are no cliffs in the mountains, that I’ll be completely safe and that they don’t need stop signs because drivers know to “just jump out” into oncoming traffic. I’m not entirely comforted.

 

Devils Desert Argentina Andes Mountains road trip

 

We stop to pick up the third of our four adventurers, Keri from Vancouver. Full of energy as if she just left cheerleading practice, I wondered how she was awake like that. She was able to put friendly introductions and snappy comebacks in one conversation before 8 am like some kind of wizard.

 

Next we pick up Paul, a charming Mexican with a quick smile and a mop of unruly hair that we lovingly refer to as a yak-fro over the coming days. With a final squish like one of those white-gloved Japanese train pushers on Tokyo’s metro, Sebastian squeezes us all into his Toyota and we’re on our way toward the infamous mountains.

 

After several hours of driving under overcast skies and the haze of gravel dust, we emerge through the clouds into a totally different Technicolor-filled world with brilliant blue skies, and purple and orange mountains fronted by adorable tiny houses.

 

“That’s an Andean cemetery.” Sebastian points out.

 

Seriously?

 

Andes Mountains Andean cemetery

 

Eight hours, two coca teas, and four naps – possibly from loss of oxygen – later, we pull into home base for the next two nights, Tolar Grande. Tolar Grande translates into “Big Bush” which meant ridiculous jokes from all four of us, and an irresistible Sir Mix-a-lot parody in the making by Keri and I.

 

Tumbleweeds the size of Swiss exercise balls blow by. Tolar Grande is a mining town past its prime by 80 years, after a military coup shut down the railway system. Lithium mining in the salt flats and the hope of tourists playing on those same salt flats position it for a comeback. A new restaurant is being built while deserted worker housing crumbles behind it. It’s hard to understand how this town hangs on.

 

Tolar Grande mining town Andes Mountains

 

Shivering, we sit in the only restaurant for 125 miles/200 kms in several layers of wool and technologically advanced materials, too dehydrated and exhausted to finish one 40oz Argentinian beer between the four of us.

 

There is no menu at Llullaillaco restaurant. You get whatever is being served and you are #grateful because you got it. A group of motorcyclists from Buenos Aires arrived in the dark, dusty and cold from a long ride, only to be turned away because they didn’t call ahead. In a town with an abandoned train station, food deliveries have to be planned in advance.

 

Tolar Grande Andes Mountains - Abandoned railway

 

I drank my third coca tea of the day, which may as well have been a mug of tiny stuffed animals rolled in sand for how soothing it felt. My head swam as if I had had a couple beers. The altitude was getting to me, getting to us all. We were 12,500 ft/3,800m up.

 

I tried to focus on Paul’s crazy hair and Keri’s story about Surinamese snakes biting tourists, but it’s like we’re all underwater, talking to each other in slow motion.

 

Our rooms are in the back of the restaurant. Sherry and I wear half of our clothes to bed, our space heater plugged into the one electrical outlet that doesn’t show visible melted burn marks. This, my friends, is definitely an adventure.

 

Tolar Grande Andes Mountains Sherry Ott working hotel

 

Sebastian was right. There really aren’t any cliffs. The Andes Mountains simply ramp up, remaining flat for miles around. There are no windbreaks and the occasional land formation is forced to stand alone like a singled out soldier. There are mountains in the far distance, but they are little more than a backdrop, jaggedly keeping the wild blue yonder from appearing bored.

 

Juliana Dever Andes mountain pass

 

Which doesn’t help when you need to pee. Walls of wind come at you in angry bursts like a bouncer breaking up a fight. The only shield we had at times was the pickup truck itself. Even then, I needed to use my index finger as a wind vane, squatting in the direction of the prevailing winds.

 

Falling asleep on one another’s shoulders seemed totally normal after 24 hours together. The close quarters of the vehicle felt more like an advantage to keep each other warm than an invasion of space. We wowed at neon flamingoes in unison, jumped probably 50 times for photos on the salt flats, screamed like banshees when the wind threw our hats across the high desert, and laughed until we cried at each other’s far-flung travel tales and the indigenous word puna.

 

Salt Flat Argentina Juliana Dever Sherry Ott Finisterra Travel - Andes Mountains

 

At one point we were on grassland so elevated that it felt like we were level with the mountaintops. Oxidized green copper and rusted iron red peaks bordered this wide-open space. We stopped. Sebastian turned off the engine and we sat. Beautiful, fine-boned alpaca-like creatures began to bounce across the landscape as if it was a giant shrub-covered trampoline. Vicuñas, Sebastian explained, could only be found in really high elevations.

 

Tolar Grande Andes Mountains - Vicunas Argentina puna

 

I was on top of the world. Literally. I was doing it and it was not scary. It was incredible.

 

Our final morning, Keri got food poisoning. As if sharing a shower and peeing outside together hadn’t brought us close enough. But we were in this together. We had each other’s backs in ways you don’t imagine you would after knowing someone for two days. We shared first aid kits, toilet paper and whatever small comforts we had between the four of us.

 

Driving back to Salta, we stopped to take photos and hike around the Devil’s Desert, a burnt orange sprawl of rock formations 11,000 ft/3,350m above sea level. I stood on a rock face and got Sherry to take some jumping pictures of me. I inhaled the thin air and launched myself upward.

 

Devils Desert Juliana Dever - Tolar Grande Andes Mountains

 

“YEAH!” I roared as I thrust up into the air, flying high about the earth. I felt like a superhero.

 

A week ago, I was so afraid of this trip I could barely catch enough breath to walk onto that plane. Now I’m jumping mountains on top of the world.

 

I filled my lungs with mountain air. I really do feel like a badass. I looked across the rugged red dirt at my new friends. It surprises me how much they feel like family. Sherry, out on a ledge, camera in hand captures the moment. Keri leans on a rock, the grasp of food poisoning fading while Paul, his hair reaching peak yak, making sure she’s okay.

 

You know when someone says you can’t do something? How you dig in and do it just to prove them wrong? How often does the voice inside you say you can’t do something? That voice is fear. How much greater is it to dig in and prove to fear that it’s wrong?

 

Tolar Grande Andes Mountains tour group

 

“Woo hoo!” The four of us do one last jump and holler across the red expanse of the Andes, feeling like the only humans on Earth. It’s magnificent. We’re exhilarated.

 

We’re fearless.

 

Has there been any place that you were afraid to go, but you did it anyway?

What happened? Tell me!

 

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High Altitudes, Salt Flats | Read why you should go to the Andes Mountains in Argentina

 

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About Argentina

Salta, Argentina, in the far north of the country is a relaxed, safe, colonial town that felt surprisingly homey. I walked most places and felt welcomed at every shop, restaurant and bar, even though my Spanish was often limited to an embarrassing twenty some-odd words.

What to See in Northern Argentina: High up in the Andes Mountains of Argentina there's another world | Read what to see in Northern Argentina
What to See in Northern Argentina: High up in the Andes Mountains of Argentina there's another world | Read what to see in Northern Argentina
What to See in Northern Argentina: High up in the Andes Mountains of Argentina there's another world | Read what to see in Northern Argentina
What to See in Northern Argentina: High up in the Andes Mountains of Argentina there's another world | Read what to see in Northern Argentina
About the Author

Hi. I’m Juliana Dever and according to science I have some sort of "exploration" gene. Embracing this compulsion, I spend a lot of time hurtling around the planet in metal tubes experiencing other cultures and writing humorous essays about it. Enjoy.

5 Comments

  1. John W Kennedy / February 19, 2018 at 9:44 pm /Reply

    Honestly, the thing that scared me most in advance was crossing the Mason-Dixon Line in 1960. I was white and only eleven, had lived all my life in Maine, and never been south of NYC. We weren’t going further than into the DC suburbs, and only for a few hours, to see the Pentagon and the Iwo Jima memorial, but I was still afraid of entering the former Confederacy.

    In the event, nothing happened, of course.

    As I said before, I had quite a fright in the Ecuadorian Andes, but that was a surprise.

    • Juliana Dever / February 20, 2018 at 7:20 pm /Reply

      Thanks for sharing that story about the Mason-Dixon line, John. That’s fascinating to me. Your comment about the Ecuadorian Andes – was it on a bus? Do they have the cliff-edge roads? That’s what really messes with my head.

  2. John W Kennedy / February 20, 2018 at 10:57 pm /Reply

    An SUV serving as a jitney. The trip from Guayaquil to Cuenca took hours, and was about 2½ miles above sea level at the high point, though we descended considerably to get into Cuenca. To our side, for much of the trip, it was a dead drop—basically, it made the Pacific Coast Highway look like an average residential street in Ohio.

    But that wasn’t all of it. The windshield had a plastic darkener sheet that the driver decided he didn’t like anymore, and started peeling off, completely occupying one hand and half his attention with the effort. Even when passing a truck on a blind curve—a truck that was engaged in passing another truck at the time. Did I mention that this was a two-lane road, and that we could see lovely white, fluffy clouds /below/ us?

    All we could do was sit as calmly as we could, given the circumstances, and silently recite as a sort of mantra: “He does this every day for a living. He must know what he’s doing.”

    Well, we did survive it, and the reverse trip, days later. And I have to say that Cuenca is a lovely city, and, though it’s close to the equator, it has a climate like Maine in August. Everybody speaks English (it’s a prime destination for American retirees), and at times it reminded me strangely of the lake country in northern New Jersey in the 1950s. There are colonial-era structures, including the Old Cathedral, and even pre-Columbian ruins in town.

    But, in the name of God, fly directly there!

  3. Jessi / April 17, 2018 at 9:07 am /Reply

    I’ve never had a fear of going to a specific place but I did used to be afraid in the plane during taken off and landing. Clutching to pillow and squeezing eyes closed. And when I looked around me, it seemed like I was the only one who was scared. I don’t know when exactly but somehow I got over it. Though, it might be because I got diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and al taking meds for that. Probably surpresses the fear I once felt.

    • Juliana Dever / April 20, 2018 at 1:04 pm /Reply

      I still have that fear, Jessi! But I deal with it by listening to music and usually having a glass of wine beforehand. 😉

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