It is unusual that we see six in the morning these days. Stumbling off the bus from Córdoba with limbs still half asleep we had arrived in Chilecito. Our mind in a haze, we were enthusiastically greeted by the newest member of our ever-growing wolfpack- Josh Mahan (our guide from rafting the Futaleufu back in December) has joined us for a couple weeks of "wandering in the middle of nowhere." He was stoked to learn we actually, literally, were going to be in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, our estrogen-packed foursome was a little hesitant at first, but after the first discussion of "pee-rags" and his childhood in the yurt, we knew he would mesh well. Josh, however, is not on the lightweight backpacking kick that we are; I am sure everyone who sees our five-some thinks we have hired this male figure as a porter for us, lugging around his monstrous 65L pack.This time of year in the desert the "rivers" marked on the maps no longer exist. Finding water on the trail was not an option. Long thru-hikes, therefore, were also not an option. This was the first time on our journey where running out of water was a serious concern. We transitioned from bringing merely our filled bladders to each bringing an additional 2L bottle for a total of 6L each (heavy!). Our route evolved travelling between towns in multiple two-day stretches via dry washes, as that was as much water we could (or were willing to) carry. Town hopping through the infamous Famatina Valley, our first stop after Chilecito was Famatina itself.
One Argentinian declared the Famatina Valley one of the most beautiful parts in all of Argentina- arguably so. Although this desert landscape is harsh on the foot-traveller, it is definitely no eye-sore. The snowmelt provides plenty water in the spring for a lush, fertile valley; the region produces gorgeous agriculture (mostly, we noted walnuts, tomatoes, grapes, pomegranates, quince and figs). The Famatina Range has an abundance of both colorful and deceptively enormous peaks. Meandering along the evaporated rivers, we found although there were no actual trails through the wide valleys, the dry washes provided clear routes and mindless wandering. Cacti silhouetted on the horizons gave us false hope of spotting more guanacos. While bushwhacking between washes, we quickly learned not only to lookout for thorny bushes but also ground covered in cacti. We wound through the valleys with the ease and guide of the washes but the feeling of pioneering the untrodden paradise. The middle of nowhere really is a beautiful place.
From the valley floor around 1,700 meters (we hiked as high as 3,000 meters), the 6,250 meter peak of General Belgrano loomed in the distance- making its quiet stance against the mining companies. The people, however, no longer stand in silence. "Mega-mines" from North America have been in the area since 2004, but in the last three months the people have established a nationally televised "peaceful resistance"- including a blockade on the main road up to the mountains. Catch phrases like "El Famatina no se toca" (Don't touch the Famatina) and "El agua vale más que oro" (water is worth more than gold) are spray-painted on banners and buildings throughout the region.With the encouragement of people in the town of Famatina, we headed out to el corte (blockade) to witness the protest firsthand and offer our support in the protection of such a magnificent landscape. We were warmly welcomed by most of the protesters- hot maté (traditional tea drink) and a family style dinner. What we learned is that there might be a predictable chain: environmental protesters are usually also political activists, which in Argentina (with reasons dating back to the 70's) usually means they despise the "Imperialist" United States government which sometimes translates into a dislike of Americans, just for being American. Although there was only one guy that fell into this description at the corte, he had quite a loud bark. Not only did he proclaim his disdain for us to everyone in camp, he maliciously spat in our general direction when we were in eyesight. We certainly were never physical harm, but his bad vibes vibrated in our souls for days. His aggressive criticism struck a chord in us (brought me to tears actually) and had us contemplating our own action- or "inaction" as he so loudly preached. In Santa Cruz, I eagerly tried to convince an old woman that not all North Americans are bad people when I was directly confronted with questions like, "Do you exploit people in your own country like you do here?" The conversation ended with a kiss on the cheek, a vague smile and an "encantada"- meaning "nice to meet you." I think we are making headway...
As High As Spring Run-off Rivers:
- Asking to refill our water at a solitary home on the "river" and being gifted grapes fresh off the vine, walnuts fresh off the tree and homemade quince-paste (our typical jam substitute these days)
- Seeing a Viscacha- so cute and agile! Hopped right up the cliff side!
- It only took one day on the trail for Sonnet to break-in her pack with new holes
- Although thirsty, between the hiking and sleeping in dry washes, we were happy there was no rain!
- Waking up early and hugging the hillside in order to have another hour in the shade
- Mid-day siesta to avoid the heat of the day
- Our "NFT" (New Fav Thing- trademark Tres Chicas Locas): Grapefruit/lemon/orange Tang packets! Really quenches the thirst in the desert!
- Sarah's new wind layer from Sierra designs was the perfect bug barrier... we were jealous!
- Fresh figs right from the tree and walnuts dried in the backyard
- Our new LED light from Lee White that charges via solar and helps save the juice in our headlamps!
- Observing the Fiesta de San José in uber-small town Campanas (we later learned this is a big holiday in the region)
- While stretching and general laziness in the morning, a curious young fox wandered through our camp, lingering as close as five feet away- a very spiritual moment in the serene desert.
As Low As Fall Dry Washes:- Sonnet had our first scorpion spotting! Although we know they are out there, we were perfectly content to pretend that they were in far off reaches of the desert and not, in fact, ten feet from where we are sleeping without a tent (We opted to sleep in rain gear, somehow rationalizing that would protect us).- Six-liters of water equals 12 pounds! Our packs were not as light as usual.- Sunset is now around 8PM- The hateful Argentinian guy. Not only did he hate Americans, it was a Canadian mining company they were protesting. Two strikes against me, the half-breed!- First cooked meal with our new hiking companions had a healthy dose of sand in it (Sarah claims not to have gotten any in her cup but we assume that's because she was starving and didn't bother chewing it).- Not seeing any of our guanaco friends even though the "no hunting" sign eluded to their presence- Itchy rash from the gnats that refuses to subside- Again sleeping without the tent, cozy in our sleeping bags, we were abruptly awoken by what can only be described as the scariest noise we have ever heard in our lives: a type of bark-scream-screech combo so loud and so close we opted to pitch the tent in hopes that the thin nylon would protect us from the darkness. Josh swears it was just a bird, but we just might have discovered the elusive "Chupacabra".
From Chilecito to Famatina to Angulos to Campanas, we ended our hiking in Santa Cruz. This leg has made at least my list of favorite stretches (NFT!). Not having a reliable water source makes you realize the power of nature from yet another of its many aspects. We hitched ahead 65km to Tinogasta in search of flowing water and in order to do a longer hike with Josh while we've got him. Rumor has it that there is a clear river all along our next stretch through the mountains to Londres...
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