I’m beginning to think I’ve developed Locational Separation Anxiety. Not exactly a medical term, but as my own self-appointed therapist, this is what I am coining it. I fall in love with places for the oddest reasons, and then preemptively despise my next destination for pulling me away… that is, until I then fall in love with that place for some eccentricity I find there. For someone who is a self-described long-term traveler, this is becoming a problem.
Despite a rough start in La Paz, I fell for Bolivia (almost as much as Peru) and was despondent at the border crossing to Chile. Ten days didn’t feel sufficient. The beauty was haunting and the people were warm, and life felt simpler when I was surrounded by so much emptiness.
After paying an exit tax and crossing the border of Bolivia, we entered the “no man’s land” before Chile by bus. A short drive through what felt like a time machine followed. Suddenly the roads were fully paved, with yellow dotted lines and guard rails. We could see the Atacama Desert on the horizon. The color scheme was still the same– lunar pastels and martian reds– but we were back in the 21st century.
San Pedro appeared on the horizon somewhat suddenly, dry and dusty and beautiful. She offered only one bar and two ATMs, but plenty of empanadas and adobe buildings with tree-shaded courtyards. The days were blindingly hot and sunny. The nights were crisp and inviting. From most points in the town, you could look out and see a watercolor mountain range at the edge of the driest desert in the world.
I’m not entirely sure how I spent my two days there in retrospect. I know I ate a few good meals, walked around the shops, spent an afternoon cursing the banks for the ATMs being out of service and wandering the streets cashless. There was one night that involved too many caipirinhas at the sole bar in town, tipsily explaining to a Colombian, a Spaniard, and an Chileno why Lima is just the best city ever. I’m not sure I was convincing.
The highlight of San Pedro was touring the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) just a few kilometers outside the city. The images speak for themselves.
From San Pedro, I boarded a bus and headed across the desert to Salta, Argentina. Salta la Linda. Too bad the twelve-hour bus ride was anything but linda. The air conditioning stop working (if it ever did work) and the windows were impossible to open. I recall waking up from an unsatisfying nap with beads of sweat on my face and my clothes cloying to my skin. My first thought was that I had a fever. I turned to my neighbor, Sarah, and asked her if she felt warm. She slowly turned her sad, dew-covered face to me and nodded in confirmation. The rest of the ride was silent and uncomfortable, marked only by an angry Argentinian yelling at the bus driver to do something about the damn aire. The rest of us were trying not to move in an effort to limit heat generation, but otherwise would have applauded him.
Luckily, Salta proved to be lovely (if itchy). The city was buzzing on a Sunday evening with thousands of families walking in the parks and city center. I had my first of many meals of steak and Malbec. I woke up the next morning well-fed, well-rested, and covered in red welts from a rogue mosquito in the hotel room. I’d spend the next two weeks scratching myself all across Argentina.
There is a town called Cafayate three hours from Salta. The drive there takes you through what looks like the American Southwest. Red cliffs and mountain sides jut up from the ground at every angle like discarded play things of the gods. Downtown Cafayate reminded me distinctly of Sonoma, California. I visited a vineyard, ate empanadas salteñas, and tried Torrontes (a white wine) flavored ice cream with the friends I met in Bolivia. Not a bad introduction to Argentina.
And then we boarded a plane and flew to Buenos Aires, and everything changed.