Jeff Shea’s solo 555 kilometer walk across the Altiplano of South America
In November 2010, I set out by myself on foot from Socaire, Chile (3600 meters elevation) on the eastern edge of the Atacama Desert in an attempt to walk across the Altiplano, a relatively “flat” geographic feature of the Andes Mountains in South America.
My first problem was that I found out there were 800,000 land mines along the border with Argentina, a vestige from the conflict of the late 1970s. Another problem posed to me by the border patrol in San Pedro de Atacama was that there were drug smugglers and thieves just up the road on the border with Bolivia. So, I headed south to Socaire to begin my walk.
The first week was a bit disconcerting, as I hauled my 150 pound chariot up to 4500 meters. I’d left with 35 liters of water. By the sixth day I was nearly out of water. I went past a cordoned off area where there were signs denoting there were land mines in the ground on either side of me. I took water from a heavily saline river and pumped some from a pocket in the ground.
There were no passersby. There was not even one habitation. Just solitude.
I came to the road to Paso de Jama and stayed on it till the border to avoid hidden land mines. Once in Paso de Jama, I went back to San Pedro de Atacama to get a warmer sleeping bag and a better tent. The nights were so cold that my water froze. The days were so hot that the back of my hands burned.
I returned to Paso de Jama and went eastwards, finally ending up in Tilcara. I abandoned my chariot, then used a pack to hike over the mountains.
Other than flamingoes, llamas, vicuña, and a large, flightless bird, called a Suri, there was no life. Not even insects. After traveling 500 kilometers on foot, I saw my first tree. I ended my walk at the termination point of the Andes near Libertador, Argentina. The total distance traveled in a straight line was 310 kilometers, but I actually walked a total of 555 kilometers.
What follows are entries from my diary.
November 6, 2010 7:14 p.m. Socaire, Chile 10, 726 feet
I begin my journey. It is all too unbelievable to imagine. I will be walking, far away from all I know, out of touch. I feel calm. I want this to be a stroll, for enjoyment. I want to revel in these mountains…. The day is warm, the breeze of 8 knots is cool, the sun 10 degrees off the west horizon. I begin. All is quiet save for the air rushing off my ears and the occasional slap of this paper, and some faint distant sounds of birds, or the civilization I am at the edge of.
November 7, 2010 11: 24 p.m.
So far it has been a perfect evening. But the day was tough… Total silence here. Total. No planes. No birds. No animals that I can hear. Nothing. The stars are brilliant. I am toasty warm – not like last night….
I make camp on the second night of my expedition, as night falls rapidly
November 8, 2010 440 p.m. 4316 meters
One of the great days of my life. Breeze at my back. The color of the pampas grass is a brilliant gold in the spring sun. Solitude beyond belief. Heaven on earth. This is what I was seeking.
The night of Nov 8 was spent at 4316 meters. Slept without tent.
Saline Lake, Cordon de Puntas Negras
November 9, 2010 4412 meters
Yesterday was one of the best days of my life. But last night was very sobering. (At night, after a 12-hour day of gaining 4000 feet in elevation pulling 150 pounds up gravel) I over-exerted myself by taking a 40-minute hike without any gear save for my headlamp to scout for the lake. When I returned I was too tired to make anything but a cup of broth. I woke cold and made noodles at 1 a.m. But I realized with the slight, constant breeze, I was getting hypothermic, even with all my clothes on in my sleeping bag! The bag I chose is terrible. I realized if a storm came – or even a high wind – I might die. I have to protect myself. I learned a lot last night. I had no energy!! 4412 meters. The zipper on my sleeping bag is stuck!!! I can’t easily pull it all the way up to get warm, and if I do, I get locked in!! The bottom of the bag has no down, only the mat – so my underside is cold all night.
But yesterday was incredible – beauty beyond belief!! The colors. The contours. The solitude. This place is a wonderland of beauty….
I make a sobering assessment of my position at Salar de Aguas Calientes, as the sun sets
November 10, 2010 4224 meters
I took a couple of liters of saline water from this river, in case I ran out, which I did
I am concerned because I have a long way to go to Paso Jama. I have about 13 liters of water. Plus I found 4 liters of good but saline water today. I want to cut across the Salar to save time.
November 11, 2010 2:30 a.m.
I have traveled very little compared to what I had previously thought. In addition, I have much further to go than I realized. A sobering situation.
After studying my map some 40 minutes or so, I have resolved it is:
- Foolish to go across the salar because … a) there is a possibility of land mines, b) there is a possibility of marsh.
- A good idea to get up now and start while it is dark. I will be ready by dawn….
Today I made it all the way past the land mines. Now an ugly slog through gravel!
November 12, 2010 4198 meters
Woke at dawn on “road” – left about 9 a.m. Slog through gravel, landing at Salar.
November 14, 2010
Woke like a newborn calf, barely able to stand up, left without breakfast, only a few sips of water….
…. Two weeks later….
I slog my way through sand and gravel in Valle de Chivatos Muertos
November 26, 2010
I came to a sort of pass, the road was blocked off. But not for me. I simply descended down into the canyon. I was told to follow the playa, the beach! “Do you know what I mean,” the man had asked. “Ah yeah, I know.“ He meant the riverbed, there was sand and so forth. But as I continued, the going got so difficult, I was afraid that I was on the wrong path. I walked and I walked. It was beautiful. Now there was cactus, cactus just like in the cartoons or in the movies, a beautiful cactus. Somehow, the stature of a cactus gives it the appearance of a human being.
As twilight descended I continued to walk, trying to hurry, hoping I could make it to Pueblo Cobres. But alas, that was not to be. I continued, wondering which way I was going, and when I finally turned left I decided I would wait until that wall of the mountain in front of me and I met. I assumed it went left and it did. And when I finally checked my compass-point, I was going southeast or south, which meant that earlier in the canyon, I was going south, or even southwest a bit. This concerned me.
This concerned me because Cobres was supposed to be southeast. Actually, the trail all day had changed directions. At first it went north, which kind of bothered me. But I realized that paths sometimes they meander, just like my life. Sometimes, when I want to go someplace, I end up going in the opposite direction for a while. Funny, how that is. So, I finally stopped in a little kind of nest, underneath some plants, a little curved wall. There were insects. I hadn’t really seen insects except for little tiny beetles, holding on to flowers.
It was also warmer. I felt like I had gotten to some kind of a new climate.
Vortex Universe from Quebrada Nest
And like most nights, I had little energy to do anything else. I just threw my bag down, opened it up, crawled inside. I did cook a little bit. And then I just went off to sleep.
November 29, 2010 11:50 a.m.
At the end of the road, I felt that there was something really good, but it didn’t overshadow the enjoyment of the journey.
The day was beautiful, ever expanding. The horizons never stopped. The colors, again today, were so gorgeous, so subtle. Green, gray, chocolate, tan. They were the colors of earth. The salars (great salt pans, mostly dry, some water, often 30 miles or more across) never ended. You could walk in a salar for days. I enjoyed it, except for nightmare sand. When there was sand, I had to put both hands behind and pull my cart in a way so there was no loss of energy.
In the beginning of my trip, I would struggle, step, by step by step. Then the nighttime breeze began, blowing past me, dust and sand, spitting at me. But it was O.K. I told myself it wouldn’t last for long.
Philosophically speaking, nothing is ever really that bad, as long as you can walk. Walk to someplace that you want to go.
At first it was difficult. At first, I couldn’t breathe! I had to stop every few seconds to rest. I moaned my way up the hill. But now, once I was on the Altiplano, once I was acclimatized, I could walk. I no longer needed to count to thirty, or count to sixty, just waiting for that moment that I could stop again. Now, there was no need to stop. One foot in front of the other, over and over, became second nature. I no longer had to think about it. The only thing was, I was distracted quite often. I was distracted by interesting things. Distracted by the need to take a sip of water because it was hot, or to take a photograph because something caught my fancy.
The first few days of my journey, there was no sound. Only one sound. Wind. There was always the sound of the breeze, and when the sound of the breeze stopped, I grew quite hot, and I wished for the breeze to come back again.
Other than wind, and the sounds I made myself, it was completely quiet! A hundred percent quiet. I’d never been to a place like that. Complete solitude. And nobody to help. I did become nervous. I checked where I was. I was so far from the road. And I only had a limited amount of water. I didn’t know what the saline mineral water would do to my body. But, as a precaution, I took a gallon of it and drank it, after boiling it and sterilizing it. I woke up one morning afterwards with huge bags of water under my eyes. There were some nightmare moments. Nightmare moments when I thought I was gonna die. But deep inside, I felt nothing could harm me. Nevertheless, there was a certain thrill of the danger and the risk and being completely on my own.
The skies. The skies were unimaginable. I used to think that I could wait to take a photograph. I used to think that somehow things were permanent. But the sky taught me just the opposite. From moment to moment, things changed. And the beauty, the unparalleled beauty, surpassed itself time and again.
In the beginning there was nothing. Just flamingoes, who did not make a sound, except the sound of their wings as they flew away.
Flamingoes on Salar de Aguas Calientes, Chile
Flamingoes flee as I approach
Flamingoes and a little tiny scorpion. And then later, there was vicuna and flamingoes. Still later again, there were llamas and vicuna and even a large bird called a Suri, like an ostrich. I couldn’t get close enough, but I think it had iridescent feathers. And I marched and marched.
There was no time. There was no purpose to hurry. Somehow, I knew, somehow I felt, I would keep going on and I would find my destination and eventually I would reach it.
Self-portrait in Salinas Grandes
My favorite times were when the road was hard and flat and white. because white meant pounded, compressed salt, and it was totally natural – it was easy to travel on.
Anyway, my happiest moments were when the road was hard and flat and white, with green on the borders and brown chocolate mountains in advance and arrears of me, with their folds.
Hard Ground in Salinas Grandes, makes it easy to drag my cart.
I would wonder, how mountains came to be. How is it that they’re so complex and yet, they’re so simple and so beautiful? How did they get their features? Did they decide themselves? Did somebody named God give them to them? Or did somebody named Nature form them? And again, like the sky, they were changing. Only the sky changes in seconds, and the mountains change only visibly, in centuries, millennia, and eons. I imagined what it would be like seeing the mountains changing as the sky changes (like in the movie The Time Machine, where everything changed rapidly, where there was a cave and no cave). My happiest moments were looking out at all those things, and as the sun went down and cast shadows on everything and golden light on everything, the beauty was unimaginable. I never saw beauty like that before. Because, my heart was free. When you’re free, everything looks beautiful.
First view of Tres Morros: a centuries-old church and solar panels, and two cows walking towards the buildings, of which there are about fifteen, maybe ten. Gorgeous. I’ve arrived.
Llama at lithium mining camp in Salinas Grandes
I am walking towards the sunlight. It is beckoning me, like a big treat. In sunlight, there is warmth, light and clarity. All things shine. (Though, sometimes in sunlight, there is heat and unbearable thirst.)
I am walking faster than the sunlight – it’s fleeing – so it can’t evade my presence, not that it would want to anyway, because in my dream, all things are basically good, although there is a cycle, of life and death. It’s a funny thing, on my journey, sometimes I was so afraid of death!, I fled, I ran, I was terrified. Other times, I was so happy!, it didn’t matter if I died at that moment, because, things were so perfect that the essence of happiness had been reached, the sort of, the nirvana of my life had been consummated.
It was nighttime. I was in my tent. I looked out at the night sky through my porthole, the silhouette of the mountains, almost completely black. On the horizon, there was just a bit of color, a bit of light. But it wasn’t from a city. I don’t think it was from the moon. The light was in the west and the moon was in the east.
Did I ever really take the time before to look at the sky? I did. I did do that. And ponder, like man and women have done – and children – from the beginning of time, to look at the sky and wonder what it all means – all these heavenly bodies. In the day-to-day bustle now, who takes the time? And, anyway, the city lights, they dim out the stars. It’s as if civilization kills everything. As if it obscures the clarity of our vision….
I was warm and cozy inside the tent. I had hot chocolate. (Chocolate and coffee. Chocolate and coffee. It keeps me going.) I had walked up towards the pass, up and up in the late afternoon until the sun fully set. But the sky. You know, the sky, even though the sun fully sets, the sky is a great illuminator. And I walked with my camera and my cart, my camera dangling around my neck, and I stopped and I saw this incredible road, heading to the northeast towards what appeared to be Tilcara.
How could I be sure? But I had to make camp there just in case in the morning somebody came by. And I could ask them if this road indeed went to Tilcara. How wonderful. It was like a golden road. It was winding and heading straight to the northeast, exactly where I wanted to go. I couldn’t pass it up. I had planned to walk during the night. I had planned to “cover some ground,” “make some progress,” but, it’s a dream, and in a dream, you don’t need to make progress! You do as you need to do. So I made camp, and I filled myself up with hot liquids, and the wind died down, it was totally calm, and I shot a night photograph of the sky, with my tent and my cart.
My tent and cart and the Movement of Stars
I had no one to answer to. I had no phone calls to make, other than the ones that I really wanted to make, which only involved love. I had no emails to answer. I left all that behind. Tonight was all mine. All mine. I felt like a king, so many times over, I felt like the lord of the earth. I felt like the lord of the sky. Oh, well, you can criticize me for using these words, king, lord, sovereign. This kind of concept is not in vogue, but it’s my dream, and in my dream, I felt like the lord of all the things in the things in the sky and the earth. I felt in touch and communion with everything, at one with everything, in a mutual harmony, in a fine balance that could not be disturbed if my attitude was right, which it was, because I appreciated everything in my dream. I just lay down against one elbow propping my body up, with my head resting on my shoulder, looking out at the sky, feeling unbelievable.
I reached out and I touched the stars. I grabbed a whole bunch of them with my hand and pulled them into my tent, and then I opened my hand and I (phew!) blew them towards the hill, and they bounced off the hill and back into the sky.
On my walk, I felt I could do anything. I talked earlier about feeling fear of death and feeling no fear of death. And the difference was, when I was completely happy, and completely in touch with my own nirvana, completely satisfied, although I value life and although I cherish every moment, and I want to live forever – and there’s no proof that I won’t! – but death, it seemed no different than life, because I was completely whole.
Sierra de Tilcara, Walker on the mountainside (center)
November 30, 2010
I remember what my friend Ruth told me. She was a great photographer. She said that the photograph “Creation” was something she just had to do. It was something inside of her that just needed to… I don’t know exactly how she described it… in my own words, it was just something that pulls you, that just has to be realized. Maybe that was what this dream, this walk, was for me. Something that just had to come together in order for my life to be whole….
I revered the mountains, and in return, they let me pass
The mountains were bigger than I was. But they were not bigger than my determination. I revered the mountains, and in return, they let me pass. There was nothing that could stop me, because my heart was pure.
December 16, 2010 12:43 p.m.
Condors overhead. What a difference between these days and the days in the salars. In the days in the salars, the altitude was about 14,000 feet and the nights were freezing!, below freezing!, and there was wind, and there was no life. None! No life. No insects, virtually no life! O.K, there was some. I saw a mouse. I saw beetles. (Not many!)
Now, as I descend out of the Andes, it’s a wonderland. There’re trees. Yesterday I passed my first tree, my first tree in a month. Literally! Before, there were no trees. None. None at all. And now, there’s forests to my left, and there’s jagged mountains all around, in the distance, as I descend slowly out of the mountains, on gentle paths that hug the mountainside.
Last night I walked.
I set my camera on a rock and then rushed off to my sleeping bag, while I waited for the long exposure
The path hugged the mountainside the whole time – below crests – it was wonderful. There was really nothing so dangerous. Maybe one spot where if I fell, it could turn ugly because about twenty feet down, I think there was a cliff. If I rolled I think I could fall, but, mostly it was nothing dangerous. But still it was spectacular, walking by the moonlight.
…mostly running on adrenaline, drenched in moonlight
I used my headlamp – sometimes, I used the moonlight only. Now, it’s a perfect day. The path is gentle, it’s winding down, down, down, down out of the Andes, out of the Andes forever. The mountains move, but very slowly. I can see evidence about the geologic upheaval where things were pushed and huge stratification at angles, all discombobulated into a scenic wonder.
There’s life all around me. There’re insects, beautiful insects. There’re condors overhead. They soar, black and white. Strong, powerful, aerodynamically perfect. Something like a bomber. Or a bomber’s something like a condor. There’s grass, sloping hills. Maybe the hills are seventy degrees, on the side of the path, mostly with grass. And there’s evidence everywhere of goats having used the hills to graze for centuries.
This place is just kick-ass beautiful. I mean, it’s kickin’my ass!, but it’s beautiful. It’s ironic in a way, that I chose this route, to finish my walk across the Andes, there’s been nothing like it in the western part of the Andes. Unbelievable, it’s easily the most spectacular hike I’ve ever done. It’s dark now. I’m just sitting here resting on a trail that’s hugging the mountainside. The river is maybe about a hundred and fifty meters below…. The gorge is not very wide. A big wall of rock in moon shadow is just across from me. Maybe the gorge is something like two hundred meters across, six or seven hundred feet. I’m tired. I’m hungry. But I’m not that tired and not that hungry. And mostly running on adrenalin, drenched in moonlight.
I walk out of my dream. It really was a dream. A total dream. Everything was so foreign. Everything was devoid. Now, stepping into life again, I step out of my dream. But the dream has been good to me. I learned. I learned a lot. One thing is I learned is that my body needs to be used. It’s not right to sit at a computer all day long, burning my eyeballs out with electricity. It’s not right just to take a run for twenty minutes. I need days. And I found out that my body is good. I found out that my legs are strong. I found out that the ankle that I thought was bad is not bad. It’s good. It just needs to be used. All my aches and pains went away. Walking every day. Walking twelve hours, sixteen hours. No problem. Enduring the cold. No problem.
Last night I lay down and went to sleep for a short while, on a mountain crest, just wearing my clothes, with a jacket thrown over me. I was perfectly comfortable for a while.
I learned, other things…. I learned that I can do more than I thought I could. Importantly, I learned that any goal is achievable if you just apply enough resource. Maybe you don’t have the resource, maybe not at that time, but the goal is achievable. It’s like, I want to be a music star. It’s achievable. It’s just a matter of energy, resource. It’s not far off. It’s not any further off than the next village. That village was very off when I began my trip. Very, very far off. Now I’m close, because of application every day of my energies towards one end.
I learned that, when an opportunity comes and I’m not prepared, that I should prepare, even if I think that that opportunity won’t come again, because often it does.
I learned that I’m dependent on other people. I asked a lot of questions. Without people’s guidance, I don’t think I could have found the way so easily… (though maybe I could have, eventually – or, maybe I would have just had a better adventure). But I like life. I like other people. I like civilization. I was trying to escape civilization but I don’t want to escape it totally. I like to have one foot in it, and one foot out of it.