6:00-8:00 AM The Departure
We woke at 5:00-AM for a 5:30 departure. We left at 6:00 with enough food to last us two days, thanks to Santusa also waking up with us to prepare some food for the journey. The motorcycle was squeezed through the house gate and loaded up.
I was a bit confused as to why we were to still going ahead with the trip. The night before Damian commented that he could not get in touch with his friend, our guide, on the phone –his number was not longer in service. I asked him if we would be able to find the tracks without a guide. He said no, he had never been there before himself and did not know the way. The hike was to be three hours in and three hours out. In the chill and darkness of the morning I decided not to question our actions, besides, the damage was done I was now wide awake and nursing a mug of instant coffee.
Wearing several layers of clothes, we left Candalaria. The road would be cobblestone until Icla, then dirt to Uyuni, and rocky dirt to our destination. Several creek beds had to be crossed, with and without water, along with pockets of deep sand.
Two hours later I was waiting in the center of the village while Damian looked for his friend’s house. The village consisted of one street about three blocks long sitting at the foot of a wall of red rock. Memories of southern Utah came to me. He found the house, but his friend was not there, only his wife. In the house, a long discussion in Quechua ensued. I did not have a clue what was being said, but it was clear that the woman was not very happy to see us. Before setting off, I tried to park the bike up into their courtyard but could not get the rear wheel up and over the high curb. The crowd of 6-or-7 young boys offered no help.
8:00-10:00 The Beginning
The wife led us to a wide expansive mostly dry riverbed. She stopped there and pointed off into the far distance. It was now clear that we were proceeding without a guide. After the woman was out of earshot, I asked what was going on, “where is your friend?” “He lives in Santa Cruz now and has a new wife”, Damian replied. The tone of the conversation back at the house now made sense, but continuing without a guide did not.
The immediate goal was to follow the riverbed to where it snaked between two mountains. We came across a man with a donkey, then a group of kids in school uniforms, and a couple other men walking towards the village. I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from, where they lived. Damian asked each one for directions, but was not getting the information he needed. Finally, a man in his 30’s stopped and spoke to us, his tone seemed nicer than the rest (all conversations were in Quechua) and when it was over Damian reached into his Chuspa and gave the man a large pinched of coca leaves. “He told me that people do not want tourists coming here, and that is why the other people were not giving me the correct directions”. “GREAT”, I thought, “I just left my bike parked in the middle of a town full of unfriendlies!”
Now, about 9:00 we followed the man’s directions further up the riverbed sidestepping large rocks and boulders while crossing the stream many times. It was already quite hot and I stopped to remove a layer of clothes. (Damian never even took off his corduroy blazer or wool hat.) An hour later, we came across several dogs barking viciously. We picked up some rocks and sticks in preparation. Damian called out to a woman that was walking towards a primitive looking shelter. It took awhile for her to warm up, but finally she too got a pinch of coca. She had her hands full now, so I reached into my backpack for a small baggie of the leaves that I had picked up as a free sample from some coca growers at a coca fair in Parque Bolivar the day prior. It would be easier for her to carry, plus I thought it might be a beneficial gesture if the coca came from the gringo tourist. She warmed up some more.
They talked and she led us past her house, past the goat pen to a smaller dry riverbed. There we waited while she came back with a bowl of boiled corn on the cob, or choclo. She also brought with her two fossilized shells and a hunk of solid copper. She sat and shared some of our boiled potatoes and oranges. It was a needed rest under a tree and we said good-bye, after I agreed to her asking price of 30 Bs ($4.20) for all three relics. I thought how I should have brought my GPS unit, not only to potentially save our lives, but also to sell the coordinates to the Chinese for the copper find.
10:00-12:30 The Ascent
At 10:00, we left the riverbed and started climbing per the woman’s directions. The new plan was that we were going to take a more direct route up and over the mountain in front of us, and then return by using a system of riverbeds back to town. We started climbing, and continued to climb. There was only a goat path to follow and goats do not use switchbacks to ascend, they get from A to B using the most direct path – in this case straight up. Being that Damian must be part goat, and well acclimated to the intense Bolivian sun; he had little difficulty with the climb. I was a different story. While in the riverbed I was able to wet a bandana in the stream and place it under my hat, but the climb had taken us away from any water. It was obvious that I was not prepared or equipped for a hike like this in the heat of the day and at 11,000-ft. By 12:00 I was experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion. My head under my black cap was boiling and I was becoming lethargic and nauseous and we still did not know exactly where we were going.
The terrain was sparse and rocky with nothing but cactus, scrub brush and a few small pepper trees baking under the midday sun. The rock and ground looked of ancient lava. We came across another goat herder and asked for directions. We were directed to a lone tree further up on the ridge. I told Damian that I did not think I could go on. We agreed to make it to the tree and decide there. Otherwise, the only way down was the way we came, which was steep and of loose rock. The only good thing about the ascent was that when turning around the views were stunning -full of red mountains, lush green foliage along the rivers and a clear blue sky. By the time I made it to the lone tree, well behind Damian, I was completely spent, useless. The high ridge dropped off into a deep crevice with a couple of thatched roofed homes at the bottom with crops of corn.
The wall of the opposing mountain was completely different from what we had seen all day. It was not desolate landscape of lava rock and cactus, but of smooth red rock dotted with tall Palm trees. “Palm Trees?” There was a creek running between the two mountains at the bottom of the “crevice”, the terrain along the water was green and fertile. The quest was over for me, but I had to admit, if we were going to find dinosaur tracks, there could not be a more primitive or bizarre looking setting as this. It was like cresting the ridge and finding the Land of the Lost.
12:30-1:00 Tracks Discovered
I followed Damian down to where the houses were and he told me to rest under the tree while he walked up the trail where the locals said the tracks were. I agreed, and collapsed under a tree. A small boy in ragged clothes stood and stared at me, probably never have seen a dying gringo before, or at least not one so pathetic. Damian came back just as I was dozing off. “The tracks are about three minutes away”, he said. “Verdad?” “Seriously?”
The tracks were definitely impressive, much more than I had anticipated, and along with the surrounding scenery it was truly like traveling back in time. There was even evidence of an old Incan irrigation system carved into the rock next to the spring that was feeding the stream. This water source had apparently been supporting life for many, many years, and there was evidence of this all around us that told the story. With the palm trees and ample shade, the area was quite tranquil. After a few photos, and it already being 1:00, it was time to leave. After more advice from one of the resident families, we were off to follow a system of dry riverbeds until reuniting with the main river. The estimated time back to the bike was five hours.
1:00-5:30 The Return
We followed dry riverbeds for three hours before reuniting with the main river. During this time clouds started rolling in. The relief from the sun was divine, but then the rain started. The nausea would not go away. Once back in the larger riverbed we had to wait out a thunderstorm under a clump of trees at the river’s edge.
5:30-7:30 The Road Home
The motorcycle was how I left it, untouched. The woman came out to greet us and seemed to be in a much better mood. Damian and I agreed not to tell her, or anyone else who asked, that we had found the tracks – their secret would be safe with us. (However, it is just a matter of time before the secret gets out and the tour groups show up.)
We blazed home and arrived back at the house at 7:30, a 13-hour day. Santusa had a plate of pasta waiting for me and Damian and I shared a beer together. By now, we were scrolling through my camera’s photos and laughing as we told the rest of the family what we had gotten ourselves into. Damian even admitted how tough it was, which boosted my spirits and ego some. I give him full credit for finding the tracks and getting us back safely, even if it was a bit longer than a six-hour hike.
Here is a video I made of the trip for Damian, Dos Hombres