It was one of the most breathtaking expanses of road I’d ever had the privilege of traveling on. The sun’s rays had underscored the mountains’ jagged yet fluid forms, and there was nothing but pristine landscape in every direction. I had cursed myself for being human and having the biological need to blink so often – it was time I could’ve spent drooling over this unbelievable place. The Andes typically do that to people. Appreciative people, anyways. You become overwhelmed with bliss and, in my case, unprecedented delirium from doing nothing but staring.
Every 30 kilometers along Ruta 51, there are villages of about 40 people. Many of them stay there their entire lives, but not out of immobility or poverty or inconvenience. All they could ever need, the earth would provide, and their families would continue to live on the same soil their ancestors had. In one village with only 5 families, El Mojon, I met Alejandro. He was 12 at the time, and he told me that he walks to school 30 kilometers everyday to San Antonio de los Cobres, a dusty desert town that turned into a ghost town once the mines had been depleted. The terrain there is hostile – when it’s not scoldingly hot or mind-numbingly cold, there’s always wind there to whip burning sand in your face and eyes. And it’s the dry kind of air, so dehydration is likely. The next time I think about groaning when I realize I have to make a trip to Trader Joe’s in a DC winter, I need to slap myself and think of Alejandro – the kid who braves 60 kilometers of desert everyday just to get to school.