How to Cross the Andes


A friend wrote to me once, “I always remember how beautiful it would be to find death in the high altitudes of the Andes, and think to myself, ‘well, if death can be found under such beautiful circumstances, I bet life can also have some beauty for me. And if not, I have a good pair of boots and a tent to go find death in the Andes.’”

The first time I tried to find myself on the opposite side of the mountains, I lurched toward Santiago but spent four days lost in Mendoza, waiting for the first snowstorm of the year to be cleared from the highway. Once, the bus even came within sight of the mountains, and stopped for a few anxious hours. In the evening, it turned around. I learned about preemptive earthquake architecture, I drank only the cheapest varietals of world-class regional wine, I watched Uruguay win a Copa America quarterfinal in bar full of disappointed porteños, I considered the desert. When the pass reopened, the bus station reminded me of a overhyped stadium tour, and a 14-hour crawl later found me at a border crossing in the middle of the night, packed to the gills with travelers holding up the customs line to watch the La Roja match on tiny screens fitted into the corners of the concrete ceiling.

On the way, the sun probably melted a few centimeters of snow underneath luxury ski resorts, altitude notwithstanding. All white, all blue, all angles. They will put you on a bus that feels softer than your home, and it is a good thing too, because you will be there a while.

But the way to go is through the air, because even in the air the mountains keep you. The way to go is to fly to the rhythm of the sun, as it rises or sets as you like, and to book a seat on the appropriate side of the plane. That is, if you are traveling the sly diagonal from Punta Arenas to Santiago at daybreak, you will want to be by a window on the right side of the aircraft, so as to maximize your view of the dusty peaks battling the clouds for dominance, so as to cry at the colors reflected on the rocks. Avoid the wing. You might also opt for a sunset journey, so long as you take care not to be blinded by the Pacific sunlight. It is important to plan, and to take only as many benzodiazepines as absolutely needed, lest you risk consciousness.

Whatever you do, do not waste a crossing in the night. The Andes these hours are the darkest thing known to the world. What few headlights snake along the roads between them are easily swallowed. This is what extraterrestrial explorers feel like between galaxies.

My friend has not yet died in the Andes. Neither have I. Either of us might, one day. But to find oneself in attempt to get from one side to the other is an opportunity to take with grave seriousness. Here is an assemblage of height which does not yield even to the sky.