I was so excited at going to Argentina and Chile that I did not pay much attention to the activities being planned. White-water rafting I had done before, cycling to a salt lake seemed fine, but the prospect of a three-day trek in the Andes at altitude — with camping? What had I agreed to?
The first three days in Buenos Aires were wonderful — full of history, colour, culture and food. Shopping was fantastic and cheap. People really did tango on the streets — I just had to buy tango shoes. Then we were off again, before we had time to see a local football match, or the opera at Teatro Colon, one of the greatest opera houses in the world.
Our next destination was Salta, a beautiful colonial town, and after one day of relaxation and another day of exciting rafting on the Juramento river, we drove west with our guides to another beautiful old town, Cachi. Here, we spent our last night of comfort in a boutique hotel — its views of the snow-capped Andes were magnificent. We were already at 2,700m, with another 2,000m of climbing planned.
On the first day of the trek, we walked gradually uphill through cactus fields before following a river, which soaked us when we eventually had to cross it. Although parts of the trek were arduous at this altitude, it was a wonderful experience to walk in such a beautiful, silent and remote area.
After five hours of walking and having met nobody, we reached the farmland where we were to spend the night. While the day had been blisteringly hot, it became freezing cold once the sun set — the fact that we had to spend the night in a tent became very unappealing. The unease was quelled to some extent by Malbec wine and a pasta supper.
We awoke early the next morning and for once I was not complaining — I did not wish to spend any longer in the tent. After breakfast, we walked on with a range of snow-capped mountains 6Km behind us, viewed through vast emptiness and cactus fields. Two condors circled overhead as we continued to an altitude of 3,700m, before starting a slow descent past cacti and airplants, down a dry river bed, to arrive eight hours later at the adobe hut on the grounds of some gauchos’ house. Such a welcome sight. But first, we discovered that the gauchos had their own football pitch. Neither our boys nor the gauchos could resist a match so, against the most incredible backdrop, our sons and a gaucho took on three others and won. Fortunately, the gauchos were gracious in defeat and still cooked us a delicious supper.
The next day was the most arduous. We climbed past Inca and pre-Inca ruins. The ascent rose steeply up to 4,000m — I became light headed. We passed a shepherd girl in bright red clothing tending her flock. Suddenly, we could see the end of our trek a long way downhill. It took two difficult hours to finish, but Salta beer, crisps and cheese were a great reward for an exhausted but happy team.
It was an amazing holiday and while I questioned my sanity at times during the trek, I shall treasure memories of the views, the silence and our companions forever.
Dr Lewis is a GP in Windsor, Berkshire
We booked with Kallpa Tour Operators, who organised everything: hotels, rafting with Salta Rafting Company, and the trek with the accompanying guides.