Historical Snowstorm traps us in the Andes

Trip Start Oct 04, 2009
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
Some Illegal hostel near the bus station
Stranded Bus

Flag of Argentina  ,
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lately, we've been saying how if we could do it all over again, maybe we would've done South America from North to South and finished in Argentina instead of Columbia, therefore bypassing the cold of winter completely.  I was picturing and dreading Boston-like temps, and I just didn't want to have to duck into a cafe for a coffee every hour in order to explore a city. Hostel's aren't exactly known for priding themselves in keeping their inhabitants cozy either. 

Not shivering all the time seemed like a pretty reasonable comfort request to me. I happen to really LIKE being warm.

I was relieved to arrive in Chile and realize it's really not that chilly (i LOVE making this joke), mild even.  It's no Boston winter, more like a brisk Boston autumn.  I was finding the weather very manageable, pleasant even....and that's about when the cold began breaking 30yr old records here, forcing you to focus beyond discomfort on the actual dangers of the cold.  It obviously isn't as easy to stay warm when you aren't prepared and/or when you are living in a basic shack.  This month (July) the cold has killed dozens of people and is causing cattle & alpacas, important income, to freeze to death. 

Other dangerous side effects of the cold presented themselves on our way over to Argentina.  We were cutting through the tight-winding roads of the Andes mountains when the snow started falling.  Thankfully, the bus started taking the sharp turns a bit slower as we were amazed the driver could even see anything out the window, it was a full-blown blizzard.

Our progress came to a halt when we hit significant traffic behind what seemed like tractor-trailer accidents.   The bus was slipping trying to pass around them and the driver made the call to camp out in the Andes for the night.  This was a definitely a bit of a relief, as we felt safer stationary, but we knew we were definitely not safe.

Almost everyone on board was naturally a little on edge - I couldn't believe the couple in front of us was sleeping.  The passengers that didn't understand the driver's Spanish were more panicked about why the bus wasn't moving - and then why it would jerk forward.  The bus was literally at a 30 degree angle facing nose-down on the side of a cliff.  The bus hadn't hugged the inside curve because we were trying to maneuver around the truck.  It was easy to assume the little guardrail was not going to hold us if we needed it to.  We put on movies to distract us from thinking about it.

Gratefully, it was warm, but since it was a border-crossing bus, we didn't have our usual snacks array - just crackers.  I definitely felt the pressure of the "every man for himself" mentality as there was limited food & water and no one had any information about the storm.  

This was another moment that reminded me how easy it is to overlook the dangers of a less-developed country.  I sometimes forget to worry about the transportation or food or compromised safety...until a scary snowstorm or a kidnapping or a terrible traffic accident.  I felt grateful to be in Argentina and not, let's say, Bolivia, where bus quality was always questionable. 

After about 4 movies, the sun came up and our bus tires got some fancy chains.   Every turn was taken extremely slowly, which actually really saved me from adding motion sickness to the current events.  We arrived in Salta, 7 hours late, and more than a little shaken up.  I could've hugged the driver.  The big flakes were beautiful once we were off that damn bus and settled down enough to appreciate them.

Everyone in Salta was a tourist for the day - not having seen snow in almost 10 years, the whole city was building snowmen, taking the gondola for an aerial view (we waited in line for an hour!), and photographing the snow-blanketed orange trees, palm trees, and cacti...meanwhile, trying to stay warm...

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