That Time We Got Stuck in the Argentinian Salt Flats – Part One

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When you get back from a long distance adventure, there’s generally one story that gets told over and over again. It’s the one that your closest family members and friends have heard numerous times, because every time you’re with someone who hasn’t heard it they insist that you tell it again. For us, the story that everyone has heard is about the time we got ourselves in a pretty bad situation during our road trip in Northern Argentina. Zevi does a pretty good job of telling it, but I’m going to give it a go myself, because no account of our trip would be complete without it.

We’d had a beautiful and adventurous day of driving a tiny rural highway that wound up and down high mountain passes, and after conquering that crazy road, we were feeling pretty relaxed about the rest of our day. The salt flats had been something we’d been excited about for a long time – they were one of the first things we’d pegged as a must-see in Northern Argentina. Since we knew that a lot of tourists visited them, we didn’t really think much about any risks that might be involved in checking them out. We figured that we’d drive out, take some cool photos, and be at our hotel in ample time to grab some dinner.

After driving about an hour and a half from the small town of San Antonio de los Cobres, we were super excited when we looked to our left and saw a white expanse of crusty salt glistening not too far in the distance. We were keen on securing ourselves a prime picture taking spot that wasn’t too packed with people, so we decided to take an unmarked side road towards the flats. As we bumped and rolled our way on to the salt, we were excited to see that we would have the entire area to ourselves. It was so beautifully secluded, which we thought was strange given that it was a well-known tourist attraction, but we were happy to be solo.

We really wanted to recreate those cool reflection photos that people take on salt flats that I’m sure many of you have seen, so we were excited when we saw a small blue lake on our GPS. We decided to drive towards it in hopes that we could get some amazing shots of our own. Between our excitement about being on the amazingly expansive salt flats, the promise of capturing some top notch photos, and the euphoric high from having conquered that risky mountain road, we weren’t even a little bit worried about the fact that we were driving kilometres upon kilometres further from civilization. The salt appeared to be solid, and it seemed unthinkable that we could run in to any sort of trouble.

That is, until we did start to run in to trouble. We’d arrived at the area where the GPS told us that there would be water, but there was no water to be seen. All of a sudden we heard a splash, and felt the truck lurch downwards as it cracked through the salt in to the muddy water below. We had found the lake, but it was under the salt, rather than on top of it. This was the first moment when I realized that being so incredibly alone might not be such a great thing after all, and I told Zevi we needed to turn around and get out of that area ASAP. He was in complete agreement, but as he turned the truck around, we sank in again. At this point we were both starting to panic even as we popped out of the mud and continued on our way. Our fears were validated when we sunk in a third time. This time we didn’t pop out. We were seriously stuck.

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I don’t think I realized the true gravity of the situation at first, or at least I wanted to remain optimistic. We had experience getting ourselves free from Calgary’s snow banks, so I figured we’d be able to maneuver ourselves out of there with a little a little rocking back and forth and pushing. Unfortunately, none of our tried and true techniques got us anywhere. In fact, we may have actually been making things worse. Finally we surrendered to the fact that there was absolutely no way we were getting ourselves out of there. Suddenly our solitude was a serious problem.

People always say that if you run in to trouble the thing to do is stay with your vehicle until help comes to you. We had driven so far out on to the flats, though, that no one was going to be coming our way any time soon, so we had no choice but to trek towards the road and try to flag down a passing car. It was a scorchingly hot day, so we made sure to slather on the sunscreen and bring all of the water we had for our walk to the gravel highway. Using his GPS app, Zevi figured that the walk would be about five or six kilometres, which we thought would still give us enough time to find help and get towed out that evening. That dream started to dwindle as we walked on and on, crunching our way through the seemingly never ending salt only to arrive at a muddy swamp where one false step would suck us in to our hiking boot tops (Zevi learned this the hard way). Every so often I’d exclaim to Zevi that I could see someone in the distance, but my hopes were dashed when I realized that the wild donkeys looked an awful lot like people when you looked at them from just the right angle. Honestly I think I could have tricked my mind into thinking that almost anything looked like a human at that point – I wanted so badly to find the saviour that would bail us out of this increasingly dire predicament. We walked on and on towards what we thought might be buildings, looking for any sign of civilization.

Stay tuned for part two where I’ll wrap up this story.

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