We went to South America’s Altiplano, the mountainous desert region crossing the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, looking for water in the driest place on earth.
We pulled kayaks behind, which sounds either Quixotic or foolhardy. During six weeks we travelled from sea level to 20,000 feet and ultimately found more than just signs of water. After all, man has scratched out a living here for more than 10,000 years, longer than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, suggesting there must be water out there somewhere.
In fact, the sea used to be here – everywhere – and there were abundant signs. While our days were dusty and cold, spent mostly above 14,000 feet, and visited by strong winds that stopped for only a few hours in the early morning, they were linked by the long history of water in the Altiplano. Daily we traversed dry salt beds and lakes that were once covered by ocean. Over tens of thousands of years, as the high, long ridges of the Andes rose up volcanically, the ocean was pushed aside, its deep valleys filling with ash, lava and rock. But as recently as 12,000 years ago, sizable lakes still covered these Andean plains. What they left behind – thick salt beds, marine coral and fossils of sea life mixed in with the desert sand – are only the most visible evidence.
This was much more than just a quest for paddle-able lakes. The motivation was to not only to seek out water – the big salt lakes, high Andean rivers and streams and man-made reservoirs I knew were out there somewhere – but to explore just how man has managed to survive here for one hundred centuries.