Running to Discover the World – Chronicle of the Raid of the Andes
Every year the Raid of the Andes summons thousands of runners to Argentina’s Northwest.
A chronicle of a three-day race that combines effort and pleasure.
Almost no one knows who won the race. Most don’t even care and will not stick around for the award ceremony. What’s important is that the finish line was crossed. The real prize is to have finished and the right to take home a ceramic medal as proof.
Depending on each one’s joy and vanity, networks will populate with profile photos in front of the arrival arch with fingers in “V” or pointing to the sky or biting the medal as if it was pure gold.
Before 3 PM, the salt flat will be once again a dessert and there will be no trace that an event took place that morning.
Tren de las nubes (Train to the clouds), Cerro de los Siete Colores (Cerro of seven colors), and Salinas Grandes comprise sixty kilometers in total on foot through three of the most touristic destinies of the Argentinean northwest.
Around three thousand runners participate in May every year after months of training and preparation to overcome a challenge for the body, the mind and the bank account.
But it’s not all suffering: The event takes place in some of the top tourist spots of the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, a region commonly known as the “NOA.”
The circuit starts in Salta. The run is twenty-seven kilometers following the railroads tracks on which the “Tren a las Nubes” usually navigates. The same train that once carried miners and now takes tourists to the height of Salta’s Puna.
The next day demands getting up early to get to the Province of Jujuy in order to take off from the town of Tumbaya and “run” twenty-five kilometers, most of them uphill, along the multicolored hills that decorate the background.
The goal is Purmamarca. The last stage is shorter but tougher because but the oxygen is scarce: Ten kilometers at three thousand meters above sea level running on salt at Salinas Grandes.
Three thousand enthusiastic souls arrived by land or by air with camel backpacks, running sticks, all-terrain shoes, energy snacks, GPS watches, head lanterns, sunglasses, coca candy, compression socks, creams of all shorts and other essential (or not) accessories.
The only mandatory items are the competition shirts, runner number tag and an electronic chip that will track each participant’s time and trajectory.
First State: Chorrillos to Campo Quijano
From Salta City to Chorrillos Station, there are 180 km that can be done in two hours through Route 51, a mountainous road. That means getting up at five, taking a carbohydrate-rich breakfast and arriving with enough time for warm up exercises.
Outside, it’s less than five degrees Celsius and the sun will not show above the hills until mid-morning. Another thing to consider is that being in permanent motion consumes energy that will be necessary for later.
As the starting line area gets populated, several loudspeakers emit rock music, reggaeton, folklore, all at the same time competing for the attention of those trying to fight the cold by shaking their bodies.
Running leaders and trainers with megaphones cheer their students during the warmup. Group photos, selfies, dancing, flag waving, more dancing. The elite runners jog back and forth, stretch, run again.
Meanwhile, the waiting gets long and nature calls. There are no inhibitions and any small fence, tree or bush above half a meter is good for an improvised toilet.
Once everyone is set to go, music and shouting stops at the gunshot. Now, only steady running steps and strong breathing can be heard. Soon, a single long procession line forms that follows railroad tracks, crosses bridges, undergoes tunnels, and stumbles in creek crossings.
In the background, mountains covered by green vegetation distract the mind from fatigue. Every now and then the tracks are a bridge that crosses some small precipice. At that moment the jog turns into a walk, as a false step could result in an important injury.
At the hydration posts there is a banquet with plenty of water, fruits, cereal bars and peanuts. twenty-seven kilometers later, Campo Quijano and its settlers receive the athletes with a sincere and warm applause.
The locals sell empanadas and tortillas filled with jam and goat cheese, meat or quinoa. Once again, the music, the photos, the cheering. The first test has been overcome. Next: several minutes of stretching.
But there isn’t much time to lose, because the next part of the race is four hours away by car. After checking out from the hotel in Salta follows a check in at Tilcara, Maimará or Purmamarca.
Second Stage: Tumbaya to Purmamarca.
A Group of local musicians give the welcome to compensate for the pains of the previous day. This Trail may be wet at times, even muddy. That makes for wet and muddy shoes and socks a lot heavier.
But looking ahead, the painted horizon helps the runner keep going. The mountains change color at each turn, brown, red, orange violet, painted by 75 million years of sediments from different bodies of water.
Near noon, the sun livens up the color palette even more. Each curve and counter curve modifies the landscape.
This stretch is almost all uphill, it needs to be done scaling, not running. For most it is the hardest part of the 3-day race. But at the highest point a panoramic view of the valley is a great excuse to take a brief break. A local accompanied by his canine companion plays the accordion and sells coca candy and drinks.
The last 4000 meters descend vertiginously towards Purmamarca and the last 10 minutes are animated by musicians playing at the side of the road. The entire town applauds the arrival of each one of the participants as if they were competing for a podium.
Purmamarca´s central plaza is a revolution. Their, two thousand residents plus runners and their company are all there, cooking, selling, stretching, eating, buying, resting.
There are long lines to buy empanadas, tamales and locro. The artisans sell like never before.
Third stage: Salinas Grandes
From Purmamarca the car procession of athletes is a long serpent of vehicles that follow the Cuesta de Lipán, four thousand meters above sea level at its highest point where it starts to descend towards the salt flat.
The route is accompanied by llamas and vicunas; also by huge trucks taking used cars to Chile or salt towards Paraguay. The last stretch is a straight line. Route 52 connects Argentina with San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, dividing Salinas Grandes in two.
“There is nothing whiter than the first time I saw snow,” sang Uruguayan poet and singer Jaime Ros. Maybe his lyrics would have been different had he seen a 12 thousand hectare salt desert on a totally sunny day contrasting with a long line of fuchsia shirts running in single file where ten million years ago, continental tectonic plates collided with the Pacific Ocean.
At Salinas Grandes there are no signs of life. Neither flora nor fauna. The only signs of human presence are rectangular pools of salty water next to small piles of salt prepared for collection and sale. In the background, a snowy mountain top watches over the plains: Mount Chañi, over 6 thousand meters high.
The recommendations for running on salt at three thousand feet on a sunny day are sunglasses and a light breakfast or no breakfast at all. Running at this height can be bad for the head and the stomach.
The start is massive. The horizon looks like the flag of a new country with a white inferior stripe, a sky blue on top and, in the middle, an irregular design of bright collared shirts and mountains peaking over their heads.
This last stage starts and ends at the same place. The trail is limited to protect from stepping in places where the salt must not get dirty. The temptation of stopping to take pictures is too strong and no one resists it. Oxygen is scarce and running from start to finish is something only the most trained can do.
At the finish line there is rejoicing, selfies with medals hanging by the necks and lines to buy tortillas made locally by salt workers and their families.
Before 4 PM, the temperature goes down drastically and Salinas Grandes is once again a dessert.
And then, what?
On Monday, the carriage turns back to a cabbage, but nobody will have lost their running shoes. There will be a few remaining pains, many photos, a medal and maybe a souvenir from the artisan fair.
Back home or at their place of work, the runners are already planning for the next race adventure that will make their life worth living.
Born in Santa Fe, Argentina in 1971, Ramiro was exiled to the United States during Argentina’s last military dictatorship. He lived with his family in Minnesota until 1987. Once back in Argentina, he played in the lower divisions of the local soccer team. In 1997, he graduated as a bioengineer. In 2022, he graduated as a journalist. Currently, he offers training and remote technical support for medical equipment for GE Healthcare. He writes articles in English and Spanish as an independent journalist. Ramiro is a member of the Human Rights Group @HijaseHijosdelExilio. He can be contacted at [email protected]; @ramiropozzo.