One of the many reasons I travel is for the heart-pounding moment of choice: Do I follow a known path or take the plunge into the unknown?
At home, I often follow a routine. The same route to and from work. The usual places for lunch. A standard grocery store. Knowing these places, and being known by others at these places, is what makes them home.
Abroad, that comfort and quality of being known is stripped away, and so the field of “known” is much narrower. You know where you get off the bus, and where your hotel is. That’s often it.
Abroad, I end up exploring further and pushing my limits, even in tiny ways.
Case in point—in northern Chile last month, I set out in the morning from my hotel thinking “walk,” which nearly immediately turned to “bike.” The man at the rental store assured me a lovely little town awaited just 9km up the valley with only a “more or less” hard up-hill slope.
Sold, I looked at my half-full water bottle and thought, “this should be enough.”
Now this is a rookie mistake anywhere—why in the world would you not just take the two minutes to go back to your room and fill up the water bottle? I literally passed by my hotel again on the way out of town.
But this is impatient me, who can’t wait to explore a new place, even if it means just two more minutes.
Backtrack for water? No way! I’m 100% sure there will be shops along the way where I can stop if I need it. And there are some clouds in the sky—no problem!
So let me step back now and describe where I was when I made this brilliant decision.
Pisco Elqui is in the heart of the Elqui Valley in the middle-north of Chile, in the high desert foothills of the Andes.
The average temperature in January is around 74F at 1300M (4265ft), with a whopping .2mm of rain that month. In a year, Pisco typically gets only 107.5mm (4.2in) of rain.
This clear, arid climate makes for stunning star-gazing, so Elqui Valley is home to some of the world’s most important observatories.
It is a desert nearly empty of many types of vegetation, other than an occasional cactus and some low-lying bushes. The valley is framed tight in steep shades of tan and pink-rock slopes. Improbably green pisco vineyards cover the skinny valley floor, pressed for water the last few years as snow cover has declined by 60 percent and reservoirs depleted by 80 percent.
The key word in all of this is, of course, desert.
I started my bike ride, which quickly turned into walking with my bike up the “more or less” hill (read: mountain.) Beautiful views framed every direction, and even though January is the height of tourist season, I felt completely alone in this beautiful place.
Of course, after some time of continuing to walk my bike, I started to get quite hot.
Those few clouds somehow decided it was time to move on.
And I had about two sips left in my water bottle.
With at least 5km left to my destination, I had a choice. I could:
A) Turn back. It was downhill, and a shorter, known distance back to the hotel.
B) Keep going and hope for the best.
A planner by nature, I went through the various scenarios within Option B.
I pictured myself passed out on the side of the road, lips cracked, barely able to breathe from lack of water.
I squinted at the cactuses on the side of the mountain, trying to decide if I had any idea how to get water from them (I didn’t).
I frowned at the valley floor, trying to decide if I could scale the loose-dirt slope to the river that had to be down there somewhere. Not that I could drink that water, but at least it would be cooler, and I could wait until dusk to walk back without passing out from heat.
Shaking my head, I looked at the road ahead.
Yes, I decided, I can go on. 5km (I really need to learn the conversions!) can’t be more than a 30-45 minute walk, and with two sips of water, that’s totally doable.
Really, I thought, the chances of me passing out of thirst were probably 1 in 50, at best.
Fear, you are not winning today.
I am woman, and I roar.
Even when slightly thirsty.
My reward: a little convenience store with ice cream and water not 30 minutes away, and very pretty town.
And a super fun downhill (read: mountain) bike ride back to my hotel, where a pristine pool awaited.