Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.
We were nestled safe and sound in our camper, tent set up, when the thunderstorm hit Purmamarca, an Andean village in Argentina. Purmamarca, its name translated "Town of the Virgin Land," and its claim to fame the hill of seven colors, is perched next to a small river, two miles up from a major Argentine highway, Route 9.
The thunder boomed and lightning flashed like a strobe light, and pretty soon heavy drops of rain were beating on our car roof. I hopped out of the bed to make sure nothing was on our tent floor, because it leaks where it connects to the back of the Kangoo van. Wind was rocking the tent, but nothing real serious and our campground was fairly protected. I climbed back into bed, the rain, thunder, and lightning subsided after about an hour, and I went back to sleep.
Always early risers, my sister and I got up and had breakfast in the fresh-smelling air, but couldn't fill up our water jugs. The campground water had turned brown. Then Sue said, "Do you hear water running? I don't remember hearing anything last night."
We packed up and left the campground at around 8 in the morning, our next goal being Iguazu Falls in the opposite corner of Argentina. As we turned onto the highway, we noticed the river was filled with brown rushing water. "That's the running water I heard. Was this river here last night?"
As we drove, we found quite a bit of debris on the road. First a few rocks, then tree limbs, mud, and places where gravel washouts covered the road.
"I wonder what happened here?" I said as we crept over one of the washouts. I hauled out my camera and began videotaping. Since we hadn't driven this road the day before, we didn't really know what it was supposed to look like. We passed a sign that said, "Lugar de camping" (place to camp) with an arrow pointing to a pile of mud and water. We also saw a campground across the river, but didn't see any way to get to it.
We crept down the road, eyeing continual debris, even sticks and dead grass piled high on the sides of posts along the road, as if water had swept along the entire road. But the road was about 30 feet above the river bed. Why would the debris be up here?
Then we saw a tree across the road. "What's going on here?" I wondered aloud. As we drove further, we had our answer: there was no more road. In its place was emptiness about 40 feet across from one piece of asphalt to the other, and about 40 feet down to the riverbed.
My sister and I stared. I shrugged. "Well, we're not going anywhere for awhile." I couldn't imagine how anyone would even begin to repair this chasm. Purmamarca was going to be our place of residence for awhile.
We drove back, and with limited Spanish informed our campground owner what had happened, and that we'd be staying for as long as it took to fix the road. She was quite shocked and quickly began talking on the phone to other people. Then we headed to the store to buy food and water.
We imagined that people from Chile would begin pouring into the tiny village and fill it up, unable to go any further, but discovered that wouldn't happen because a rock slide 10 km up the road was holding everybody else at bay. They even had to rescue people from a bus that had been stranded by the flash flood/mud slide.
We walked back to the chasm, and discovered people on foot were not letting a little landslide stop them. They had trod a mountain goat trail above the opening and were helping each other cross.
Teenagers and young people with heavy backpacks fared fairly well, but I held my breath as I watched some old women with suitcases attempt the crossing. Luckily, people helped them. It would have been a long fall to the bottom.
At around 2 p.m., the police arrived and taped it off, ending the traversing of the mountain goat trail. Instead, people were instructed to take a trail down to the riverbed, walk the ebbing river, and back up again. By late afternoon, four-wheelers were hauling some people, but the huge rocks made the route slow. By early evening, four-wheelers and people had brought in mattresses, bottled water, and canned food for the villagers who had been made homeless by the flood. The language barrier made it hard for us to find out if anyone was hurt. I don't think so.
Meanwhile, dump trucks with dirt and a front-end loader arrived on the opposite side of the chasm and began filling it in. I shook my head in amazement. We made a phone call home to let everyone know we were OK but stuck.
Who knew when we were going to be able to leave?