IF there was anyone who could be forgiven for being unmoved by the sight of the Andes Mountains, it would be Bertram van Munster. As executive producer of the Emmy award-winning reality show "The Amazing Race," whose new season premieres on Sunday, he says he has circled the world 57 times.
But each time he returns to the Andes, he's dazzled by their stark beauty (and grateful for their proximity to fabulous cities like Santiago, Chile, and Bariloche, Argentina, where luxury hotels can be found).
"What I love is the high level of sophistication of all of these cities," he said, "and as soon as you leave them you're on the moon -- completely desolate landscape."
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. van Munster on how to explore the daunting terrain of the Andes.
Q. The Andes run 5,500 miles along the western edge of South America. But with peaks an average of 13,000 feet, there are only a few routes that cross it. Which do you recommend taking?
A. Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, which goes from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina, is the main transport route between the countries, with a lot of trucking on it. That road blew me away -- it carves along the jagged ridges of the Andes, and the biggest tankers looks like toy cars. The journey takes only about six hours, and you drive past Mount Aconcagua, about 23,000 feet high. It's spectacular.
Farther south is a route that takes you from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Bariloche in Argentina's Lake District. We did our trip in October 2009, so it was springtime, but we fitted the car rental's tires with snow chains to go over the mountains. It's wild because at noon, you're at the top of a mountain, caught in a snowstorm, and by 4 p.m., you're back in beautiful weather. It's like being in Siberia one minute, and the south of France the next, the weather changes that rapidly.
Q. How do you pack for such extreme changes in weather?
A. There are two ways of doing it. I travel in clothes for the temperate weather, and I FedEx all of the bulky stuff I'll need for the mountains like gloves, hats, hiking boots and jackets to the hotel where I'm going to stay. Then, after we cross, I FedEx all that stuff home. Or I buy these things on the spot -- there's always a North Face or some outfitters -- and give them to somebody who can use them after I'm done. Very often I give away shoes or hats to someone I worked with.
Q. How do you get used to the high altitudes?
A. About eight years ago, we drove from Lima to Huancayo in Peru, and it was miserable. We were driving 18,000 feet, the same height that airplanes go, literally through the clouds. We made it, but we should have bought some oxygen masks in the city before leaving.
In 2008, I stayed in La Paz, Bolivia, which is at about 11,000 feet. I drank that coca tea the entire time, and I wasn't affected at all by the altitude. The tea is made with raw leaves from a coca plant, the same one used to make cocaine. But as a tea, it's a mild stimulant, and it really does keep you from being lightheaded. Once you acclimate yourself to that altitude, La Paz is a beautiful city, with a great downtown area to explore.
One day I saw people jogging, and I said I want to know what that sensation was all about. I got about 300 or 400 yards before it went black in front of my eyes, and I passed out. So the lesson is, don't push it.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.