Around the World in 3300 Days (Chile: July 1999 to February
Putre, Northern Chile, August 18, 1999
We have been in Chile for over four weeks and away from home for nearly one year.
When we landed in Iquique on a Friday evening we were allowed to sleep one more night in our luxurious cabin on the ship. The next morning saw all harbor procedures performed without any problems and without any additional expenses (photos). So we could enter Chile at 12 noon.
At the beach of Iquique we tried to store the luggage from the sea voyage in our Vanagon again and to find a spot for the bags of clothing that friends in Long Beach had given us for poor people. We were at the end of our wits with the empty suitcases and the full bags when a Chilean family came to our rescue. The daughter started talking with us, and all family members tried to ask or tell something at the same time. They visited their aunt, and on the bus the girl's suitcase was lost. They thankfully accepted our suitcases, and they could use quite a bit from the clothing bags. Victor, an engineer from Santiago, was not shy to try on the suits right on the street - they fit him exceptionally well. It was great fun for everybody! Spontaneously they invited us to tea into the house of their aunt. This joyful, temperamental party tested our Spanish hard on our first day in Chile. They understood it without problems. In addition the daughter and a cousin proved to be good interpreters. In this way we were thrown into this exuberant life on our first evening, and we felt really welcome in Chile.
Unfortunately the Inca gods did not welcome us. Already in the first night they took revenge and punished our entry into their realm with terrible diarrhea. Had the shrimps from Colombia that the cook had prepared for Richard's birthday produced such a bad result? We left for a deserted beach south of Iquique and tried all our pills according to all the medical advice brochures that we carried. Antibiotics helped, at least for a while.
After a week we felt fit enough to leave our mainly foggy place between the ice-cold, thundering sea and the barren desert mountains (photo).
During exceptionally beautiful sunshine we drove along the coastal highway towards the south - on the right hand side the ragged rocky coast with rock islets covered by snow-white guano, on the left the steep coastal Cordillera. Through the driest area on earth, the Pampa, where for hundreds of miles no greenery can be found we drove into the interior on a steep highway. This desert is by no means virgin, though. There are tracks everywhere, because prospectors dug through it searching for valuable minerals. Many old roads turned off to deserted mines. Since fertilizer is produced artificially there is no demand for natural nitrates any more. Other minerals like copper, manganese, molybdenum, lithium, zinc, and sulfur seem to be still profitable, and so we passed several dusty, mostly unkempt mining villages.
For our first free campsite we had selected a spot at the Rio Loa. What a surprise when we suddenly dove into a green oasis with a creek carrying clear water. Unfortunately the water was cold, 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so we could not even think of swimming. In the next city, Calama, the friendly campground owner opened a cabana for us and gave us the chance to have a hot shower in decent surroundings.
We continued to the well-visited oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. The landscape changed and became more interesting; snowcapped volcanoes lined the horizon at our left. When we camped in the Valle de la Luna, the Moon Valley, we were surprised by a wonderful natural drama. Shortly after sunset a huge full moon rose behind the Andes Mountains covered in glowing red (photos). In the night strange sounds like breaking ice kept us alarmed. The salt rocks making up the valley cracks in the sudden cold. Wherever we looked the salt crystals glittered and shimmered in the moonshine. In daylight the valley offered even more beauty. We discovered a slot canyon, almost as narrow as in Utah, a cave and a main canyon with fantastic salt formations, sometimes reminiscent of snow-covered tiny Christmas trees.
In several small oasis villages we stopped to visit the simple, whitewashed churches made from adobe. Their doors and ceilings were manufactured from cactus wood with many holes (photos). It was always fairly easy to find a beautiful spot for the night, at a viewpoint, a bathing place or a lonely church. The locals never bothered us. They passed with their sheep herds or riding donkeys, friendly responding to our greetings.
The large salt lake, Salar de Atacama, did not live up to my expectations. The salt was of a dirty beige color and looked like a ploughed field. On a track we were able to cross it until open water where flamingoes frolicked. We could observe three species in one spot, which is supposed to be unique on earth.
In Peine, the most distant village, some plastic parts of the gear lever broke in pieces. It became very hard to shift gears, mostly the reverse engaged. At a decline Richard managed to engage the third gear and start the engine. For 40 miles we drove without problems until Richard felt some human need whilst in the middle of the salt track. Of course we could stop, but in the plain we might not be able to start in third gear any more. So we had to change drivers at 30 mph, which we had practiced quite a bit when we were young. But later a construction site forced us to stop. So we had to cover the remaining 25 miles in second gear. In San Pedro de Atacama Richard managed to create a superb provisional gearshift by means of two hard rubber rings, well supported by some friendly bus drivers. It might have lasted for the rest of our trip.
At the picnic area of the Geoglyphs of Pintados we camped for the night (later other travelers had to leave at sunset). Under varying light conditions we philosophized about the reasons why the people in pre-inca times took the effort to scratch these monumental pictures into the hillside. I tend to believe that people in all times liked to produce something for eternity. Didn't our fathers cut a heart into a tree in order to see it grow forever? And the youngsters today spray their names with color onto walls. Richard sees the huge figures that represent humans, animals or geometric symbols, as the result of a work effort in times of unemployment, which was organized by a farsighted religious or political leader. We are surprised how little known these figures in the north of Chile are in comparison to the world famous pictures of Nazca in Peru, although they were created during the same times.
Richard's intermittent diarrhea forced us to drive to Iquique again. Medicinal tests in a laboratory kept us there for a few days. The results were all negative, but the problem persisted. A workshop owner found the spare parts for the gearshift in a wrecked VW bus and fit them to our vanagon. While helping Richard caught another lumbago. We tried to cure it in the hot waters of the rather rundown mountain spa Mamina.
In Tarapaca, another mountain village, the yearly church festival was held. Thousands of pilgrims came up, walking, by car, bus or truck, to revere San Lorenzo. They waited in a long queue, patiently, in order to touch the foot of San Lorenzo's statue or to wipe some clothing or a candle over it. Religious dance troupes, mainly Indios, moved to the beat of drums and trumpets in fantastic costumes, some of which were supposed to be ceremonial dresses of North American Apaches, Comanches, or Sioux (photos). Up to five groups danced simultaneously on the plaza in front of the church. More and more pilgrims gathered around them. Finally at midnight thunderous fireworks greeted the holy day. Various celebrations were performed all night long and the statues of other churches paid homage to San Lorenzo. In the morning the bishop himself celebrated a mass, the statue of San Lorenzo was dressed in new clothes and was marched around the square in a procession. The pilgrims' camp, where we spent the night, too, looked like a garbage dump in the end. But a team of sweepers would clean up the next day.
Through the dull desert we drove north to Arica on the Panamericana. In the fairly modern city by the sea Richard had to see a gastroenterologist, who is a specialist for problems with digestion. He prescribed another set of pills and an even more stringent diet, although we had both lost 12 pounds already. The results of the lab examination would be available within four days. This time we did not want to wait in the city. So we drove towards the Bolivian border on the Carretera Internacional. First we traversed a fertile, green valley that was cultivated right to the edge of the absolutely barren desert mountains. Through these drab mountains we had to wind our way up to 10000 feet, where suddenly the vegetation began. What a delight for the eyes: small bushes beside the road blossomed in red and yellow colors, pink flowers covered the hillsides, wild guanacos peacefully grazed among the cacti and shrubs.
To get slowly used to the altitude we camped near the traditional village Socoroma at about 10300 feet, in the middle of maize and oregano fields. These campesinos are very friendly and outgoing. I was even allowed to take a picture of a woman who came to see our camper. As our Spanish is inferior to hers she felt even so self-conscious to correct some of our mistakes (photo).
The last four days we spent in Putre at an altitude of 11000 feet. Here too, the people are quite nice. An Indio woman, who demonstrated spinning of wool for me, asked me: "Do you have alpacas in your home country? No? Do you have at least vicunas? Not even Llamas! What a poor country!"
Richard took the daily bus to Arica to see the doctor. After a night in the city he just came back with the good news that he is absolutely healthy. But he has to continue his strict diet without fruit and vegetables for another week.
La Paz, Bolivia, August 26, 1999
From Putre the road climbed through a very impressive landscape. Up to about 12000 feet many plants blossomed in marvelous colors. Further up there were only green brushes that the vicunas, llamas, and alpacas seem to love. More and more snow-covered volcanoes came into sight, and icefalls near the road glistened in the sunlight.
In Parinacota, a picturesque Indio village at 13300 feet, we spent the last night in Chile. At 6 p.m. I could still sit outside in the sun cleaning some vegetables. One hour later, when I took it in for cooking, everything was frozen already! It became a bitterly cold night. In the morning we woke up with most beautiful ice flowers covering the windows. The water in the teapot could easily be thawed with the gas cooker.
We did not encounter any real problems with the altitude, as we had acclimatized slowly. We just couldn't walk fast and had to pause more often. In the night we woke up sometimes in order to breathe a bit faster. Also the heart seems to beat somewhat faster.
The next day was full of highlights (photos). We drove closer and closer to the twin volcanoes Pomerape and Parinacota, also called Los Payachates. Clear white snow covered their symmetrical cones far down to their bases. Another volcano spewed white clouds once in a while. Emerald green below these white mountains lay Lake Chungara at 14,000 feet. Ducks, snow geese, and other waterfowl frolicked in the lake. Alpacas grazed at its shores. A clear blue sky and bright sunshine offered photo opportunities en masse.
Faster than expected we reached the Chilean border, formalities were brisk and friendly. We had to drive another four miles through no-mans-land until we reached the Bolivian border checkpoint.
Chile- and Iguassu-Report (11/22 to 12/08/1999)
Santiago, Chile, December 8, 1999
After 3 months in Bolivia and Peru we come back to Chile. The border formalities at Tambo Quemado are smooth and without any problems. The Chilean officers are friendly and correct. They don't even check our vanagon. We assure them that we do not import any restricted goods. Actually we planned our stock of fruits and vegetables so well that we consumed the remainder this morning. In Putre we can easily buy a fresh supply.
More about our time in Chile - and our side trip to the Iguassu falls
- will follow soon.
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