BobQuest Day 3: San Pedro de Atacama to Purmamarca, Argentina

Posted: February 27, 2014 in Travel
Tags: , , , , ,

I got a late start today, mostly because I slept longer than I had wanted to. The altitude is rough. My people were bred to lug heavy stuff, like bricks/dirt/bodies, all day, at sea level, without drinking a drop of water. The thin air has given me a headache that has lasted all day, all night, and it won’t go away. It’s not debilitating but it is certainly annoying. I can walk around OK but anything more physical than that will make me feel like I have been running for a while and am starved of oxygen.

So, the day began with a hearty breakfast, a stop at the internet cafe to buy and print out my obligatory Argentina driving insurance ($20 for 5 days), stock up on water and fuel, and head out. On the way up and out of Chile, I kept looking at the road on the horizon and thinking, “Nah, it can’t keep going up there. That can’t possibly be it.”

But it did. It kept going up and up and up, and when it disappeared over the horizon and you got caught up with it, it kept going up some more. Juriques volcano was always there looming over you. BobMobile did admirably, but there were times when I was in second gear grinding up the mountain at 40kph.

Juriques volcano

Juriques volcano

Just about when I got to the Bolivian border checkpoint, I had to pee. So I got out, and just standing up to take a leak had my head spinning like I had just run a mile. Crazy.



And then, I had to slow down to avoid running over some guanacos which were congregating right near the Bolivia turnoff.

Bolivian guanacos!

Bolivian guanacos!

The rest of the up and up and up driving continued, with Bolivia and its creepy aquamarine salt lakes standing out starkly against the desolate rust color of the surroundings. I wish I had stopped to get a shot of it, but I didn’t. I was concerned that at that point, if I stopped moving, I wouldn’t be able to get the car going again. It struggled to start moving after my pee break.

Eventually I reached the Flamingo Sanctuary, which is a stinky salt flat with strange green bushy plants growing around it. And there were actually flamingos there. It’s simply amazing what a little water can do, even worthless overly salty water, in a climate that is more like the moon or Mars than earth. At this altitude, I was starting to get a little woozy even sitting in the car. Steering the winding roads was putting me out of breath, and my headache was getting worse. My eyesight started getting funny, it was hard to focus. But I kept going, and so did BobMobile.



Here is a photo of the highest point in the road. Read it and weep. 4829 meters altitude. For you metric-impaired people, that is 15,843 feet, or EXACTLY 3 miles! Yes, it was hard to breathe. I was about to pass out just from taking out my camera to take that photo.

4829 meters = 15843 feet = 3 miles!

4829 meters = 15843 feet = 3 miles!

From there on in it was fairly easy driving. Lots of downhill. It was here, trying to drive off the road to some interesting rock formations, that I found out that BobMobile’s 4-wheel drive is no longer working. It never engaged. I suspect a blown fuse or relay. Will investigate further when I get a good rest in some lower altitudes. It’s not necessary anymore, really, but it would be nice to have it for driving on the beach in Uruguay.

Passing the Argentine border was as straightforward as I could have expected. Bureaucurats had to wrap their brains around a couple of wrenches in the machine– my lack of valid Chilean cedula (it’s still “en tramite” and I have not received it, but I have the papers that said it has been applied for), and the reciprocity sticker in my old passport. The reciprocity sticker is valid until 2022, so it says, but it is in my old passport, which has a different number than my new passport. This part is what made the bureaucrats’ heads explode, but half an hour later, after they took everything into the back room, a few times, and had a big pow-wow with all the head honchos, they finally let me pass without forcing me to contribute to the Kirchner fund. Customs was a joke; the guy made me open my trunk as a formality but didn’t look through anything and the closest he got to the car was a couple of meters.

La Frontera

La Frontera

Heading down through the salt flats was neat, until the road got really crappy, with pot holes and suicidal llamas and guanacos blocking the road.

Como se llama?

Como se llama?


That's not snow, it's salt.

That’s not snow, it’s salt.

From the salt flats, it’s up up up up again, to 4170 meters, at a place called El Morado, and then it’s down a crazy winding road of switchbacks. The switchbacks then turn to gravel at the sharp 180-degree turns just to keep you on your toes. With no guard rail, and a dropoff that means certain death. Awesome, epic scenery though. Makes me wish I did this on a motorcycle, but then when I crack the windows, it’s COLD!!!

This is where things start turning green and alive again.

I arrived in Purmamarca at sunset, and found a nice place to stay. Headed down to the town square to see what all the racket was; apparently they are celebrating Carnaval. Lots of partying, handicrafts for sale, but it’s getting dark and I can’t see anything. BUT it’s nice to be back to a more reasonable altitude of 2500 meters where I can pee without passing out from the exertion.

A pair of hotel guests were having a rough time with the desk attendant when I got back from dinner. Seems they had a reservation but all their stuff was stolen at one of the “scenic viewpoints” along the road. They lost all their cash, passports, etc. All they had left was a single credit card, which the desk jockey said they could not use to pay for the reservation (only cash to fill reservations? WTF?) anyhow they didn’t speak any Spanish so I helped translate for them, and got their problem solved. They had to cancel the reservation and then do a new one like they had just shown up randomly. Why this has to be done, well… if you have been reading my blog, this is just another pebble in the road. Welcome to South America.

So far the tally, to arrive in Argentina from Santiago, is…

Tolls: CLP$ 18450 (about US$36)
Fuel: CLP$ 180417 (about US$325)

  1. Bob – is there much traffic on this road? How many cars a day, would you say – on average? In my travelling days I always found that the less traffic, the less hassle at border-crossings. Usually.

    • Expat Bob says:

      There is a lot of trucking traffic that goes through there. Lots of car carriers. I’d say probably 9 out of 10 vehicles were big heavy trucks. I am guessing it is stuff from the port in Antofagasta.
      That said, traffic was light. I didn’t encounter very much. Occasional slow following behind trucks that were lugging their cargo uphill, but you could pass them easily because there was no opposing traffic. At the border there was no line, really, just a handful of Brazilian bikers and myself.

  2. Dave says:

    Did you have grilled guanaco?

  3. SKBob says:

    Grab a baggie of coca leaves while you are in Argentina. Supposed to be the best thing for altitude headache and dizziness.

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