Posts Tagged ‘San Pedro de Atacama’

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)

I miss my Tempurpedic mattress. Already.

The night was uneventful. If a bit chilly. But my nice sleeping bag kept me warm.

I woke up and brushed my teeth without water. Which is another thing I forgot to bring with me. When I was leaving the apartment at the last minute, I looked at the canteens and though, “Nah, I’ll be able to get water on the road.” My reasoning was sound, but my execution was lacking. The first place I found an open gas station with a minimarket, I stocked up on water and caffeinated beverages. In a little town I cannot remember the name of, which had giant rusting tanks of Sulfuric Acid perched precariously alongside the highway.

The alien landscape becomes even more alien. Especially in the morning fog.


The road to Antofagasta went from coastal beach to mountains rising straight out of the sea, to driving through stuff that looked like it belonged in some sci-fi movie. It went from desert to fogbank to straight up the mountain to driving in the clouds, to back down to bleak desert. At this point in the voyage, there is no longer any scrub. Not a blade of grass, nothing. It is so dead here that even the rocks won’t grow.


And then there was pea-soup fog.


Heading up over the Andes again on the way to Antofagasta.

_DSCN0040 _DSCN0042

I made it into Antofagasta around noon, and stopped at the oceanfront McDonalds to have something to eat that was more “real” than water, cookies, and modafinil tablets. This was starting to feel a little bit like a Hunter S. Thompson novel. I must say, though, half a modafinil is an amazing thing. It’s like an attention time warp. You just go like a machine and all of a sudden, you are there. No wonder they give it to fighter pilots to keep them awake.



Antofagasta is a neat little town. It reminds me a lot of Punta Del Este, with its coast and towers, and grass. Only it’s in a place that doesn’t suck. It’s supposedly the second-largest city in Chile, by population. I liked it a lot. Modern conveniences, desert climate, coast… It warrants more exploration in the future, I think.


Well into the desert, there was a dead car in the road with some sad-looking passengers standing around, so I pulled over to see what’s up.  You don’t want to get stuck out here, and nobody else was stopping. They had thrown the tread off their front tire and had no jack to change it. So I let them use mine, which was on its last leg– I had loaned it to my idiot neighbor to change his tire in Santiago, and he had broken it. Brought it back broken, didn’t say anything. Asshole.

Anyways I showed these scrawny Chilenos how to change a tire. They called me The Hulk, since they couldn’t get the lugnuts off the wheel by standing and jumping on the tire iron, and I just spun them off using my hands and lots of foul language. “Hulk! Hulk!” they cheered. We got the tire changed and they were on their way. I was again on mine. Maybe 40km to go to San Pedro de Atacama.


Cross the Atacama in a $4000 Suzuki? Yes you can.
BobMobile is going to have lots of Roaming Gnome photos, I think.

As you roll up this road, over the next high zone, some 3200 meters in altitude, you see a big valley stretching out below. Wow, even deader than dead! There’s a sort of weather rock formation that you go up and over again, and coming down the other side you see a nice little green oasis, which is San Pedro. I pulled into town and found a place to spend the night, hose off the dust, get something to eat. Dinner was Pollo a lo pobre, a decent portion with a mountain of fries, which was nice and tasty. Slept like the dead. On an OK mattress. Good full breakfast. Searched for an internet cafe, which I sit at now, typing this. I am heading out, will probably cross the border and spend the night in Purmamarca, Argentina.