Bolivia - Chile - Argentina

A Journey to the Colours of the Atacama Desert and of the Andes

A journey offered by Condor Tours
1st October - 29th October 2004

A travel journal by Kurt.Merkert@web.de    Translated from German by Zoe.Cross@gmx.net



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Friday, Day 1.
At 4pm, a colleague drives me straight from the office to Frankfurt airport, where I am to meet seven further fellow travellers at the LAN Chile check-in counter. Four more are to join us in Madrid. There are no problems on the journey to Madrid. The choice of dinner is made for us: there is only chicken. At 21:30 we are told in Madrid airport's transit area that there will be an hour's stop-over. We use this time to look for the other travel members. This is where I meet the only other person travelling alone apart from me. She comes from Hamburg and will share a seat with me on the coach for the next four weeks.
 
Saturday, Day 2.
After what in the end becomes a two-hour stop-over, we take the same airbus and start a 13-hour direct flight to Santiago, one of the longest that there are. The plane is fully booked on this leg of the flight. We land in Santiago at 8am. The Chileans take care of our passport and customs formalities very quickly - this will however change in the course of our journey - but one of our members, a woman from Munich finds that her luggage is missing. As we will be continuing our journey straight afterwards, she will only be able to be re-united with it in four days at the earliest. The journey continues punctually at 10am with another flight to Arica. Just after take-off, there is a snack - we had had breakfast just before our landing in Santiago. After a short flight we make a landing in Copiapo. Nobody boards here, but after take-off there is yet more food. Those who accept this have to hurry, because in Iquique there is yet another touchdown and the same ritual. At 2pm, we finally arrive in Arica. In Germany, it is now 8pm, and I have been awake by now for 33 hours. We are taken to a hotel, but our anticipated rest is made impossible by a loud poolside entertainer. So still no chance of sleep for us. Instead, we go to the beach or into town, so that we really fall exhausted into bed that evening.
 
Sunday, Day 3.
Approaching
La Paz
The sea of houses
at La Paz
At 8am there is a breakfast buffet. This improves from minute to minute because Chilean hotels are not accustomed to guests at this hour on Sundays. At 10am, we are picked up and taken to the airport. This is the fastest check-in that I have ever experienced at a commercial airport. That is because this is the only flight this morning. The flight is fantastic and leads us in 45 minutes past snow-covered volcanoes over the Andes under a clear sky to La Paz in Bolivia.
 
Here we meet our travel guides Heidi and Ralph in front of the airport with their specially converted Mercedes lorry / coach. Initially one does not really notice the altitude of this airport, at 4100 metres the highest civilian airport in the world, but at the very latest when it comes to packing the luggage into the coach our hearts and respiratory systems make themselves felt, as they are now under considerably stressful conditions. After a short welcoming breakfast and an introduction to the workings of our mobile home for the next 4 weeks, we set off for the valley basin of La Paz. We want to lose considerable altitude quickly in order to make our acclimatisation easier, but "quickly" is easier said than done. We take an hour to drive through the city centre. There are crowds of people there, and today is Sunday! We land up in a hotel belonging to a Swiss man, at 3400m.
 
In Val de Luna
In the afternoon, we make a 1-hour walking expedition to the Val de Luna (moon valley) with its bizarre rock formations which remind one a little of South-Tyrol earth pyramids. Although we walk slowly, we grow out of breath at every slight incline. Dinner is scheduled for 7pm. By then, as scheduled, some of us have developed headaches. The time to grow used to this altitude is simply too short. For me it is so bad that I cannot eat any of the excellent Swiss cuisine - in Bolivia - apart from some soup. My night is bad, spent with a headache and stomach ache.
 
 
Monday, Day 4.
This is where the
better-off live ---
--- ..and this is how
the majority lives
I go to breakfast, but after that I give into my body's demands - it is quite clearly imploring me to leave out the city tour, although I am the only one who will not be going. I obtain drugs against the altitude sickness from Heidi and sleep solidly until 2pm. I then take quite a long walk in the area near the hotel almost free of symptoms. The others tell me during the evening meal that I made the right decision to spend my day that way. The noise and smog of the city was difficult enough for them, and everyone is glad that we will be leaving this huge filth-pit of a city tomorrow, although La Paz as the city with the highest percentage of Indio population in South America is very interesting. This evening, things are the other way around; I am enjoying the food, whereas some of the rest of the group have headaches.
 
Tuesday, Day 5.
Burial towers on
the Altiplano
Landscape in the
Bolivian puna
Today we are to travel a distance of 390 km, and we are told there is a lot to see. That is why the schedule is wake-up call at 5:15, breakfast at 6, and departure at 6:45. Thanks to our early departure, we make it through the centre of La Paz easily and up to the Puna plateau (this is called Altiplano in Peru).
After a first stop at ancient burial towers, we approach Bolivia's highest mountain, Nevado Sajama, 6542 metres high in the national park of the same name. To our disappointment, the mountain is not free of clouds. We have caught one of the few days in the year when there is no blue sky here. Our mood sinks when even the volcanoes of the Lauca National Park come into view, because here too there are many clouds.
Church in Sajama
Nevado Sajama
6.542 m
However, since we still have to cross the border to Chile and this is sure to mean a longer stop, we are hopeful that the weather will improve. First of all, we have lunch at our mobile transporter. Whatever remains of our food stores will have to be destroyed because it is not permitted to import food into Chile. We give up the remaining food at a small military base. The soldiers are overjoyed; their food is far from good.
Crossing the border goes extremely fast. Our hand luggage is x-rayed, but the coach is given only a peremptory search. Perhaps it is too unpleasant for the border officers, because now it has not only become even more overcast but also started to snow.
On the Chilean side, we are now in the Lauca National Park. Our cameras are put to full use at various stops. Despite the inhospitable weather, vicuñas (a wild breed of the llamas), viscachas (they look like hares but with long tails), flamingos, Andes geese and, again and again, the scenery with its imposing volcanoes Parinacota (6342 m) and Pomarape (6250 m) all make for superb photographic motives. We reach Lago Chungara, at 4570 m the highest point of the entire journey. Thanks to the drugs from Heidi, our travel guide, I feel as if I have been doped. The others do not feel so well.
Vicuñas
 
 
One of the few days
in the year without
blue skies
Viscacha
 
 
Vicuña in the
foreground of Nevado
de Putre 5825m
Nevados de Putre
 
 
In the late afternoon, we reach our destination for today, Putre (3600m)where we check into a hotel. I go for a short climb in order to photograph the sunset at the Nevado de Putre at 5825 metres. Unfortunately, dinner is at 7pm, so that I have to return before the real red sky colouring sets in.
 
Wednesday, Day 6.
Browningia
candelaris
The valley lies there
like an oasis
We realise from the morning schedule (6:45 wake-up call, 7:30 breakfast, and 8:15 departure) that today's distance cannot be that long. As the youngest in the group (apart from two others, all the others are pensioners), I take more of an active role in packing the luggage into the coach and hurt myself by pulling something in my chest. This results in considerable difficulty to breathe during the next hours - at this height. For this reason, I miss out on the first three stops today. However, as soon as the first cacti can be photographed, I cannot sit back any longer. We slowly descend and reach Valle de Lluta, a valley which, like an oasis in the middle of pure desert scenery, will now lead to Arica. The further we go, the warmer it becomes.
A permanent struggle
between desert and
vegetation
We make a brief check-in at our hotel in Arica which we know already from our stop-over during our outward journey. Agnes is happy to find that her luggage has arrived by now. We then go straight off again; we want to visit the archaeological museum in Arica. On the way there, we stop for a meal at the roadside. Heidi has ordered Empanadas (filled pastry cases). The quality is superb, but we are covered in dust due to our position on the street.
After visiting the museum - it is very small, but illustrates beautifully life on the coast from the beginnings until today - we drive up to the historic "morro" with a wonderful view onto the city. Everyone is free to discover the city on foot until dinnertime. I use the opportunity to buy postcards. Funnily enough, you can buy them right at the post office. I also want to write them straight away, as Heidi says that, during the course of this journey, postcards can only be sent from Arica and from San Pedro de Atacama.
Arica
Before leaving for the evening meal, I use the Internet which is provided free of charge by most hotels in Chile. Then we go to the Cyclo Pup. This is meant to be a very good restaurant, but initially at least, we fail to be convinced. The food takes ages and ages so that we coin a new phrase; instead of brunch, it is "Dinnbreak" because we really fear that dinner and breakfast will be made into one meal. Then one of the male travellers is even passed a note that a woman called Paola feels attracted to him and leaves her telephone number, and we guess it must be the cook - given all this waiting.
 
Thursday, Day 7.
A night heron at the
pool in Arica
Geoglyphics at the side
of the Pan Americana
When I look down at the pool in front of my room at 6:15 am that morning, I see an interesting spectacle. The pool is surrounded by four vultures, while the swimming exercises of a cormorant are watched critically by five night herons. In the absence of trees as a nocturnal resting place in this desert region, the hotel complex must serve as a substitute.
Today we are to travel south on the completely tarmacked Pan Americana road through the Atacama desert. Dust, sand and stones are our constant companions through the seemingly endless desert, interrupted only a couple of times by green valleys crossing through from the Andes. We have our midday break at the first geoglyphics (pictures several hundred years old made of stones), at the side of our coach / lorry. We do not need to salt our food, as this is already done by the wind, which is reaching almost Patagonian strength.
Our bus/lorry
Sheer luxury
Our journey is resumed after increasing the weight of our transportation vehicle by saltpetre stones which we have collected. Anyway, is our vehicle a bus or a lorry? This question should be answered soon. On the road which is almost empty of traffic, we are stopped by the police who appear from nowhere. We have been driving too fast. However, now the lorry is passed off to the police as a coach because coaches are permitted to drive at 100 rather than 70 km/hour. Now we know the answer.
 
The next stop is at two deserted ghost towns from the heyday of mining saltpetre, Humberstone and Santa Laura.
Humberstone,
a ghost town
We wander through the site installations which are left to decay in the wind but which nevertheless allow a clear impression of how bad the working and living conditions must have been here before the cities were deserted at the end of the fifties last century, even though there was a swimming pool and a theatre here.
Swimming pool
in Humberstone
On we go now to the first camp site of the journey, in the "Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal," a reservation used to replenish the forests of tamarugal trees which were previously almost completely felled and used as fuel for the ovens in producing saltpetre. When we arrive at the camp site, we discover it is closed for repair work.
Production site
in Santa Laura
We have no alternative but to cut through the wire fencing with pliers and to break into the camp site. We have very good sites for the tents, although no showers or toilets, but we have the privilege of being alone. We are only alone until dinner time, though. The devil only knows how all the dogs of the area found out that there might be some loot here for them. Our driver and tour guide Ralph grills piles and piles of beef steaks and sausages. It tastes so good that you eat far more than is really good for you. This will become the only real problem for me during the trip. It is not cold here, so we can fully enjoy the clear air and the unique starry sky before we crawl into our tents for the first time.
 
Friday, Day 8.
Geoglyphics in Salar
de Pintados
 
Salar de Pintados, hard-
baked salpetre desert
At 6 am almost all of us are awake, as it was the first night in our tents and one is awoken by the brightness. Today is to be a long day of driving. But right at the outset there is a stop. We drive into Salar de Pintados, a massive saltpetre valley surrounded at the edges by mountainsides covered all over with geoglyphs. We have time to discover them during a short walk. I do not want to go back the same way and decide to make a short cut through the saltpetre desert. It is almost frightening to discover what noises the saltpetre plates make underfoot. The heat and dryness in this absolutely inhospitable and life-defying region have baked the plates brittle.
Number of inhabitants:
1
Here lie the rest
of the inhabitants
A bit further on, we make a stop at the last surviving person from a saltpetre site. He is 82 years old and has had somebody write underneath the place sign "1 inhabitant". He lives from whatever the few tourists who pass by here buy off him. Not 500 metres further on, there is a cemetery which one has to have seen. We feel as if we are part of a Western film, waiting for John Wayne to pass by at any moment.
After that, we continue without a stop until the midday break. We take our break at the Rio Los, the only river in Atacama which always holds water. However, it is more a stream than a river. Then a final stop at a truck stop - those who do not need to use the interesting toilet facilities can count themselves lucky - and then we drive almost to the edge of the world's largest copper mine, Chuquicamata. Unfortunately, it is not permitted to drive any closer, and by now, we have also learned that a tour of the mine planned for the next day must be cancelled. The mining company no longer organises any tours at the weekends. Since this was the case last year already, this item should be removed from the tour programme.
On the banks of Rio Los
We therefore drive straight into the hotel in Calama. We have free time until 7:45 pm. Then we are to go to dinner. Before that though, there is more unpleasant news; our coach has been broken into, but luckily, Ralph came to the scene so early that nothing could be stolen. But this means half a day's stop-over here for the next day, because a spare window pane needs to be delivered from Antofagasta to replace the broken one. In spite of things, we do not let this spoil our evening meal in the restaurant "Bavaria". The food and beer are excellent, I think better even than in the real Bavaria. I go for a so-called miner's meal and get an impression of how hard the miners must work in the mines - that is how massive the portions are.
 
Saturday, Day 9.
Ruins in Pucara
 
A door made
of cactus wood
Today we have free time until noon, until the lorry/coach has been repaired. After breakfast, I go into the town, but Calama only starts to wake up around 10am when the first shops open. The town does not have much to offer. Once you have seen three streets, you know all the other fifty. It is a purely industrial town. So I spend the time on the only open public area with some green until 1pm, when we venture into the surrounding region.
We drive to Lasana and visit the large ruins of Pacara from the Atacama culture period. The site lies at the edge of a large gorge, where fields are still cultivated by horse and plough as in ages past. Given that, the toilet facilities at the ruins deserve 5 stars.
Church in Chiu Chiu
A further stop is for the village Chiu Chiu. It has a very pretty Adobe church with a roof of cactus wood and is still fairly untouched, above all, there are hardly any tourists. The village does not yet have the same reputation as San Pedro de Atacama which will be our destination the next day. As a special treat, there is then a detour to a lake, and what a lake it is. In the middle of the desert, where nobody expects anything like this, there is a large hole with best quality fresh water. Research has found that the depth is at least 700m.
Groundwater lagoon
near Chiu Chiu
Unfortunately, there is such a storm blowing that we can only walk around briefly, with everyone trying desperately to keep their cameras free of the sand which is blowing around.
In the evening, we visit the "Bavaria" restaurant which we know by now, again providing enormous portions. We take whatever we cannot eat with us for the countless stray dogs. Today there is a competition between different music and dancing groups in the public space in front of the church. Both the musicians and dancers are tireless. They move almost in ecstasy, to the same recurring rhythms. We cannot stay until the end, as we are tired and want to go back to the hotel. We just do not have this physical condition.
 


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