Up and down – high and low….

>Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator
(>Pictures at the bottom!)

…from Argentina via Chile to Bolivia

On New Year’s Day, we all set off together – i.e. the whole Panamericana group – towards the Pacific. For this day, the route was set and we – Chantal and I (Tom) – had almost no other choice. Our common destination for the day was east of the “Paso Agua Negra”, where we settled down for the coming night at an accommodation of an Argentinean mountaineering club at 3’000 metres; so to speak as acclimatisation for the coming day.

The crossing of the “Paso Agua Negra” the next day was a special experience and everyone was curious to see how we and our vehicles would fare at around 4,800 metres. We enjoyed the gravel road up to the dizzying height and our jeep was hardly impressed by the altitude. The high mountains around us prompted frequent short stops to take in this wonderful landscape. The snow fields to the east and west of the pass were also impressive; as a mountaineer I would not want to have to pass through such fields at any price, it would be like running the gauntlet through razor-sharp ice formations.

After the customs formalities, it was still a short way to “Vicuña”, where we finally had a few quiet days again. But what does quiet mean: getting the car back into shape, visiting a “Pisco distillery” and a visit to an observatory above “Vicuña”. I now realise that I was always looking at the wrong constellation as the Southern Cross; the real Southern Cross is much further south and cannot be seen from anywhere, according to the astrologer.

Instead of going straight to the Pacific, we again headed for countless back roads that brought us to the wide and blue sea. After the many isolated areas, we were a little shocked at what it looked like along the coastal strip. The landscape is completely overdeveloped, unfinished houses leave a somewhat neglected impression and the omnipresent rubbish underpins this experience very much.

In the middle of Guanaqueros, we stood on a campsite in the middle of the village and had the first opportunity for a swim in the Pacific. Our feet, or rather our legs, were in the water, but we didn’t have the courage for more – the water was simply too cold. So we left the bathing resort early and climbed through the coastal mountains in a northerly direction. Instead of the suggested route – a four-lane road – we again chose our back roads, where even the off-road gear reduction came into frequent use. And, we enjoyed our evening camps away from any hustle and bustle in absolute peace.

We followed our dream route further along the coast and turned east before reaching Antofagasta. Antofagasta once belonged to Bolivia, but after the saltpetre (nitrate) war it passed into Chilean territory. The Bolivian price was high and testified to the former greed of a few businessmen as well as presidents. We experienced this greed for mineral resources on our way east: whole swathes of land are removed with huge machines in open-cast mining, the usable minerals are washed out and the superfluous material is deposited on newly heaped mountains. The landscape looks appropriately devastated and our indignation was correspondingly great; can’t this kind of activity be done differently?

South around the “Salar de Atacama” we reached “San Pedro de Atacama”. Again, a longer stay was on the agenda. From San Pedro we could book a three-day excursion to the “Salar de Uyuni” (Bolivia), but for us this trip was quite expensive, Chantal’s back would not have stood the strain and with our own vehicle it would have been an almost inhuman distance, especially as there would still have been two border crossings to manage. So we stayed stationary in “San Pedro” and enjoyed the local sights; there were more than enough of them. If you wanted to visit all the highlights in the immediate vicinity, you would have to stay in the town for a long time.

We limited ourselves to the “Valle Arcoiris” and to a path far into a valley, where suddenly there was no way forward even for our jeep. With a donkey we would probably have made it, but our jeep was simply too wide up here at around 3’700 metres. Somewhat disappointed, we had to bump down the strenuous mountain track again. To recover, we enjoyed the salt water in the “Laguna Cejar” and sweated again while walking into the valley of the “Río de Quebrada de Jere”.

We wanted to experience the “Geyser El Tatio” (Hot Springs) on our own and said goodbye to the group ahead of time, before we again bumped up into the mountains. We did not take the direct route, but scrambled east of the main route up endless heights and reached the “Geyser El Tatio” only in the late afternoon. But the park was closed with a thick barrier and there was no one left at the ranger station. There was nothing to be seen of the geysers far and wide and at this fresh evening time we should have seen something of the steam clouds after all!

We didn’t want to go back to “San Pedro” and so we decided to spend the night at this altitude of 4’370 metres. We found our desired spot at an abandoned mine and settled in accordingly. Unexpectedly, the altitude caused Chantal more problems than expected during the next night and all medical remedies did not bring any relief. On this dark night, however, I refused to go immediately to lower altitudes, as the risk on the slopes with the many washouts and holes was too great for me. The ranger station, where there might have been oxygen, was also not within a useful distance and there is no “REGA” in southern America anyway.

At regular intervals I tried to calm Chantal down and made sure she was breathing regularly and deeply. It was a long night with many uncertainties. As soon as the first dawn announced the new day, I put Chantal in the front passenger seat, let the vehicle heater work at full power with the engine running, and cleaned up our camp behind the former workers’ barracks. In record speed, everything was stowed in the jeep and we were already heading for the access road to the geysers. To our surprise, it was steaming and hissing in the geyser field of “El Tatio” and our assumption was substantiated that the park holds back the water from the afternoon onwards, so that the morning tourists could experience an unrestricted natural spectacle at sunrise.

Despite the hissing geysers, we took the most direct route possible down to the plain of “Calama”. After a few more elevations and crossings, which were always a minor ordeal for Chantal, the path and road soon led us down. Below 4,000 metres, Chantal felt increasingly better. At the “Río Salado”, we were already at 2’500 metres, we took a break and Chantal had also found her appetite in the meantime. It was also clear to us that another night at 4,000 metres would not be reasonable for Chantal in the future.

The day was still young and our courage was reborn. So we decided to drive back up towards the Bolivian border and through the “Pampa Alona” towards “Iquique”. The goal for the day was clear: we had to drive through the mountains and the place to spend the night should be at most 3’500 metres. As the road from “Ollagüe” had many uncertainties, we wanted to fill up our tank with some diesel in the last village before the turn-off, after all, our jeep needs a lot more of this juice on tracks. A breakdown due to lack of fuel would be the stupidest thing that could happen here! But in “Ollagüe” there was no petrol station in the conventional sense. Only after asking around did we find the grocery shop that sold us 20 litres of diesel for many Chilean pesos. We filled up on the street from a plastic canister and a cut open pet bottle served as a funnel. Other countries – other customs 😉

The onward journey took us along a discontinued mine railway on the Chilean-Bolivian border to the “Salar de Coposa” and “Salar de Huasco”. The railway is probably left to its fate, but the mine in the “Pampa Alona” has been given a new lease of life. What exactly is being mined eluded us, but huge tanker trucks drove west towards the port of “Iquique” every minute. Something very valuable is probably being transported here to the Western and Chinese world.

Above “Pica” we spent the night at a dry river and enjoyed the wonderful starry sky, which shone so brightly that we almost had to reach for our sunglasses. I stood outside for a long time and could hardly get enough of the countless stars. Unfortunately, my star chart of the northern hemisphere wasn’t much use down here, and naming the stars was more a matter of marvelling than interpreting. The altitude was also much more pleasant for Chantal and me than the dizzying heights of the previous night. The peace and quiet was unique and no dog barking disturbed our sleep.

Surprisingly and unplanned, we were again on the Pacific Ocean south of “Iquique” and at “Punta Gruesa” we found a safe and good place for the next night with other group members. Actually, we wanted to stay a bit inland, but we had no chance to find a reasonable option where the place was not immediately a rubbish dump. The campsites marked on our map no longer existed or were closed.

Before heading further north, we – the whole group – paid a visit to the World Heritage Site of “Humberstone”. This was a workers’ settlement for saltpetre mining (nitrate mining), where – after the Bolivian defeat – the English built a very modern and humane facility for the workers of the mine fields and factories at that time. In 1948 came the synthetic production of nitrate, which meant the slow end for Chilean saltpetre mining. In 1968, mining around “Humberstone” was definitely stopped and the settlement closed. Today, other minerals are again mined on a large scale and exported all over the world. We don’t know whether the working conditions for the Chileans have improved, but what it looks like to the left and right of the roads in today’s settlements probably doesn’t bode too well.

Until Arica on the Chilean-Peruvian border, we also had to use the main road. Even after studying the map for a while, we couldn’t find any other way to go further north. But even though it was the main connection, the desert-like landscape was repeatedly criss-crossed by wide gorges, where the road went steeply down and up again on the other side (about 1000 metres each!). Apart from the few overgrown valleys, everything was dry and deserted. But there was hardly any boredom; the traffic, or rather the road users, provided the appropriate entertainment and for us it was once again clear why the accident figures and fatalities are very high. Kamikaz-like, they drove over the asphalt strip, the overtaking manoeuvres in front of blind bends were pure thrill for them and presumably very fast also means very good, be it passenger cars or lorries.

In “Arica” we still got the goods that are not or only with difficulty available in Bolivia, before we turned right to the east before the Peruvian border. Chantal and I again took advantage of our mini-camper and followed the northernmost route on Chilean territory. Soon the paved road came to an end and a partly steep track led higher and higher into the mountains. Since nothing is mined in this area anymore, it was almost deserted and only two vehicles met us until we reached “Colonia Alcérreca”. This former railway settlement still bears witness to a once lively world up here in no man’s land. The police station still shines in its old glory and is probably still being maintained, while the other buildings are slowly but surely falling apart.

On the west side we drove on a high road around the “Volcán Taapacá” and when we saw the pass sign we were speechless: We should be at 5’250 metres above sea level. They must have made a big mistake with the altitude, or our navigation device was overwhelmed by the altitude; it only showed 4’797 metres. 450 metres more or less, in any case it was very high and we were glad to be below the 4’000 mark in “Putre” in the evening. Besides buying diesel again at the grocery shop, we had to do some administrative work for the border crossing to Bolivia, so that we could reach the new country as quickly as possible.

The drive from “Putre” up to “Paso Chungará” took us through a breathtaking mountain landscape with many snow-covered mountains and countless lakes. One of the mountains, the “Volcán Guallatirí”, smoked from the distance as we were already moving towards the border post of “Tampo Quemado” on the Bolivian side. Although the border post is a little lower than the pass we crossed yesterday, the altitude was noticeable to everyone. But a personal appearance with the respective officials was unavoidable, which was sometimes very difficult at this altitude. Chantal even had to be medically supplied with oxygen and was barely responsive for the next few hours. During this time, I was allowed to take care of customs and thanks to Frank’s help, much of the customs formalities were completed very quickly.  Thank God the officials on duty were a little lenient and we were allowed to leave the chaos around the border post without any major checks on the vehicle; after about 2 hours we had all the necessary stamps.

We still had 370 kilometres to go until we reached La Paz, which we covered at a very brisk pace, as we wanted to get to lower altitudes as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the vast landscape around us was somewhat lost from view during this ride. But after the high and snow-covered mountains of the border mountains, it was almost a bit monotonous. The area was still very high, but the wide open spaces suggested otherwise in our visual perception.

In Patacamaya, a small town in the vast pampas, the next experience soon followed: refuelling. We had to wait almost an hour next to the petrol station until a responsible worker was present who was allowed to sell diesel to a foreigner. The tour guide pointed out to us that we had to pay more for fuel than the locals because petrol is heavily subsidised by the government. In the end, it was very special – we were able to negotiate the price, whether to fill up with or without a receipt and save accordingly.

Further on, we followed the road along the “Serranía de Sicasica”. Next to the road are many farms and small towns. At first, the traffic on this main route was still very quiet and cultivated by our standards. But the closer we got to La Paz, the more hectic it became and there are probably no traffic rules here. The motto is quite simple; the bigger the better, small and shared taxis have all the rights anyway and move through the hustle and bustle of traffic accordingly.  When we reached “El Alto”, a district of La Paz, both of us were immediately taken aback. We hadn’t seen anything like this before, and a huge chaos on the road as well as next to the lanes made us feel very uneasy. The country and the customs were new to us in this abundance and we had a bit of trouble finding our way around. Even the search for a place to shop was too much for us at first, and we were completely overwhelmed by the language.

We were glad when we reached the lower part of La Paz in the evening, where the wealthy population of this city is at home, and were able to settle in at the Hotel Oberland for the next few days. The subsequent shopping tour around our camp caused further apprehension in me (Tom), as I had to go to a different shop or market stall for almost every product. Such shopping would be a very enriching endeavour, but even naming the desired product I lacked the appropriate vocabulary and led to correspondingly funny situations.

Well, let’s hope that we will soon get to know the Bolivian customs and not starve to death right away. As the onward journey to Peru is not possible at the moment, we will have to stay here a little longer and put up with the Bolivian conditions. In any case, our tour guide is more than up to the challenge 😉

Chantal & Tom / 23 Jan. 2023

>Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator