From the Crappy Chile and the interesting (but rainy) Argentina, I'm now back on the Chilean track. It starts in the north, a bit south of Bolivia, takes me all the way up to Peru and down to Santiago.
20/1 13. After having passed the Argentinean custom, there are 160 Km to the Chilean. It is not the most interesting part of the tour! High mountains with only barren gravel and snow - sometimes rather intense - on the many passes. The rest is just rain, piling up in the wheel tracks. Oh-yes, and then dense fog along with the rain. I pass a few salt lakes, but they are flooded too. A single road leads to Bolivia, but I better not.
The final part is through a "island" of Reserva Nacional Los Flamincos. It starts just as boring as the latest stretch, but then some green swamps turns up. Here, flamingos can be seen thought the falling snow - a bit bizarre. A few guanacos is grazing on what appears to be barren gravel. If it wasn't snowing and raining, I would check what they found.
As I decent, first grass tufts, then Alpine flora emerges, and best of all, the rain and snow stops. A single plant is flowering with an abundance of red flowers, the rest looks kind of boring from the cosiness of the car. My mind is fixed on the border crossing, which I know can be a challenge.
First, I passes the airport, then some houses and a huge pile of trucks. At a T-section, I'm a bit in doubt. I choose right, and that leads me the the Pass police. I could easily have passed, but I figure the stamp in my passport might come in handy later. I'm first in line, and out in two minutes?!
My plan is to see the larger part of Reserva Nacional Los Flaminco, but it is too late now, and I need gasoline. I pass through a dusty clay-city; San Pedro, which apparently is a back-packers hub. Plenty of hostals and souvenir shops, but no gas station.
I turn around outside town, and take the first hostal in town. They want 300.000 pesos, but we agree on 200.000. I set up the computer to upload the last Argentinean photos, and head in to centre. The streets are dry clay, the houses are made of clay and it have a rather scrubby look. Never the less; here are numerous back-packers, and bike-rental shops, restaurants, hostals, souvenir shops and even an ATM. Unfortunately, I does not let me redraw anything!
I find a restaurant filled with locals, and get my dinner. Back to work and try to plan the next days. I really hope, I have left the rain in Argentina!
21/1 13. There are apparently no gas station in San Pedro, but a lorry driver tells me; there is one in Caspane, 90 Km away. It is the way I'm going, and I should be able to make it. On the way, I passes Laguna Chaxa, but I better save those 60 Km till I got gasoline enough, and I am going back this way.
The landscape is barren. There might be a single plant, one or two centimetres high, but it is only the dry remains. I do a short stop in the oasis village; Tococonao, but it have little to offer. Most houses are of clay or concrete with tin roofs. The church is completely in clay, and the roof in short, grass.
The first part of the road is still sealed. It gain a bit of altitude, and tiny plants occurs with huge space in-between. In the fare distance, the Andes are towering up with their snow-cones. Here are a few, scatted groups of lamas in the slightly greener areas.
Then it barren again, although it have turned more into hills. Clay with a few stones, then more gravel. The road just continues into the horizon. Then I reach Socaire, which is a scruffy, little village without a gas station! I still have 25 Km to the first of the two oasis I'm here for; Miscanti and Miniques, but then I won't make it back, even with the spare gasoline. Bummer!
Nothing to do, but turn around again. I drive real careful, saving every drop I can. Just outside San Pedro, right front wheel explodes. I'm lucky not ending in the deep ditch, but the tire is a goner. Swap to the dedicated spare tire. It is so due to an internal damage, giving it a bobble on the outside.
As I have found out, San Pedro have nothing to offer, unless you are a back-packer, and I drive around, heading for the areas biggest town; Calama. If I make it, I should be able to get gasoline, tire and money. The area is real barren and kind of dull to drive through. Not that I would have enjoyed it any way; I'm more concerned about making it at all.
I make a stop to pour the spare gasoline on, realising it is needed anyway. There is a second lit in the throat, and with no nuzzle or funnel, it is a real challenge to get the gas into the tank, not down the can and my self. A pencil and half a soda bottle, and I waste next to nothing.
Calama is a big oasis, and the first I find, is a Vulcanist. He have two, recently good tires, almost same size! I'm sure I don't get a good price, but what choice do I have? The dedicated spare tire cracks, when he removes it from the rim. A bit of a challenge to find the gas station, but at least he accepts Visa. It turns out; I had one litre remaining! The centre of town is on the same street, and I find a bank.
Finding it is not enough, then I have to find a parking space for the car. When I finally do, I'm in the other end of the main street, but is seems like a cosy, although big town. Stroll back and I actually do get cash! That was the third of my big wishes for the day - after I given up the fantastic nature adventures. A great improvement of my situation: I got gasoline, money and two "new" tires and a spare: I'm ready for new challenges.
I check out the city while I'm here. Loads of shops for the farmers in the huge surroundings, some more fancy for the city people and nothing for tourists. Despite that, I find some socks; I tend to loose quite a few every time I get them washed. A pedestrian street reminds me of Buenos Aires ten years ago. Same small, cast iron stands in the middle of the road.
Pretty soon, I have had enough of the teaming life, but my first challenge is just finding my way out of town. Despite the one-way roads, I make it approximately back the same way I came. I could go back to the lagunas behind San Pedro, but that is 190 Km away, same road I've just driven. Well, it was just some lakes with three kind of flamingos.
Instead, I head for next point on my list; The earth's highest located Geyser; El Tatio. It is at 4320 meters height, and just the road is an adventure - I hope. It would have been 80 Km from San Pedro, but it is 235 from here. I find the minor road, leading through Chiu Chiu.
It is once again a barren landscape without any plants at all. Flat gravel as fare as one can see, interrupted by a small salt lake - dry! Then a 34 Km roadwork. The first five is one lane, with a guy in each end. None in-between, and no obvious reason to make it single lane. Must be a boring job, standing on this remote, desolate trail with a flag!
Chiu Chiu look most of all like an archeologically dig, except from the modern cars. It' reason to live; a tiny river add a bit of green, deep down in a crack. I circle to town, but figure it is not worth a real stop. I have seen clay houses enough for a while.
The road turn into narrow gravel on a huge, flat gravel pan. The high Andes are way out in the horizon at first. I cross another green line; a river, and a few plants can be found in the gravel: A grey Asteraceae, some grass and a Opuntia, living on the edged.
Strangely enough, some vicunas (wild lama) seems to be grassing on the barren gravel. Must be some mummified vegetation from last rain period. I reach some low hills, and a few more plants turns out. A rather large, bright yellow cactus, looking like Oreocereus trolli, but with less wool and more needles.
A single stone pile seems to be inhabited, but that is the only human "life" I see, except from a few cars. The next hill, made up of some crunchy rocks, sounding a bit like porcelain, have an other large cactus species. It is a single column, up to a meter tall.
The hills turn into foothills of the giant Andes, and apparently, they have gotten some rain recently: A field is covered in blue flowering, dwarf lupines. The road is sealed up a long, steep stretch, but that stops at the top. I pass several groups of vicunas, along with lamas and a few donkeys.
The tiny gravel road can be seen for at least 30 Km ahead, winding its way through huge gravel hills. I just hope it is the right road for the "world famous" geysers. I have not seen anyone for hours. A Suri o Nandu (rhea) stands way out on a field, picking at the slightly green grass tufts.
The nearby hills are actually mountains. Anyway; they have snow on a considerable part of their sides. Huge sand pans with no visible life, tufts of grass, and more vicunas. Then I reach a completely different area. Besides from the vacant buildings, the El Tatio geysers with their steam and white sediment dominates. A sigh demands registering, but to whom? It is extremely remote, at 4320 meters height, and I haven't see anyone the better part of the day.
I follow a road leading quite near to the geysers, and the first is a hot, little lake, which seems to have some vegetation within. An even tinier one, less than one square meter, sits on a pedestal, bobbling a bit. The next is slightly cooler, and it have what resample a yellow plant, growing in it. Could be cool to know which!
The smallest is the size of a hand, but still alive. On the other side of the road, some more active ones are found. Lots of steam and occasionally piles of bobbles. I make a lot of photos with the tall, snow-covered Andes behind, and it is tempting to stay for the night - if it wasn't for the temperature.
It is six O'clock, but at 4320 meters height, it is bound to be real cold, when the sun disappears; not my cup of tea. Besides, it is only 135 Km to Calama and sixteen more to what I consider to be a more, cosy town. I should be able to make it before dark.
A bit scary, I don't meet any cars on the way back, but lamas, donkeys and a single fox. I find another road for the last 30-50 Km, following a pipeline. Straight around Calama and out to Chuquicamata. Besides from their gas station, it is truly a disappointment.
The surroundings are dominated by recent man-made hills, up to 200 meters high. The "village" is a mining company with fences, controls, barracks for employs and nothing for me. It is getting dark, now at nine, and what to do? Turn back to the large, and little touristed Calama or head on?
The next village should be at the intersection of this Rute 24 and the large Rute 5. It ought to offer a bed to a traveller. I drive through barren, huge hills, with nothing but power lines (nine actually), and the road. When I reach Crucero after 70 Km, there is nothing!
In the fare distance, I can see the lights from Maria Elena, and guess it is worth a shoot. 25 Km leads me to a barrack city. Half an hour later I find the hostal, after a lot of asking. And the guy say with a way too vide grin; No vacancy! I have not seen any other, and I pretty sure I have driven all streets.
Loads of real basic restaurants, and I figure I'll at least can get some thing to eat. The first one ignores me completely - several times, and I head on. The next is closing, but I get a chest-piece of a huge chicken and a lot of pasta for 14,50 pesos, along with some juice. Guess it must be a truck-driver stop-over, and they sleep in their trucks somewhere else.
I noticed the huge space at the junction, and the three busses. I drive the 25 Km back and park next to them. Great them, and explain: I intend to sleep next to them, and I'm welcome. I have driven around 700 Km, 500 of them on gravel, and at eleven, I feel a bit used. Diary made up of key words, then a chauffeur's shower. Would have been so much more easy to camp in the heights, where the air madras was self inflated. Now, it is only half inflated.
22/1 13. A good nights sleep, actually nine hours, only slightly awake around five, when it became a bit cold. Close some windows, pull on the fleece, and I'm back with Morpheus. When I get out at the car in the morning, it looks like it is bleeding from all four wheels! It is the red clay with salt in, sucking moist up during the night, down here.
I drive north on Ruta 5, leading me through a completely dry desert. Then again; it is the Atacama, the driest place on the Earthand I haven't expected anything less.
Around 50 meters below, Rio Lao have cut is selves down, and here, it is green. I stop a few times, and despite I'm so fare away, I scare the ducks. Lush vegetation, and even some farming on the narrow stretch around the village Quillagua.
Besides from the road, here are signs of humans. Ancient geoglifos, made by removing the top layer of rough gravel, is found at some of the hill sides. Traditional, primitive humans and animals - and some love-declarations in letters is the recent addition.
I stop at ten, for a nice cup of tea and the view to a bone dry valley. Here are no birds, except some black vultures at the truck-stops. A huge factory, could be Nitrogen, is found out in the middle of nowhere. Several road works leads the little traffic to dusty bi-roads.
My plan was to treat my self nice at the village; Victoria, but that is a disappointment! Besides from the gas station, here are two doubtful "restaurants" and nothing else. Well, I'm only 20 Km away from a the "world famous" geoglifos at Cerros Pintados. Here must be something for a tired tourist.
There are: Giant figures on the steep hills, and a sign telling the cost is 2500 pesos - but none to pay to. I walk the area, look at the ruins from the acquired distance, photo the figures on the hills and check out the strange clay/salt surface on the plane. Not much else to do.
Next waypoint is the oasis city Pica. I have found a cosy hostal from home, but it is first when I read about it, to find the address, I noticed it is run by a Danish/Swede couple. Could be nice to check-in easy for once! The side road; A75 leads through a completely flat gravel dessert. Besides from unexplainable and numerous wheel tracks, here is nothing, but it is Reserva Nicional Pampa del Tamarugal.
Just before Pica, the tinier village Matilla show a bit of green - but most brown. I drive through Pica town without seeing anything real interesting. Find the hostal, but she only speak Spanish; have not used her Danish for 60 years or so? Well, it is cosy and near to the villages main attraction.
I get a fast shower, and walk out in the warm city. The attraction turns out to be a natural pool, filed with blue plastic robes, red balls and fat Latin-Americans. Out within a minute, and find a sandwich and a fresh juice, which seems to be the main sales object in this city.
I did pass some orange trees on the way, and apparently they do some farming here, based on the water from the tiny river. Start to walk down-town, but it is too fare and too boring. Drive down, do a circle around the square and the church, but nothing make me stop.
Back to work at three, and at six, I'm out of battery. Dinner time! A walk pass the pool reveals nothing but a small orange plantation and a lot of fences. The Mirador is just a campsite, located on a tiny hill. Back pass the needles juice-, souvenir- and spice stands to find a food stand - they are rare!
I find one selling enchiladas with cheese and tomatoes, and I get a banana juice aside, just to try. I guess I would have ordered something else, if I could speak Spanish. The tiny pigeons I have seen it the wild, are picking bread crumbles up on the sidewalk. Real pretty little birds.
I try to get the host to reset the Wi-Fi, but she refuses to understand me. Bit annoying, considering she actually was a Dane, and I have rather important things to do.
23/1 13. The car is still bleeding; hope it is not a bad omen! I leave the city the way I came in, and see nothing interesting on the way out either. The completely dead desert is dotted with a few tiny oasis, but they seem deserted or at least neglected. Right out of town, I turn north on the Pozo Almonte road. I Pozo, I do a bit of a de-tour, to see a huge artificial irrigation project.
Several square kilometres have been fitted with plastic hoses, but that too, have been deserted now. It look real depressing to see those hundreds of kilometres hoses, laying on the ground for no reason. It ought to work, if you got water and pump capacity enough.
The town it self is even less interesting, though the pale yellow church, made up of tin plates, is actually surprisingly nice inside. A deep blue sealing with golden stars, the rest in light, golden wood. The square is still pretty vacant, but the friendly dogs are ready for a play.
Next stop is the ghost town of Humberstone, right at the main road. It was a nitrogen mine, founded in 1872 and terminated in 1960. It have been cannibalised quite a lot. A non-commercial organisation have bought it, and made it into a museum, and it is now a World's Heritage site.
The old wooden sheets are re-made with living quarters, post office, iron caster, the administration and much more. Considering is was working until 1960, it is amazingly old stuff. I would have guessed on 1920 or not much later. I do the tour alone, and despite it is not really my interest, I find it entertaining and relaxing. At a shop, they have some old beer bottles, I guess few collectors have, though the Christiania Brewery from Norway, and the Guinness might be known.
Back on the track; Ruta 5, and a bit up north. Huara is just a line of shops with a shade in front, and I don't bother to stop, except at their gas station. A cup of cafe latte and endless use of their Wi-Fi. They even have a friendly ATM! Then I really feel ready for new adventures! Turn on to Ruta 15, heading out east.
The first is The Giant of Atacama. In Lonely Planet, is say "It's the biggest archaeological representation of human in the world - a gargantuan 86m high..." I imagined a giant rock, carved into a sculpture. Was I disappointed! It is just yet another of these "scrape the top-layer of blacks rocks away"-thing. It is on a solitary hill, partly covered in sand dunes. I try to follow the road around, but I don't dare crossing the biggest dune. I'm here by my self, and it is soft. Try to photo the gravel, but they made it on the top of the hill, and I guess I failed.
A bit disappointed, I continues out of Ruta 15 towards the Bolivian border. At first, it is common Atacama, with nothing but gravel hills or planes. A single huge gorge have a stretch of green, but not enough to loure me down. In an area I think look interesting, I actually find three new cacti and either a forth or another variation of the one I saw the other day; Oreocereus.
The others are a little, round Opuntia, and "candelabra" and a "creeping cucumber". At first, they are really on the edge of their abilities. Further up in the hills, they do significantly better. Many other plants join the party, and even further up, they cacti almost disappears. Way down in a huge canyon, I can see terraces, and they might be ancient. I can't see any houses now.
70 Km out, I turn left on a tiny gravel road. Accordantly to my map, it should lead to Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga. This 5530 meter giant that gives the park its name, is a bit too tall for me, but the southern "low-lands" could be interesting.
It is a bad road, and it serpentine its way through giant hills. It winds it way up and up, and I'm sure, I'm pass 4500 metres as some point. I see none, and the track does not seem to have been used recently. Strange, there should be villages out here, although small.
Although the road is only 36 Km, it feels like it keep going on forever. I get this bad thought: What is the car brakes down? It will be quite a walk back to the sealed road, and there were little traffic on that. Bad thoughts, I concentrate on plants. On the other hill, numerous Oreocereus are scatted all over the place, but only a few on my side.
As I get even higher up, it turns into half a meter bushes, several flowering. A few chinchilla-like rodents; Mountain viscacha; Lagidium viscacia, seems real calm - or unfamiliar with cars, and I get a few good photos. Finally, I reach Chiapa. It is a mountain village, containing of around 60-70m houses and a church.
Despite they all look surprisingly new and maintained, I see absolutely none here! I drive around town, some roads are even sealed, but it is a ghost town. I fail to find a road, leading further into the park, and I figure I better not, anyway. This is a bit fare out, in a old, used town-car, all by my self.
The road back is real long. I check the tires several times, and the car do all the wired noises, it can. I am quite relived, when I reach the sealed road! I could try the upper part of the park, but considering I only found cacti in the lover parts, I skip that.
Back to Ruta 5, and further up north. I had hoped for a hostal around five, but it is Atacama, and besides from gravel, here is nothing! No villages, no gas stations, no birds - nothing but trucks. I figure I'll drive to the slightly large Cuya, find some gasoline and a bed. Should make it around seven, which is all right.
On the way, I meat a giant canyon. I estimate it is two or three kilometres vide and one deep. The sides is fine gravel, the button is a tiny, green stretch with a creek. After 30 Km or so, I reach Cuya in the button. It is not a semi-large town - it is a Gendarmerie station on one side, and a police station on the other. Ten tiny restaurants, that's it!
I ask a police officer, where the next gas station is, and he say; Arica - 110 Km further up the road. That is going to be a close call! I grab a couple of sandwiches, and head off as soon as possible. I should be able to make it a bit after eight - unless I run out of gasoline.
It is one giant canyon after another. The roads goes right down to their button, just to work its way up on the next giant hill. One have some of the gravel art, and I make a photo, driving. I let a rather fast truck pass me, and use him as a scale on my desperate photo attempts to document these giant hills and canyons.
I have never heard of these canyons, but they are breathtaking! A short part on the highlands, not more than 30 Km or so, and I reach yet another canyon. The wide bottom is made up of a line of houses, but it looks very dry. It ends up in the large city of Arica, which is a costal city.
I find a gas station, and he try to guide me to my chosen hotel - plenty of time while the car is being filled! I am way out of the map, but two rotundas and left, should bring me there. I find the first round-about, but end out of town before the other. Back, but it seems like the town are on both sides of a big, long hill - or not?
It is almost dark, and when I passes a decent hotel, with a rare parking spot in front - reserved to taxis, I throw in the car and check. 160.000 for a room, additionally 2500 for a parking spot. Sold! As with the other cities - or even villages, one-way streets are most common, my map is only showing the most central part, and I have a hard time seeing it at all!
I am actually running a bit fast, accordantly to my plan, and I ought to slow down a bit. Arica do have a few interesting sights which I can reach by foot or bus, and the climate is pleasant. Somehow, it is way pass midnight when I'm through the most essential work.
24/1 13. The day short: I've seen the city. Slightly more detailed; I started taking a shared taxi to the mummy museum; Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, 12 Km out of town. Figured the car could do with a day off, and it was sure easier to walk the 100 metres to the taxi, than to find my way through town - and back.
I'm there half an hour early, but the narrow stretch between two large gravel hills are filled with nurseries. As the museum is a part of the university, the experimental corn fields on the other side must be too - I naively think. They are not, and I'm told to leave - fast! A vulture is warming up - on a lamp pole. Giant palms, olive trees, vegetables and pretty flowers in each its tiny, private owned nursery.
The museum is not that big, but they have chosen some real nice objects for the 25 displays. I get an English text, and go through time. It is lowland Indian's life, the oldest are from 7000 BC with art effects, everyday objects and mummies. The last is a 12 meter long olive press from around 1800. I read it all, see it all, and walk to the other, more recently part, in a giant concrete building. Real well displayed, but tiny, the building considered: Objects here are from the highlands.
The lowlands are so well documented due to the extreme climate; everything is mummified. The highland things are more based on, what have ended up in the lowlands, through time. Despite I really take my time, only an hour have passes, and the recommended cafe is still closed.
I walk the 100 meters to the main road, and get picked up right away by Miguel, who have worked in Brazil! Get dropped off the same place I started, and walk right pass the hotel, on my way to the old church; Inglesia San Marcos. It look small and slightly neglected between a few modern buildings, but as with the others, quite nice inside.
For a city with close to 200,000 citizens, Arica is actually quite nice. The air pollution is fare from bad, it is friendly and offers a lot of modern facilities without loosing its charm. A pedestrian street area and lots of other shops in the area, make a maze of shopping opportunities. I have a few items on my imaginary list, but after a short tour on the main street, I head for the mirador.
Way up on one of the giant gravel mountains, surrounding the city, the old fortress was build. Now, it is some sort of military museum and a general good spot to see the entire city and the sea. One toilet, but no cafe? Well, I know where there are lots! Seen from here, I realises; There is strangely enough no "waterfront", it is just a tiny container harbour, mainly with Maersk containers. Considering how rare ocean view is in this country, I would imagine they would appreciate it.
I do the main street, the huge markets with shoos, cloth, toys, kitchen ware and whatever you can think of - except a compass for a boat or car. I find the one I have, constantly pointing east in the car, a bit unreliable. One which can be adjusted would be nice! Besides from that, I find what I was looking for.
Here are still a few of the old buildings, but most are new - or dressed up like that. At four, I need a tour in the re-charger, and realizes; I'm 100 metres from my hotel. After an hour in the charger, exchanging e-mails and so, I'm back in the busy city. I try to capture the facades in the late afternoon light, but they are a thin line.
At eight, I have had enough, and return to base for working on the impressions of the day, in linguistic and graphic expressions. Depending on my success getting out of the city, I am looking forward for a day in the wild tomorrow. Cities, even the nicer ones, have never been my cup of tea.
25/1 13. I find my way out of town, only asking twice, and head up Ruta 11 towards Bolivia. The landscape is dominated by the enormous gravel hills, many kilometres inland. In-between some, a tiny river make a home for a few farmers, other valleys are bone dry. Chicken farms along with nurseries, producing vegetables seem to be the big thing - and you can smell it too!
Some of the first plants to show up on the hills are the true candelabra cacti; Browningia candelaris. They sit on a real armoured stem, three to six metres high, and then branch out. The branched are almost soft-looking, with only brushes of tiny needles. There is not a wind, no other cars or trucks, and the silence is deafening!
Some lizards apparently make a living here, but I can't say by what? A bit later, I passes what kind of look like a hippie-place, but I guess it is a restaurant, trying to make it here too. A fortress from the 12th-century is just some lines of low walls, and I leave it to that. A few vicunas make a living up here too, and have learned to ignore the cars. I guess they are the reason for the candelabra to look the way they do. Lower branches would be eaten right away.
A bit further up, several of the cacti I saw the other day, joins in. The little round Opuntia with the stubborn needles, the spiny cucumber, the cushion of large Opuntia fingers, the Oreocereus, and the relative little false candelabra. Another new cacti, a fist-sized, round one with red flowers starts to show up, and I get some photos of the huge landscape as well. Quite soon the giant candelabra are gone again, and I'm stocked with the usual.
Later on, it seems like there are tree types of the Oreocereus: One with red needles, one with grey and lots of hair, and one with slightly larger yellow needles. They grow within metres from each other, but there are kind of morphings in-between them too. The number of herbs and small scrubs increases too, but the worse it the little Opuntia, which get to be ground-covering: It goes right through my shoos and it is a nuisance!
The landscape is still made up of huge hills, although they might be called mountains now. A double, mighty ice-covered mountain sits above them all, and I'm heading that way. It is the 6650 meter Volcan Parinacota in Bolivia. It is near the Bolivian border, the two large Parque Nacionals; Las Vicunas and Lauca are found. It is a cold area, up at 6000 meters height, but I plan to sleep a bit lower, in Putre, only 3530 metres up.
I make a single de-tour to a little village; Socoroma, but like some of the others I have seen, it is closed up, and it seems like no one is home at all. The valley do look fertile, and they have sorted out some sort of artificial irrigation. Back on the Ruta 11, I passes a few trucks, but it is not the "500 trucks a day"-intensity I have feared.
I stop at cacti fields and where creeks crosses the road, but I have a hard time finding anything real interesting. A single, massive-flowering Solanaceae is impressive. The wind is cold, but when the sun breaks through the light clouds, it really warms. A new group of vicunas stands right next to the road, and they do look just a bit anxious.
I reach Putra, the only village of any size up here. It is a tourist place, with restaurants and options for a overnight stay. I find a cheep room near the square, and head off again. I continue, knowing I ought to have enough later on, for tomorrow. Unfortunately, I can't say I find much of interest. A hot spring with a pool, way out of a little gravel road is, I have to admit, a bit unexpected. A perhaps new, little flat Opuntia, but they are kind of blending into one for me by now.
I turn around at four, realising I better save some gasoline, if want to make it all the way back to Arica, after the park tomorrow. Pick-up a local woman at the turn-of to Putre. It is a long walk with shopping for a month! I do a bit of walking in the village. It is pretty clean, newly painted in general, but here is not much!
A cup of tea, and I do the town again. Despite here are several restaurants, knitting stuff saleswomen and hotels, I don't see anyone looking like they are gringos. Then again, it should be the rainy season, and they might get their visitors on other times - when it is really cold! Now, the sun fates away at six, and then it gets nippy. I pick-up the long-johns, my jeans and a spare jacket from the car.
I dedicate the evening to make a proper accountancies of the tour. It is a bit tricky: I have paid for most so fare, the company for some. In the end, I should pay for some, the company for others, and then there are the currency! The rates deferens every time, and I've been using DKK, €, US$, Argentine Pesos and Chilean Pesos.
Turned out to be a bad idea: I have spend way more than I even expected, in my most recently budget - and I got 18 days back! This will more than double my original budget! I use to be able to get within +/-10%.
The restaurant which are owned by the hostal - or the other way around - closes at little to eight, and I feel a bit lost. The room is fare from cosy and even less warm. On top of that, the internet I can find and hook into, is not working at all! I end up making a 300 picture highlights slideshow from Argentina.
26/1 13. I don't freeze during the night - might have something to do with the fleece, long-johns and half ton of blankets I am buried deep underneath. Somehow, I get a pair of easy-over eggs and two nice buns for breakfast, just like I would have ordered it, if I could.
The huge Parque Nacional Lauca is the only theme for the day. It now encompasses an area of 1,379 square kilometres of altiplano and mountains. Earlier, it was even bigger, when Las Vicuñas National Reserve was included. It stretches from 3000 meters height right outside Putre, up to 6300 metres.
The jewel is one of the worlds highest lakes; Lago Chungara, 4517 metres, and the 140 species of birds, including Puna Ibis, Andean Goose, Giant Coot, Puna Tinamou, Silvery Grebe, Crested Duck, Puna Teal, Andean Condor and Chilean flamingos.
I have the sun in my face, and do the first part of the tour rather fast. Never the less, I do have to stop several times, just to try and capture the giant volcano with the morning sun on. Vicunas, lamas, ducks, geese and many more animals benefits from the lush green vegetation along the creeks. There are still ice crystals on the low vegetation in the shadows, and I guess it is always a cold night up here.
The 400 recorded plant species seems to be a bit more illusive than the animals. I only see around 30 of the tough plants, adopted to the harsh puna environment, such as the bofedales, llaretales and Andean steppes. Of cacti, only the highland Opuntia can be found - by me.
My map is a "bit" rough, and I have a hard time recognising the lakes. At one point, the little traffic stops at a major queue. I start walking up along it, to find out if is a road work, or a more permanent blocking. Then I notice it is only trucks, and figure it is one of the many check-points.
I drive right passed, in the oncoming lane, and the officer just signals me to pass. A new corner of the huge lake reveals more Yellow-billed Pintail ducks; Anas georgica, several flamingo species, Andean Gulls; Chroicocephalus serranus, the small Silvery Grebe; Podiceps occipitalis, the large Giant Coot; Fulica gigantea and other water birds. Out of the corner of my eye, I notices a sign saying; Republica de Bolivia, making me think; "YES, I'm going that way, but not all the way". I even left my passport in my bag at the hotel - first time on this tour.
Then it strikes me: I'm in Bolivia!!! It was not one of the usual truck check-points, it was the Chilean part of the border! I figure, I better try and sneak back while the same officer is on duty. There are much more control the other way, but I sneak in behind a truck, which just have been set free. It works, and I'm back in Chile.
It's time for tea, and I find a spot with an absolutely awesome view. Animals, volcanoes, plants and silence, except from the birds. Besides from the two large lakes, here are many smaller ones too. Some are crystal clear, others milky yellow. Strangely enough, the later have the most flamingos.
I make a stop every time the landscape changes. Sometimes, it is sand dunes, then granite rocks, some gravel, sandstone, volcanic debris - you name it. Most is steep hills, and the constantly frost make the surface real loose. It is a struggle to climb them - and the altitude does not really help!
I stop at the park rangers office, just to get confirmed that the small bushes I have found actually are the Quenoa; Polylepis tarapacana. It should be one of the world's highest -elevation trees. It is! The ranger want to show me it all, and not even the languish problems stops him. He have a small gadget he punch numbers into, and it give a clear, English explanation on the plant or animal, related to a brochure he have.
I go for a stroll along the lake, and here, I can get a bit closer to the birds. Flycatchers, finches, singers on the shore, ducks, Andean Gees, Giant Coots, flamingos and Silvery Grebe on the water. A few new plants, but none of those interesting to me.
On the way back, I do the low hills. Here, as so many other places, the Yareta; Azorella compacta is forming huge cushions - or almost balloons. It should be one of the oldest plants to concur the land (although I doubt that, the family; Apiaceae, considered). It only grow 1 to 1,5 centimetres a year, and many plants are thought to be 3000 years old! They are traditionally used for fuel, but I see no future it that!
I reach a tiny restaurant, and try my luck. A tiny sandwich and a strange soda, and I'm ready for more tracking in the almost vertical world. Some plants look so interesting, way up on a hill, but when I reach them, it is just a larger, more shrubby or older form of a known plant.
I find a green stretch along a creek, which is not packed with vicunas, lamas, gees or other inhabitants, and go in for a closer look. The basic structure is made up of rock-hard cushions of Yareta. Grass and other plants find a foot-hold, but the ancient, slow growing plants are the base. One area is covered in web. It is some aggressive spider midges that engulf the low grass.
I leave the high plateau, and the landscape turns more rocky. I find another road down to Putre, and some of the known cacti are scatted on the steep rocks. "Home" at base, I make an effort to get a hot shower. After quite some enthusiasm, I manages to get one that not is freezing cold.
Before dinner, I try to re-plan the rest of the tour. I had originally planned a 500 Km circle tour through the Atacama. By now, I feel I have seen way enough of this gravel pile, and go for the 50 Km straight main-road solution. That should leave me more time to explore Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar with its 20 cacti species and perhaps some of the warm costal villages too.
Dinner is beef again, and I start wondering; do they eat
lamas at all? Today, I pay 1500 for the meal, 300 for the tea. The
sun descends a eight, and then it get real cold. A short stroll
through town does not warm up my icy bones. The only warm thing I
can find, is the strange Pap soda, which have been heated a bit in
the car. It is sure warmer than my fingers! Can't say I will be
missing the cold climate, when I leave the highlands.
After the high and cold north, I complete this tour with the warm west, along the pacific ocean.