9 May 1998
The temporada de lluvias arrived with a vengeance, and all the threats of water rationing (just weeks ago) have been long forgotten in the current talk of floods, landslides, etc. The main autopista north out of Bogotá (quite close to where we live) has been closed for some time due to floods and fallen trees, and various suburbs near the Río Bogotá have been waist-deep in water for days. Every day it rains, every afternoon, and most mornings - this was what people had warned us about. It comes down in huge, oversized drops, and it has even been trickling into our living room from the terrace above, and blowing in through gaps in the doors and windows. Yes, we have enough water now...
The temporada de masacres has also been continuing apace, especially by the paramilitares (basically private armies, otherwise known as "right wing death-squads"), with another 25 killed for little or no reason in some God-forsaken little town near the Venezuelan border, and leaked documents suggesting another 28 such towns on their hit-list. The assassination of a regional governor barely made it onto page 6 of the newspaper, and that 4 days later. There has been much more serious talk recently of asking for United Nations help - something once considered unconstitutional and anathema - putting Colombia in the same boat as Chad, Bosnia and Rwanda. In the midst of all this, the election campaigning has turned into the predictable slanging match. Not a particularly heartening phase in the country's checkered history, all things considered.
Elena seems to be doing fine at school according to her last report (imagine - school reports at her age!), and her Spanish is apparently normal for her age. We were a little concerned that her Spanish vocabulary and grammar and general confidence seemed to be inferior to her English, but that is obviously because her English is quite advanced for her age (as we had suspected). Her conversation flows with the greatest of ease, and she makes the most surprising comments at times, some profound (she has quite a death fixation at the moment, thanks mainly to Disney cartoons), and some just plain funny, although there are too many to remember and mention. She enjoys making up stories off the top of her head, and will mix and match shamelessly, crossing, for example, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the Three little Pigs, and converting them all into kittens anyway.
She can now manipulate a computer mouse quite well (without slowing it down), and loves to play "Elmo's PreSchool" and "Snow White". She is certainly healthy enough and very rarely is sick, after those initial Bogotá bugs which nailed us all soon after we arrived. She was 96cm tall and weighed 13.2kg at our last pediatrician visit, (although everyone weighs less at 2,650m above sea level).
Then we were on the move again. A long flight south took us over Ecuadorian clouds, Peruvian desert, the barren brown mountains of Northern Chile, and the snowy mountains of Central Chile, arriving at Santiago in the dark. Santiago de Chile lies in a wide bowl or plain at about 540m above sea level, surrounded by mountains, although its infamous smog (trapped in the bowl by the cold air above, so-called "thermal inversion") as often as not prevents views of the mountains. We managed to arrive at a time of unusually clear air and sunny weather, and the huge ridge of the snow-covered Andes to the east of the city were clearly visible from many vantage points in the city, rising starkly from the flat built-up area.
|Santiago and Area, Chile (Valle Nevado, Cajón de Maipo)
We were staying in cosmopolitan Providencia, and on our first day we took a short trip on the excellent Metro to downtown Santiago.
We did a walking tour of the main tourist sites - Mercado Central, Plaza de Armas, Catedral, Congreso Nacional, Palacio de la Moneda, and back along the wide central boulevard, known as the Alameda. It did not strike us as being particularly impressive, lacking colonial remains or even Buenos Aires' charming architecture, but it was pleasant enough in the sun. We took a strange glass elevator up to the top of pretty Cerro Santa Lucia park in the centre of town, in an attempt to get away from the constant barrage of traffic noise. It seemed to be infested with single men (although not in any threatening way), and we later read that after dark the park was the preferred hang-out of Santiago gay scene, so I suppose those that we saw must have been practicing.
Some more walking (Elena was starting to flag, but she had already walked further than we had expected), took us through the colourful arty Bellavista district to the funicular up to Cerro San Cristóbal, a much larger park, although still very much within the centre of town, which protrudes some 300m above Santiago, and is crowned with a 36m statue of the Virgin (as such places tend to be in South America). The views over Santiago were grand, but we continued walking to a cable car which took us to an even higher view-point over the spectacular snow-capped mountains and the more exclusive east end of town. Parts of the park had been developed with playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurants, an arboretum, and other parts had been left wild. We had had a full day of walking, and Elena did very well to keep up, so we celebrated in an excellent veggy restaurant in the evening.
The next day, after breakfast with some old friends (whom we knew in Toronto but had now returned to their native Chile), we picked up a rental car and headed further up into those snowy mountains. We were treated to another beautiful clear day, and within half an hour we were already well out of the city and into lovely rocky mountain scenery. The poplar and aspen trees were in their full golden autumn colours, there were huge cactuses with fluffy red flowers, and the Río Mapocho which we were following was a glacial milky green colour.
Gradually, as we continued to climb,
the scenery became more arid, and the vegetation sparser, and more snowy peaks were visible as we approached Farallones and the area of four inter-linked ski resorts, just an hour-and-a-half from Santiago. The highest of these was Valle Nevado (about 2,800m at its base), where Elena had the chance (despite still being some months away from the ski season) to throw snowballs at her father while he was trying to take photos of her. Over lunch in the resort restaurant, we were unexpectedly down to T-shirts, and applying sun cream.
The other (lower - around 2,500m) resorts in the area were less impressive given the lack of snow at that time of year, but the scenery in general was nonetheless stunning.
From La Parva, the bowl of Santiago was clearly visible although all the buildings were completely hidden in the low-lying afternoon smog and mist, with just the recognizable landmark hills protruding, and the whole picture was softened in the mist like a Chinese painting. From that vantage point it was much clearer how the pollution collects in the bowl within the wall of mountains, although apparently we saw it almost at its clearest. Certainly, many things were forgivable to have ski resorts, great walking and riding country, and nature resorts, all in splendid scenery, so close to town, but I think one would have to think seriously before living for any length of time in that cauldron of pollution.
The next day we did another popular weekend day-trip from Santiago, and after some rather unfortunate detours unsuccessfully searching for the craft market at Pirque, and the huge Concha y Toro vineyard (which we actually found by mistake,
although, as it turned out, it did not open on Sundays and we had missed the harvest anyway), we found our way onto the quieter of the two roads which lead up along the pretty Maipo valley. The lower part of the valley was pleasantly green and bucolic, with just a few little farms along the way, each with their own little patch of vine trellissed along the side of the house. Further along the valley narrowed and the mountains became higher and rockier with a kind of Mediterranean feel to it. After a stop to try the ubiquitous cheese empanadas, and a round slab of the rather strange local bread, and a potter in the stony river, we continued on past the point where the road turns to dusty dirt track, and all the day-trippers disappear.
The scenery became starker and even grander with 5,000m-plus snowy mountains standing out from the rich blue of the sky.
The green, purple, orange, yellow and brown colours of the scree slopes betrayed the volcanic origins of the hills, and the bright yellow and golds of the few trees added to the varied palette of the scene. Eventually we reached Baños Morales, on the edge of Morado National Park, two muddy-looking thermal pools which we voted against, preferring to walk. We perched Elena on a horse, and she chattered and sang and whooped along merrily, giving us the opportunity to walk further up the valley, past the luminescent yellow poplar trees with the glaciers of El Morado itself looming above us. The sun felt hot on our faces, and the breeze from the glaciers only tempered the heat slightly - we just could not believe our luck with the weather. Once again, Elena had been uncharacteristically well-behaved - other than the horse-ride, which she always loves, there was little to keep her interest, and she would have been quite justified in complaining more vociferously - on the way back to Santiago, her muted complaints soon turned to snores.
Our next day in Santiago showed us the other face of the city, as the smog moved in with a vengeance,
and the first environmental emergency of the year was declared, complete with restrictions on traffic and industry, television coverage of over-burdened hospitals treating respiratory illnesses, and extensive propaganda on how to minimize the health risks. It was evidence of how the unique topography of the area could change the conditions from near-perfect to disastrous in the space of just 24 hours. On our last day in Santiago, the temperature ranged from 2°C to 25°C within hours. Even if it lacked the climate of Caracas, the colonial heritage of Quito, the urbanity of the people of Bogotá, and without even the architectural charm of Buenos Aires, Santiago nevertheless has a pleasant, comfortable atmosphere which we liked immensely. We enjoyed the side-walk cafés of Providencia and Los Condes, and the huge and perfect fruit and vegetables in the stores, and the ease of access to the wonderful scenery was certainly enviable.
Next, we flew down south, and even though we were on the wrong side of the plane, the mountain scenery during the clear spells was nothing short of spectacular,
especially the huge ice-fields between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, with big blue glaciers tumbling down into the fjords and lakes. We landed at Punta Arenas, just across the Magellan Straits from Tierra del Fuego, and the most southerly point on our itinerary (at about 53°, it is equivalent to Northern Scotland or Southern Alaska in the Northern Hemisphere). We picked up a car, and set off northwards on the only road in the area, and it seemed at first like an excellent paved road. It gave us our first experience of the flat golden grassland of Patagonia, in places speckled with scrubby green bushes, and in others with twisted black thorn bushes festooned with lichens.
|Patagonia, Chile (Torres del Paine, Balmaceda Glacier)
But we soon found out why we had seen several cars in Punta Arenas with metal guards on their windscreens and headlights,
and why our rental car was pock-marked as though it had been used for military practice (although that was also possible, as there was a heavy military presence in the area). Within half an hour I had already added another (large) crack to the collection on the windscreen: for most of the 250km to Puerto Natales, the road was indeed perfectly paved, but only on one side, the other side being unimproved gravel, so that any overtaking involved braving a hail of gravel and stones. Luckily there was very little traffic on the road, and for the most part we could speed along on the paved side. However, mainly due to some pretty dodgy detours, we still arrived at Puerto Natales in the dark (dusk had started at about 4pm, and had still not quite finished by 6.30pm).
Puerto Natales, self-styled "Prettiest Town in Patagonia" - clearly the competition is not fierce - was cold, damp and largely closed (the "season" for the area is December to March, and we were considered very strange visiting in late May), but it was after all only a convenient stop-off on the route up to our destination, Torres del Paine National Park, the Yosemite of South America. Dawn the next day was as long and uncertain as the previous day's dusk - we all woke late, and at 8.30am it was still unclear whether it was still dark or just overcast. The last leg of the journey from Puerto Natales was through scrubby grass and shrubs under cloud so low that we could see nothing of the mountains which should have been surrounding us by that time. The cloud stayed with us for pretty much the whole of our stay in Patagonia.
Once into the National Park, the weather unfortunately did not miraculously clear.
The area had obviously seen huge quantities of rain in recent days, and everything was damp and in places flooded. Given the size of the Park, it still took us well over an hour to drive from the Park boundary to our hotel, the most isolated of the accommodation within the park, on the shores of Lago Grey, but one of only two establishments open at that time of year, and we seemed to be the only guests in either of the places. Despite the weather, we could still appreciate the many pretty lakes we passed, and the few trees which grow, all clothed in their autumn best of red, orange and gold.
It was about as cold as we had anticipated, ranging between about -5°C at night and +5°C in the day, and, despite the evident dampness, the air felt pleasantly crisp.
Much of the vegetation was covered with a layer of frost in the mornings, and throughout most of the day unless any weak sunlight managed to filter through to it. With no views to speak of due to the low cloud, we just pottered around for the rest of the afternoon, although on arriving back at Lago Grey at dusk the clouds did lift momentarily to reveal some of the dramatic snow-capped Cuernos del Paine ("Horns"), the huge spiky mountain formations which provide the centrepiece of the Park, and the glacier and calved icebergs at the end of Lago Grey. Ten minutes later the window closed, and the views disappeared like a mirage.
The next morning was crisp and cold, and the grass and shrubs were covered in a thick rime of frost. After breakfast we drove a short way to the start of a walk,
which began through a colourful frost-covered forest of linga trees, almost the only trees which grow at this latitude, and which gave access the black pebbly spit of volcanic sand which all but cuts Lago Grey in two. Despite the thick mist we were close enough to see at closer quarters some of the blue icebergs which had calved off the glacier at the other end of the lake, carved into fanciful shapes by the wind and the waves. At the other end of the black beach, the trail led up onto a rocky island, which would have given us great views over the glacier and the lake. As it was all we saw were more icebergs, but the trail through the colourful autumn shrubbery was very pretty, and quite reminiscent of many we used to walk on the lake islands of Northern Ontario.
Returning along the sand-spit,
the sun just about managed to force its way through the mist, and it was warm enough to sit and watch the icebergs and the changing clouds as they drifted, exposing and concealing the mountains around us. This was also one of the few times when Elena was quiet - she had been complaining vociferously of "ice in her shoes" and of tiredness, despite the fact that we had had to carry her for more than half of the way, and as usual she had managed to pooh her pants half way round. We tried not to allow ourselves to think wistfully of how it would be to enjoy the Park unencumbered...
Once again the window of relatively good weather did not last long, and the cloud closed in, apparently embarrassed at its momentary lapse,
and it stayed closed for the rest of the day and the next morning. In the afternoon, we thought that we had better go out before we stagnated completely, and besides we could not stand the hotel's twangy guitar music any longer. The only highlight of the morning had been a very brave (or foolish) fox who put on an extended show for us, and the even thicker layer of frost which covered everything, and which did not melt all day.
We drove back into the main part of the Park, and set off on a trail past the tumultuous Salto Grande, and then through low shrubs into the wilder interior. Throughout the walk, the cloud cover over the main mass of mountains stubbornly swirled and eddied without ever actually lifting.
The nearest it came was when we finally arrived at the Mirador high on a hill overlooking Lago Nordenskjold, the Cuernos and the snow-covered bulk of 3,050m Cerro Paine Grande, the highest point in the Park. We could see some of the glaciers in the folds of the mountains, and hear the roar of the many waterfalls and the occasional rumble of an avalanche.
Although we were surprised to see the contents of a tour bus disgorge its contents at the waterfall (apparently it was a national holiday), we were the only ones on the whole trail, and the silence and the beauty of the scenery was quite stirring. Even the highest peaks in the Park are less than 3,000m, which by Andean standards is not high, but given that the lakes and valleys are just a couple of hundred metres above sea level, the mountains still appear very imposing as they rise sheer-sided from the lakes. We had discovered that the only way to get Elena to walk was to turn the whole thing into a game of tag and to take on "Lion King" characters. Given that, she was quite happy to run rather than just walk, and she did very well to complete the walk, even if we did have to carry her for much of the return journey.
Our last day in Torres del Paine was marked by possibly the clearest weather to date, which is not to say "clear", just that the cloud was a little higher than it had been, allowing us to see at least something of the central complex of mountains. We took the opportunity (having found some hand-pumped petrol, which allowed us to detour a little rather than heading directly back to Puerto Natales, hoping that the fuel would last out) to drive along some of the less-frequented roads in the north of the Park. We even caught a glimpse of the Torres for which the Park was named, monolithic granite towers rising vertically to about 2,600m within the amphitheatre formed by the Cuernos.
We drove past more lakes of various colours and sizes, and then up into higher more desolate
grassland where herds of guanacos (southern relatives of the llama) thrived, apparently a major ecological success story in the Park, brought back from the brink of extinction. Further on we also came across that other typical denizen of the area, the ostrich-like ñandu, or rhea. The road became increasingly icy, and at one point I misjudged a frozen flood, which grounded our low-slung basic-model car, and we were lucky to get out without more serious problems. There seemed to be no alternative way through, so we back-tracked to the main Puerto Natales road.
Still with time to spare, we decided to detour towards the Laguna Verde sector of the Park, but once again we were scuppered by a flooded section of road covered with slimy oozing mud, which this time I had sense enough not to brave. We contented ourselves with a walk down to the edge of nearby Lago Sarmiento, and its beach of multi-coloured and -textured pebbles. Despite Elena's appalling show all day long, we made it back to Puerto Natales.
The following (cloudy) day, we had booked a boat trip
which took us along the long Ultima Esperanza fjord from Puerto Natales, past rocky headlands and barren snow-capped mountains, past cascades, cormorant roosts and a even a lonely condor perched on a rocky ledge. After nearly four hours, we arrived at Cerro Balmaceda, only 2,035m high but a gigantic mass of rock, forests and glaciers rising starkly from the fjord, and appearing much higher. We stopped by the end of the huge Balmaceda Glacier, which apparently used to reach the sea just 15 years ago, but which had now receded to 50m or more above that level.
The next stop involved a short walk through the evergreen coihué forest along the edge of a freshwater lake connected by the narrowest of channels to the salt-water fjord.
The lake was largely frozen, and full of the myriad shapes of icebergs from the massive Serrano Glacier at its head. The trail took us to within metres of the toe of the glacier, which we could see extending way back up the mountain into the clouds, and the blue folds of glacial ice towered above us. Some of the Chileans carted back huge chunks of glacial ice to cool their whiskey on the return trip, (although in fact all they had to do was to put it outside for a few minutes). Elena had decided that she liked boat trips, and, while boisterous, was generally well behaved, basking in the attentions of the few other passengers, and in the fact that a "big girl" was bored enough that she was willing to play with her.
On the way back to Punta Arenas the next day Elena slept most of the way. Nowadays before a flight, car trip or walk, she always asks "Will this be a long one, a medium-sized one, or a short one?", so that she can gauge how to behave, or misbehave as the case may be. If it is to be a long, boring car trip, she has realized that it is in her interests as well as ours to sleep as much as possible, which makes life much easier. She seemed to have quite enjoyed the holiday on the whole, though I think mainly the breakfasts, which in Chile seem generally to consist of sweetened fruit juice, hot chocolate and sweet biscuits, which is definitely her kind of breakfast. In fact she probably consumed more cookies and sweets on the trip than in the whole of her life before it. Bringing her down from this sugar-high would probably quite some battle.
But it would not be my battle, for a few days at least, as the day that Julie and Elena headed back from Santiago to Bogotá I flew up to Northern Chile for a few days. Near Antofagasta, we were flying over full-blown desert - miles of brown, corrugated hills alternating with stretches of smooth beige seas of sand. Not a tree nor any hint of green interrupted the unmitigated drabness of the desert.
Inland towards Calama, the desert became if anything even flatter and more barren, the few roads and some long-dry river beds cutting like scars across the landscape. This was my introduction to the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, where in parts rainfall - or any moisture - has never been recorded. Calama, at 2,250m above sea level, is one of the largest oases in the Atacama, and now a thriving industrial city, due to the nearby copper and other mineral deposits (Chuquicamata, just a few kilometres to the north, is the largest open-cast copper mine in the world).
|Atacama Desert, Chile (San Pedro, Salar de Atacama, Geysers de Tatio, volcanoes)
Things started to go a little awry on arrival in Calama (or even before if you count the temporary loss of a suitcase on arriving in Santiago the previous evening, although it did turn up eventually). For some reason, LanChile in their wisdom had cancelled the rest of my flights, so I had to rearrange everything, somewhat curtailing my stay up North. Then the car rental fell through (the first time that my dealings through the Internet had let me down), although I did eventually find a pick-up to, well, pick up.
From Calama, the desert at ground level was a salmony colour overlaid with many small stones of various colours, and all this overlaid in turn (at
least on the outskirts of Calama) with a liberal layer of garbage - plastic bags, cardboard, building waste - which seems to be the fate of all deserts. Thankfully, further from town the litter improved, and I continued through the featureless landscape, climbed and descended a ridge of hills with views over the salt pans in the distance, and the Cordillera del Sal. I then crossed the Cordillera itself, a long ridge of eroded red badlands crusted in places with salt, and went for a short walk through the labyrinth of tiny valleys and dead-ends.
It was only on reaching San Pedro de Atacama that I saw my first greenery in 100km (other than a lone shrub which had been planted by the roadside in the middle of nowhere, with a big sign saying "Dame agua!" - "Give me water!"). San Pedro is another oasis built up around the Río San Pedro at 2,440m above sea level. It was originally settled by the Spaniards in 1540, although there were Inca and pre-Inca settlements much earlier. Although it is still essentially a small rural town, with cultivated fields along the river wherever agriculture can be supported, it has recently undergone quite a rejuvenation, which has produced something of a clash of cultures. Alongside the largely indigenous Atacaman farmers, tourism has brought an influx of foreign tourists and young entrepreneurs alike. For example, most of the restaurants have vegetarian selections prominently displayed. The first restaurant I went into was rustic and outdoorsy, and was playing Portishead and Bjork (quite a surprise, but a welcome one); the second I tried was vaguely New Age-y with serpents and indigenous murals on the walls, and Yanni or some such drivel playing. All the proprietors and staff were young and trendy-looking, and the clientele were either gringos (mainly French for some reason) or Bohemian-type chilenos.
Accommodation had obviously not quite kept up with these changes though, and, after a couple of weeks of relative luxury, I was back to my usual standard - bare floorboards, U-shaped beds, shared toilet, no lock, electricity only from 6.30pm until midnight, etc, etc - the kind of place in which I have spent many a bad night throughout South America. I am sure I could have done a bit better had I looked around, but I really could not be bothered, and for a couple of nights I really did not care much where I stayed.
The centre of San Pedro is pleasant enough, with a pretty white-walled church, built in the traditional style of adobe mud over a cactus wood frame, and a mud and thatch roof. Away from the main centre of the town, many of the houses were also built the same way, right down to the flat roof of rushes supported by wooden frames, and plastered over with the same mud as was used for the walls (a similar design to the dwellings of the Pueblo indians of the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona), and often with a little rush-roofed lean-to attached.
I went to see a little of San Pedro's past just a few kilometres away down (and often through) the Río San Pedro to the
pre-Inca Pukará de Quitor, a large defensive settlement perched on a steep hill above the river. It dates back to the 12th Century, and is built of large flat stones and mud, in a similar labyrinthine fashion as Machu Picchu, although on a smaller scale. I was surprised how much the altitude affected me walking up its steep paths - even though the fort was lower than my home in Bogotá, my two weeks spent at or near sea level was obviously taking its toll.
Almost as close on the other side of San Pedro in the middle of the desert was an even older relic of the Atacaman culture, the remains of the Stone-Age village of Tulor. I got lost a couple of times on the maze-like network of unmarked tracks through the desert, passing en route sand dunes, dust-devils like mini-tornados, and the bizarre sight of a football field in the middle of nowhere, but eventually I found the site. It is in an advanced state of ruination, but the remains of a tightly-knit cluster of interconnected circular mud dwellings has survived surprisingly well completely unprotected since its period of occupation between 800BC and 500AD.
A little further out of town I re-connected with the Cordillera de Sal, at a section known as Valle de la Luna (now a part of the widely scattered Los Flamencos National Reserve).
My truck struggled through the deep sand even in four-wheel drive, but the struggle was worth it to reach the impressive formations of mud, salt and rock above. Wind erosion has formed any number of strange twisted pinnacles and towers and other formations, separated by huge smooth sand dunes. In some places it has formed the convoluted contours of typical badland scenery, in others salt has weathered into crinkled folds like a car radiator, and in yet others whole hillsides of crumbly irregular steps like a salty Giant's Causeway (I tried to climb some of the latter until I realized that some of the steps were hollow, and there were some rather alarming holes inside them). A camera crew and cast of thousands were hogging some of the best parts for a shoot, so I just spent a couple of hours scrambling among the sharp pinnacles and maze-like cracks, until the sun sank below the horizon and the temperature started to fall dramatically.
At sunset, the volcanoes across the valley towards the Bolivian border gradually turned a startling red colour, most obvious among them the perfect cone of 5,915m Volcán Licancábur. Gradually the colour spread to the clouds, crimson swirls and dapples on an egg-blue background. After dark, a magnificent star-show unfolded in the crystal clear night.
Having located the only gas pump this side of Calama, I set off south the next day along the edge of the great Salar de Atacama. The salt lake itself lies at about 2,300m above sea level, and to the east towards the Bolivian and Argentinian borders an impressive line of volcanoes rises, most of which peak at between 5,500m and 6,000m, with a gradual slope of volcanic debris leading to their bases. After the oasis town of Toconao, built of lava stone blocks and with a pretty church with a separate tower, I turned off onto the Salar itself.
I was surprised that the salt flat was not a smooth flat sheet of white salt, as it appeared from a distance, but in actual fact it looked as though it had been recently ploughed. Laguna Chaxi is one several spots of the Salar where the underlying water surfaces as a lake, and the process of salt crystallization can be clearly seen around its edges. The lake is another part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, and this time the name fit, because this and other salt lakes on the Salar attract large numbers of flamingoes, who feed on the brine shrimps in the water. I was able to walk around the lake apparently without bothering the birds, who were much too busy feeding to worry about me.
I continued along the edge of the Salar to the old town of Peine on the slope overlooking the salt flats,
which also had a pretty thatched church. I walked along the little stream which made the town possible (and which had been dammed in a couple of places to make swimming pools for the locals), and through some of the cultivated terraces on its banks. I have no idea what they were growing - the only crop I recognized was corn - and the only man I saw seemed to be assiduously harvesting bunches of weeds (herbs?). At the edge of town, on the huge rocky slope which surrounds it, were the ruins of the old town of Peine, apparently a major transport hub in Incan and pre-Incan times, now just a few tumbled-down walls with a splendid view over the Salar.
After calling in at one or two less interesting villages, I headed away from the Salar, up the long haul into the volcanoes. The road followed the edge of a huge, dry, rocky canyon, and further up the ruins of the old town of Talabre Viejo could be seen way down at the bottom of the canyon, complete with cultivation terraces long since abandoned. As I climbed higher and higher, there began to be a little more colour with some yellow clumps of grass growing and the odd small green and yellow bush. I passed along the northern flank of 5,150, Volcán Lascar, one of the more lively volcanoes in the area, its slopes covered in bluish grey volcanic ash, and grey smoke and steam spewing from its crater. The air here was icy cold, and a constant wind blow. My truck was finding the slope, the altitude and the rutted track hard going, but it pressed on gamely.
I was beginning to wonder just where I was headed when I suddenly found out to my cost, as the track which had been deteriorating badly stopped without any warning in the middle of nowhere, ending in an elegant loop like in a suburban housing estate. So, I back-tracked, and took the less likely of the options at the last fork, and continued climbing all over again, this time between Lascar and 5,658m Volcán Tumisa, on a lonely rutted road which disappeared over a pass on the horizon. Once over the saddle between the two volcanoes, the landscape changed, and here all was smooth volcanic curves in orange, beige, salmon and grey, with no vegetation in sight. I had passed a few llamas earlier, but here I saw guanacos and ñandus, although what they found to eat in that desolate place I have no idea (certainly their cousins whom we had seen on the grasslands of Patagonia had it good by comparison). There was an alarming number of skulls and skeletons scattered everywhere, which I assumed from their shapes came from llamas and guanacos.
This barren landscape, awesome in its scale and its sterility, continued for kilometre after kilometre, until I reached salt-bordered Laguna Lejía, at 4,350 above sea level, and about 50km from the Argentine border. From here, braving a biting wind, I could see lines of volcanic cones stretching into the distance on both sides of me, a truly breathtaking sight, despite the unaccustomed cloud. I then set about the bone-jarring descent back to Toconao and San Pedro, arriving back just in time for another stunning sunset.
I witnessed that night's star show at 4am, and very impressive it was too, with no electricity (and therefore no light pollution) within many kilometres to spoil it. The reason I was up at 4am was supposedly to drive up the geysers at El Tatio in time for dawn. I was a little unconvinced of the need to be there at dawn, but apparently that is what one does, and certainly all the tour operators in San Pedro (and there are several for such a small town) were advertising 4am starts, and I had hoped to follow one of the tour buses up there if possible. Of course, at 4am there was no sign of any buses, or activity of any kind, so, nothing daunted, I set off regardless.
The darkness was absolute, apart from the glow of the stars, but I found my way well enough at first, and was making reasonably good time, until, having gained a fair bit of altitude, I found my way blocked by not one but two frozen rivers. I managed to negotiate the first, but the second was much deeper and from what I could see in the obscurity the ice was quite thick. I decided to chicken out this time, not wanting to find myself trying to extricate a car from ice in the pitch blackness and icy cold.
I found what looked like an alternative route on the map (albeit a dotted line in an area where a firm line means a rutted dirt track), and decided to give it a try. The road was in poor condition, but as it kept rising (it was supposed to reach a high pass before linking up again with the main El Tatio road once more, so I took its continued ascent as a promising sign) I continued. The road was also littered with huge boulders, (which was not so promising), around which I had to negotiate my way as best I could, often uncomfortably close to the precipitous edge, although some I had to physically move. In the pre-dawn light, I could now make out the huge drop on one side, and on the scree slopes above me many more such boulders just ready to fall, which was somewhat scary to say the least.
With what may well have been the pass in sight just around the next corner, my advance was halted unceremoniously by several huge (and immovable) boulders in the road. So I then had to gingerly reverse down that horrendous road, until I could find a place wide enough to turn around, all of which was quite hair-raising (it did not help that the hand-brake was not strong enough to hold me on the steep incline on which I found myself). But suffice to say I managed it, and when my heart rate had decreased sufficiently, I was able to look back with some traces of humour. Once back down the worst of the road, in desperation I tried a track which seemed to lead more or less in the right direction across the volcanic plain, in the vain hope that I might link up with my original road.
Crossing the plain, I witnessed the most Dali-esque image:
the smooth red curve of the plain was cut through by a slash of early morning sun just at the point where two bizarre jumbles of rocks broke the line of the hill, and all of this with the other-worldly background of the craggy rocks and distant volcanoes. It was a poignant moment. In the half-light of day, stunned guanacos bolted away from me, as I ploughed along my uncertain track through desolate but impressive countryside, until... I reached a Bolivian customs post, indicating that I had been travelling through the wrong country from some time! So, it was back-track once more, and, past caring by this time, I tried yet another random track, and, lo and behold!, it turned out to be the right one this time, and within half an hour I was where I should have been some time ago, at El Tatio.
Two tour mini-buses (actually the only traffic I met all day)
were just leaving as I arrived, so I had the whole site to myself, even if dawn was two-and-a-half hours gone. Situated at 4,300m and surrounded by volcanoes, El Tatio is the highest geyser field in the world, even if it lacks the drama of, say, Yellowstone. Even in the morning sun, the air was icy cold, and any standing water was solid ice. The columns of steam could be seen from miles away: some of the fumaroles were just small pools of boiling water, others were a constant column of rising water, and still others were powerful but irregular spurts. White and orange crystals and small mineral terraces had formed around many of the pools. Two small dogs, which presumably lived out there somehow, pestered me for food every step I took.
After more of the splendid high country scenery, above 4,000m with views of any number of volcanoes, I finally started to descend a little on a perilous road down the extraordinary Chita canyon. Down below, the landscape reminded me a little of Utah: predominantly red rock, vast, largely flat table-lands, cut through with deep rocky box canyons and multi-levelled mesas (although I never saw llamas or volcanoes in Utah...). For me this was the start of possibly the most interesting part of the trip. After a lovely ride which involved crossing several of those red-rock canyons, I descended into the bowels of the Caspana canyon.
Caspana is a delightful little Indian town at 3,300m above sea level nestling under the cliffs in a fertile valley,
which is cultivated in terraces along its whole length. Most of the houses are traditionally made of the local volcanic liparite rock, rough hewn and fitted together perfectly despite their irregular shapes (a few have succumbed to filling the cracks with mortar to keep out the draughts, but who can blame them?). The roofs are of thatch-covered mud, and the whole village has that untouched-for-centuries look. There is a particularly fine old church which dates from 1641. I spent some time walking around the pretty, narrow streets, and along the river, which is crossed by a little stone bridge at one point and by stepping stones at several others.
From Caspana, I followed various canyons, most notably the Río Salado, (one of the largest rivers in a region of scarce water), through stunning rocky canyon scenery, with huge cardón cactuses standing like monoliths on the red rock, and clear blue sky all around. One particularly memorable view was, having climbed out of the Salado canyon, of the whole of the course of the rocky gorge, the surrounding high plain, and the huge volcanoes at the back.
My next stop was the village of Toconce, slightly higher at 3,600m, and once again the entrance to the village was down a steep,
tortuous track into the Toconce canyon, but this time the road surprised me by climbing back up to the rim of the canyon, and the village was situated at the top, with cultivated terraces spilling down the steep valley sides to the small river below. Once again, the steep narrow streets were crowded with traditional houses, and there was an air of tranquility about the place, especially given that, like Caspana, it was completely deserted, with neither tourists nor townspeople in evidence.
Continuing back towards Calama, Ayquina was another pleasant traditional little town, with another pretty little thatched church, houses of stone and mud, and wonderful views over the green terraces in the Río Salado below.
From Ayquina the going was easier on a wide gravel road, as I descended the volcanic plain, past a strange, circular, deep blue lake, until reaching Chiu Chiu at a balmy 2,500m above sea level. Chiu Chiu is built alongside the main Río Loa, of which all the other rivers I had passed had been tributaries, and its main claim to fame is its lovely old white church, dating from 1675, with massively thick adobe walls and door of the strange holey wood of the cardón cactus.
I drove along the old narrow road up the Loa valley, flanked by sheer rock walls, and intensively cultivated with all manner of flowers and vegetables, using the old chacra system, (similar to the old Medieval European strip field system). Some 10km upriver, the ruins of the 12th Century fortified pukará of Lasana reared above the valley floor on a large outcrop of rock. Possibly the most impressive of the pre-Inca ruins I had seen, its tumble-down walls crowded over each other down the hillside like a mini Machu Picchu, and I pottered around its labyrinthine trails for some time.
But after another long day of quite demanding driving I was not sad to hit my first paved road in three days, and cruise down into Calama. I splashed out on a real hotel (Pert Plus and raspy towels in the bathroom, even a TV), and gratefully washed off three days of grime and dust. From there, the plane journeys (back to Santiago, and then on to Bogotá), even given the spectacular scenery and the clear weather, were nothing but a nuisance, and I was reminded that there really is nothing like home, however it might sometimes appear.