We leave Chile with a frown and cross the Andes into Argentina. Despite vicious assaults from the climate and the elevation, we come out of it with a smile. 🙂
This quality publication has been way too normal lately. Let’s get weird…
The Man Who Never Stopped Frowning
I met my first person from Chile quite early in my trip. It was day number 9 and I, with my intrepid parents in tow, were in Jasper, Alberta, Canada.
I walked out of our hostel and saw this middle-aged man contemplating the sign on the back of my bike, his face creased in a serious frown.
Not to be deterred, I walked up and gave him the best overly-enthusiastic-white-person-greeting that I could muster. His expression did not change.
I quickly learned that there was a pretty significant language barrier between us, as I only knew a few Spanish phrases back then. I endeavored to explain my trip with a flurry of gestures and pointing, even showing him that Chile had a song place (Tocopilla). But despite my best efforts, his dreary countenance persisted.
Finally, he revealed what was bothering him. He stabbed his finger purposefully onto my map, landing it on the southern tip of his continent, shook his head and in a thick accent said,
“No Patagonia. No good.”
He was thoroughly convinced that one could not go “Everywhere” without visiting the southern part of Chile. I tried to reassure him that it was in my plans to reach Patagonia, but perhaps he knew me better than I knew myself at that point.
Just short of a year later, his doubts were becoming realities. On this day, I would be leaving Chile without seeing Patagonia.
What became of the frowning Chilean? It’s hard to say. Some say he starved to death, unwilling to part his frown even for a moment. Others report that his perpetual facial discipline attracted a frenetic group of acolytes who train day and night to emulate their master’s expression.
But as for me, I’m stuck living with the knowledge that the life of this man was irrevocably changed by the frivolous nature of my journey. And in a cruel twist of irony, that causes me to frown.
Well that was weird….this will be a pretty regular update henceforth. 🙂
Tuesday, May 22nd
I cooked a big breakfast and had lots of good conversations during the last morning at my “shanty town” hostel in San Pedro de Atacama.
The Andes Mountains have been looming to my left through multiple countries as I’ve made my way south. Today, I would finally be mustering the courage to cross over them.
I feel like I should talk a little about just how unbelievably high the Andes are. I don’t know if most North Americans or Europeans really understand their scale. For example, Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado stands at 4,401 m (14,440 ft.). That’s pretty tall, I guess, but if this mountain were in the Andes, it would rank as the 409th tallest peak.
I did not feel comfortable going much further south in Chile, since the mountain passes become less reliable as one goes south. Being that we were just a month from the winter solstice down here, snow is very common at the higher elevations. Some of the passes between Argentina and Chile can be shut down for days at a time.
I would be crossing at a pass called Paso Jama. It is fairly well traveled, has good roads and a well organized border office. The road peaks in Chile at 4,810m (15,780ft.).
I wan’t sure exactly where I would be staying for the night, but felt confident that I had time to get pretty far into Argentina. At the risk of ruining the suspense, here is the map for the day 🙂
My last hours in Chile were definitely not what I expected. I thought that I was going to be riding a steep mountain pass with winding hairpin turns and mountainous terrain.
Rather, it was slow, steady, fairly gradual climb. At one point I became a little worried about Annie’s engine health, as the throttle level, RPMs and speed did not seem to match up. I stopped and realized that I was just going uphill, very gradually. As has been well established here, I’m pretty much a mechanical genius.
I made one final stop in Chile to eat my last banana, as I didn’t feel like repeating my fruit smuggling offense.
The border buildings are all on the Argentina side, so I was able to proudly cross the border into my 14th country.
But make no mistake, it has taken a lot of effort to reach the southernmost country in my journey.
We reserve the turned-around-black-and-white-helmet-raised photos for special occasions:
More traveling vandals:
Six months from now:
GBWW: “Guiness book of world records, how may I help you?”
Me: “Yes, I’d like to report a record please.”
GBWW: “Ok, what’s the record?”
Me: “I visited every place in the Americas version of the song ‘I’ve Been Everywhere.'”
GBWW: “Wow, congratulations. We’ve never had anyone report that before. Just a few questions: First, did you make sure to take a picture of yourself at each location.”
Me: “Yes, I documented my journey very thoroughly. There’s even a picture of me skinny-dipping in the Ombabika river.”
GBWW: “That sounds like an appropriate thing to do in Ombabika. How was the water?”
GBWW: ” Ohhh…that sounds terrible…moving on. Next question: Did you make sure to leave stickers of your trip all along your route? You know, on border signs, rural gas station pumps, tourist attraction bathrooms…etc.”
Me: “No…I never got any stickers. I’m kind of frugal.”
GBWW: “Really…hmmm…Well in that case there’s no way you can call yourself a true traveler. In fact, I have no choice but to reject your application. If you re-do the trip with stickers, you may contact us again, but for now you should feel ashamed of the absolute farce you have just perpetrated.”
(Sorry, I really thought we were done with weird stuff in this post)
Other side of the sign:
I made my way to the small collection of buildings and met some nice people in the parking lot. They appeared to have crossed this border dozens of times and helped point me in the right direction.
A bus coming the opposite way had just arrived, which made the small offices feel fairly cramped.
Even so, the steps were clearly labeled and easy to follow. Though clearly labeled signs are not always a predictor of border success for me. (See my 41 steps to enter Mexico.)
After less than an hour I was on the road and rolling through Argentina.
I felt a little extra special since Argentina, the country, is actually a song place. It rhymes with Diamantina, Pasadena and Catalina at the end of verse 3. I always knew the picture that I wanted to represent this country: At the very tip of the continent in Ushuaia. Unfortunately, I will not be able to reach there because I am so late in the season. I’ll have to find a replacement photo, which shouldn’t be too hard.
The landscape was mostly the same as in Chile, lots of wide open spaces and long sweeping bends. After about 100 miles, I came upon my first town, Susques. I needed to get some Argentine Pesos and gas, which ended up being a bit of a runaround. The town was…well….developing?
The ATM charged me a fee of 248 pesos and I could only take out 1,000. In US$, this is like spending $10 to take out $40. Ouch! There was no other machine for a long ways and the gas station didn’t take a card, so I just paid the fee. It was by far the highest of the trip.
Much to my chagrin, I still didn’t have any service on my phone. I had to look for lodging the old fashioned way, riding around and asking people. The residents of this town had a very “Andean” look to them: Short, dark complected and round-faced. I received smiles and a few waves as I went up and down the streets looking for somewhere to stay.
The best option I found was for about $23 and it didn’t have wifi. I looked at the level of the sun and figured I had about 2 hours of daylight left. I thought I could find something better, so I moved on. I saw there were “towns” on the map and figured lodging could be had further along.
I tried to enjoy the scenery, but as the miles wore on I became increasingly concerned about finding a place for the night. The last town before sunset, Tres Pozos, was a bust. I asked lots of people about a place to stay and was continually told, “Go ask so-and-so.” After about four “so-and-sos” it became clear that this was going to be a night in a tent.
By this point I was on the doorstep on one of the sights that I was really eager to see in Argentina: The Salinas Grandes, an expansive salt flat. Probably the most notable ones are the Uyuni Salt Flats in neighboring Bolivia, but that country’s $160 entrance fee for Americans convinced me to skip it. Seeing the salt flats in Argentina seemed like the next best thing.
With the sun reaching to touch the horizon, I didn’t have time to really enjoy them (or even take a picture) as I crossed over. Instead, I wondered how I was going to find coverage, both from view and wind, on this flat, barren valley.
Just beyond the flats were a collection of little walls. I still have no idea what they were for, but they were just high enough to conceal my tent. I jogged out to one to test the terrain, then returned to bring Annie along.
I tried to set up with haste, but really struggled to do so. Every time I looked up, the sun was painting with a different palette that just begged to be admired and photographed.
As I finished preparation, the sun was behind the mountains but still illuminating the horizon. All around me were mountains, in the distance was the glowing white of the salt flats. I tuned my ears, but could not make out a single sound. The wind had abated and there were no sounds of wildlife. I don’t know if I’ve ever been somewhere that so acutely defined “peaceful.”
There was already a chill in the air, so I knew I was probably in for a miserable night. Still, I tried hard to be fully immersed in the moment. I repeated to myself aloud, “Never forget this moment.” in an attempt to download it to long term memory. I hope it will never be erased.
I bundled on all of my clothes and hoped it would be enough to warm me through the night. Getting to sleep was tough. If I kept my face under the covers I couldn’t get enough oxygen (I was still at 3,400m, 12,300ft, of elevation). If my face was uncovered, the cold tried to suffocate me. Talk about a conundrum. 🙂
Wednesday, May 23rd
I don’t know what time I woke up.
That’s not to say that I didn’t look at a clock, but doing was sort of an act of futility. Peru, Chile and Argentina are all in different time zones, and my three devices were each representing a different one.
I probably got a solid three hours of sleep before the cold finally woke me up. I’ve had some cold nights in the tent on my trip, but I believe this was my first one which was below freezing. I’m just not equipped for that.
I tried eating some spoonfulls of peanut butter to stoke my internal furnace, but that didn’t help. There was nothing to do but lay there, shiver and think about how I was going to spend the $23 that I saved by forgoing the hotel room in Susques. (But we all know I’m just going to buy more gas and ramen noodles.) 🙂
I eventually decided that achieving more sleep was an impossibility and made myself some coffee. My water bottle was almost completely frozen, but I was able to “chip out” just enough to get a pot going.
The tube of my water bag was frozen as well and I had to take care not to snap it.
This may have been the best cup of coffee I’ve had in my whole life.
At the first signs of light I began packing up. There was not much else to do at that point. Though the majority of my senses were ready to call the police and report an assault, my sense of sight offered a dissenting opinion.
Getting loaded was a painful exercise. I need my full dexterity for the process, so going barehanded was the only option. As I struggled with un-staking and rolling my tent, I let loose some loud shouts of pain. (Because that always make pain less severe.) Eventually, some local residents came to investigate this strange shouting biped in their pasture.
I use this bike lock to secure my helmet and usually wrap it around my tent to make it look like it is locked up. It was too frozen to uncoil.
Are you guys tired of hearing about how cold it was? Sorry…let’s get back to the road:
The salt harvesters were already working, but there were no visitors present at this hour. Though it’s probably more complicated than I realize, the harvesting process looks pretty simple.
Scoop it into rows:
Scoop it into piles:
Scoop it into bigger piles:
Then scoop it into a truck.
It’s funny to think about how the value of salt has changed over the years. In antiquity, it was a form of currency. Indeed, the word “salary” is based on the value of salt. It’s hard to think of it as a valuable commodity when gazing upon a seemingly infinite supply of it.
I don’t think I was supposed to drive out onto it, but there was no one around to stop me. Pictures had to be had!
This one could be a candidate for the official Argentina photo. Photoshopping out that tripod shadow shouldn’t be too hard:
Shout out to the world’s toughest kickstand:
I wish I would have taken some better pictures. I think I could have used the sun and shadows more effectively. I was kind of in a hurry to get back on the road, as that would mean I could turn on my heated vest and hand grips. Still, I’m so glad I got to see this incredible sight.
These 24 hours were some of the most unforgettable of my whole trip. Though not all of them were especially pleasant, the hardships can often magnify the positive aspects of an experience. As the years roll by, I expect the memory of the cold’s assault to fade away, while the peaceful, wonderful memories will only magnify. One thing’s for sure: I doubt I’ll look at a salt shaker the same way again.
Stay salty, everybody
Realtime update: I’m currently in a quaint little town called El Mollar in NW Argentina. I’ve been enjoying my time here. I’m going to continue south, probably reaching Cordoba in a couple of days.
I will expand on this further, but I’d like to offer my sincere thanks for all of the input regarding my decision about how I will turn home. I’ve read every message, most of them more than once, and will do my best to respond to them all. I don’t know if I’m any closer to making a decision, but it’s sure nice to have all of the wonderful input. You guys are the best!