Today was going to be one of those days I might need that parka as we were crossing the Andes and climbing from about1200m above sea level to almost 5000m. That’s about, oh, a lazy 2000m higher than I’ve ever been before! Whilst I like mountains and appreciate nature’s beauty, I don’t quite share the Co-pilot’s passion for monstrous mountains and impenetrable rugged ranges. With a sparkle and gleam in his eye, he shook me with the giddy excitement of a child fed on red cordial. As we’re climbing to 5000m, we wonder whether we will experience altitude sickness and what that will feel like. We have brought with us some Acetazolamide to help combat any possible effects of altitude sickness (the drug increases blood oxygen levels by increasing your respiratory rate), but the Co-pilot insists we reserve it for higher altitudes later on in our trip, that and he is actually keen on experiencing altitude sickness and observing how his body will cope. Again, I don’t quite share the Co-pilot’s passion here and resolve to quickly fall back on painkillers if needed.
The bus trip across the Andes from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile is infamous for the beautiful scenery and views. There are 2 bus companies that do the trip and we chose Gemini Bus Company ($170 ARS pp) although apparently the companies are pretty interchangeable. I was a little disappointed to learn that it was just a standard bus – nothing too shabby, but nothing special either. Through our research we’d read about the infamous Argentinian buses – apparently the Argentines have gotten bus travel down to a fine art and the first class buses are comparable to first class flights with individual sectioned off seats, in-bus meals and of course, the wine flows freely. But alas, this isn’t one of those buses.
Leaving the city confines of Salta at an early 6am, it isn’t long before we pass quaint villages and adobe houses with towering forested mountains as a majestic backdrop. Fluffy fairy floss clouds hug the mountain tops to create cloud forests and mountain goats scamper past spinifex grass-like bushes upon hearing our bus rumble towards them.
We pass spectacular multi-hued mountains – a rainbow palette parading vibrant hues of green, blue, brown, purple, magenta, mint green and ochre. And no, that photo below isn’t photoshopped and we didn’t use a filter on our lens. That colour is naturally occurring but it almost defies logic – I wondered why the colours didn’t all meld together to create one brownish hue? What separated these brilliantly coloured mineral deposits?
The rock formations whizzing past our windows are amazing and all over the bus tourists and craning out of windows to get better views and camera shots. The Co-pilot gives me a mini tutorial on geology as we go.
As we stare out the windows, we suddenly emerge from beneath the dense grey cloud cover and brilliant bright sunshine sears the landscape. Everything looks more vivid and surreal bathed in the sunlight and there is a flurry of activity all over the bus as people scramble to take photos quickly lest the sun retreat behind the cloak of clouds again. In the sunshine we can see rock fissures and crevasses line the mountains like disfiguring scars. I comment on the strange antagonising angles of some of the mountain faces and the Co-pilot tells me about The First Rule of Geology – the rule of horizontal deposition (yes, the Co-pilot is a bit of a nerd too). Sediment tends to always be horizontal at the time of deposition, in other words, rocks always form in a horizontal manner. Thus because so many rocks and mountain faces we saw poked and jutted out at 45 – 90 degree angles, this would suggest that this area has seen extensive movement and land shift
Though the view hurtling past our windows looks too barren and arid to support life, we spot llamas grazing on the rock speckled landscape. They look healthy, fat and plump so they must be finding some sustenance out here. Some of the animals get startled at the sound of our approaching bus and set off in a nervous dash, glancing back at us every so often. They’re clearly well suited to this altitude and their running didn’t seem laboured – unlike our breathing at this point and we soon pass a sign that announces the altitude to be a mere 4170m. At this stage we weren’t suffering too much. Though we did notice that we needed to draw longer, deeper breaths just to maintain conversation pace and I felt the twinge of a headache rearing it’s ugly head, but otherwise we seemed to be coping.
The rocky hills give way to flat altiplanos (plains) and one could mistake the flat plains as a sign we’ve descended back to sea level – except of course the surreal horizon of snow capped rugged mountains in the distance. And I note that now that we’re up above 4000m, we’re just that little bit closer to their peaks and they don’t seem so tall, looming and ominous anymore.
As we stare at the distant craggy peaks, small simple adobe houses swim into our view. We stare at the basic mud brick lodgings and wonder what could possibly entice a person to live out here? It’s so barren and desolate. What do they do out here and more importantly, what is there to eat?
The answer becomes apparent quickly – they’re here because of us, the tourists. And before us is the Argentina-Chile border crossing. Like everything else we’ve seen, the border crossing is a simple, basic affair with small, flimsy demountables. Lurking within we were a bit surprised to see the guards dressed like they SWAT team officers and all of them were unnecessarily heavily armed. We’re in the middle of the dessert – where would anyone run to?
After the official formalities were over I spied a small stall selling snacks, sweets and importantly, coca leaf tea. The Andeans widely believe that drinking coca leaf tea (also known as “mate de coca”, pronounced ma-teh) helps alleviate altitude sickness. When we visited the Cocaine Museum in La Paz much later in our trip, we learnt there was barely any scientific evidence to suggest that coca leaf tea alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness. Additionally, although the coca leaf is indeed the leaf used to make cocaine, but without additional chemical additives (like lye) and processing, the typical cocaine effects are absent and it’s just tea. Being ignorant of this at the border crossing, struggling with a headache that was now pounding and heaving with every step, I didn’t care whether it was a placebo effect or not, I bought some tea and slurped it down hoping it would make my horrendous headache go away. I had my mate de coca sweetened with a good spoonful of sugar and it tasted, not too surprisingly, like a sweet herbaceous tea. Sort of what I’d expect tea made from grass clippings to taste like.
Once everyone had passed the border crossing and an obligatory half-hearted search of the bus was performed (the first of many), we all clambered aboard and continued our ascent into the clouds. At this point, most of the bus passengers were suffering from altitude sickness with differing degrees of symptom severity. Some had to ask for bottled oxygen as they were feeling so ill. My headache was hurting so much my eyes felt like they were about to throb out of their sockets, but I could still see the beauty in the amazing cloud formations at this height, streaking the sky with fluffy marshmallows and neat cornrows. I decided to try to sleep through the headache.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d slept, but I woke with a sudden start, doubled over with waves of sickening nausea coupled with a head-crushingly bad headache and trying to fight down the nausea. The Co-pilot informed me later that
When we reached the town of San Pedro de Atacama, we’d descended down to 2400m. It was noticeably easier to breathe than up at 4000m, but still taxed our lungs with every step. Leadfooted, we checked into Hostel La Ruca, one of hostels off the main strip offering private rooms and wifi. (yes, I am a proud flashpacker, my backpack had backstraps but was trundled along on its wheels everywhere). Instead of using feeble words, our compressed drink bottle is probably the best way of trying to convey how my head felt.
As we are in the desert, the temperature soars and sears all that it touches during the day and drops dramatically once the sun disappears below the horizon. A fire is already roaring at Restaurant Milagro and makes the atmosphere relaxed and comfortable cosy. We order two pisco sours, a drink made with Pisco (a type of grape brandy), egg white, lime juice and bitters. The origin of pisco sours are a topic of intense debate between Andean neighbours – both the Peruvians and the Chileans claim it as their own. Our pisco sours arrive in tall champagne glasses and one glance told us that they weren’t quite authentic as they were missing that telltale frothy eggwhite topping. Perhaps it’s a drink best left to the Peruvians then?
A fire is already roaring here too and we collapse at a table nice and close to its lifegiving warmth. The menu here is Italian inspired and though we’re not really in the mood for Italian, nor are we really expecting it to be impressive Italian, we’re also too tired to head back out and seek out something more authentically Chilean.
Still feeling fragile I opted for the safe option of spaghetti arabiatta but knowing the local aversion to spices, I asked for it “con picante” (with extra spice). The spaghetti came with generous chunks of fresh tomato and topped with cheese and a dusting of a fairly mild chilli spice. As we suspected, it wasn’t particularly good, but then when you’re in a little town in the middle of the desert, we’re hardly going to set high expectations.
The Co-pilot ordered the anchovy pizza. It came with way too much cheese and a thin smattering of tomatoes, Spanish olives, anchovies and a mountain of dried oregano. Like the spaghetti, the pizza was a bit disappointing and tasted of nothing but cheese and oregano, but as mentioned before it was satisfactory in that it met our fairly low expectations. That is until we received the bill. It came to $35 AUD – which admittedly seems a small and reasonable price for dinner, but when you consider the excellent tasty and thoroughly satisfying meals you can have in cheap and cheerful eateries in Sydney for $35, suddenly it doesn’t seem like great value anymore. Dammit! I would’ve been happier with a kebab!
Inside the source of the aromas was evident. Dozens of gigantic, plump, oven-tanned chickens rotated teasingly in the rotisserie. They were some of the largest chickens we’ve ever seen and the servings were extremely generous.
Accompanying the dinosaur chickens were freshly prepared potato chips. Whole potatoes are placed in a contraption that looked like a cross between and handheld water pump and a Demtel product and with a heave, we have thick cut potato chips ready to fry. The Co-pilot and I both decide to get a quarter chicken and chips and head off into the dining area to stake a table.
The dining room decor is basic but adorned passionately with Chilean nationalistic colours and paraphernalia. The patrons within are firmly fixated on the futbol game. We notice we’re the only non-locals in there and it just couldn’t look more stereotypically South American to us.
The quarter chicken and chips we ordered seemed much more Australian sized half chicken and chips! The chicken is subtly thyme flavoured and achingly tender, the meat falling off the bone with ease. The skin was on the other hand was delightfully crispy like Vietnamese crispy skin chicken or a fragile creme brulee that just cracks upon pressure. Bloody brilliant.
And the best thing is the price. It came to a mere $1750 CLP or $3.50 AUD each. Delicious, tender, tasty, satisfying! Now, that’s the reason I came here to eat!
As we were after all about to head ascend even higher into the Andes and given my still pounding head, we expected we might be needing some coca leaves somewhere on the trip. My short experience with altitude sickness thus far has confirmed one thing: unlike the Co-pilot, I certainly don’t want to experience the full effects of altitude sickness and test how my body will cope. I discovered I was made of much weaker resolve, and although I’m not one to indulge in any mind-altering experiences, the brief taste of the numbing altitude sickness pain was enough to send me begging for morphine and nitrous oxide.
We found San Pedro de Atacama to be a quiet sleepy town that in many ways reminded me of Thailand (especially Pai in northern Thailand). It’s a one street town where the atmosphere is relaxed, comfortable, and people amble slowly along dirt roads (whether it’s because they’re in no rush or because they’re suffering altitude sickness). It is filled with laid-back young backpacker tourists on holiday – and bar us, all of them seem to be on long, leisurely 6 month-plus trips. Because we’re now in the desert and only moving ever further from the creature comforts of large cities, its a route that cuts out most of your middle aged bus-going tour groups. Only the bravest, most gung-ho of the older generation are roughing it out here. And from here on in it promises to be even rougher, with only off-road four wheel driving to transport you to your next destination and, where we find them, very basic facilities.
Next post: touring the Bolivian salt flats
Toconao 513, San Pedro de Atacama
(+56-55) 851-568 (+56-55) 851-568
Caracoles 241, San Pedro de Atacama
(+56-55) 851-515 (+56-55) 851-515
Open daily: 8am – 2am
Caracoles 225, San Pedro de Atacama
(+56-55) 851-271 (+56-55) 851-271
Toconao 424-B, near Plaza de Armas
(+56-55) 851-914 (+56-55) 851-914
Open noon to midnight 7 days
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