Zigzagging across the Andes, when the weather gods permit...

Published: May 3rd 2012
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We didn’t get into Bolivia the first time we tried. Or, rather, on the day that we were supposed to try. Snow, in unseasonal quantities, had led to the closure of the Bolivian border and threatened the closure of the Paso de Jama back into Argentina, so we weren’t going anywhere. Quirky San Pedro de Atacama in north-eastern Chile would have to put up with us hanging around for another day. There are worse places to be stranded.

Two days’ earlier, we’d made our third Andean crossing in five weeks, each one very different and, if possible, each more spectacular than the last. The road from Bariloche in Argentina’s Lake District to Pucón in Chile had led us up to and around the side of the lone triangularity of snow-capped Volcán Lanín, before tumbling down the cliff-lined Paso Mamuil Malal. We’d had the truck’s rooftop seats open for the latter part of the journey until low-hanging telephone lines and branches threatened to decapitate one too many of my co-travellers.

Six days’ later, packed into the other Dragoman truck, Mamacita, because our own, Yana, had developed technical problems which the Santiago garage couldn’t fix over the weekend (it wasn’t open), we zigzagged up the succinctly-named Paso Sistema Cristo Redentor, where, after climbing above the snowline, we plunged into what looked like a Swiss-engineered tunnel towards the Argentine town of Las Cuevas. When we emerged on the other side of the mountains, we’d left the snow behind: without any significant loss of altitude, the gravel plains and shale-sided valleys around us were now bare of even a hint of white stuff. Just before the vast hanger that comprises the joint border post, we glimpsed the rocky majesty of the southern hemisphere’s highest peak, Cerro Aconcagua. After the lengthy border formalities were completed, we set off again, winding through more barren valleys of dramatic red rock until we reached the plains and slowly approached our destination, Mendoza.

But the crossing from Salta in Argentina’s Andean northwest to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile was, for me, the most impressive for its altitude and the duration of its spectacularity. If ever there was a day for scenery-fatigue, this was it. We left Salta in the wee sma’ hours – well, 6 am – and, by the time we paused for our first photo-stop, we’d reached the improbable sight of Los Cerros deSiete
scenic lunchspotscenic lunchspotscenic lunchspot

at the top of the Paso Sistema Cristo Redentor
Colores (the hills of seven colours), the backdrop to the town of Purmamarca. Truly the barren hillsides here are an extraordinary array of reds, oranges, greys and even greens. After taking us through a cactus-strewn valley beyond Purmamarca, the road began to climb steeply, with vertiginous views below of the crevassed landscape. At the top of the pass, the road flattened out giving us a foretaste, had we known it, of the Bolivian Altiplano. This was to be the first of several days at high altitude and the road was giving us no breather now. For much of the day we remained at around 3,800m asl, peaking at 4,170m and dipping down, in the late afternoon, to San Pedro at 2,400m. Earlier, we’d had our first lesson on the use of the oxygen cylinder, and, sadly, it was to receive a fair amount of use in the next week.

Before we pulled over for lunch, we met our first salt flats. With a shallow covering of water, the reflections of the mountains beyond and a couple of tourist-attracting stone statues were crystal clear and perfect. Beyond the Argentine border post – the Chilean one is sensibly down in San Pedro, roughly 130 km beyond – the road led through the Reserva Natural Los Flamencos, with its gravel plains and salt lakes and red rocks – yes, and even the occasional flamingo. Then the road dipped down towards an extraordinary vista. I’m not sure I have ever seen a vista so vast. Even Mongolia could take a back seat to this one. As we wound down past more snow-capped volcanoes, the plains stretched out an improbable distance in all directions below, until they reached the foot of more mountains on the horizon. By the time we reached the immigration and customs office at San Pedro, the late afternoon light was tingeing the Andes pink: a painted backdrop to the dusty border town.

San Pedro de Atacama is a strange little town. At first sight, approaching from Argentina, it is a scruffy, dusty border town with little appeal, but drive into the centre – only a few blocks further – and its charm soon becomes evident. Thriving as a result of an upsurge in tourism to the area, it has a somewhat Mexican appearance, with low mud buildings and narrow streets. For the shopping-minded, it gave a first taste of
"camina sinuosa" as the roadsigns read"camina sinuosa" as the roadsigns read"camina sinuosa" as the roadsigns read

on the road from Santiago to Las Cuevas
the llama and alpaca textiles that we were expecting to find in greater quantity in Bolivia and Peru. For the gastronome, its restaurants offer an impressive quality of food washed down with a final dose of Chilean wine. And for the adventurous, the options are extensive with the desert on the doorstep and volcanoes only a few kilometres away. It would be a fun place for a day or two.

Two days’ later, we were supposed to hit the road again, back up the Paso de Jama, but this time turning left before the Argentine border to drive towards the Bolivian border and the Reserva Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. But the previous evening, Mamacita had arrived in town and told us of their eventful journey down from the Argentine Altiplano in blizzard conditions. A greater contrast to our own perfect descent would have been hard to imagine. Towards the end of a stunning star-gazing night under the auspicious and entertaining direction of Alain Maury, we were further updated: the Bolivian border had been closed because of the snow – once you turn off the Paso de Jama, the road is unsurfaced and there had apparently been at least two accidents that day – and there was a danger that the Paso de Jama back into Argentina might also now be closed. (The initial Plan B was to have crossed back into Argentina and taken an alternative route from there into Bolivia, but this was now in jeopardy.) We went to bed that night not knowing in which country we’d be eighteen hours’ hence.

In the morning, we carried on as if we were about to leave, with an early breakfast and stowing our luggage in Yana’s back locker. I’m usually part of the “back locker team”, playing our game of Tetris with the backpacks, suitcases, holdalls and sleeping bags of our fellow passengers, but this time I’d had to bow out. I blame a resurgence of a cold/cough that had started in Mendoza more than a week before, but, before I could have my first cup of coffee that morning, altitude quite suddenly didn’t agree with me and I was put briefly onto oxygen, much to the delight of “little” Di (as she is known in order to differentiate the two Aussie Di’s on the trip). She’d been the first on the oxygen cylinder the day before as
the joint border postthe joint border postthe joint border post

on the Paso Sistema Cristo Redentor
we crested 4,000m and was very happy to have another member for her “Oxygen Club”.

Meanwhile, Anki was making phonecalls and talking to our hosts at the kooky Casa del Sol Naciente, who in turn were making phonecalls. As you might imagine, communications in this part of the world are a little more of an art than a science. The Chilean border post, opening at 8 am, should be able to tell us more about the situation up the mountain, but, taking into account the time change between the countries, they in turn wouldn’t be able to find out the position until Bolivia opened at 9 am. Time trickled by. There was no Plan B now. We simply couldn’t risk heading up the road to that kind of altitude again with no certain plan of where we were going to spend the night. Slowly people settled back into their dorms, and luggage leaked off Yana. I returned to bed, getting up only to go with Anki to track down some antibiotics which I’d resigned myself to taking, if only to kill off the cold/cough before we spent any more time at greater altitude. The others took advantage of the extra time in San Pedro. Sue-Ann and Ian decided to test their snowboarding techniques in a new medium, and went sand-boarding in the desert; Zoe and Juri went off to explore some local pre-Inca ruins; Jo made up some of the three week deficit in her diary; Kim finished crocheting her first hat, a skill that she’d only recently learned; and Vincent went back to the Moon Valley with the Mamacita folks, intent on seeing this bizarre scenery in better weather conditions. Our own trip the day before had been marred by high winds and dust storms. In many ways, I’d still enjoyed it – some scenery is positively improved for adverse weather – but some of us weren’t too clever about protecting our cameras from the worst of it, and mine, along with three or four others, soon gave up the ghost. I was cross at myself: after all my time in the Namib, I really ought to have known better! I would soon be making plans to investigate camera-cleaning services in La Paz, and, in the meantime, would coax my camera into zoom-less life for a further, hiccupping few days.

The next day had a distinct sense
preparing to brave the dust stormspreparing to brave the dust stormspreparing to brave the dust storms

in the Moon Valley (copyright, Stuart Hill)
of déjà vu about it… second time lucky?

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28



on the road between Purmamarca and the Chilean border
cinematic backdropcinematic backdrop
cinematic backdrop

from the Chilean border post at San Pedro de Atacama
a dusty towna dusty town
a dusty town

San Pedro de Atacama
the main streetthe main street
the main street

Calle Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama
starry, starry nightstarry, starry night
starry, starry night

(thanks to Stuart Hill and Alain Maury for setting up this group pic)
spectacled ducks near Paseo Mamuil Malalspectacled ducks near Paseo Mamuil Malal
spectacled ducks near Paseo Mamuil Malal

(thanks to Santiago Imberti for the identification!)

3rd May 2012

Gotta love San Pedro
Glad you got to spend some time there, but I hope your cold/chest infection cleared up before La Paz, the altitude is brutal there and *everything* is uphill. I had bronchitus there and spent three days in bed :/
4th May 2012

Love the blog
We are planning a trip to Chile in 2013 so this was very helpful. Looking forward to reading more. Love the spectacled ducks. Car trouble in the Andes can't be good. The star gazing sounds amazing.
5th May 2012
mysterious mists near Bariloche

Awesome pics
These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I happy to find many good point here in the post
24th May 2012
mysterious mists near Bariloche

Wedding Planners
Good post man, just looking around some blogs, seems a pretty nice platform you are using.
26th June 2012

Great travel journalism
Thanks for a great blog. We are planning to cross Paso de Jama later this week and hope for clear skies and some good photo opportunities.

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