High Plains Drifting

Friday, July 12

We got up very early in the morning.  Our host at the rooming house had arranged for her taxi driver friend to come and pick us up; he did that, but she hadn’t exactly told him we were going to the bus station, so he started driving us to the airport.  As I was following along on Google Maps, the mistake became apparent when he passed the bus station.  We said No and he turned around and Dave had bus station coffee and Svenhard’s and we got on the bus.

It was another endurance test, this time a 10-hour bus ride from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama.  The bus went right past the hotel in Purmamarca.  There was no way to return a SiXT car in Purmamarca.  I tried.  Someone had posted on TripAdvisor that she had made a deal with the SiXT in Salta and done this, but I wasn’t able to find the right person to talk to.  So we had made the best of it, returning to the Salta museum and restaurant scene.  

The bus literally didn’t stop until it reached the border, 7 hours in.  Above Purmamarca, the road just kept going up and up.  In Colorado and California, they have 14,000-ft peaks.  In this part of the world, they have 14,000-ft plains, and that’s what we climbed up to and then drove across.

The Altitude of the border crossing was getting to me — after passing through Chilean customs, I almost put my luggage on the wrong bus.  But everybody’s watching to make corrections.

San Pedro de Atacama is what Donald Trump thinks foreign countries are like, outside the front gates of Buckingham Palace and other Trump properties.  It is the first town you get to, coming from Bolivia or Argentina, and it wears its  Tijuana dust with the same pride that Andorra la Vella wears its duty free cigarettes.  The first sign you see in the bus station is (in English) Watch for Pickpockets.  These signs are placed by pickpockets, so they can see where you reflexively feel for your wallet, to save them the trouble of inspecting every corner of your REI vest. There are no taxis; a random guy pulled up in a white truck and told us he was a taxi.  He had even had a card printed.  These thieves and kidnappers have it so easy, today!  I insisted we walk to the hotel, which was a few hundred meters, although it would have been easier if the streets were paved entirely, instead of in misaligned chunks scattered among dust.  The business part of SPdA is small, though the tin roof adobe shacks spread over the desert.

Dave walked around town while I attempted a bit of laundry.  After being in Salta, a bustling, crowded town, San Pedro seemed quite empty and peaceful.  I walked to one ATM which canceled my transaction repeatedly, then tried another which worked just fine.  There were two places offering “astronomy tours”, where for $20 per person we could go out in the desert at night and look through telescopes.  We didn’t bother, but I thought it was a nice thing to offer.

Then we both walked around town.  They have a little plaza and a little church.  They have a post office, where I bought a few stamps at closing time and mailed letters later.  The postman thought that a card to the US was 600 pesos and 510 would be OK with him — the airport in Santiago had said 1000.  We’ll see if they arrive before this blog is taken down in some post-mortem re-org for the Internet.

After dark, we went for dinner at a place that served good soup and OK meat and rice.  I find that people don’t serve soup hot enough in these parts.  The main interest was that the waiter looked like our friend Skye, with blond streaks, and singing along to all the background tango classics.

The hotel didn’t really bother with the concept of heat, either.  While it was quite nice during the day, once the sun goes down it gets cold! (There were plenty of warm blankets on the bed; it was only getting out of bed, or walking across the courtyard to the bathroom which was freezing.)  

We set the alarm for 6, so we’d be ready for the 7-7:30 pickup for the van to take us to the border to meet the guide for our Bolivian tour.   I worried if the van would show up in time, or at all.

Saturday, July 13

As I stood on the corner outside Hostal Barros Nativo in San Pedro de Atacama in the morning chill, at least one bus per minute drove past in every direction, ready to take tourists waiting outside their hostels in every direction away from the dusty little town, which is where they all wanted to go.  A pack of dogs consisting entirely of German Shepherds chased each other on the falling adobe wall across the street.  Are ethnically cleansed dog packs common?

The van arrived.  The driver had our names on his manifest.  It takes about 40 minutes to get to the Bolivian border.  My worry was, after the first worry, that the border post would be an abandoned shack in the desert, and we would be stuck three days trying to get out, unless everything went clockwork.

As it turned out, the border post was abandoned like the Trevi fountain on a hot summer night.  Once there, you wait in a line of minibuses, 8 to 12 people in each.  You wait a very long time.  People move from bus to bus.  It’s easier at the border crossing, if you come in with a defined bus, than if you just got there in a taxi and are waiting in the desert tundra cold alone and suspicious.

Travelers are always sizing each other up.  People are always sizing each other up:

“Eight inches or less?”

—Frank Zappa, 200 motels

“He was one of those people who are like, ‘When I was talking to the Dalai Lama…'”

—a famous person whose name I can never remember, 2006

Depending where you are and why, the questions differ. When you are seeing an eclipse, for two days before and after, everyone you hear or overhear will be asking one thing: “How many have you seen?”  There aren’t any follow up questions.  Nobody ever asks how many times you were clouded out.  It would be like asking how many of your startups failed, how often your 9-inch cock wilted; like asking a prisoner if he Did It. 

Among tourists (distinguishing “tourists” from “travelers” is so late-1980’s Lonely Planet, can you even remember it?) at large, judging from the sample space in a bus at the Bolivian border going into Avaroa National Park, the only question now asked is: how long are you out?

That has always been one of the questions, but usually it came packed in a bubble wrap of Have You Done Zion/The Mona Lisa/Jerusalem.  It has now become the only question.  Everybody knows that you have “done” Angkor Wat.  Having seen Angkor Wat only means that you had $1200 at some point in your life.  That’s about how much it costs to get from any point on earth to Cambodia and back.  If you’re living with your parents and have a job and this is one of your priorities, $1200 isn’t hard to come up with, in the middle classes.

But ten free months or seven free weeks or two available years — acquiring that treasure can be a challenge, and it’s the thing you brag about, if you’ve got it.  If you’ve quit your job to spend a good part of your twenties wearing a bright tasseled Bolivian cap — you know, I asked our tour guide where the fabric comes from, those crazy bright colors.  They are the same colors you see in African prints, and the answer is of course China, and before that, from vast fracking fields in North Dakota or the Sahara Desert and the refineries that change crude to aniline and polyester.  The guide pointed out the woman was sewing a hem on a blanket.  The blanket itself had clearly been woven on a machine in one of the 80 Chinese cities over a million people that you’ve never heard of.  The value added — made in Bolivia.

But I am getting ahead of myself by a few hours.  The border crossing from San Pedro de Atacama to the Avaroa National Park in Bolivia is slow because of bathroom.  Everyone in every bus is going to a clean, well-maintained bathroom where you can put the paper in the toilet on the Chilean side, because they are afraid it will be the last Western toilet they will see for a while.  It turns out they are wrong; Bolivia is modernizing quickly under the guidance of its effective President for Life, Evo Morales, but the distances in the desert are still great and it’s always a good idea to prepare your body for travel at 4000 meters.

The toilet line goes to the Passport Stamping line which goes to the Luggage Inspecting line which goes back to the buses, drive three or five kilometers, to a much humbler border crossing where you enter Bolivia.

We met our guide, Julio César.  He motioned us to an adobe hut with a table with baguettes which had been taunting us with their aroma the whole trip to the border, after our shuttle driver had stopped for them at a bakery.  And there was a plate of fresh avocado!  And, finally, coffee (even though it was instant).

We ate.  Then we stood in another line, which was outside, and cold, but not long, and then we were in Bolivia, and the 4×4 which would be our transportation for the next few days, and the stark desert beauty began.

It’s not easy to describe the grandeur of the Andean high desert.  Fortunately, photography has been invented since the last adjectives of 19th century were retired from common use.  360-degree completely immersive virtual reality will retire even more adjectives, especially if practiced in a freezer, with the air pressure adjusted to 2^-(altitude/5500 meters).  If you are in the habit of holding your breath while you take photos or think or anything, you’ll really notice it.

We spent the day driving across the altiplano, all above 4400 meters.  The vistas were stunning.  There was a geothermal area with geysers and bubbling mud.  This was made more accessible at another location with a hot spring, and a pool at exactly my favorite hot tub temperature.  We had brought bathing suits for the possibility, and put them to use.  There were tufts of grass and unusual crown-like cirrus clouds.  There were foxes and vicuñas and seagulls.  There was a “rock tree”, a formation vaguely in the shape of a tree, located near too many other formations to even see, let alone name.

And there were lagoons.  Flamingoes and gulls flock to them in large numbers, in the summer time; in the dead of winter there are not so many, and the flamingoes are only of one species, James’s.  All the work of learning to distinguish them from the Andean flamingo and the Chilean flamingo, was unnecessary.  The lagoons are mineral-rich salt lakes, named for their bright colors (Verde, Colorado) from arsenic, or iron, or even algae.  In the Red Lagoon, I was able to slowly approach a group of flamingoes, and take tons of pictures.  (It turned out that the next day, there were even friendlier ones.) 

The sky was the deep blue that you see when you can turn on your large electronic devices during takeoff, that you have to use a polarizing filter to get, in Utah.  Is that still done?  Capture One should be able to put such a sky on all your photos now, even the ones indoors.  We drove from one place to another, making the driver stop as we photographed rocks and tufts of paja brava grass.  (One of the plants that is not much in evidence here is the llareta — for some reason, only on the Chilean side, in the Atacama).

As the sun dropped, we approached the most improbable hotel — Takya del Desierto, a fairly modern hotel (2007), completely off the grid.  (They have satellite internet, but it’s unusably slow, so it still counts as off the grid.)  Solar power, wind power, stoves heated by cactus wood.  They threatened to turn off the charging outlets at 10pm but apparently forgot.  Thick flannel sheets kept us warm, but we both found it difficult to sleep, probably because the need to breathe deeply at 4300m kept waking us up.  It was a pretty luxurious hotel for its location, and I didn’t expect more than instant coffee and Tang, but they really could have made the hot beverage water actually hot.

Sunday, July 14

We continued our drive across the altiplano, visiting several more lagoons, including the Black Lagoon (no creatures visible, not even flamingos), Laguna Honda, and the Stinky Lagoon, which had hundreds of flamingos and a faint odor of sulfur.  We stayed for a long time and watched them. A group across the lake was warming up for their heads-high back-and-forth-strut mating ritual, still some months in the future.  A nearer group seemed to be half-heartedly considering it, too.

I think this was about the fifth time for me driving on a plain with no official roads.  The first time was at Burning Man in 1996, where the guy at the gate said “see that constellation?  Keep it in the same direction, and drive six miles”.  Next was in Morocco, where on a little trip out to the desert our guide would tell me which track to follow, but there were hundreds of them, and many would have gotten us there.  And in the Niger Sahara in 2006.  Point and drive.  How the Tuaregs navigated, I have no idea.  Same thing in 2009 in Mongolia.  And now, the paths across the southern Bolivian altiplano have the same characteristic.  While many roads are quite smooth and one can drive quite fast, there are always a few tough segments — the only vehicles we saw were 4x4s.  Except, after coming up a very tough rutted rocky steep road, we found a bicyclist at the top, about to go down it.  The guide said “crazy tourist!”

But eventually that came to an end, and we hit a “highway”.  It was a high-quality dirt road, for a few km until we hit road construction and were back on to little dirt diversion roads.  We stopped at yet another series of eroded rocks forming interesting shapes (many of these seemed “beaked” to me), and marveled at how vast it was, going on for 10km along its length, and probably being 1km wide.

Lunch (usually mandatory on tours, we generally skip it otherwise) was cute, in the small town of San Cristóbal.  We had what was essentially horchata but with quinoa substituted for rice, spinach soup, sweet potato stew, and a slice of papaya.  San Cristóbal was moved about a decade ago.  The mining company decided it was in the way of a pit mine they wanted to dig, so they moved their town, or at least the old church.  The rest of it was cheaper to rebuild.  It’s their town, after all.