Here comes the second, dry and northern, part of my story. It starts about where my last post ended. Although Chilean bus companies mainly drive big, comfortable coaches offering different classes, the rides are not as relaxing as you might imagine. At least not if you share the bus with 50 male copper mine workers and your ginger haired German friend as the only female besides you on the bus. On top of that the average Chilean is (even) shorter than me and the busses’ interiors are built as such. Unfortunately they didn’t count me in and – slightly clumsy as I naturally am – this circumstance made me bash my head on all three TV screens when I walked down the aisle to the bathroom (and back). Every single time. And since I can’t just gracefully overlook my pain and move on, I commented every bang with a loud “Ouch.” The bus attendant warned us: “Watch your stuff, girls – especially in Arica and Copiapó. It’s peligroso – dangerous.” Something in Spanish I understand. But what would a trip through Southern America be without having a major bus breakdown? This is how it came that we suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere – somewhere between the two most dangerous cities of Chile, alone with 50 mine workers and two busdrivers in the blazing heat of the desert.
I was struggling – should I risk to use my expensive camera or miss capturing this moment? The most awkward thing happened when I decided to risk it and walked down the road. Everyone stopped talking, all turned around and just watched me and my camera. The gentle click of the first picture sounded more like dropping a piano from the third floor inside a church. I quickly went back to my friend and stayed quiet. For three and half hours. That’s how long it took the mechanic to come. Some people didn’t want to wait so long and hitchhiked to the next town – if a car came eventually. All this was bad enough, but the real trouble was just about to begin. Instead of arriving around half past eleven at night, we were 4 hours late and only got to San Pedro de Atacama at 3.30 in the morning. Against all odds there was not a single person / light to be found at this time. We hadn’t made a reservation for a hostel or whatsoever. So we strayed through San Pedro’s dark streets, knocking on locked gates and doors with a pack of homeless dogs following us. It was hopeless and we decided to wait for the daylight – made ourselves comfortable on the street amongst our flea-bearing friends. Suddenly a car turned up – I waved and jumped up and down like an excited duck. We joined this tourist group that was going to watch the sunrise at the El Tatio Geysiers and everything was fine. Except for my lack of sleep for the last three nights which made me feel really dizzy and weird.
I had planned an intense touristy time schedule, so we still saw a whole lot of attractions compressed into less than half the time that was suggested. We rented a big, red Cambioneta which made a great company for our adventurous desert trips. Once we got lost (by foot) on our search for geoglyphs. On another occasion we tried Llama meat. Then we watched the spectacular sunset over the moon valley. We crossed some small rivers in our car, encountered loads of Flamingos and visited lakes that were located more than 4000 metres above sea level without suffering from altitude sickness.
From San Pedro de Atacama we took a bus to Arica. We reserved a car there, but they wouldn’t wanna let us go with a small car. We weren’t impressed about what they charge for a Cambioneta (a pick-up), so the staff typed some numbers into his calculator and slid it over the table – three times until we agreed on a more reasonable price. We drove the Highway number 11 all the way to Putre – it’s a windy road which gains 4000 metres in height within 180km. That’s why it takes four hours for that short distance. I got used to some nervewrecking overtaking manoeuvres in sharp bends, otherwise we would have spent even longer driving behind trucks which fought their way up the mountains centimetre for centimetre. To adapt to the altitude we stopped in a cute little mountain village called Socoroma. All houses were painted in white, had blue doors and were made of Adobe. The church square was full of banana passionfruits (heaven for me), but we only encountered three persons – it was absolutely peaceful.
Putre is just as small and only a few kilometres further North. That’s where we planned to buy some more gas since that’s what everyone told us. I imagined a small petrol station. But let me explain how you get gas in Putre. You will have to look for a small hotel called “Kukuli” and knock at their gate – only if you’re lucky enough someone will let you in. You should look for the kitchen’s backdoor then and knock once more. Someone might open and refer you to somebody. That person might lead you to another room with another person. That guy will take you to the backyard and pull two dusty petrol containers from a shady corner. He might pour some liquid into the lid for you and ask for your opinion. (Gez, it’s petrol – in my country it comes from a tube – that’s all I know! “No tengo idea” was my highly skilled reply to his asking face.”)
He will then bring the cotainer to your car and even if you think you were smart to bargain about a rental car’s price, they might have given you the oldest pick-up they had, which means its’ tank cover may not open. If you’re blond or ginger, you might attract some friends of your petrol service person and then – with five guys in tow – you will be on the safe side because one of them will manage to open your tank lid. And please, be prepared to pay an unreasonable high price for that strange looking blue stuff, which might as well just have been thick defrosting liquid. Don’t expect the guys to leave when the job is done – they will be excited about your visit and want to see you driving that big car (one of them might even try to get in). So, please, don’t undererstimate the age of the Dieselmotor and the freezing morning temperatures in the mountains – you may have to be really skilled in starting those cars without major embarassment whilst being watched by a herd of lads. Luckily, I had learned all this before – in South Africa. We drove off to the Lauca NP and just check out the photos – they say it all.
After some days in the high altitude, we drove back to Arica. Just before Arica is the so called Azapa Valley located – an oasis full of avocado, passionfruit and mango plantations all over the place. We found a Hummingbird Reserve which seemed like paradies after spending so much time in the dry desert. Afterwards we drove down to Caldera, known as a seaside holiday place amongst Chileans and full of mine workers. Homeless dogs roam along the beaches of Bahia Inglesa and have Conchilla (ground shells) stuck up their nostrils. We were soon accompanied by a couple of them and I enjoyed watching their happiness – they seemed to be bon viveurs amongst stray dogs: They roll cheerfully in the sand, they jump into the water and play with one another – without any human supervision whatsoever. What a good dog life.
I know, it’s been a long post and you may haven’t even made it up to here. But I’m done now. I spent another great weekend in the Valle del Elqui and a day in Miami with my Canadian friend Tara, whom I know from South Africa. Now I’m back in Germany, getting used to the cold, humid climate and start my Masters in International Ecology. I’ll try to keep you updated with some awesome things from over here (already got some autumn pics up my sleeve) – so stay tuned.