Crossing the Andes

Trip Start Mar 11, 2005
Trip End Jul 15, 2005

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Well we made it across the Andes in the middle of winter and survived - but only just . . .

We left Salta and cycled north through the sub-tropical forests to Jujuy and a bit beyond to the village of Yala where we camped. The weather was cold and a low mist hung over the village and we wondered what the weather had in store for us as we climbed into the Andes. The following day we went up into the clouds, then around a corner and into the sun before turning west into the valley that would eventually lead us across the Andes and into Chile. We stopped at the very attractive small town of Purmamarca, already at 2,400m (for a British comparison, Ben Nevis is 1,344m high; for a South African comparison, the highest mountain in the Drakensburg is 3,482m high) and backed by the remarkable 'Mountain of Seven Colours'. We spent a day there to do some preparation and to acclimatise to the higher altitude. Starky also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to persuade HSBC to reinstate his bank account and credit card: HSBC, in its wisdom, had decided that as Starky hadn't made a deposit for some time, they would cancel both his bank account and his credit card. This was a trifle disconcerting, and Purmamarca was not the best place from which to sort it out, but after persuading the lady in Bombay to put him through to someone who could make a decision, the team is happy to report that Starky is now solvent again, although his bank card was swallowed by a cash machine in Salta and never saw the light of day again.

The Mountain of Seven Colours

The next day was mid-winter's day, June 21st (they do things differently down in these parts). What a splendid day to start our main ascent into the Andes!! We had been suitably warned about this section: when we enquired about the route, everyone talked about the 'Cuesta de Lipan' as the make or break. The first few miles rose steadily but soon we were climbing steeply, negotiating hairpin bend after hairpin bend. We had come prepared: we munched on blocks of dulce (think jam) to give us the easily-digestible energy we needed, and chewed on coca leaves (we think they're legal . . .) to help cope with the altitude. We climbed for 21 miles from 2,400m to 4,170m, panting more and more as the air got thinner and breathing became more difficult. But eventually we peaked and happily headed down the other side to the stunning Salinas Grandes (Great Salt Pans) at 3,500m.

La Cuesta de Lipan

We had earlier met 3 photographers en route and we spotted them in the middle of the salt, so we cycled on the salt towards them whilst they lined up like paparazzi. We chatted and they offered us matte, the local tea, whilst we were surrounded by the most amazing scenery - vast expanses of pure white salt that stretched to the mountains in the distance. We'd heard how cold it could be at night in these parts (minus 20 degrees Celcius), so we hurried on to the nearest town, Tres Posos, as the sun set and the full moon rose. There was no conventional accommodation in Tres Posos, but we were told that 'Veronica Chavez' had rooms so we headed for her door and asked for a room. She kindly turfed the children out of their room and gave it to us. Quite right too! (Mrs Chavez later apologised for taking so long to answer the door, but she'd thought the children were joking when they told her that there were two tourists outside with bicycles!)

Two of the kids whom we had turfed out of their room in Tres Posos

The following morning we let the children have their room back and headed for Susques, at 3,600m a border town that was just 100m higher than Tres Pozos, but which involved, we thought rather unnecessarily, a long climb up to about 4,000m and a short sharp descent to the rather wild and dusty, but interesting town of Susques. Very few establishments in Susques, be they accommodation, restaurants or shops, advertise their existence as everyone who needs to use them knows where they are, but that isn't very helpful to a couple of gringos like us. But Starky soon enlisted the help of a passing architect who had been in Susques looking at the local use of adobe (like cob) and thatch, and they eventually found a bargain: two rooms, one en-suite at $9 (nearly two pounds!) and one without for $7 and both with heaters! In deference to Philsy's advanced years and aged prostate, Starky took the cheaper room.

An adobe house

We stayed in Susques for a day to get used to the altitude and also to get any information we could about the route to come. Obviously the place was crawling with lorry drivers who had just driven the route and Starky grilled as many as he could. He also asked the local customs gendarmeria and phoned the gendermaria at Paso de Jama (the border crossing) who said that they would gladly give us a floor to sleep on and some hot water. We were keen to find somewhere to stay between Susques and Paso de Jama, and we'd heard that there was a complex along the way that catered for the team of road builders still working on the route. Starky mentioned this to our landlord who said that an office of the company, Roggio, was in town, so we chatted to the boss there who kindly gave us a note that authorised the manager at the site to give us accommodation. Our other obvious concern was to find out about the terrain beyond Paso de Jama and into Chile. The consensus was that Paso de Jama was at 4,400m and after that we would have to climb slowly, and then maybe a kilometre of very steep climbing to 4,800m (15,600 feet). After that it would be a long descent to San Pedro de Atacama. The whole distance would be about 100 miles, but with so much downhill that shouldn't be a problem. If for some reason we couldn't get all the way to San Pedro, at about two-thirds of this stretch a small town by the name of Azufrera Alitar was marked on our map. Sorted!

Bikes and all on Salar Grande

The road from Susques took us up a long slow incline, but soon we were heading down to a vast salt pan. Along the way we saw small herds of the graceful vicuņa, but more surprisingly, quite a few donkeys: how on earth they survive at 4,000m in the Andes we've no idea. For a change the wind was behind us and by 3.15pm we had arrived at the Roggio site, 41 miles away. The people there said that the Pass was only 33 miles away and the road was flat, so we were sorely tempted to carry on to the Pass, especially with the wind behind us. But conditions can change rapidly in the mountains and we decided that discretion is the better part of valour and we would stay there. They offered us accommodation in the form of a room in a trailer: pretty basic and pretty dirty, but it was accommodation nonetheless. We ate bread and jam before Starky braved the cold to find a kiosk: then we dined royally with a box of red wine and a tin of bully beef. We slept in sleeping bags under blankets.

We awoke really quite snug, but how to get out of bed when the water in the bottles by our beds was frozen? We put our cycling clothes in our sleeping bags for a while to warm them before hurriedly dressing and putting on the kettle in the canteen for some hot coca tea. The road ahead wasn't flat but there was only a gentle rise as we cycled towards the Pass. Nevertheless, there was a very strong and cold headwind which made progress slow and unpleasant, but by 3 o'clock we had arrived at the Paso de Jama where the gendarmeria were expecting us. They kindly allowed us to use their showers ("but be quick as the water tank freezes . . .") and we found a tiny kiosk where we could buy some provisions and eat a dozen empanadas (like small Cornish pasties). We ate another dozen later and washed them down with coca tea and rather rough, but ever-so-cheap, Old Smuggler whisky. We were given mattresses and when the office closed at midnight, we got in our sleeping bags and dreamt of being warm . . .

The Argetinian Gendarmeria at El Paso de Jama: muchas gratias para todo!

We were awoken at about 7.15am by a truck driver wanting to get into the office, but we didn't really think it our place to let him in. We had breakfast of bread and jam and sweet biscuits before paying our fine for being in the country longer than our 3-month visas permitted to the customs officials. We were aware that our visas were expiring so we tried to renew them in Salta, but when Starky phoned the immigration office there, it was a Thursday afternoon and they don't work in the afternoons. On the Friday it was a provincial public holiday, so of course they would be closed. And then there was the weekend. On the Monday it was a national public holiday . . . We decided that we couldn't wait and it would be easier and cheaper to pay the $50 when we got to the border. So we did. We thanked Alferez and his colleagues for their generous hospitality and set out at 9.25am - SO cold at that time of the morning. We soon climbed the 200m to the Chilean border at 4,400m and cycled up a long gradual incline to what we presumed to be the afore-mentioned 4,800m highpoint. We stopped to take photographs and noticed that since leaving the Pass, the water in our bottles had frozen! We sped down the other side, but soon applied the brakes as our extremities began to freeze as hard as the water. We stopped at a viewpoint and Starky attempted to thaw out his hands: soft South African hands that had never been so cold. At Philsy's age little blood gets to his extremities so with no feeling there is no pain.

Starky all wrapped up and looking like a duffle bag, but ready for a descent!

We passed beautiful salt pans and meandered up and down, really quite happily, but looking around for the route that would take us out of this long valley between the higher mountains. After 40 miles we saw the road that headed up to our left: at first it was gradual, but soon it became steeper and steeper and the air was getting thinner and thinner. Steeper and steeper, thinner and thinner. By the roadside were stretches of meringue-like 'snow', snow that constantly re-freezes and becomes like ice with only a tiny amount ever thawing even in the midday sun. Philsy's odometer showed a speed of 2.8 miles an hour at times as we crawled up for maybe a quarter of a mile, panting heavily, then stopping. Then another quarter of a mile, then a rest; then again, and again, until eventually we reached the top. The toughest and most intense cycling ever. A truck driver waved excitedly and pointed down confirming our belief that we had indeed peaked. We dressed for the long cold downhill that would take us to San Pedro de Atacama. And down we went; and down and down until we hit some more salt pans and levelled out. But this could only be temporary before going down all the way to San Pedro . . .

Spot the ice!

In the distance we saw the road rising. No-one had told us about this: we had been told that there would be one climb to 4,800m - we'd already done two, but a third? We had now cycled more than 60 miles with vicious climbs and all at an altitude of more than 4,000m. It was getting late and a strong, cruel and so cold headwind had kicked in. We crawled up the hills, the one trying to shelter the other from the wind and then swapping over. At any point the road should lead us down, or at least we should come across Azufrera Alitar. There was an antenna: surely this must be the top. We carried on up, and up, and no town appeared. We were each getting quietly concerned, for the sun was setting ahead of us and our two escape routes were not materialising. We were totally exhausted. And it was so cold: our water bottles had re-frozen and Philsy's nasal secretions, wiped on his glove, instantly froze! The sun had now set behind the mountain in front of us and the light was fading: we needed to put up the tent quickly whilst we could. Then as if from nowhere a pickup pulled in front of us and 3 Chileans got out; they told us that if we stayed where we were we would die! Reassuring that. They 'asked' us to load up our bikes and get inside and they would take us down to San Pedro. Neither of us were in any position to argue: Philsy doesn't speak the lingo and Starky's lips were so cold they could form no coherent words, either English or Spanish! The guys helped us unclip our pannier bags as our fingers didn't seem to belong to us, and after loading them and the bikes we gratefully clambered inside. They took us to San Pedro. We found a room, crawled under the blankets, and slept.

Back up on the mountain having just been dropped off by a minibus

Scary stuff. But as we're no shirkers, the following day we went back to the road and tried to get a lift with a lorry to the spot from where we'd been unceremoniously plucked. Starky asked several truck drivers, but no-one would oblige, perhaps because this is near the border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and no-one had any idea of who we were. Understandable. So we decided to go back into town and try our luck with the myriad of tour operators that are crammed into San Pedro, all keen to take gringo money for a tour to umpteen different tourist hotspots in the area. So it was the next day at 8 o'clock that we found ourselves and our bikes and 3 other tourists packed into a minibus and heading back up the mountains. The others were on a tour into Bolivia which was only 3 miles from our road, but the driver took us the 5 miles on to our rescue point and we piled out with our bikes and our bags. We cycled up for 2.5 miles before starting to descend. Two-and-a-half miles, but it might as well have been fifty, or a hundred, for we had no idea how far it would be, we were spent, we were frozen half to death, and it was nearly dark. We took time to enjoy the descent, stopping to admire the landscape including the Licancabur volcano a few miles away in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert stretching out before us.

We had crossed the Andes on pushbikes in the depths of winter.

Licancabur Volcano (5916m) across the way in Bolivia

In San Pedro we discovered that the climb over the last range of mountains reached 4,700m: this after descending so far from the previous peak, and the one before that. Most of the 68 miles we cycled that day were at an altitude of 4,000m or more. Although we had endeavoured to get the best local information we could, it was wrong, so very wrong. And Azufrera Alitar doesn't exist. But we did it, and we're none the worse for the experience - apart from flaking noses and chapped lips.

We left San Pedro de Atacama as soon as we could for, although outwardly quite appealing, tourists are seen as walking wallets and after the generous hospitality we've received on the rest of this trip, we weren't comfortable there. So yesterday we saddled up and headed up and over another huge climb to the rather 'seedy' (as described in the 'Footprints' guide to Chile and we can't argue with that) city of Calama. We're here for a day to write the webpage before heading up the Atacama Desert towards Arica on the border with Peru. We're not sure how to get there yet: we could cut almost straight across the Desert which might be flatter but also quite boring, or we could head for the Pacific coast and use the coastal road. Unfortunately the coastal road is very hilly and we've been advised against it: but what are a few hilly cliffs when you've crossed the Andes?

Starky was desperate to get into the photo too!
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