ACROSS THE ALTIPLANO

Riding sandy washboard into a strong headwind was absolutely knackering and there was no way that Antonia was going to catch up with me that night.  Or so I thought!  About 4km from Charaña, a bus came past and out popped Antonia, a big smile on her face and beckoning me to jump aboard.  With the job almost done, however, I politely declined and set about finishing off the last few kms!  Sadly, the high winds around the town meant that the surrounding fields were absolutely covered in rubbish…

I arrived completely exhausted, after one of the hardest afternoons of cycling I’ve ever done, and we found an alojamiento to crash in.  I think my face just about tells the story…

Amusingly, having popped to the shop next door to grab a few beers, we were invited to drink with the locals, who had had a town meeting earlier in the day and were now fairly steaming drunk!  We had to down glasses of beer with every toast they offered and, within about half an hour, were fairly drunk too!  It was a great opportunity to hear about the various issues though that affect them there, the top of the pile being that of access to the sea.  Bolivia used to have a considerable coastline but that was lost to Chile in the ‘War of the Pacific’ in the late 1800s and the lack of easy access severely compromises their economy.  Whilst there is free movement of commercial goods through the Chilean port of Arica and the border crossing with Bolivia, things such as Internet access are much more restricted.  Bolivia has to buy access off neighbouring countries and, therefore, it’s costly and the speeds are really slow.  The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, has taken the case to the International Courts of Justice at the Hague.  Anyway, before we became completely legless, Antonia and I extricated ourselves from the drinking circles and headed off for some dinner!

The next day, feeling pretty exhausted from the previous day’s effort, we set off to cross the short (5km) distance to the border into Chile.  Having checked online, it appeared that both sets of immigration offices were based in the Chilean town of Visviri.

On arrival at the border, the helpful and efficient Chilean border official directed us to the Bolivian immigration office.  However, it was closed with no sign of anyone around.  Asking around, it was suggested that sometimes the Bolivians were not around on a Sunday and that we would have to go back to the immigration office in Charaña.  I had seen this office on the way out and it had looked shut but, reluctantly, we decided to head back to Charaña.  Knocking on the door back in Charaña, it was clear that there was nobody there either.  A security guard for the Bolivian Customs was able to tell me where the immigration guy lived but there was no answer at his house.  Getting increasingly frustrated and starting to think that we might have to hang around until the next day (Monday) to get our Bolivian exit stamp, we headed to the town plaza.  There, one of the local policemen came over and I explained our predicament.  He, with help from the local shopkeeper, was able to locate the immigration official’s wife’s house and together we went and enquired about his whereabouts.  According to one of his children, he had gone to a feria (fair) in a local town and should be back around midday (they weren’t sure whether to his home or to the border post)!  The friendly policeman said that he would kindly call in at the immigration official’s house every hour until he got back to tell him that there were two gringos waiting at the border post.  With that, we headed back to Visviri to wait for the official’s return.  After about an hour, one of the Chilean officials came over and told us we could have our Chile entry stamp anyway and not to worry about the Bolivian one.  However, we would be crossing back into Bolivia in a few days’ time and it would be bound to cause complications.  Fortunately, about half an hour later, the guy finally turned up – no word of apology, of course!  I offered no word of thanks.  With that done and our panniers inspected for banned foodstuffs, we were free to head on our way at last.  With much of the day gone, plus an hour time difference, we found ourselves a hospedaje in Visviri and enjoyed the relative sophistication of Chile (smooth asphalt, a well-stocked shop, hot water from a gas boiler rather than electric suicide shower).

Following on from our previous discussions, we decided at this point to go our separate ways.  I was keen to continue to follow the AndesByBike route back round to Bolivia but was up against it, time-wise, to make it round in time to meet up with Thomas and Tina again to climb the 6052m volcano, Acotango, a few days later.  After a kilometre on the lovely smooth Chilean asphalt, it was back onto the washboard but through some fantastic scenery (of the Lauca National Park)…

Once again I found myself heading into a cross-headwind in the afternoon, but fortunately the road surface was a little better.  It was tiring work though…

In the distance, I could see the road snaking up the mountainside that I would be taking tomorrow.

Before that, however, there was the small matter of the Quebrada Allane.  Not having done much research on this route, I didn’t realise exactly what that was but it turned out to be the most fantastic canyon…

At the bottom there was a river crossing…

Despite being pretty tired, I decided to climb out of the canyon as I knew that the next day had plenty of climbing and I also fancied camping with a view over it.  Fortunately, I found a cracking spot at the top, right on the edge.

Sunset was pretty magical…

And breakfast the next morning was pretty great too…

However, I had the small matter of 1000m of climbing to do after breakfast. After an hour or two, yep, you guessed it, a headwind sprung up to make the already fairly steep climb even tougher.

Eventually, however, I made it to the summit…

I’m going to confess now that the Chileans actually got the height of the pass drastically wrong and, sadly, it’s only actually 4800m!  Makes for a good photo though.

From there, I had a decent descent down to the smooth tarmac of the Arica Highway.

This time, thankfully, the wind was on my back which helped considerably with the ensuing climb.  The scenery was also pretty dramatic…

6 Comments

  1. Incredible pictures – can’t wait to see them on a big screen. And the nights on the Salar must have been extraordinary. Hope the few days’ rest has helped your knee Xxx

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