What, you didn’t think I would make it?
I’ve only been here for three or four days, and I can already tell this is going to be an awesome couple of months. Let me fill you in…
I left Antofagasta around eleven in the morning, after posting last. Much walking was required for me to get out of the city…about three hours to get to the outskirts. Fortunately, Antofagasta is a pretty easy city to get around, as it’s just about eight kilometers of coast that doesn’t go inland more than two clicks. So I followed the main road along the beach until I got to the freeway, stopping only to smoke and chase some sort of beach lizard (capture unsuccessful. Well played, my friend…well played.)
When I got to the road the hitching was slow, mainly because there was a seemingly endless stream of young lady hitchhikers working the same area. It’s so unfair; those truckers think, ‘Well, maybe she’ll sleep with me this time.’ But she won’t, and I end up waiting for three hours in the hot desert getting sand blown into my eyeballs. But this is life.
So I finally hitched it back to the Ruta 5 and started working my way north towards Iquique. However, the hitchhiking gods had different plans for me, and my next ride turned out to be heading to Calama. Now, Calama is actually a lot closer to Bolivia than Iquique, so I decided that it couldn’t hurt to poke around there for a while. Plus, the guy driving told me that there was a train into Bolivia from this town, and I figured it would be pretty fun to freighthop across an international border. So to Calama I went.
When we arrived it was dark, and I was very tired, so I went straight to my new friend, el Hogar de Christo. After two or three hours of wandering around I managed to find the place just in time for dinner. After inhaling this, I went to sleep, knowing I would need the energy for a possible run after a train the next day.
I awoke the next morning to the familiar and consistent priestly chant of levantarse, and was out the door before seven. I asked around for the train, but the general consensus was that the cargo train to Bolivia didn’t leave for three more days. It looked like this one was going to be on foot.
I passed the Calama town limits around nine-thirty, and began the trek on the 120 kilometre road through blank desert to San Pedro de Atacama, where I’m told a small dirt road of about fifty clicks goes to the Bolivian border. For those of you who don’t remember, San Pedro de Atacama is the very same town I was in during late March, right before I almost died of thirst walking Paso Sico to Argentina. This time, I was going to bring more water.
For the first hour or two, no one picked me up, and I walked about eleven kilometers into the desert. Finally, after I was growing increasingly frustrated, a little French car pulled over and took me to San Pedro. We even took a little touristy stop at a place called Valle de la Luna, which, as its name implies, looks strikingly similar to the surface of the moon.
When I arrived to San Pedro, my plan was this: began walking to Bolivia as soon as possible. Try and reach the border within three days, and slip across the border during night or very early morning.
First, I needed water. I went to the Plaza to try to find a place to fill up my bottles and maybe buy a big jug, as I had about CL$800 on me. However, as I was on my way I passed a shop with a sign that caught my attention:
Atacama Mystica: Tours a Bolivia
I stopped. Here I could get some useful information about the road ahead of me. I walked inside.
There was a long-haired and bearded fellow sitting behind a desk and talking to two girls who looked like they had been out of the United States for all of thirty seconds. He was, presumably explaining the aspects of the tour to them.
‘This tour will go to very remote places. Sometimes the temperature will be very cold, around -35º C.’
‘Are there hot showers? And will our hotel have heaters?’ asked one of the girls whinely.
‘On the second night you will be able to have a hot shower and a warm room. The first night you will have to go without showering, as the pipes are frozen.’ He gave her a look of very convincing fake concern. ‘Is that going to be all right with you?’
She wrinkled her nose, apparently not all right with it at all. ‘No showers?’
Her face was getting the look that one gets when they realize that the wrapping paper the kid next door is selling is going to run you a hundred bucks. ‘I don’t know about that.’ She ran her fingers through her hair. ‘I have to use conditioner!’
Seriously? What, did you think remote areas of the poorest country in South America were going to have a Hilton just chilling there next to a mountain? I swear, people like that make me ashamed to be white.
After Paris and her BFF went off to pursue more hygienic activities, I went up to the guy behind the desk.
‘How many kilometers to Bolivia?’ I asked, in Spanish.
‘Fifty-five. Do you want a tour?’
‘No,’ I shook my head. ‘I haven’t got any money. I’d like to walk it.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Walk?’
He shook his head. ‘You’re going to die, man. It’s the desert; there’s no water, and you have to climb about 2,000 metres!’
Hm. I tapped my finger on the table for several seconds. ‘Well, what about hitchhiking it?’ I asked hopefully.
‘There’s only 4X4’s, and sometimes semis to Paraguay. But once they start going up into the altiplano, they can’t stop for anything. ‘
I thought about this for a moment. ‘Well,’ I said, shrugging, ‘if there’s a road, with cars, than it can be hitchhiked.’
He gave me a look. ‘It’s impossible, man. You’ll never make it.’
‘I made it through Paso Sico to Argentina.’ Barely, I didn’t add.
He frowned. ‘Paso Sico? Walking?’ He scoffed. ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Well, I did.’ I turned to leave. ‘Thanks for the information, my friend.’ I walked out the door, then stopped. ‘Oh, and one more thing; is it true that Americans have to pay $130 to enter Bolivia?’
He nodded. ‘Yeah man. How are you going to pay for that?’
I shrugged. ‘I figure I’ll just sneak past.’
‘What if they see you?’
‘Well, I figured if I waited until nighttime-‘ I stopped. There was a girl sitting in one of the chairs that were arranged against the wall who seemed to be barely holding back fits of mirth. The guy behind the desk looked at her.
‘You think this is funny?’
‘I want to go on whatever tour he’s going on!’ she said with a thick British accent.
I grinned. ‘Mine’s a lot more fun, and it’s free!’ I said, winking.
The guy behind the desk shook his head. ‘He’s going to die, you know. And what are you staring at? Are you with him?’ he pointed to a blonde haired guy who had been gaping in the corner for the past five minutes.
‘No man, I’m just interested.’ He turned to me. ‘Can I have your email? I’m curious to see if you make it.’
‘Me too!’ chirped the British girl.
‘Me too,’ admitted the guy behind the desk. He sighed. ‘Well, if you’re really serious about doing this, then I think your best bet is to get out on the road very early tomorrow morning. You might be able to get one of the semis to pick you up before they start climbing.’
I knew he would come around. They always do. ‘Excellent!’ I said happily.
‘Where are you going to sleep tonight?’ he asked me.
‘I figure somewhere about three kilometers past the Chilean border control. I need to slip past them tonight so they don’t make me get an exit stamp.’
Of course, I was the center of attention for the next several hours, something I love. The British girl left a bit later, promising to return later to ‘buy me a pint,’ while me, the guy behind the desk (whose name was Eduardo) and the other guy closed up shop early and rolled a few joints.
We spent the afternoon smoking, and Eduardo came up with a theory about who I really was.
‘I think you have lots and lots of money,’ he said, coughing. ‘You have this technique; you tell all the pretty girls, “Oh, yeah, I’m so poor, and I’m just traveling around because I’m so damned spiritual. I’m just a lonely world traveler!”’ He swiped at the air. ‘And they eat it up! Just now, the little Inglanterra girl says she’s going to buy you a pint, and you gave your email and website to three others! And now,’ he said, passing the joint, ‘And now we’re giving you free weed!’ He shook his head. ‘I should take notes from you, I really should. You arrive in town this afternoon with nothing but $600 pesos and an empty water bottle. Now, you’ve got a date that includes beer, free marijuana, and contact information from three other tourist girls!’ He turned to his friend. ‘Don’t look into his eyes, man. He’ll suck you into his hypnosis!’
Everyone in the room found this hilarious, including me, since it was for the most part, true (except the part about me having money.) It was and is, so easy.
I hung around at the Bolivian tour place until it closed, and then went out for drinks with Eduardo and the British girl (whose name was Laura.)
Laura ended up buying me three beers and promised to give me bread if she saw me on the road, as she was going to Bolivia the next day with Eduardo’s tour. After drinks around midnight, I went back to the tour shop to collect my pack and start walking into the desert. Eduardo seemed genuinely concerned about me, and told me to let him know if I make it to Bolivia alive and not imprisoned. I assured him I would.
And off I went into the night. I reached the Chilean border checkpoint after about fifteen minutes, and slipped silently past, the sound of snoring inside never faltering as I tiptoed off into the desert.
An hour of walking later, I figured I was far enough away. I went off the road about two hundred meters, broke out my sleeping bag, and fell asleep within minutes.
I awoke several hours later to the sound of big engines working hard. I sat up; it was still quite early, perhaps around four in the morning. The nearly full moon hung delicately in the western sky, bathing the desert in a pale, ghostly light. I grabbed my water bottle for a drink of water, but it was frozen solid. Sighing, I rolled my sleeping bag up, shouldered my pack, and walked to the road.
After fifteen minutes of heading eastward with my thumb out, a semi pulled over. Inside was a guy from Paraguay, on his way to Argentina and Asunciòn.
After explaining to him what I was doing on the side of the road in the middle of the desert at four in the morning, he agreed to take me to the spot where the road diverts off towards Bolivia, about eight kilometers from the border itself. We rode for several hours, the big engine groaning and grinding as we climbed into the altiplano.
About an hour and a half before sunrise, it was time for me to jump off. I waved goodbye to my Paraguayan friend as he chugged off towards Argentina, and then began walking on my lonely little dirt road to Bolivia.
I walked on the road only for about two kilometers; after topping a hill I saw, in the distance, the lights of the Bolivian border checkpoint. That meant it was time to, as they say, take the road less traveled.
I veered off the road and into the steep, uneven terrain of the altiplano. I figured if I went in a straight line and kept the checkpoint at least two kilometers to the north, I would be able to get by with few problems. Besides, how often do they get foot traffic over here? They would never be expecting it.
I crunched over uneven footing and sudden elevation change for the next hour. The light of the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon when I judged myself to be at about the same longitude at the border checkpoint.
I officially arrived into Bolivia around the same time as the sun; I was well past the checkpoint by seven o’clock, and officially welcomed myself into the country with a cigarette and some water.
Afterwards, I rested for half an hour until the sound of an approaching vehicle awoke me. Sticking out my thumb, I managed to stop it.
They gave me a ride only a few clicks to another checkpoint, the entrance to the national park. I was told I would have to pay 150 Bolivianos ($20) to pass. I had other plans.
The guy at the national park was a good fellow. When I told him I had no money he seemed incredulous.
‘How are you going to get around?’
I told him I was hitchhiking.
‘How did you get here?’
I told him I walked a lot.
He stared at me for a moment, and then said, ‘Pase, no mas,’ shaking his head as he waived me on by.
After the national park checkpoint, I came to a fork in the road. One arrow pointed left, and told me the nearest place to go was ten kilometers away. The other pointed right, and informed me that I would have to travel fifty kilometers until I reached another person. I decided to go straight, off the road, and go explore a large frozen lake that lay ahead about one kilometer.
The walk was beautiful; I was surrounded on all sides by the barren Andes. Volcàn Licancabur, the highest volcano in South America, loomed ominously in the northern sky, the bunchgrass-studded slopes fading to bare rock as the altitude increased to higher than even this plant could survive.
When I reached the lake, I trade cautiously onto its frozen surface. All around the border was salt and minerals, left behind from evaporating lake water during the spring.
The ice seemed strong; I strode confidently out onto the lake, enjoying myself immensely as I slipped around on its frozen surface. Then I noticed that on the north side of the lake was a small settlement of some sort. Figuring I would replenish my water supply, I went to investigate.
After filling my bottles I went back outside to find several 4X4 jeeps idling outside. Tourists were getting out. This must be Eduardo’s tour group!
I looked, but I was unable to find my friends. I did, however, meet some cool hippie people my age from the States who gave me a little bit of weed and made me feel really good about myself. They even took a photo of me next to the lake (called, it turns out, Laguna Blanco, for its white, mineral-rich waters).
I left the habitation around ten, and walked about three kilometers to the other side of the lake. After waiting on the side of the road for about two hours with absolutely zero vehicular traffic, I decided to head back. The wind was blowing like a hurricane and was very cold.
When I arrived back to the settlement, I asked if I could rest a bit in their eating area. They said it was perfectly all right, and the Señora even fed me free soup!
I told the people there my plan, which was to reach the nearest town and hitchhike to the north somewhere. They told me that there would be no more cars passing today, but that tomorrow I would probably be able to find something. They seemed concerned about where I was to sleep, but I assured them I was prepared for the freezing night.
While I was conversing with the Señora (whose name was Maxima, though I called her Tìa at her insistence) I made a passing comment that all my clothes were dirty. Tìa Maxima told me that I should spend tomorrow washing them, as traveling with dirty clothes was downright uncomfortable. I agreed with her.
We made a deal: I would work for her in the kitchen in exchange for a bed and food. The next day I would go down to the hot spring (which bordered the lake about 200 metres from the settlement) to wash my clothes, and leave the next day.
And that’s exactly what I did; the next morning I got up and helped take care of the morning rush of tourists in 4X4’s, washed a bunch of dishes, and had breakfast. Then, I gathered up all my dirty clothes and some laundry soap and headed down to the hot spring.
The warm, mineral-rich waters of the spring made washing easy. The dirt came out of my clothes faster than I’ve ever seen, and I think the minerals gave my clothes a nice, earthy smell. Plus, now I would have the essence of the volcano (which heated the spring) in my clothes forever, which certainly couldn’t hurt anything.
Essences are great things to have, and this part of Bolivia was chock-full of them. One of the people from the settlement took me on a free tour to the next lake over, Laguna Verde, which is, you guessed it, very green. Apparently the reason is because the Incas spent several thousand years dumping copper into the lake, and everyone knows that copper plus water equals green copper.
There were a lot of tourists at the lake from every corner of the globe. They all stood on the ridge half a kilometer from the lake, took a couple of photos with ridiculously long-lensed cameras, and then climbed back into their warm 4X4 and complained about the cold. I really, really, hate people like this. They come to this beautiful country in South America, far, far away from their home, take a few photos, and then tell everybody that they know the place.
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t capture the essence of a place with just a photo. A photo is like the cover of a book; you can get the basic idea of what it’s about, but you’ll never know all the glorious details until you open it up and start reading. You read a place like this lake with your hands, with your mind, and with your heart. You have to breathe in the cool wind blowing off the lake, to feel the frozen mud with your bare hands. You have to sit on the ice, stare out over the lake, and marvel at its existence. You must go back in time millions of years to when the lake first formed; be in awe at how many different species of animals, many no longer in existence, take drinks of water in the very spot you are sitting right now. Gasp when you see the lake slowly change from blue to brilliant green after generations of Incas make countless trips to its shore. Feel the spirit of the place.
That is how you capture the essence of a place; once you have this essence, it’s with you forever. I’m not much for believing that people have spirits; we’re much too insignificant. However, I sure as hell believe that places have spirits. Mountains, rivers, lakes, even buildings if they’re old enough. I hope that I was able to catch a little bit of the spirit of Laguna Verde that afternoon on the ice; I hope that maybe that spirit can help me or at least inspire me when times get rough.
That’s something your $2,000 camera can never capture.
When I returned to the settlement, I worked for Tìa Maxima the rest of the day. I ran into some French people who were staying the night who turned out to be very nice. They told me that they were climbing the Licancabur volcano the next day, something I was very interested in. It turned out, the guy that was going to drive them to the mountain was the very same guy that had taken me to the Laguna Verde earlier that day, and he told me that if the French didn’t mind, I was welcome to come along for free.
I jumped at this opportunity. This was a US$100 climb for free! I love climbing things as it is, but when it’s the highest volcano in South America I practically exploded with excitement.
We awoke the next morning at 3 a.m. and drove the twenty or so kilometers to the volcano. After eating a few bananas, we set off.
Now, I respect the guide a lot; he is a very old man, in his early seventies, and was always very, very nice to me. Plus, he was about to spend the next six hours shimmying up the steep slopes of Licancabur, quite a feat for someone his age. However, I don’t care how much I like and respect a person; I’m not following anybody up this mountain.
The Frogs weren’t hopping very fast, and the guide was trodding along at a slow but steady pace. I climbed on far ahead of the group, finding the trail easily in the bright light of the full moon.
Around sunrise, I was about halfway up. The rest of the group was about twenty minutes behind. I rested for ten minutes while I watched the sun peek over the eastern sky, and then continued on up the increasingly steeper slopes.
Around ten I had slowed down a lot, and was feeling all those cigarettes I’d smoked in the past year, along with the thin mountain air. The group was now only five minutes behind me, but I was determined to be the first on top.
Around eleven, I dragged my exhausted carcass over the top of the mountain. I didn’t even look at the scenery until a few minutes later when I caught my breath.
As soon as I did, I lost it again. The Andes stretched endlessly to the north and to the south; to the west was the uniform tan of the Atacama Desert. To the east were more mountains and volcanoes. I walked a bit and peered into the giant crater, which was filled up partially by a frozen lake.
A few minutes later the guide arrived, followed by my French friends.
After I spent about fifteen minutes in the crater capturing the essence of the volcano (a very powerful essence indeed) we began our decent.
The decent was much quicker and much more fun than the ascent; the trail down was mostly loose soil and small rocks. Every step you took, your foot would slide three feet down and you could sort of half-skate down the side of the volcano. You could even slide down it like a slide whenever there weren’t too many big rocks.
I beat the rest of the group down by a good half hour, and spent my time napping in some ancient Inca ruins at the base. When the rest of the group arrived, we went back to the Jeep. The French rested while the guide and I went into the foothills to collect bags of a sort of dry, compacted moss similar to peat that is used as fuel for the fire, since there are no trees in the altiplano.
We gathered about fifty kilos apiece, and then went back to the jeep and drove back to the complex.
I was exhausted. Seriously, I felt like I just ran a marathon, and I’ve run seven marathons so I know what I’m talking about. My knees hurt the most from the climb. When we got back to the complex, I emptied the approximately eighteen pounds of earth from my shoes and took a delicious nap.
I awoke in the evening, helped in the kitchen, ate dinner, and went back to sleep. This morning I got up around seven and, after saying goodbye to my Bolivian friends all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, set off in the direction of Uyuni, about eight hours away along the endless dirt road.
The first tourist jeep I rode in was in fact going to Uyuni, but the driver wanted to charge me 100 Bolivianos for the ride. After a bit of negotiation, he agreed to take me about 50 kilometres to some thermal springs. I wanted to bathe upon arrival, since today makes the eighth day I’ve gone without washing, but they wanted to charge me money so I decided just to stink for a little longer.
Soon afterward, another tourist jeep took me the rest of the way to Uyuni; I rode all day with some Brazilians and even got a free lunch out of the deal.
Tomorrow I plan to start hitchhiking to La Higuera, which is a small town southwest of Santa Cruz. This sleepy little town has a history that I’m very interested in: it’s the place where, after being captured, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was taken, held prisoner, and executed by the Bolivian National Army in the seventies. While the Che may have gotten a little too into the whole Revolution thing in Cuba, the principals he was fighting for were something that any man with a heart and empathy could relate to. Help for the poor, selfless sacrifice of your own time and money for the benefit of the community, and an equal view of every man, woman, and child, be they black, white, yellow, rich, poor, tall, short, skinny or fat.
Maybe the essence of this place will have a little bit of Ernesto in it; I hope I can use that essence to keep me, as my Dad would put it, flying straight. I want it to keep me thinking of others before myself, to keep me giving to those who have nothing. I want it to keep me working on being a decent human being, someone whom people look up to and are inspired by. This I hope to gain from visiting the place of his death.
Let’s hope the hitchhiking in Bolivia is as great as Chile and Perù!
The Modern Nomad
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