The Devils’ Jacuzzi and the Splintering Soils of the Atacama

San Felipe, Chile

I’m back to home-base, San Felipe! Don’t worry, it’s only for a day or two, then I’m continuing south to Tierra del Fuego at last!

So. I spent one day retracing my steps from Cusco back to Puno after my freighthopping adventure, which only took one day. I got a lift with a guy in an egg truck to Juliaco, a mid-sized town near Lake Titicaca about forty kilometres from Puno. After a bit of walking on the trash-littered outskirts I was soon riding along in a pickup to Puno. I arrived around nightfall and planned to camp the bus station again. After a bit of busking with my harp I headed to bed in a secluded corner on the second floor behind a water tank and slept the night away.

The next morning brought more busking time, and yielded nearly twelve Soles after only half an hour of playing. With this I bought breakfast (soup with potatoes, two Soles), cigarettes (Hamiltons, pack of ten, two soles and fifty centimos), and some chocolate (fifty centimos). Well-stocked on provisions and extra cash, I hit the road to Moquegua in a good mood.

The first ride was short, for only about twenty clicks to the next town, and the driver wanted to charge me afterward (I refused to pay, as he had promised a free ride beforehand). After he eventually left, I continued the hike south.

This small town in the middle of the grassy Peruvian altiplano soon ran out and I walked alone on the low traffic highway to Moquegua. Every once in a while a stray mototaxi or minivan would vroom on by, ignoring my thumb and rolling off into the distance without so much as tapping the brakes. After a bracing morning walk of five or so kilometres, a small white car packed with people stopped and I crammed myself into the trunk with my pack dangling perilously off the edge of the bumper.

We arrived to a small, isolated hot springs after about twenty minutes of traveling. This was apparently as far as my ride was going, and I was thirsty after my walk, so I went up the hillside to the source of the spring to drink the warm, sweet water and have a bit of a late-morning rest.

I had my head down in that hole in the ground and was sipping up the delicious, coffee-hot water when someone came up to me and asked if I had paid to get in. I popped my head back up and said that I didn’t want to bathe; I was thirsty and only wanted to drink and rest for a moment.

The man was nice; I told him that I was traveling to Argentina by hitchhiking with low funds, and he let me busk a bit more with my harmonica to the bathers after I was finished drinking, netting me four more Soles. Afterwards he invited me to take a free wash, which I accepted.

I didn’t have any soap or shampoo, but it was still nice to sit in the warm water, wash the sweat off, and relax for a bit. I continued on down the road around one in the afternoon after thanking the fee-collector for his understanding and accepting his gift to me of two loaves of bread and an apple.

Winding, rolling, stretching on forever into the horizon; this was my road. The traffic was still extremely light and infrequent, and after hours of more walking I stopped to rest at a curve and refill my water bottle from the crisp stream meandering along through herds of llamas and sheep.

I waited for hours, until finally around the end of the day stopped a pickup truck with some miners heading to their remote gold mine halfway between Puno and Moquegua. I was dropped off at the crossing of the dirt road that led to the mine and the paved highway, which continued on south. Night was falling, the wind was really starting to pick up, and all I had was my scarf, llama poncho, and a sweater. I hoped I would get a ride to someplace with big rocks to block the wind before dark, as camping out in a freezing, windy place is  an unpleasent experience.

The last ride of the day came at twilight in the back of a truck loaded down with furniture to a tiny, nameless town in the middle of the desert (the grasslands had since faded away to dry, rolling sand). In the distance was a mountain of rocky stature; I decided to walk there and make camp for the night and continue to Moquegua in the early morning. I bought some snacks for the evening and began my walk by following a small stream away from the road, my destination being about four or five kilometres to the south.

As I drew closer I noticed what appeared to be a column of steam drifting upwards from the base of the mountain, the kind of steam you get when very hot water meets very cold air. Curious, I walked faster, wanting to reach the source of the steam before it got totally dark.

The small stream eventually arrived directly to the base of the mountain, where the flawlessly white steam rose hauntingly up from the desert; what I saw there was an ancient scene of earth and rock, primordial mud, and gaping caverns:

Volcanic springs.

Geysers of boiling water shot up out of the earth in spouts ten feet high, settling into the cool waters of the passing stream with a forbidding hiss. The rocks in the surrounding area were coated with a white shell of minerals from the laden water, and the rotton-egg smell of sulfur dominated the air.

The stream wound around the geysers and continued on through the mountain by way of a craggy, steaming cave where more geysers spouted and gases bubbled up from hot sands in pools of primordial ooze.

If a waterfall is the breath of the desert, than volcanic springs are the soul of the Earth; you can feel the awesome power here, power that seems only barely restrained by the tons of rock and soil that make up the ground you stand on. It feels as if any moment these frail barriers will crack and fail, and the full might of the boiling core will come erupting out of this thin blemish in the desert and bathe the land with lava and fire.

The earths’ soul smells of sulfur, of steam, of hot rock; it is an ancient force that dwells eternally under our safety net the crust, a power unrivalled by anyone or anything that wanders the surface. The arrogant human race will one day meet its match when it tries to tackle the might of the Earth’s core, for what created us will also one day destroy us all.

Along with barely contained destruction, the volcanic springs also emitted a feeling of…life. As I explored farther into the cave, the light of the sun failed and the nearly full moon took over for the night.

The cave was not completely in darkness; huge holes gaped in the ceiling and the light of the moon covered everything in its pale illumination. Here were pools of lava-hot water and sludge of an unknown origin; gases from below bubbled wetly up in the thick mire.

I felt a rise of excitement in my stomach; this is where primitive life began on our Earth! Even here, in this seemingly inhospitable pool of boiling gunk, existed single-celled organisms whom floated happily about in the heat, eating, moving around, reproducing, and living as functional life-forms in a seemingly lifeless enviroment!

That night in Perú sitting next to that archaic pool of primordial ooze bathed in the light of the eternal moon, I met for the first time my most distant relatives, separated from me by two and a half billion years of evolution. I made camp in the cave on a dry side of the stream amongst the geysers and bubbling muck, the sounds of hissing steam and the gloop-gloop of the primeval ooze lulling me into epic and soul-shaking dreams.

Daylight warranted further exploration of the cave and surrounding springs; at first light I awoke and began poking around in every crack  and crevice. As I explored further in, I found a nice place where the boiling waters of the geysers met the cold waters of the stream, creating water of a very comfortable temperature for about three or four feet. I decided to have a bath in waters heated by the soul of the earth, rather than a puny electric water heater. I stripped off all my clothes and eased into the steamy waters.

I felt as if I were bathing in the devil’s jacuzzi; the water was hot, barely under the threshold of comfort, roiling violently as gases bubbled up from the bottom. The smell of sulfur invaded my nostrils and settled heavily down in the moist cave air. I couldn’t sit directly down on the sand because it too was hot and would burn my bare skin in short notice, so I took a few rocks from outside the water and sat on those.

You had to be careful; if you weren’t paying attention and moved a little too far downstream, the water would get freezing cold. If you accidentally edged yourself a fraction of an inch too close to where the geyser water ran into the cold water, the scalding liquid would give a pretty serious burn after just a second or two of contact. I anchored myself down in a crevice along the stream bed and relaxed in the hot, vaporous water for several hours in what I imagine would be the VIP room in hell; all that it was missing were nude women with little sexy horns bearing sinful martinis and Cuban cigars.

After I had thoroughly pruned myself I got out and did some more exploring. I didn’t bother to put my clothes back on, (who the hell was going to see me in there?) and walked around in my boots and nothing else. I followed the stream through the cave until it came out on the other side of the mountain.

Thousands of birds nested here in this cave, bright yellow birds with black beaks. The made their nests in the endless crevices and holes up and down the walls of the cave, which went up for about twenty feet before either levelling out or opening up into the sky.

I was fifteen feet up a craggy rock face and trying to figure out how to get around a particularly difficult outcropping so as I could get a good look at one of the birds nests when I heard voices approaching from a sunlight hole in the ceiling. I turned and looked; a second later arrived six Japanese tourists and a couple of guides, whom immedietly noticed me stuck to a rock face five meters above the ground wearing nothing but combat boots.  One of them pointed and shouted in Japanese, presumably something like, ‘Hey, look at the naked man on the rock!’ followed by the sound of six cameras going off multiple times in unison. I waved, careful not to give them a full frontal shot. They love photos, Japanese people.

Once the guides had returned to a standing position after rolling around on the ground in fits of laughter for several minutes, the group left with forty or fifty photos of my white ass on their memory cards. Soon there will be six photo albums in Japan with a cave and my pale buttocks gracing pages 43-46. Hoo-rah…

As much as I had enjoyed Nude Spelunking/Rock Climbing Hour, I figured it would probably be in my best interest if I clothed myself, in case some yuppies and their kids decided to visit the cave. By this time it was midday and I had done some pretty thorough exploration, so I decided to hit the road once more. I only had a short time to get to Tierra del Fuego, after all.

I was lucky once again; the first car that came by pulled over and took me all the way to Tacna, on the border of Chile. By the time we arrived it was almost dark, so I went and crashed at the same hospital that I had nearly a month before after my Great Escape from Bolivia. The next morning I crossed into Chile for the fourth time in my life, happy to once again be in my favourite country in South America.

Just across the border a bus took me to Arica for free, and I walked the exact walk I had taken almost exactly seven months before when I was crossing into Chile for the very first time. When I arrived to the outskirts I had a ride after about a two-hour wait to Iquique.

I didn’t go all the way into Iquique, as that required going 74 unnecessary kilometres to the coast and away from the highway. I told the driver to drop me off at the crossroads. The day went on, and near nightfall I found myself in the tiny town of Victoria in the middle of the Atacama desert with a very empty stomach.

Victoria is a small truck stop, not even a town, really. There is just one restaurant there and nothing more; I went inside with the intention of working for some dinner, as there were no people around for me to busk for on my harmonica. The Señora was happy to give me plates to wash, and I scrubbed happily away in that sink of bubbles and dirty water while I talked to the kitchen staff.

I loved this restaurant, not for the food or anything, but because of the comradery. Here in the kitchen were workers from Perú, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile, and they all managed to get along, even acting friendly towards each other and joking around!

For those of you who don’t know this already, Perú and Bolivia hate Chile, and vice versa. I can’t talk to a Bolivian or Peruvian about Chile without hearing, ‘Oh, fucking Chile, they stole our coastline/occupied our capital city for five years during the Pacific War. If it weren’t for Chile we would be the most successful nation in South America. Fuck all those Chileans, we hate them all!‘ And according to many people from Chile (especially the old folks), Perú and Bolivia are filthy countries filled with robbers and disease. The three nations never seem to be able to get along.

But here? Everyone was always happy and smiling, and there were no snide remarks from the Chileans to either the Peruvains or Bolivians, and the Peruvians and Bolivians didn’t once say a thing about the Pacific War, or coastlines, or an occupation of Lima by Chilean troops. It was very nice, since I like all three countries because they are all wonderful places; it’s like finally having all your friends get along with one other.

By the time I had finished working and had taken my dinner, it was dark. I thanked the Señora, said goodbye to my multinational friends in the kitchen, and headed out of the town with the intention of camping in the desert for the evening.

I walked about four kilometres out of Victoria so that the lights were just pinpricks in the distance. Here I went to make camp, heading off of the road and into the desert.

The Earth was strange here; there was the sound of cracking all around me, like the ice on the frozen lake you are standing on getting ready to break and plunge you into the freezing water. I stepped off the road, slid down the little hill, and stepped onto the hard earth.

Crack-crackcrraack crachcrackcrack….

What the hell? It was as if the ground was very thin, brittle almost, and covering a very deep cavern or hole in the ground. But that was impossible, I thought, the road ran right by here. You can’t build a road through a cavern, it just didn’t make sense. I looked around me; bathed in moonlight was the uneven, lumpy Earth that went far out away from the road and into the desert. The cracking sound echoed from all around me, from places where I wasn’t even standing. Logically, if all of this Earth had been cracking like this every night for all of time, and if there was some sort of deep cavern below, then in some place the earth would have broken away to reveal the gaping hole.

I saw nothing, only more cracked land. Logic and reason told me that this was just dry earth that had heated up in the intense sun during the day and was now cooling and cracking in the night; human uncertainty told me that if I walked out onto this I would fall to my death to the bottom of some godforsaken hole in the desert.

I set out onto the earth, the cracking sound getting louder and more pronounced in every place I stepped. After about fifty meters I came to a portion of ground that had collapsed into itself; perhaps here lay the answer to what was beneath the fracturing Earth! I tried to pull up one of the slabs but it was far too heavy.

I came to the conclusion that perhaps there was a space beneath this splintering soil, but I figured it couldn’t be more than a few inches, maybe one foot at the most, otherwise the road would not have been able to exist here. I also noted in one area feces from a pretty big dog, which told me that at least dogs wandered around here without falling to their doom. The soil actually seemed to not really be soil, but some kind of white, crystelly mineral. I was able to break off a piece and examine it under the light of the moon.

It sparkled. I tasted a bit; it seemed to be mostly of salt, and perhaps calcium and a few other minerals. I made an educated guess that this was probably the ancient dry lakebed of some prehistoric mineral-rich lake (not unlike the ones I saw in Sud Lipez, Bolivia), and the cracking sound came from these minerals cooling after a long day in the hot, unforgiving sun of the Atacama. If anybody wants to do any research and find out exactly what this place was, please do so. I’ll add it into this post and credit you with enlightening me. It was about three or four kilometres south of Victoria, in the first region of Chile, along the Pan-American highway.

I made camp for the night on the flattest bit of space I could find, hoping that I wasn’t wrong and wasn’t about to fall down into a bottomless abyss, never to be heard from again.

I awoke the next morning to a pack of stray dog sniffing around my pack and looking for food; I gave one of them my last piece of bread, who thanked me by pissing on my pack. Ugh. Trying to wipe off all the dog pee, I packed up my sleeping bag and headed back to the road, the ground still cracking beneath my feet.

A morning of hitchhiking brought me once again to the crossroads of the Pan-American highway and Ruta 26 to Antofagasta. Here is probably the worst hitchhiking spot of Chile, and after hours of waiting in the brutal sun and hot, sand-laden winds, a miner truck stopped and said that they would take me to the nearest truck stop after they stopped at their apartments and dropped off some supplies.

We arrived to the mining settlement, and the miners unloaded their truck and took showers. They were kind enough to feed me lentejas, a kind of bean soup which I love, and gave me a huge bag of bread for the road. I was reminded once again why I love Chile so much; the people are so friendly!

I waited at the truck stop for about fifteen minutes before I found a trucker who was headed to Santiago. Perfect! I hopped in and we were off.

The desert lasted forever; mile after mile of nothing. Around kilometre 1455 there is an old guy who lives alone in the desert in a little house he made himself out of minerals; we saw him asking passing cars for water. I gotta visit him one day, seems like my kind of person.

The next morning we arrived to Copiapó, where we stopped for a few hours of rest before continuing on south. We then kept driving into the day, and got to Coquimbo around two in the afternoon.

Here the trucker told me I had to get off because he needed to change cargo before continuing on to Santiago, so I told him goodbye and kept on walking south. I went into Coquimbo to busk a little on my harp, but I didn’t make much so I just went and sat on the beach instead. After about an hour I went back to the highway and continued hitchhiking.

Soon, the very same truck I had ridden in from Antofagasta passed and picked me up once again; he took me to the crossroads of the Pan-American highway and the road that led to San Felipe, since I wanted to stop by and say hi to my friends there. We arrived very late, and it was cold and rainy, so I just spent the night at a gas station and left for San Felipe in the morning.

When I arrived to San Felipe, I found that all my friends had moved around to other houses, apparently after someone had broken into the old house and stole a bunch of stuff. I am currently waiting at the University for one of them to come by so I can find out where everybody lives now.

I’ll stay here for the weekend before continuing south to Osorno. Until next time…

The Modern Nomad

Reference Map

1. The Devils’ Jacuzzi

2. Splintering Soils