It’s 8:45 pm, we are at 14,500 feet, my lips are a tinge purple, and I can feel my heartbeat reverberate in my brain as we sit in a large valley surrounded by the tallest peaks in Bolivia. The moonlight is now lighting up these snow capped volcanoes, as the temperature plummets, the stars are starting to twinkle, and we are tucked into bed, me up top, Marlie below, wondering if we’re going to be one of those middle aged couples that sleeps in different beds. We were supposed to be resting in a remote hot spring about now, yet we sit 1.5 kilometers and one aborted attempt at a stream crossing away. Instead we find ourselves on the wrong side of the stream in llama pasture just below where we dropped off a picture perfect Bolivian grandma hitch hiker.
Yesterday we awoke on the beach in Arica, the northern most costal town in Chile, and the surf capital of the region. It sits 20 kilometers south of the Peruvian border, nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the arid sand dunes of the Northern Atacama Desert to the east. There’s plenty of touristy shops lining the main drag, with plenty of surfer bros to go along with it, there’s even a Huntington board shop, just imagine a slice of Huntington Beach in the desert, with less MMA gyms and more mines. After an extremely frustrating day and a half of running around town trying track down a decent board to rent, I was finally able to find a board, an 8 foot foam top, for 30 bucks a day, no wax, with a nice moldy scented rash guard thrown in for free, not ideal but I was just glad to be able to go out for a paddle. In northern chile there simply are not any shops willing to rent fiberglass boards, and less selling them. 90 percent of the line up is boogie boarders, and the other 10 percent are using boards that have the Frankenstein pieced together look about them. After awhile I was feeling pretty high on my newer foamie and catching all the slow rollers that the frankensteiners could not catch with their low performance short boards.
Arica was a place that I had in my head for the previous few months as an ideal surf spot with plenty of surf breaks, no crowds, and mellow camping on the beach. In actuality, as with all things we come to have expectations of, Arica wasn’t a let down but just an entirely different beast than the Internet or guidebooks paint. Our first night camping on the beach we parked at a small pullout hundreds of yards from the nearest tent, of which I suspected was dealing crack at the rate that sketchy looking cars, with even sketchier looking drivers, were pulling in by blasting across the soft sand, parking for a few minutes and then somehow blasting out without getting stuck. We were rather entertained with the feats of crack strength and pulled out the awning, cracked opened some beers to relax and observe the action at Las Machas beach. As the sunset behind a distant fog bank, we fired up panco crusted fried shrimp burritos, topped with guacamole, pico de Marlie, bean burrito filling and a touch of our favorite hot sauce that we procured from the kitchen of our favorite restaurant on the island of Chiloe.
We fell in with local custom by having a large driftwood beach bonfire, adding a bit of Norte American flair by roasting marshmallows and sandwiching them between caramel stuffed timtams. After our pile of driftwood diminished, along with our centerpiece log and a case of beer we called it a night. It was midnight and we retreated to the comfort of the van, which when the window shades are drawn, it seems that you could be parked anywhere, ignorant to the outside world we fell blissfully asleep. Two thirty AM on the dot, the bliss was broken as the after bar crowd rolling in, whether to buy crack and party all night or just as simply, party all night, we’ll never know, but party all night they did. I’ll never forget this night of Spanish bass pumping 1996 Honda civics, incessantly the bass pumped until around six am, when the music stopped we were stoked, until something hit our van. Regardless or irregardless as Marlie likes to say, whether it was a bird, bat or beer bottle, it scared the shit out of us, we laid awake stone cold, anticipating what next would transpire. Nothing but dead silence was to follow, which was almost worse, before we dozed off only to be awoken an hour later by the very efficient beach cleaning crew and their tractor.
Another day of beach lounging, attempted surf riding, beer crushing, crack dealer watching, and sun burning we parked our van in a seemingly more non Honda Civic party spot. All was going well until 4:45 am, we we were startled awake by someone knocking on the van door. Being just Mar and I in the van we were trying out the top loft for the first time. As inexperienced loft goers we neglected to pull our main windshield curtains, as we looked down in fright, flashlights lit up the lower deck of the vessel, and a Spanish woman’s voice repeatedly called out to us. After playing possum for a few minutes, the people outside ventured off in the direction of the crack tent as we watched from our upper port window. Again we finally dozed off only to be awoken by an efficient beach cleaning crew.
After a long morning surf session, we decided to make a break for the hills and the possibility of a quiet undisturbed night of sleep. We packed the van, drove to a most convenient drive through propane filling station (only Norbert and Greti can truly appreciate the value of this), refilled on items that we assume we might not find in Bolivia (tortillas, Parmesan cheese, refried beans, Café Gold ™ Créme Caramel Más Cremoso instant coffee packets), got an oil change and purchased enough oil and filters for the next changing. By two thirty PM we were headed due east to the town of Putre, 150 kilometers and 11,000 feet of elevation away.
As we drove further and higher into the dunescape we were in awe of the amount of agriculture being practiced on the valley floor, all around us there seemed to be no signs of water, yet there were fields and greenhouses flush with vegetation. We eventually cam to a halt along with every other trucker headed east, the cause was massive construction on the pass we intended to cross. I urgently had to pee and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, I raced to the back of the van to urinate in our pee bottle fashioned from a two liter Coke bottle with the neck cut off. For the second time in our travels together I sharted, I anticipated a fart mid pee, but what followed was a three wipe mess, luckily for me I have a gal that laughed harder at my bowel mishap and we quickly moved on to the task at hand.
Driving higher and higher we gained more and more vision of the immensity of the surrounding desert scape, when it seemed that we had reached the pass, we drove further into a lush high desertscape. The town of Putre is surrounded by terraced fields of alfalfa and oregano, sitting at 11,000 feet. The cobblestone streets are lined with small mud-brick buildings, each adorned with an plump elderly woman dressed in bright clothing, long braids, unique top hats, selling either clothes, food stuffs, or handmade goods that seemed to be the South America that we had been expecting but not yet experienced thus far. We found a level parking spot and wandered around until we found a small restaurant that seemed popular with the locals. We sat down ordered the set dinner and were surprised at the four course meal that was laid before us, featuring soup, local fry bread, salad, fish and rice entree, topped off with a pico sour for three dollars USD.
We slept soundly and awoke early to the noise of the small city rising, we packed up our things, purchased gas from the local mercantile and hit the road by 8:30 AM, our destination a local hot spring. Our three different maps couldn’t agree on its exact location, but after driving a short half-hour, we found ourselves at Termas Jurasi, a seemingly abandoned hot spring with one large blue tiled pool with piping hot water pouring in and a locked building containing smaller bathing tubs. We first prepared breakfast burritos, then enjoyed an hour of private hot spring time before the first guests arrived and we made our exit, intending to reach two other Termas by day’s end.
As we pressed on towards the border a volcano appeared on the horizon, as the border neared the massive snow capped peak rose higher and higher from a flamingo lined lake at its base. We couldn’t believe the scenery, before us, as nothing in our guidebook had prepared us for the glaciated volcano lined skyline that we came across as we approached Bolivia. The border crossing was confusing, although that could be attributed to our slow functioning brains at nearly 15,000 ft. The crossing took us nearly two hours and drained us of any energy we gained from the spectacular scenery. At some point we missed the turned for the second hot spring of the day but pushed on as the valley before us and the hot spring it contains seemed more attainable.
Mt Sajama towers above the region at 21,500 feet, it stands alone and bears a crown of massive hanging glaciers, the crown is much deserved, as it is Bolivias tallest peak. As we dropped from the border to its base, we were in awe, so much in fact, that we missed two turn offs and ended up at the east entrance to the park. From this we learned that our gps is no longer reliable in Bolivia, that we must now rely paper maps and our ability to navigate via stars, and that common sense is affected by altitude. From the east entrance we derived that to reach the hot springs we would have to circumnavigate the base of the volcano almost 270 degrees on a washed out gravel road. No problemo, with an hour and a half of daylight remaining we pulled off the poorly paved highway and soon found ourselves cruising a dusty single lane track northeast into the depths of Sajarma National Park.
It wasn’t quite apparent at first but, we soon found ourselves shrouded in fine dust, inside the van. As we were flying along the soft dusty track we were talking of how neat it would be to capture a drive by shot of the van and the ensuing dust storm, but laughed at the prospect of standing there being left on the dust to get the shot. Yet here we were,driving along and somehow the fine particulate was clogging our vision in the front of the van. We reached a small town and ranger station where we filled out our basic information and received our tickets, number 71 and 72 or the year respectively. Also we picked up a nice silver toothed local looking for a ride to the town just past our destination. While I was enjoying the company of my first potential Bolivian girlfriend up front, Marlie was discovering the cause of our interior dust storm in the back. The back ceiling vent is usually open as it provides a nice draft when accompanied by the front windows rolled down, yet this day it was our bane, as the entire back of the van was covered in two years worth of dust.
After another twenty kilometers of dusty bumpy single track we arrived at Lucias hometown of Sajarma and left her off beside the road, we turned around quickly, trying to race the sunset to the thermal. As we were pulling out of the small outpost, a short plump, three toothed grandma was waving us down. We figured that she was headed in our direction and beckoned her inside, she on the other hand couldn’t find the door. After a bit of explanation she managed to crawl up into shotgun and fired off directions to her Casa in something that vaguely resembled Spanish. On we drove with our Bolivian grandma in shotgun bouncing and grimacing at every sharp corner and rough bounce. We couldn’t understand each other yet, her grandmotherly ways were evident and it was obvious that she didn’t approve of my cruisy driving techniques. We eventually made it to a road past the marked road to the hot springs when she motioned me to stop. She crawled down off the captains chair and motioned for us to follow a faint track through the bush, then walked off into the llama pasture land, the nearest house was kilometers away. 10 kilometers closer than where we picked her up as the daylight was fading, Bolivians are a tough breed and we’re going to have to get a bit tougher for the second half of our South American journey.