Storm approaches Refuge No.2 on the way to San Francisco pass
My final two-point-something Argentinian pesos refilled my petrol bottle and earned me a few sweets that were gone before I had left town. One kilometre out of Fiambala and it was back to the stony, bald and sun -beaten landscape. Gone were the irrigation channels that bring water from the high mountains and provide a life support system for what would otherwise be a patch of gravel but can now harbour trees, vineyards and small vegetable patches and grazing ground. Gone too are the fridges, the shelves of food, the ability to decide on a whim that you need something and that you can go and buy that item. A packet of biscuits, an ice cream, a cold beer. Things that normally don't have any importance but seem to assume gigantic importance in the empty vastness. Upon emergence from this sand-filled, fructose-free environment , 480 kilometres hence, all three will be consumed almost simultaneously beside a bemused old man on a shady bench, who I can see wondering whether melting chocolates and a bottle of cold beer really go well together. Indeed they don't but at least they kept my mind focused for forty hours in the saddle.
Flamingo at Cortaderas
The Catamarca provincial government had the exceptional foresight a couple of years back to build six refugios along the 200 km stretch between Fiambala, Argentina's last settlement and the top of the San Francisco pass - the frontier with Chile - and these provided shelter from inundation, tempests and below zero temperatures. Leaving Fiambala (approx. 1500 m.a.s.l.), the road climbs steadily to the southeast before veering north on a more level trajectory after 60 km. I reached Refuge No.1 shortly before 6pm but decided to continue on to the second refuge (approximately 20 kilometres further up). With a young rattling Bono and humming Edge urging me on, the refuge came into view across a large plain. Lightning was poking the ground through the dense clouds on the high ground beyond and by the time I covered the remaining few kilometres the storm had reached the refuge. A night in an exposed tent, with little chance of finding shelter would have been rather unpleasant and I was quickly learning the value of the refuges and waxing lyrical in my stillborn Spanish in the comment book, encouraging other provinces and nations of the world to adopt such humane practices. Presently a motorbike appeared through the storm and a fellow entered, carrying several parcels wrapped in plastic. Friendly smiles all round and it turned out that he was from Fiambala but grazed his sheep and cows up here. His family come to visit him for one month a year and they have a cottage a few kilometres up the road, on the other side of the small river. He then said something about milk and tea, which I initially assumed was a self invitation to breakfast the following morning but on reflection I am not so sure. I said si a couple of times in any case. He departed once the storm cleared amidst the last dramatic rays of sunshine shining through the clouds, as I piled up his plastic parcels on the petrol tank. He nodded and smiled in agreement about the beauty around him. A couple of hours later, just as a carrot, onion, potato and scoop of soya granules was reaching near perfection, a car pulled up in the cold darkness outside. Having successfully colonised the small shelter I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of having to share the refuge for the night but the two men and two young sons who were up on a weekend fishing trip soon had a fire going with the wood they brought and I didn't mind sending Rocinante outside for the night. A 5 a.m. sharp the telephone alarm of the father had us all clambering around in the cold and dark and a couple of hours later, full of warm porridge and with the sun beginning to make an appearance, I headed north.
Near an oddly placed and inexplicably abandoned new hotel complex at Cortaderas, three men were standing by the back of the pickup truck having breakfast. Also up for a day's fishing from Tinogasta, they shared their coffee and bread and invited me to lunch if I should happen to time it right, later in the day. As we parted, the driver, decked out in Levi´s and large leather gaucho boots, was stuffing some coca leaves into his mouth and then offered me a few. A renowned remedy for high altitude ailments in the Andes, dried coca leaves are legal in many South American countries, with Bolivia being one of the primary producers. Hardly a performance enhancer, but the combination of caffine, sugar and a slightly numbed mouth from the chewed leaf, had me covering the 94km to Refuge No.5 at 4000 metres by 6 o'clock. A platter of barbequed chorizo's lay left like entrails on the grill but when I gingerly explained that I was moreorless-a-nonmeateater these days to the three very friendly but uncomprehending Argentine carnivores, an enormous bag of grapes was produced instead. The wind picked up as the sun fell and once more I was thankful to the refuge gods.
10km before the Argentina customs post at Las Grutas (4000m)
On the morning of the third day from Fiambala, I reached the Argentine customs post, 21km shy of the pass. I got stamped out whilst explaining to the young Gendarme from Jujuy that William Wallace was in fact Scottish, not Irish. A quick historical sketch of Irish political history, the Las Malvinas war and British imperialism with the customs man, and another friendly chat with the road maintenance guys who filled all my water bottles, and I continued west towards the pass and into the wind. The 800 metre ascent and fierce headwind though had me once again back to a crawling pace. A few hundred metres would be attempted before the little available oxygen would deflate me and then another rest. Sometimes a push. Another few hundred metres. And so forth. Five and a half hours later I had covered the 21km to the top of the pass, consumed all my not-so-fresh bread and cheese, and decided to stay at the final refuge, No.6, just beside the top of the pass. A shiny new GS1200 appeared and the owner was from Copiapo in Chile. He was tucking his large stash of coca leaves deep into his jacket pocket, explaining that Chilean customs could give him problems if he left them in the panniers. Handing me a small bottle of warm coke he roared off into Chile, while I went back to gathering scraps of wood that had been left by others for fuel.
San Francisco pass, Chile/Argentina (4726 metres)
Some cardboard sheets provided additional warmth and I kept a fire going most of the night and was up at 5am reigniting it, although I didn't intend to ride until the sun came up. I headed off at 8am with most of my clothes on but even then the temperature hadn't risen sufficiently for my hands not to become painfully cold after a 3km descent and I wasn't able to brake. So instead I wrapped a couple of pairs of shorts around my fingerless gloves and headed down to Laguna Verde looking like a pedaling clothes line. Down at the cobalt blue lake I filtered some water from a stream, although I was later told it has a high mineral content and its not advised that you drink it. An attempt to gain the attention of a policeman at the carabineros post by the lake proved fruitless so I just pedaled past. At the turn-off to the thermal springs the road began climbing steeply again, to the second high point that I had only discovered the day before whilst browsing through a route description I had. Yet again there was a 21km climb, this time to just under 4600 metres and with a stiff headwind the day's intended target of the Chilean customs post, 110km from the top of the pass, looked very ambitious. It didn't look any more likely by 3pm, when after another five hours of pushing and pedaling four kilometres per hour, I reached the high point (4598m) and then the road began to descend slightly through a zone of very steep badenes (dips in the road for drainage). As I passed a site where earth-movers were sculpting the gravel landscape in preparation for a new tarred road due in three years time, a minibus came out after me. Ismael was from southern Chile and asked me where I was going and where I intended to spend the night, as it looked like I wouldn't make the descent to the customs post this evening. He offered me a bed and dinner in the workers compound, 55km ahead, beside the customs post and the prospect of another frozen, windy night above 4000 metres had me accepting the offer reluctantly and so Rocinante was unpacked and then loaded into the back of the minibus.
Laguna Verde, Chile
An hour later, at the end of the working day, the twelve workers from the site boarded the bus and we bounced for an hour down to the customs post and the workers compound. Ismael had been in the Chilean military for a few years before deciding to supervise on construction projects and earn more money. Shifts are 12 hours long, for twenty continuous days, followed by ten days off where the workers return to all of the various parts of Chile that they're from. A bed in the prefabs wasn't possible after a discussion with his boss, but Ismael invited me back for food after I sorted out my passport and a space to lie down for the night with the customs post. The post closes at 7pm but I was offered three old, worn and comfortable chairs by the x-ray machine by a detective who looked like a cross between a surfer and an extra from Starsky and Hutch, with bermuda shorts, long hair and droopy moustache. Grateful to be indoors, as the customs post was still at over 3700 metres, I headed back for a dinner of banana, courgettes and rice with a hundred road workers, served up by guys wearing surgical face masks.
Contamination from El Salvador copper mine tailings on the Pacific coast at Chanaral
Breakfast the following morning looked like something you would leave out for the birds as I put all my remaining seeds and honey into a bowl of porridge, before the Chilean customs officer stripped me of all prohibited foodstuffs. After Rocinante was given a full cavity search, the friendly Mauricio brought me over to the staff house for a second breakfast of eggs and coffee. Approximately 280 kilometres remained to Diego de Almagro, where chocolates and a cold beer could be found, amongst other non-essential items like water, fruit and vegetables. Yet again though the wind gods cursed me and progress was slow by the Pedernales slat flats but the views were fantastic. Side tracks in the gravel led off to small invisible mining camps. The largest mine in the area, at El Salvador, is one of the most important copper mines in Chile.
Six days after leaving Fiambala, I forced my way into Diego de Almagro against a stiff wind and while initially considering heading back out to camp, a night in the hotel on the main plaza for $10 was conceded to. The old lady running the place asked was I very dirty, apparently an obvious question to pose to new arrivals, and expressed concern about me carting my gear into the room. After assuring her though that I wouldn't sleep with my panniers and they would stay on the floor, I headed out to find some pizza, my craving for sugar and fat not yet abated. A little pub with pictures of the former President Salvador Allende (overthrown in 1973 during a coup led by General Pinochet, among others), Che and other mineworker heros graced the walls. My vegetarian pizza arrived with three different species of domesticated animals on it.
Truckstop on the Pan American highway in the Atacama
The following morning I headed for the Pacific coast at Chanaral. Again the westerly picked up so that I was forcing my way downhill but the Pacific came into view along with a big smile at what felt like another important milestone. An inaugural dip in the Pacific would have to wait, however, as the copper mine tailings that were dumped into the bay during the 1970s and 80s have provided enough contaminants to kill off the bay's aquatic life and keep swimmers away. I loaded up with supplies for the ride north to Antofagasta, through the Atacama (well it's all the Atacama) and then headed out to camp on the beach near the entrance to the Pan de Azucar national park. A quick visit to the park the following morning and then I continued on through the park, heading inland, to join the Pan American highway northbound. The 400km to Antofagasta was interspersed with a couple of posadas or truckstops where water could be stocked up on. Four days later, the large cement factory on the southern outskirts of Antofagasta came into view.
Mano del desierto
Prior to 1879 I would have been in Bolivia already, but the city that was originally part of Bolivia was taken over by Chilean troops in an event that marked the beginning of the War of the Pacific over mineral rights in the region, with Chile against Peru and Bolivia. Landlocked Bolivia has maintained a navy and its aspiration that it will one day recover the coastline and recent social conflicts in Bolivia over resource exploitation, especially natural gas, stem in part from the theory that the loss of the coastline has stymied Bolivia's economy. All contributing factors that led to the election of Bolivia's current president, Evo Morales, in 2005.
Arriving at La Negra, southern outskirts of Antofagasta
Trip distance: 29,751 km