So we’ve been in South America for nearly three months now and still aren’t fluent n Spanish, what’s that about?! We took two weeks of school in Cusco and I’m planning on doing another week with a local homestay in Bolivia. In many places there’s very little English so we’ve had quite a steep learning curve. Especially when we’re on the bike and end up in small remote towns we’ve no choice but to attempt to converse in Spanish. I’ve pretty much got to the stage where I can get by with the absolute basics – small talk, order food, ask for directions, enquire about rooms etc. But the problems start when we get responses, its all well and good putting a few words together to get yourself understood, but it’s a whole different story trying to understand the responses! I end up gambling with a “Si”, a little laugh and a head nod in the hope that it makes even just a little bit of sense as a response.
There’s also variations for how things are understood. In Peru we found:
“Mi Espanol no es muy bueno, por favor pueda hablar despacio” (My Spanish isn’t very good please can you speak slowly) is translated to mean “These guys Spanish isn’t very good, I’ll speak slowly and clearly and only use basic vocabulary in the hope we can just about understand each other”.
However in Northern Chile we found “Mi Espanol no es muy bueno, por favor pueda hablar despacio” (My Spanish isn’t very good please can you speak slowly) translates to “These guys speak fluent Spanish so I will continue to speak at the same speed as I do with my friends, I will use slang, and get frustrated when they cant understand a word”. Needless to say our conversations in Northern Chile were limited to “Buenos Dias!”
Most of the time I just apply my failsafe method for basic Spanish speech. 70% of the time, it works everytime. It’s pretty simple:
- Add an O to the end of the English equivalent word. If not:
- Add an IO to the end of the English equivalent word. If not:
- Add an IENTE to the end of the English equivalent word.
If that doesn’t work you can be pretty sure the word doesn’t exist in Spanish so repeat the above with a similar English word until you find success. Simple.
I also used to think talking slowly to a non-native English speaker was patronising. Well it’s not patronizing it’s really, really helpful. Obviously there are limits; if the words literally have no meaning it doesn’t matter how slowly they’re said. If after three slow attempts they still don’t understand you its time to stop. If you keep repeating after this then you just sound like a douchebag. I never understand why people think shouting the words in your face really slowly over and over again actually helps. The word literally means nothing so shut up. Anyway rants and ramblings over I’ll leave it at that and get back to my book (Spanish of course).
Volcan Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. Its 2800 metres above sea level, covered in snow and towers behind Pucon. Climbing it is one of the main things to do here. Unfortunately I like beer, pizza and full English breakfasts and things like that usually don’t make you very good at doing things like this. We met a few people in the hostel who’d done it and talking to them didn’t make me feel much better. One guy explained how he “thought he wasn’t going to make it” and another said it was the “hardest thing he’d ever done”. There was one guy who said it “wasn’t too bad” but unfortunately for me he was in perfect shape and regularly hiked and mountaineered. Now when someone like that said it’s “not too bad” I knew instantly that Villarrica, despite being covered in ice, would be my hell.
We met at 6.30am to be given all our gear and then drove around 30 minutes to the start point of the volcano. You have an option to get a chairlift at the beginning that cuts out about an hour of the climb. You then get off the chairlift and start walking on the snow straight away. We were warned this first hour was pretty hard as it was just loose gravel and can easily tire you out before you start the four-hour ascent on the snow. It costs $18 but to be honest they could have charged me $180 and I’d have still have jumped at the chance. Anything to improve my chances of making it to the top! Our group was about 50/50 between those who took the lift and those who walked the first part. At the top of the lift the guides fitted our crampons to our boots and showed us how to use the ice picks. Even at this point we were above the clouds and the views were beautiful.
I took my first few steps on the snow and it didn’t seem too bad. The crampons really help you grip and you’re only taking really small steps. We continued up the first part of the mountain in a zig zag towards the first rest point. Once you start walking and with the sun shining it actually gets pretty warm. It didn’t take long before alot of us were just in our t-shirts. I think we were lucky with the weather though, the guides were telling us how in the winter the wind and conditions often prevent people from reaching the summit.
About a third of the way up I started to struggle. My chest was hurting from my asthma and my legs were starting to get wobbly. I began to worry about reaching the top but the key for me was to keep at my own pace. The guides were pretty clear that there was no hurry and we could take a rest whenever we wanted. As soon as you climb at your own rate it becomes alot easier than constantly trying to keep up with the fastest people in the group.
In the last forty minutes the gradient increased and it became pretty steep. I was pretty exhausted at this point and my legs were like jelly. It was just a case of concentrating on putting one leg in front of the other! We could see the smoke from the crater and it seemed to be just over the next mound of snow. Unfortunately after each “last twenty metres” another twenty metres seemed to appear in front of us.
Finally after about four hours we reached the crater. I was totally spent at this point and the guides came over to take my crampons off. They lifted my leg up to take the left one off, unfortunately by this time I could barely stand one two legs let alone one and my right leg gave way and I ended up collapsing on my back!
I’ve always wondered what it would look like at the top of a volcano so it was surreal to be finally starring into the crater of one. It was quite scary as Chilean health and safety is not like the kind we’re used to. You could get as close to the edge of the crater as you dared, which in my case wasn’t very close at all! You can walk all around the crater but depending on the wind direction the smoke can make it quite uncomfortable. It’s pretty toxic and we were advised to wear our buffs over our mouths. It was an incredible sight though and the surrounding scenery made it pretty breathtaking.
After about 45 minutes at the top we started the ascent down. But not walking, that would be boring. We were given plastic plates and told to sit in these pre dug out snow tunnels and slide all the way down. It was absolutely awesome! You can pick up quite a bit of speed if you do it right. I ended up backwards, upside down and back to front at various points. Dangerous? Of course. Absolutely hilariously awesome? Definitely. The most fun thing I’ve done in a hell of a long time. At one point 4 of us got jammed up together and the snow beneath us was rolling down the mountain picking up speed. We were basically hurtling down the mountain on a massive slow slide. Whoever decided to make this the descent rather than walking down was a genius!
At the bottom we were all totally soaked and frozen but happy. My legs were killing, my butt totally numb from the snow but I knew that the beer when we got back would be one of the best tasting beers I’ve ever had! Volcano Villarica was tough but worth absolutely every ache and pain in the world. Totally incredible.
So we arrived in Santiago on Monday after a two day drive from Mendoza in Argentina. We’re staying at La Chimba hostel in the heart of the Bellavista district. The location is fantastic as its right in the middle of the cafe/bar/pub district. The Pio Nono street just around the corner is lined with restaurants and places to eat and drink which are full from around mid afternoon! The hostel is huge and very lively and social so its been a nice change for us after our many weeks wild camping lately. Initially we were only planned to stay until Thursday but each day we’ve ended up booking an extra night. After here it’ll be mainly camping and outdoorsy things in Patagonia so we’re just enjoying our last few days in a big city.
The city itself seems really cool and has a nice vibe. And although we’ve heard a few negative stories from others we’ve never felt unsafe. It’s a very vibrant city and many of the walls are covered with incredible street art.
Sightseeing wise we haven’t done a huge deal while we’ve been here. But thats usually part of the charm of being in cities like this. The cafe’s, bars and restaurants seem to be filling our time more than anything else! We did take the tram up the San Cristobal hill which is a famous viewpoint for the city. The view was pretty nice, but there was a layer of smog which didn’t make the view the clearest. It’s only about $4 for the tram though so its worth it, and when we got down we rewarded ourselves for being such productive tourists by having (yet another) beer.
When we leave Santiago we’re heading south. Like all the way South. The aim is to get to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. If Colin holds up, we expect the trip will take about 6 weeks. We’ll cover the entire distance of the Carretera Austral which is 1200km of unpopulated, off road gravel.
We’ve spent alot of time this week preparing ourselves and Colin to leave civilisation. We’ve replaced his now pretty shot front tyre and picked up a spare one for the rear in case parts are harder to source down there. We’ve also topped up our tool kit, got extra spare tubes and got a mechanic to give him a once over. So now he’s as ready as he’ll ever be and we’ve got our fingers crossed that Colin will take the Patagonian conditions in his stride! Wish us luck!
So after over two weeks in San Pedro De Atacama and after alot of frustration, some pretty low moods and far too many $4 empanadas (we pretty much lived off them for the last week!) we’d finally got the bike fixed. Although it’s a stunning place that I’d definitely recommend to visit, after this much time and under such circumstances we were definitely ready to leave. As soon as everything was sorted we didn’t waste anytime in setting off on the next leg of the trip which was the 2000km stretch south to Mendoza in Argentina. Not sure how but we actually miscalculated the distance beforehand and thought it was just over a thousand kilometres. We thought it’d take us around 3 or 4 days and be a nice easy trip…. Well a week later and after about 500km of off road we’d been knocked off the bike once (not our fault), ran out of fuel once (my fault), unintentionally stole from a child (my fault) and ran out of cash twice due to consistently faulty and unreliable ATM’s. Never a dull moment! I’ll rewind…
The first few days of the trip went relatively without incident. The first day involved crossing the border into Argentina. Leaving San Pedro we had around a 2/3 hour ascent to the border at around 12,000ft. The road was entirely paved so although a bit cold it was an easy and beautiful trip.
Crossing the border into Argentina was abit more tense than the one from Peru to Chile. We were questioned heavily about Andrews legal ownership of the bike. Although we have the ownership card Andrews name isn’t actually on it. Peru have just started a new digital system where the card is scanned and the owners details can be found on “the system”. However as border control pointed out, that is a Peruvian system and they had no way to scan it to ensure we were the legal owners of the bike. Or at least they said they didn’t! Luckily we had photocopies of the legal agreement made between Andrew and the bikes original owner and this was enough to assure them we were not thieves disguised as crazy gringo’s. We were in fact just crazy gringo’s attempting to ride massive distances on a small Chinese bike. Crisis averted we set off to drive for a few more hours and find a camp spot before hitting Ruta 40 in the morning.
Ruta 40 is to Argentina what Route 66 is to North America. Spanning nearly the entire length of the country it stretches over 5000km, cuts through 20 National Parks, crosses 18 major rivers and reaches 5000m at its highest point. Much of the road is unpaved, famously beautiful and on the must do list of many adventure motorists, cyclists and travellers. Our route south involves sections of Ruta 40 and we joined it for the first time just south of Susques in far Northern Argentina.
The first day on Ruta 40 was a long one. The road was mainly lose gravel so we weren’t covering as much distance as the day before. The scenery however was absolutely stunning and some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. We were happy taking it slowly and enjoying the views!
We actually reached the highest point on Ruta 40 on our first day on the road. Abra Del Acay is 4895 metres (16,000ft) above sea level. It’s cold, windy but absolutely beautiful.
We spent about 10 minutes taking in the view then decided to descend as we were both struggling with the altitude and feeling pretty breathless and sick. The descent was nerve-wracking, the road was very loose gravel and incredibly steep. We also had to cross about a dozen streams, some more than a foot deep with rocky beds. Luckily Andrew and Colin (the bike) did very well and we made it down with no issues except my soaking feet from having to walk through the streams that Andrew drove through!
The next day we continued at a much lower altitude which we were both grateful for. The road was still loose gravel as we approached Cachi, a quaint little town which sees a small amount of tourism due to the outdoor activities that can be done in the area. We stopped for a lovely lunch and a couple of hours break before continuing South towards the next larger town – Cafayate.
The journey continued to be stunning as we hugged cliff edges, passed through gorges and wound our way up and down small mountains.
We reached Cafayate late in the afternoon the following day. We just stopped for supplies before heading on to find a campspot just south of the town. It was around this time that we realised we hadn’t made anywhere near the kind of time that we’d expected to. We’d been driving for four days and were not even half way yet. This didn’t bother us too much as we had no real time restraints but we would just need to get some more money out in Chilecito which was the next big town.
We hit Chilecito with the intention to grab food, cash and get straight out and on the way. Unfortunately this was not to be and instead we decided to ramp up our “incident” tally. Firstly we couldn’t get any cash out. Literally every cash machine in the town would decline all our cards (quite common out here they are very temperamental with international cards). We had enough cash to fill the tank and get water and a pack of Oreo’s but no meal. Since we’d only really been eating one meal a day as we tended to only realy hit one big town a day this was going to be quite problematic. I’d been getting dangerously close to a size 10 over the last week and this lack of cash for food was surely going to be the icing on the non existent cake; soon I would be able to comfortably do up my skinny jeans and nobody wants that. Luckily after over an hour driving around we found one machine willing to give us cash and we found a steak and cheese sandwich with chips. Crisis averted.
Our second bundle of incidents occured in the restaurant with the steak and cheese sandwich with chips. After getting accosted by a drunk man who was absolutely convinced that Santiago was in the north (it was about 1000km directly south of where we were!) we managed to get chatting to a 10 year old boy whose family owned a local shop. After seeing he had a loom band on his wrist I attempted to say that I have these aswel. Unfortunately my horrendous Spanish “tengo este” (I have this) while pointing at it was interpreted as “Can I have your bracelet”. Before I knew it he had taken it off and put it in front of me and left. Maybe he knew what I meant and just wanted to give it to me, or maybe I’m going to hell. Either way we hot footed out of there as soon as we could.
The final Chilecito incident occurred on our way out of town. We were sat at a red light when a car flew into the back of us causing us to fly off the bike and onto the pavement and the bike to crash down. It hit us with some force and we were pretty shaken. The man stopped and was incredibly apologetic but his means of apology was to explain how he wasn’t wearing his glasses! We started the bike and Andrew took it around the block and few times and everything seemed fine. Luckily when we bought the bike we’d got a custom rack made to fit all our luggage. The rack protrudes beyond the rear tyre and is rock solid and seemingly indestructible! It was this part of the rack that took the full force of the car. If the car had hit the wheel there would almost certainly have been some very serious damage. Even with the force of the impact the rack was undamaged. We felt fine at the time but then the next day we both had abit of whiplash on the back of our necks. It faded after a day or so so now claimsforyou.com for us!
Anyway a few hours later we finally left Chilecito and continued on Ruta 40 towards San Jose. The road was now often paved so we were able to make better time. The last couple of days driving although still pretty were not as scenic as the first part of Ruta 40 in the north. We did however have small portion of off road where we were driving through a moon like landscape of jagged rocks. This was surreal and a awesomely beautiful part of the trip.
We were approaching San Jose when we had to take a diversion due to a landslide on the road. This would’ve been fine however I got us lost on the diversion and we ended up doing an extra 80km round trip. Of all the places to get us lost though I managed it on the part where the two nearest fuel stations were about 250km apart. We can get about 300km comfortably out the tank but as we were approaching San Jose we started to get worried as we’d over 50km to go and were already approaching the 300km mark. Luckily we did get close to San Jose, but unfortunately not close enough. About 6km out of town Colin gave up and lost power. We both instantly wrote off the remainder of the day thinking it would take ages to get sorted. I nominated myself to hitch hike into San Jose and stood in the road and waved down the next vehicle to pass. It was a private bus full of constructions workers. Out came the horrendous spanish “Por favor Senor, mi moto no gasolina, pueda tomar mi San Jose” which I think is something along the lines of “please Sir my motorbike has no gas can you take me to San Jose”. He understood anyway and waved for me to get in the back. They dropped me at the gas station, I filled up and then started to walk the 6km back. No cars were passing at all and I thought I’d have to walk all the way back in the heat but then I saw a car approach and flagged it down. Turned out to be a police car! I wasn’t sure whether this was a bad or a good thing, although we’ve had absolutely no hassle with any police yet we still constantly hear unfavourable stories. They thought the whole thing was rather amusing though and took me back without questions. The whole incident was sorted within about 20 minutes. Not bad and could have been far worse!
We left San Jose and headed towards San Juan which is the closest big town to Mendoza. The following morning we finally hit Mendoza after an eventful but unforgettable week. Now we just need to go and buy our “Ruta 40″ stickers and stick them on our helmets like the traveler douchebags we are!
Despite being the driest desert in the world the Atacama has quite a few Lagunas. As with the Geysers and the Valle de la Luna they’re easy to get to on a tour but we thought we’d just head off on Colin and do it ourselves.
First up and only 10km out of San Pedro was Laguna Cejar. It’s very much on the tour routes in San Pedro, popular due to its high salt content that allows you to float. It’s a strange sensation, you just kind of lie down in the water and get pushed up to the surface. It was pretty cool, but the water was freezing and it was also quite windy so the novelty wore off after about ten minutes and I got out and dried off.
The same cant be said for Andrew though, who with his new found love of water spent at least half an hour floating around taking photos of himself!
When you get out your whole body is covered in white salt. At this point I was jealous of everyone on their tour buses, getting taken back to their nice hotel for a warm shower. We planned to wild camp that night and knowing baby wipes just wouldn’t cut it today we braved the ice showers.
The next day we drove the 65km to Laguna Chaxa located inside the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. The lagoon is in the centre of the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flats) and is a large flamingo breeding site.
It was very peaceful and not nearly as busy as Laguna Cejar. You can’t swim here though as its a natural reserve. Not that you’d want to, the water didn’t look the cleanest and was rather pungent.
The entrance fee of 2500 Pesos ($5) includes the Laguna and also a carved pathway through the Salar de Atacama where you can get up close to the salt crystals. Naturally I dared Andrew to lick the salt, he did and hated it. One day we’ll grow up I’m sure..
These were the furthest away from San Pedro around 100km South. No way near as many people make it this far but it was definitely worth the trip. There are actually two lagoons here – Miscanti and Miniques and they both sit at around 4000 metres above sea level. They are by far the most visually impressive lagoons surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. We only saw a handful of other people there and the serenity and beauty of the place was unforgettable. You cant swim here, but then again at 4000metres I didn’t really want to!
We drove all the way back to San Pedro late in the afternoon and camped just outside the town. No fuel stations exist on the route at all. In fact San Pedro is one of the only fuel stations in this region of the desert. We were pretty worried about making it all the way back as our fuel tank is only about 12 litres! But we kept the speed down and made it back no problem. We managed to get 320km out of the tank and still had a couple of litres left in when we topped up. Seems Colin is pretty economical!
They say the worst times can make the best stories. Well I’m hoping in a months time we’ll look back on this last week and laugh, turning it into one of our best “no sh!t there I was..” stories.
“The incident” as it shall now be known happened last sunday. We were leaving San Pedro de Atacama and heading east out of the desert towards the Argentinian border. Around half an hour into the journey disaster struck as we headed uphil at around 60kph. We heard a popping sound come from underneath us. Suddenly the back wheel lost all control on the tarmac, we swung from side to side across the road for a few seconds before the bike went down taking us with it. Although a little shaken there were no injuries. As Andrew lost control of the bike he’d hit the breaks killing alot of our speed before we hit the ground. The bad news came when we saw the rear wheel. Hoping for a flat tyre or something easy to fix our stomachs sunk when we saw the metal wheel rim had caved in. One of the spokes had come loose and popped out. The weight of the bike had then put too much pressure on the wheel rim and it was now less of a circle and more an oval shape.
We stood and starred at it for a few minutes wondering what on earth to do. The bike could no longer even roll along. The desert road was extremely quiet and we’d hardly passed any cars since leaving San Pedro. I started to worry how we were going to sort this out but luckily Andrew remained pretty calm. After about 15 minutes we saw two motorbikes start coming up the hill. I stood out in the road and waved them down. Two swiss men got off and we chatted for a while. It became clear we needed a pick up truck to take us back to San Pedro but the swiss guys were heading in the same direction as us. After another 15 minutes or so another few bikes came down the hill in the opposite direction and the four of us flagged them down. Luckily one of the swiss guys had fluent Spanish as the guys on this bike had no english. The swiss guys asked the Spanish guys heading to San Pedro to notify the Police and ask them to arrange a truck to come and rescue the two crazy gringo’s stuck out in the desert. We expected to wait most of the afternoon for the truck knowing how long things can take out here, so we were pretty surprised when it turned up an hour and a half later. The bike was strapped to the back of the truck and we were driven back to San Pedro. Our desert rescue cost us a healthy $100, not a bad income for their hours work.
Back in San Pedro we parked the bike in the hostel we’d been staying in before. By parked I mean plonked, Colin now required lifting to be moved anywhere. We asked around and learnt that there were no motorbike mechanics or shops in San Pedro. Our best bet seemed to be to take the rear wheel off and go to Calama, a much larger town about 100km away. It took us most of the next day to get the wheel off, and that was with the help of six crazy Brazilian bikers. Thank god they were around though as the force required to get the wheel bearings off was far more than we would have been able to muster alone.
On Tuesday Andrew headed to Calama with unfortunately no luck. None of the bike shops there had a wheel rim to fit. The closest he came was one guy who was willing to modify a slightly different rim to fit our bike. Alas, the rim he wanted to modify was bright pink. Needless to say Andrew didn’t stick around long to let him finish his suggestions.
Back from Calama with no new wheel and no mechanics or parts nearby we were starting to get pretty lost for ideas. We considered getting the bus to Antofagasta 400km away, even hiring a car and driving the bike to Santiago we were getting that desperate! We managed to get hold of the details of a dealer for Sumo Torque’s in Santiago. But our email conversations weren’t getting us very far due to our very broken Spanish and the limited abilities of google translate. Due to the expense of staying in San Pedro town we weren’t actually staying at a hostel anymore but camping 2km out of town. We had our bike and some things at the hostel we had stayed in when we arrived but weren’t actually staying anywhere. We asked around trying to find someone in town to help us with the translation and purchase from the dealer in Santiago but didn’t find much help in all honesty. We were starting to miss the very friendly Peruvians!
On the plus side Andrew has reached a turning point in his life. He’s finally discovered his secret to tanning. All he needs to do is get stuck in the desert with no shade and sit on the curb with the local hobo’s drinking beer. I think we’ve hit a low point…
Anyway in the end we asked the girl in the hostel where we had the bike plonked if she would mind helping us and she has been fantastic. She’s helped us order the part and we have our fingers crossed we’re finally making progress. We’re still here in San Pedro nearly a week after the accident but supposedly the wheel is getting delivered via Chilexpress today. Then all we need to do is work out how to get the new wheel back onto the bike…. Eventually we WILL get to Argentina!!
The Valle de la Luna or “Moon Valley” is 13km from San Pedro De Atacama and is the place to be to watch the sunset over the desert. It costs $5 per person and similar to the El Tatio Geyser Field most people take a tour bus to get there. But again since we had our own transport we set off to find it by ourselves. The Cordillera de la Sal are the salt mountains just outside San Pedro and are free. We passed them on our route into San Pedro and knew we would have to return properly to explore them.
The Atacama Desert is our first real Desert experience so maybe we are easily impressed, but we found the Valle de la Luna and the Cordillera de la Sal to be really impressive.
The first time I walked down a sand dune it took me ages . Then I discovered the far more fun way down…. Totally created a mini sandslide doing this.
After the Cordillera de la Sal we headed to the Valle de la Luna and walked around the caverns an canyons.
With sunset approaching we headed to the main viewpoint looking over the amphitheatre.
After sunset the colour changes over the valley were beautiful. The tips of the distant volcanoes lit up in pinks, oranges and blues. We found after sunset to be the most visually impressive and were surprised to see most people run off down the hill as soon as the sun had disappeared. It was worth sticking around!
After a few days in Arequipa we set off to cross the border into chile and drive the 1125km south to San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is in the heart of Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s the driest desert in the world with apparently some of northern Chile’s most spectcular scenery. So we thought why not? Lets drive 1000km through the desert with nothing but a tent, a small fuel tank and each others glorious company. Sounds easy enough.
After a late start out of Arequipa at the end of the first day we were still in Peru. We camped about 100km from the border in a beautiful little spot we found about 200 metres down a dirt track off the main road.
The next day we crossed the border between Tacna (Peru) and Arica (Chile). It went relatively easily if just a bit time consuming. After filling out a form for the bike we got an exit stamp for Peru then headed across no mans land to the Chilian side. Here we needed four different stamps from different booths in order to clear us and the bike. The whole process took around two hours.
Our spanish vocabularly is going to end up very odd. We know the words for specific things like “registration number”, “chain cleaner” and “insurance” yet are still struggling to put basic sentences together day to day!
Once we crossed the border we headed to Arica for lunch. Oh my god Chile is expensive! After spending the last few weeks paying $3 for 3 course lunches in Peru it hit us like a smack in the face when our lunch bill came to $20. Much better though, theres only so much chicken and rice you can eat and thats pretty much all you can get in rural Peru. We also jumped forward two hours entering chile which means we’ll be setting off later but driving later into the evening.
On the third day we planned a long drive and wanted to cover as many kilometres as possible. This is usually the point when I talk about the amazing scenery and the stunning ride we had through the mountais or whatever. Well not on this trip. Desert riding is BORING, like really boring. We had about 9 hours of this….
We kept going until sunset when we did manage to find a nice little campspot behind a small sand dune.
We arrived in San Pedro by lunchtime the next day. The town is incredibly expensive, around $80 for a basic double room. We found a hotel that allowed camping for $20 per person so we stayed there. Wild camping was out the question. By this time we had been four days without a shower so we were both crying out for some faciltiies! San Pedro itself is a small town which caters for a huge influx of tourists. The central streets are full nearly entirely of travellers, guesthoses and tour companies. Around the San Pedro region there are countless places to visit. You can climb active volcanoes, go sandboarding, stargazing or just explore the desert scenery. You cant do everything and during our time here we visited the El Tatio Geyser field, the Valle De La Luna and the Lagunas – Cejar, Chaxa and Altiplanicas.
Until this morning the coldest I’d ever been was waking up in the middle of the night while wild camping at 14,000. That’s now firmly in second position after our drive up to the El Tatio Geyser Field in the Atacama Desert this morning. El Tatio is 90km from San Pedro town and is the highest Geyser Field in the world. Most people take tour buses which cost around $40, but seen as we have our own transport it seemed silly to pay for what is essentially just a bus to a remote location. This was either the most adventurous thing we have ever done or the stupidest. In case you ever wondered, at 4am at 4300m up a mountain in the middle of the desert its absolutely freezing. Like -5 to -10 cold. Add to that the wind chill from driving on a motorbike and you have a recipe for tears. To quote Andrew “I’ve never felt cold like that in my life”. Luckily he had a better helmet than me as my visor was entirely ice by the time we were half way up. Somehow we made it and like most things in this kind of situation it was all worthwhile (just). Anyway I’ll rewind…
What’s a Geyser Field?
I never was one for science but this is the basic idea! A geyser is formed in areas of high volcanic activity. The underground magma heats surrounding rocks which boils the water passing over them. This pressurised water then erupts through cracks in the earths surface. Every days a school day.
The Geyser’s are best witnessed at dawn when the temperatures are lower, this way there’s more contrast (ie – cool looking steam) between the boiling water and the outside air.
The Geysers themselves look like huge boiling Jacuzzi’s with the steam rising above up to 20-30 metres. It really is quite impressive.
We were one of the first ones there so were able to walk around without the hoards of people from the tour buses. We actually ended up walking off the main paths and right up close to the Geysers. We were thinking it was abit dangerous as it would have been easy to slip into the boiling pools. But we realised later that we werent meant to be doing this!
The contrast between the freezing air and the boiling Geyser is surreal. We were both in awe of such a natural phenonmenon as it was unlike anything we’d ever seen.
There’s a thermal bath at El Tatio. It’s the only water cool enough to swim in. It actually wasnt warm enough to tempt us in and the thought of getting out was not appealing. Apparently not very many people brave it!
As the sun and heat rose the steam stated to reduce slightly. The reflections of the sun against the thawing ground and the steam created an incredbile view though. Combined with the surrounding volcanoes and we were in awe!
After a couple of hours we descended back down to San Pedro. We could see our surroundings this time and it was pretty impressive! We seemed to be driving through a nature reserve and were surrounded by so many different types of birds and Llama’s! The drive itself was worth it in itself and we took our time heading back down.
Eventually we got back to San Pedro and by this time the desert heat of the day had kicked in and we were able to thaw out!
The Geysers were incredible and are definitely worth a visit if you ever happen to be in the middle of the Chilean desert!
After three weeks in Cusco we were finally ready to leave and start the journey south. Our departure date kept getting pushed back due to a never ending to-do list of jobs relating to Colin (the bike), kitting ourselves out with camp gear and general admin. We’ve bought the camp gear as we’re burning through cash quicker than Tiger Woods in a brothel and we’ve heard that accommodation down in Patagonia where we’re headed is incredibly expensive. We never knew travelling by bike would be so much work! It’s definitely worth it but having a bike obviously adds a whole new set of obstacles to overcome while travelling. Maintenance, luggage distribution (especially with two people on a 250cc with camp gear), and finding places where we can park securely all take a fair amount of time. I got pretty frustrated at one point and said some nasty things to Colin, but it was in the heat of the moment and I think he understood how I felt. We’ve made up now so it’s all good.
Anyway after a few false starts we finally set off to drive the 480km to Arequipa expecting for the trip to take two days and intending to camp on the way. It was going to be our first night wild camping and I was both excited and a little nervous. It’ll be fine I thought, we’ll camp at a lower altitude I thought, theres bound to be low valleys to ascend into I thought. Well I thought wrong. My worst camping nightmares were realised when we ascended continuously from lunchtime. We kept pushing forward hoping that soon enough the road would suddenly start to descend and we’d be happy campers at a low altitude with plenty of that oxygen stuff and enough warmth to keep us comfortable overnight. Well the road didn’t descend and by about 4pm it became clear that it had no intention of doing so anytime soon. Presumably due to the altitude the area was pretty desolate, we passed very few towns and villages and the majority of the inhabitation seemed to be small individual houses belonging to farmers. We started to accept that we’d be camping high up and began to look for any shop or vendor selling supplies. Luckily we went through a couple of very small hamlets which had a store. We stocked up on the essentials and bought two litres of water, two litres of beer and 4 chocolate bars, and then started to look for a place to set up camp. By this time we had ascended to 14,000ft and the area was very exposed and windy. Although it wasn’t too cold yet as the skies were clear and we had the late afternoon sun I was getting apprehensive about how our $30 sleeping bags would cope if/when the temperature plummets after sunset.
Anyway we found somewhere about 100 metres set back from the road just in front of a mini cliff drop off we hoped would help protect us from the wind. Setting up camp was alot quicker than we expected, we were soon sitting out the front of our tent with a beer in hand and I was starting to feel more positive about the night ahead. The activity of putting up the tent had a given me a false feeling of warmth, combined with a beer and I was starting to wonder what I had been worried about earlier on. We got into our sleeping bags around 9pm and I felt pretty warm. No Peruvian farmers had come to shout at us and we were congratulating ourselves on our bear grylls survival ability.
But three hours later I woke up and I can only presume I must have done something pretty horrific in a past life to feel as cold as I did. My feet were white and numb and I’ve decided, whether accurately or not that my feet were in the first stages of frostbite. I layered up even more so I was now wearing two pairs of thermal socks, thermal long johns, my trekking trousers, a thermal long sleeved top, a fleece, an alpaca jumper, a buff, a hat and a pair of gloves. You know that feeling when you really need to pee in the night but the toilet is a long way away or you are really comfy and warm and dont want to get out of bed? You spend half an hour lying there deciding whether to go or not etc etc. Well this was nothing like that. It was so horrendously cold I would have rather peed in my sleeping bag than go outside the tent. Sleep was no longer an option, and the moderate discomfort from needing the toilet was actually a nice distraction from the pain of being so cold. OK so this probably sounds very dramatic but anybody who knows me will know I don’t do well with being cold, I’m pretty sure my body is a few degrees colder than other peoples all the time! Even Andrew who rarely feels the cold at all was wrapped up in layers and finding it a struggle to sleep. Luckily he did manage to get a few hours seen as he was the driver. I however lay there from midnight till 6am wishing the night away.
In the morning we were discussing what temperature we think it dropped to. Most of our clothing that was out of our bags was covered in ice and frost and when we opened the tent there was a full covering of frost. The moment the sun came up over the hill and started to warm us up was incredible. Maybe if you have top of the range gear it would be more bearable, but our sleeping bags are supposedly rated down to -12 0C and I can confirm they certainly are not suitable for temperatures under zero! Anyway lesson learned, plan more, look at the altitudes of where we are driving and never camp at 14,000ft again!!