Friday, January 06, 2006

La Paz, Bolivia to Arica, Chile

A perfect day for a ride across Bolivia's altiplano

Hotel St. Gregory, Arica, Chile

12:15 a.m. Friday morning

It was so hard to leave La Paz this morning! I had settled in so well.

Last night, I returned to the hotel to find Geoff and Nina's bike parked in the garage next to mine. But according to the manager, they were away. They must have gone mountain biking, as they had talked about earlier.

Getting my bike out of the tiny, crowded garage was a task. A truck that was blocking the entrance had to be moved. The driver got it stuck against the wall. As I squeezed by him, I scraped the opposite wall. Back out on the streets, it felt like I had to learn all over again to ride this thing.

La Paz traffic is truly "nuts": the buses, combis and taxis crowd the road, and I feel trapped and squeezed by them. I was surprised to learn that the exit from La Paz, heading towards Potosi is actually in "El Alto" district, west of my hotel. I would have instinctively headed off in a southerly direction.

Filling up on gas before leaving the city, I was confused by the pump reading in liters. "Isn't it supposed to be gallons?" Then I realized that was in Peru. This was my first refueling in Bolivia. Things are forever changing. I can't even recall what the currency or exchange rate was in Peru - my mind has shifted to Bolivianos. And tomorrow I'll start to erase all this from memory as I try to adjust to Chilean Pesos.

A gorgeous day, perfect for a ride: cumulus clouds and deep blue sky, the stark beauty of the altiplano, the high plains, and a great highway (this was especially surprising!)

Getting used to riding again, and the feel of a new rear tire, I took it easy on curves, while the tire got roughed up over the first hundred miles or so.

At Patacamaya, I left Highway 1, turning west on Highway 108 toward the Bolivia-Chile frontier, and Arica beyond. The clouds were starting to pile up against the distant line of peaks, and I felt a slight urgency that prevented me from dallying.

When I drew near to Sajama National Park, I began to understand why this route has been so highly praised by motorcyclists before me. Majestic snow-covered peaks, most of them volcanoes, form the spine of the Andes and mark the frontier with Chile. It is a breathtaking panorama. I wanted to stop and absorb this landscape, but the gathering storm kept me moving.

Volcan Parinacota

6,542-meter (21,463-foot) high Nevado Sajama hidden in the clouds

Several miles before the border, I stopped at the Bolivian immigration and customs offices to formally exit the country. A very simple procedure. Further on, at the Chilean port of entry, vehicles were lined up, but there was no sign of tramitadores, or anyone to interfere with the business at hand. I had no concern for leaving the motorcycle unattended. For Chile, there is four-step immigration and customs process. (The four different offices are numbered.) No fees. No requests for platita. Everything is clean and simple. But I found the language almost unintelligible! This was very discouraging.

There is a time shift from Bolivia to Chile, Chile being an hour later. Getting back on the road again, I was a little shocked that the highway was in poorer condition on the Chilean side, the opposite of what I might expect.

The wind was blowing hard out of the east and the weather was changing radically, with skies ahead turning black with thunderstorms. I came to a long straightaway that stretched westward across a mountain valley. A chain of storms was now crossing the highway just a few miles ahead, with frequent lightning strikes. I could already see the landscape being dusted with snow. Believing I may have missed today's opportunity to cross the mountains, I turned back.

I approached a police checkpoint and stopped, uncertain what my plan was. It was starting to rain, and the thunder was following right behind the lightning. Two officers waved me over, pointing to their barracks carport. I accepted the offer without hesitation. "Sergio" came over and pointed to a metal antenna about 50 feet away. He seemed to be explaining that the lightning would soon strike it. (I found it almost impossible to understand him, though he was evidently speaking Spanish.)

Sergio and his commanding officer, Arturo invited me into their barracks, which appeared to be just a ranch home converted to this police outpost. Sergio pointed to the sign showing the outpost's elevation: 4,320 meters.

Inside, it was very cozy, with a large kitchen, and a comfortable living room and dining room. Sergio offered me a cup of "Nescafe". We sat at the dining room table and chatted. Sergio said their main mission here was to interdict drug shipments. It was funny to hear him refer to there being more thieves among Peruvians. It sounds like so many border regions before. Watch out for those "other guys"!

He said these storms are a daily occurrence during this season and that within a few hours, it would be clear again. It was hard to believe. But for now, he said, the road is dangerous due to the snow. I looked at the clock and tried to figure if that would allow me time to reach Arica today. I didn't want to spend all afternoon at a police station. There is something a bit disconcerting about men walking around the house with sidearms.

After forty-five minutes or so, I noticed I hadn't heard thunder for a while and I announced that I had to move on. But first, I needed some photos of my hosts. Outside, a dog was chasing llamas who had strayed into the compound.

Chilean policeman Sergio insisted on gearing up for the photo. He and Arturo provided shelter from a wild storm, directing me to park my bike in their carport and inviting me in for coffee.

With Chilean police officer Arturo.

I was so eager to get moving, I hadn't really taken a close look at the sky. I soon found myself riding down the highway into some still very-threatening weather. It was raining and hailing, with slush on the road. Off on the right, I could tell by the sheets of rain there was a thunderhead, but I thought I was out of range of any lightning. On my left, more dark clouds moving in, but there was a distant band of blue sky. Maybe it was all going to blow through as Sergio said.

After twenty miles, I began the descent from the high country, and away from the threat of snow, hail and thunderstorms, but into the fog. Turnouts promised spectacular views, but there was nothing to see except cloud.

Further down, I broke into sunlight and delighted in the warmth, and knowledge that I was descending to sea level after so long at elevations of 10,000 feet or more (essentially since Nasca, Peru.)

Lluta River Valley, approaching Arica, Chile

At 3,400 feet, it was warm enough to shed some layers of clothes. I stopped to take in the panorama. Below, a vast desert canyon, with a river creating a fertile green swath along the base of the cliffs. Passed a huge borax mine, and trucks headed off to market loaded with sacks of boric acid.

Coming down from the Andes, approaching Arica

The long downhill stretch from 14,000 feet to sea level allowed me to squeeze out over 250 miles from a tank of gas. I needed it, as I had no Chilean currency yet.

Emerging from the desert canyons just north of Arica, it was exciting to again glimpse the Pacific Ocean. The "fun" of riding seemed to be returning. (It was no longer just a constant challenge.) And it felt good to put some miles behind me. For once, I had no worries about the bike (except the damaged pannier, which I'll try to replace in Santiago.) Rode about 300 miles today.

I found Arica to be an interesting seaport, with a huge cruise ship docked at the outer harbor and a fleet of large fishing boats up on blocks for maintenance. At a city center square, I was so thrilled to find an ATM that accepted my credit card that I withdrew $400 in Pesos, then began a search for a hotel.

In Arica, I witnessed something very strange: there are traffic signals and stop signs, and people actually pay attention to them! And street names are clearly marked!!!

I noted a few lodging possibilities in the city center, but then rode the highway out past the harbor and around "Morro de Arica", a massive rocky bluff, (where boulders tumble to the highway's edge, and sometimes onto the highway.)

Along the Pacific, I found a couple hotel resorts. The first, the "Hotel Arica", was out of my price range, but then I found this hotel, farther south along the beach, where the city appeared to stop maintaining the highway. From here stretched a popular beach for campers.

At the desk, I met "Patricio", the hotel's marketing manager, who was covering reception because another employee failed to show. His hands were blackened, from dying someone's hair, he said. The hotel rate was $20.

"That's a big increase after Bolivia!"

But there are many amenities, he said: pool, sauna, gym.

"Does it include massage?"

"I do massage," he said.

I thanked him, but declined.

The second floor room was well-worn and basic, but it looked right out onto the beach, and a wonderful breeze was blowing off the water. I could stay here for a LONG time!

Patricio suggested I could wash my bike out back by the swimming pool, so in the fading daylight, I gave it a long-overdue cleaning.

I asked him for dining recommendations, thinking I would like to go downtown, but (marketing manager that he is), he suggested I first look at their restaurant and menu, then decide. I ended up staying in for dinner.

But the food is not a strong point at "Hotel St. Gregory". I had some tough lomo with champignon salsa. Tried "Arequipeña" beer, which bears a strong resemblance in both packaging and flavor to "Cusqueña". At $15, it was a fairly expensive meal.

No chance to connect to the internet. The single terminal was occupied each time I went to have a look.


Gen Kanai said...

Wonderful image- I see you're enjoying Chile too. I spent 6 months there and vow to someday ride in that nation. Chile is safe, fun, good food, good people, etc. It's easy to fall in love with Chile.

timtraveler said...

Did you study in Chile?

timtraveler said...

(Comments moved due to consolidating posts:)


Drew Kampion said...

Sweet narrative, bro ... really enjoying your trip ... maybe more than you!

timtraveler said...

Thank you, bro'!

Max and I agree: you need to come to Chile!

timtraveler said...

(Comments moved due to consolidating posts:)

Anonymous said...

If you were in Africa I'd think these were termite mounds! what are these things?

timtraveler said...

I was hoping someone out there would know. There was no one to ask when I stopped to photograph these.