Day 81 – Villa Loza-Tolar, Bolivia to Arica, Chile

Dachary didn’t wake up with a splitting headache, which was good, but she was completely winded by walking across the street to get breakfast, which was bad. Went back to the room and the double whammy of street crossing and food digestion made Dachary need to lie down for a few minutes. I know, this sounds totally freaking pathetic, but you just can’t get your head around the effects of oxygen deprivation until you’ve experienced it.

Advice to anyone wanting to do the Salar de Uyuni: unless you’ve been at “very high” altitude you can’t know if you’ll be fucked (like Dachary) or merely exhausted (like me). Get up to 3,800 meters a minimum of three day before you hit the dirt. My recommendation is five in case you have trouble with it. Remember that if you get headaches from altitude sickness pills won’t help. You’ll just have to suffer, or drop altitude. The problem is, that there’s no quick way down from Bolivia. There’s plenty more details about dealing with altitude sickness on Wikipedia.

Anyway, we hit the road, and it was beautiful. One of my favorite rides of the trip. It reminded me a lot of the western United States, and about how the more I experience on this trip, the more it makes me appreciate what we have back home. So many times I’ve thought, “We’ve got this in the US!” But riding the US can be so hit or miss. You can really have a lame trip with all our fast but boring highways, and our overpopulated back roads. I’m thinking of doing the Trans-Eastern and Trans-American trail someday, maybe with some diversions through Monument National Park and the Grand Canyon…. ANYWAY… must stop getting sidetracked…

Looking back at Dach
Mirror Dachary
What do they store in these?
Bolivian River
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Free-range Llamas
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Free-range Llamas
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano
Bolivian Alto Plano

Sorry to bombard you with photos, but it was just so amazing. Especially when the snow-capped peaks started sliding into view one after the other.

The riding was beautiful all the way to the border, well… the first border. There are two you see, and they’ve set them up for maximum confusion. Heading west, when you get the Bolivian border you need to ride past the staffed Aduana (customs) shack and the empty Migrations (immigrations) buildings. Then ride past the big building where the huge line of trucks ends. That building holds the other Bolivian Migrations (immigrations only) and Chilean Aduana (exit only). I have no idea where the Chilean exit immigrations is.

You then leave Bolivia having gotten nothing stamped out of the country, enter Chile illegally, drive about a mile or so into the country until you find the other border. Go to the Blue Bolivian Migrations building across from the brick Chilean building (with the bathrooms). Then go back to the yellow / green buildings for the Bolovian Aduana (with the paper they gave you at immigrations) then back to the Chilean brick building to Immigrations, fill out the form, give it back, then to the Aduana (same building) where they will check your VIN and start filling out paperwork while you go next door to the SAP (or something like that) where they will have you fill out another form, then have you open up your panniers to make sure you’re not brining in contraband cheese, food, or ancient artifacts (not kidding, it was on the sign), then back to waiting for the Aduana.

We found this out by going to the Bolivian Aduana and being told to go away and drive fifteen minutes up the road. That sounded fuck up so we asked and got confirmation, but shortly before fifteen minutes we found the Chilean border and figured they were smoking crack because we need to check out of Bolivia before we enter Chile. Turned around, went to the Big building in Bolivia asked a guy with official garb if the Bolivian Aduana was in there, was told yes (duplicate office I figured) went in… no, it’s not there. Man’s an idiot. Went back to the little building I was at first, told her I really needed to stamp out. She said fuck it, stamped me out, then sent me to make a photocopy of it (1 Bob for 2 copies) kept the original and sent me away. I went back to the big building four Migrations only to find that it’s immigration only and that I should fuck off and go to Chile. There was a Chilean Aduana in the building but I figured it a really bad idea to attempt to check into Chile before leaving Bolivia. So, we went to Chile and everything there was a pretty straightforward even if it did involve a bunch of back and forth, and me watching the bike fall over… it was tired.

Side note: Happy-Trails panniers are holding up spectacularly.
Other Side note: not a single money changer in sight.

The Bolivian border is next to a huge snow capped Volcano that shoots up another 2,000 meters or so above the border. Gorgeous. The Chilean one has a Volcano just around the corner. It also had rain… damn rain. Up, up, more up… Oh hey, this is pretty. It looks like the rain’s done… pretty dirt… a Customs checkpoint… Is that for us? I’m sure it’s for the Truckers pulling over there, but us too?? We sit in sight of the customs guys for a while hoping to get a nod to come in or go on… they never look up. We say fuck it and very slowly drive off. No yelling….

The road is sometimes paved and sometimes dirt. We’re around 4,500 meters now and really hoping it’ll stop dropping, but it kept going up for a while. As soon as it does start dropping we are reminded of what happens at tall mountain ranges: the clouds come from one side and train-wreck into it while the other side has blue skies.

Chilean Dirt
The edge of the cloud

There was an area at 4,398 meters where we got a break in the clouds and stopped to pee in this idyllic little valley with a small river on one side and llamas chomping whatever llamas chomp on the hill opposite it.

A break in the clouds
Llamas being llamas
Noble Steed
A river runs through it...

But then we entered the full-on train-wreck. Visibility was technically about twenty feet, but at that distance you couldn’t really tell what it was you are looking it, as evidenced by me riding over a llama. At least, I think it was a llama. There was a dark splotch in the middle of the road. I thought it was just going to be a pothole, but then, instead of going down into it, I went up over it, with a vibratey feeling over something slick. I swear I saw a few milliseconds of ribs before, or as, my front tire hit it.

I’m pretty sure it was baby llama roadkill.

We rode on at about 50kph until we got stuck behind a semi going about 20kph and were not nearly suicidal enough to attempt to pass it. Far too many times we’d be watching to the side of it and all of a sudden there were headlights from an oncoming semi RIGHT THERE! The visibility was so bad in the fog, and the road was so twisty, that there simply was no chance to pass.

I was very thankful for two things: 1) my Aerostitch Kanetsu kept me warm 2) my Denali headlights meant that oncoming vehicles had a much better chance of seeing me. They don’t do jack for cutting through fog, but they make you much more confident about your chances of not becoming a pancake.

Dachary didn’t need the latter since she was in back, although I’m know she would have liked a pair of her own, but she really did need a heated jacket, because it was freaking cold at that altitude and the train-wreck of clouds we were riding through meant we were soaked and had what little heat we had get sucked out of us as quickly as possible. Alas, with no functional Gerbing, she suffered through the cold, feeling worse and worse and eventually catching the shivers.

I would have taken pictures, there was even a picture taking pulloff with a camera icon on a sign, to which Dachary commented “What are we supposed to take a picture of?” because there was only one thing to be seen: cloud guts. So yeah, I didn’t feel like soaking my camera to give you a picture of solid gray.

We drove down, and down, and down, and down…. at about 1,500 meters it started getting warm (yeah, that’s over two vertical miles down) but Dachary was still shivering. I felt terrible, but there was nothing we could do. Stopping earlier would have only made the cold last longer. We just had to keep going until we made our way back to the warm embrace of a Sea Level desert.

Back to the desert
Back to the desert

At one point we were riding along the edge of a valley with a dried river bed, but the river obviously returned because they had taken pains to make sure the road dipped down to the level of the river bed when it was forced to cross to the other side. The idea being that the river would just run over the road at that point instead of having to build a bridge that would withstand being pummeled by all the boulders the river was obviously keen to throw around.

A dip in the road
Abandoned truck
Chilean Desert
Chilean Desert
Ready to go

When we got there we had to remove our heated gear (well, mine was), Dachary’s thermal leggins, and switch back to summer gloves. It was weird. Suddenly we felt so much lighter and freer. We left in the rain liners though. We may have dropped down into the desert, but deserts aren’t always particularly warm. It ways probably 65 F when we got there, and Dachary said she still felt cold.

We continued on, past tasty looking restaurants we really wanted to stop at, and into Arica, past gas stations we really wanted to fill up, and on into the guts of the city because we had Zero Chilean Pesos, although I’ve still got peso coins from every other Peso using country we’ve been through. I’ve still got coins from every country actually. No-one wants them. Soon we’re just driving around asking people, until we ask a guy who says “right around that corner.” Excellent! Oh, wait. No left turning during every useful hour of the day. Fuck it. It’s safe. Turn. Pull over. Totally miss the ATM but see a money changer… Damn we can’t park here “Watch me!” says Dachary. “Um, there’s a cop walking towards us.” I say. “Let’s see what he does”… He comes up, and I ask him where we should go to park. He tells me I made an illegal turn. I act confused. He tells me to watch where I’m going. That he could write me a ticket for that. “Sorry” I say. He gives me stern looks and Stern finger pointing. Then, when I ask again, tells me where to park, confirms I have to take three lefts to get there, and lets me go.

I take three lefts, and pull up behind a car about to abandon its spot. Dachary goes to find the ATM, and the Money Changer whilst I take the Leatherman to my GPS mount which has been all floppy today.

“How much was I supposed to get out?”, she comes back and asks. 150,000 ($300 US) since we’re going to be here for a while. “Ooops…” she goes back to the ATM.

We then proceed to drive around in circles (literally) trying to find a hotel. Get bad directions twice. Never find any hotel we tried to. Then stumble across another hotel. Go in, ask about parking (the hardest thing to get in Arica). Yes! Internet too?! Holy shit. “How do I get to the parking?”

It’s just on the back side of the hotel on the other side of the block. Easy. Down.. right… no, wait, that’s one way… right… right…left…right…. right er… fuck the road is one way up to us not down… ok right, right, up up up… er no fuck… left left… can’t left… can’t left… can’t left…. can’t left…. fucking A… left… left… and we’re back where we were the last time… It’s been at least ten minutes. We’re sure the girl who’s supposed to be waiting to open the gate for us is gone, We can SEE the gate, we just can’t…. “Oh fuck this. I’m overheating. I’m fucking tired. It’s been black out for an hour. ” ILLEGAL RIGHT TURN. The girl is a saint, and is still there. The gate opens, and we unload our shit through the back door almost directly into the room on the ground floor… oh what a sweet and rare joy… a ground floor room.

Dachary falls onto the bed. I’ll let her describe her state.

(Dachary’s note: between being cold for days with no heated gear (the highs in Bolivia were in the high 40s, low 50s, with lows… colder. And riding at speed.) and the altitude sickness, I was absolutely knackered when we hit the hotel in Arica. The ceiling was crawling. The drapes were waving. I was dizzy and felt sort of out-of-body. I tried getting up at one point to go to the bathroom, and was considering going outside with Kay at that point, but it was quickly evident that the only place I should go was right back to bed. I do not recommend altitude sickness in conjunction with being too cold for days.

Also? No heat in hotels anywhere in Latin America. Even the expensive ones. Maybe in resorts, I dunno? So those cold Bolivian nights, the only choice was to bundle up under blankets and never get really warm again. I seriously recommend having fully functional heated gear when going to altitude, or at least good thermal gear, which I lack. I left the Rev’It Sand thermal layer at home because I was using the heated gear… and now I really wish I had it, since my heated jacket isn’t working. I am dreading Ushuaia with no heated gear and no thermal layer. I simply have to figure something out before then.)

I go out to find food since she’s incapable of moving from the bed. Oh look, a pizza / taco / empanada place next door. I go back in. “Hey, there’s a place RIGHT there with pizzas, tacos, empanadas… I could grab a pizza or we could go together. It couldn’t be closer” She stands up, decides it was a bad idea, and sends me off.

I go in. “I need food to go.” “Oh… food TO GO” she says significantly to the cook and then gives me some not entirely negative but not positive response either. I try another tact…. “What food do you have to go?” she lists things, including pizza. “How big is the big pizza?” “It’s not. It’s a personal pizza.” Fuck that noise. We’ve seen “personal” pizzas in Latin America. “Ok. How about tacos?” “Yes.” “Ok. I’d like tacos for two.” “Ok. Go wait upstairs.” “O…k…”

I go up. I take up one of the few tables in the nice seating area up there. A waitress shows up and hands me a menu. “Not necessary. I spoke downstairs and ordered food to go.” Somewhat confused she retreats. I sit for a few minutes. A nice man from a couple tables over makes sure I wasn’t eating there. “No. Thank-you.” The waitress returns. “Tacos?” “Yes, to go.” She disappears. She comes back and starts speaking foreign words to me. I don’t understand. Eventually she switches to English that’s slightly better than my Spanish. “You come downstairs?” “Sure” We go down. We go to the lady I gave my order to. The waitress talks to her. The waitress is annoyed. The woman says “oh, to go”. as in “Oh, I didn’t realize they wanted the food to go.” I really, really, wish my Spanish was good enough to give her a verbal “WTF?!”, but it isn’t. So I confirm what I think the situation is. “Ok, you have NO food to go.” The waitress shakes her head apologetically and says no. The woman I gave the order to sits there like an idiot.

I walk out… I walk about five blocks to the McDonalds I saw. I know they will still be open (it’s late). I know what to order. I know what it’ll taste like, and I know it’ll be fast.

I’m right on all but one. The fast. Holy fucking shit. Slowest McDonalds on the planet.

I take the food back. It’s FUCKING DELICIOUS. It’s not like it tastes any different than any other McDonalds, but it’s just so deliriously good. A wonderful taste of home. And, the fries… we’ve had so many crap fries. It’s just so nice to have good McDonalds fries.

Note: if you need a hotel in Arica with secure parking we used the Hotel Plaza Colon, which I would recommend, and they charged me less than the rate sheet on the wall, but it was still a typical big-city price. In the parking area behind the hotel the GPS said S 18 28.743 W 070 19.205 Which should be right between two streets.

About Kay

An old-school geek, addicted to travel, with a love of programming, writing, Esperanto, and starting businesses. -- @masukomi on Twitter.

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