Tuesday, August 17, 2010


We got out at the main square and headed straight for the internet cafe in high hopes. But, out of our 9 CS requests, 5 remained unanswered and 4 were declined. Damn, this network really stopped working for us!
Valparaiso is a main port of Chile, it looks like a mix of Halifax and Montreal, only it´s multiple neighbourhoods look much livelier, with houses painted in bright colours. The city is gracefully spread out over 40 hills, some of them are quite steep.We wanted to stay in this beautiful sea-side town for about a month, find a room, perhaps even a job, and rest from the road. But as we had no immediate place to rest, we were looking for a base from which we could explore the city more carefully.The day was grey and cold, and we wandered aimlessly in the center. We asked at a few hostels about the prices, but they were all sky-high, the lowest being 5000 pesos ($10) per person in a dormitory. After a few hours of walking up and down the steep streets, we sat down to rest near a scenic look-out. A gentleman came up to us and we chatted for a bit. He was a Chilean, but spoke good English. He was an owner of a hostel on which wall we were leaning. He understood our predicament without too much explanation and made a phone call to a lady-friend of his, who, as he said, had a room for us at exactly our budget.Half an hour later, Maria came to meet us. We were to stay in her house on the neighbouring hill. Her price was just a bit lower than the hostels we visited earlier, but we figured that she was our best bet. Maria was a tall, middle-aged lonely woman, deeply Catholic and very very sad. Her parents, whom she cared for for the last ten years, passed away two years ago, leaving Maria´s life unexpectedly empty. The rooms of her house were last painted a long time ago, and now, dusty grey, they emanated vibrations of a mental institution or, perhaps, a prison hospital. The small lightbulbs at the center of every room struggled against the darkness in the corners. No wander she was sad!
Maria could not let us sleep in her ¨papa´s¨ room, because his clothes were still hanging in the closet. We slept on a single bed in another room, cold as a dungeon and just as depressive as the others. The prospect of spending a month in this abode invited unhealthy suicidal thoughts.
In the morning we raised our spirits incrementially by tea, fried eggs and warm bread. When we stepped out on the morning sunny bustling street, it felt like we left something very heavy behind the door. Our objective was clear: find another place, quick!Which was exactly what we did within an hour´s time. As we were walking down a street, we saw a friendly grandmother standing in the doorway, taking in the morning sunshine. She looked like she might know where we could find a room. We said ¨buenos dias¨ and in a few minutes she was leading us up to the second storey, chatting happily with us, non-stop. She had a huge bright room on the second floor for us, with four huge tall windows and a big bed. Needless to say, we have the ocean view as well. We will stay here for at least a month! Yey!!!

San Pedro de Atacama-Valparaiso

In San Pedro the prices are high - there are twice as many tourists in the village as the residents. There were many places to see around, but most of them are far way and you need to either rent a 4x4, or take a tour. We followed an advice of Jonathan, who had been here a week before us, and went for a walk in the Valle de Catarpe, only 7 kms outside of town. The landscape resembled that of a moon, with very little errosion, earth and rocks of different colours and an absolute silence. We pitched a tent in a small valley and climbed the hill just in time to catch the sunset. As soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted with it, and we jumped in our sleeping bags minutes later, wearing all our clothes once again.In the morning, we walked back to town, had breakfast, and hitched out in the direction of Calama. We asked the driver to be dropped off on the highway, and as soon as we put our bags down, a bus pulled over for us. It was a big comfortable smooth-riding Pullman, our first hitched bus! The driver Marcello was a happy dude, he served in a Foreign Legion in France some 20 years before, and he was happy to re-tell his war stories to us. He had videos and photos of his army days on his cell-phone, and he showed us his likeness in full gear posing in front of a tank, parachuting out of an airplane and generally having a fabulous time.Little by little, we made our way to La Serena. the going was slow, cold and rainy! It was drizzling in the driest desert in the world! When such a phenomenon occurs, the lifeless sands of the desert get covered by a carpet of tiny violet flower, an incredibly gentle sight!The last ride that took us into La Serena was a truck, with three other travellers in the sleeper. Patricio the driver had a positive outlook on life, he chatted with us the whole time, made funny jokes and hailed every passing truck on his CB radio. He told us that once he gave a lift to fourteen hitch-hikers at once! Half of them rode in the cab and the other half-in the trailer. When the ones in the trailer wanted to stop for a piss, they all jumped on the walls of the trailer. He truly had a big heart, this fellow.
La Serena is a nice quiet town on the coast, it´s streets are wide and clean and the people are, oh, so friendly! Our CS requests here remained unanswered though, so we went to the beach and camped there in the shade of some eucaliptus trees in luxury.
In Chile, you can take a shower at almost any big gas-station. For a $1.5 (sometimes free) you get an immaculately clean, huge changing room and a 15 minutes (sometimes even unlimited) shower with real hot water. A blessing after months of struggling with the problem of keeping clean in Peru and Bolivia!Clean and happy, we continued on the road the next day, and, as we were walking to a good take-off spot, we heard an engine-brake rumbling behind us. Patricio, our driver from two days ago, was doing another trip! We were happy to re-unite with a cheery ¨Rastafaray¨, as he called himself on the CB radio. He was very excited about coming home for the weekend and he could not keep from speeding. He assured us that his fellow ¨collegas¨ out on the road keep an eye out for speed traps and let other trucks know well in advance. Well, there was a trucker out there who did not share the po-si-tive energy of Patricio, he failed to let us know of the police car stationed just behind the curve, and we got pulled over for speeding. The ticket took the smile of Patricio´s face for only a few minutes, and we arrived to La Calera, a turn-off to Valparaiso, in good humour.
It was getting dark as we were walking the streets of this small town, and when we saw a temporary construction hut, we headed straight for it. Juan the foreman was finishing his day, and he invited us to sleep on the bunk-bed found inside the hut. There was also a weekend guard on duty, an old señor, Maestro Ferero, who spent his weekends drinking tea and watching over the site. We had a cup of tea with him and went to sleep. Ten minutes into the night we realized that we made a bad decision crashing inside. The blankets and matresses were full of fleas. Our fifth flea infestation on the trip! Scratching and cursing, we barely slept that night. Anastasia is now even thinking of wearing a flea collar, may be it would dicourage future fleas from jumping on her.
It took a while to get a ride the next morning. The highway to Valpo was just like a highway somewhere in Canada or the States: two lanes each way, on-ramps and a speed limit of 120. At the on-ramp there were lots of prohibiting signs. Having studied them carefully, we did not find any that looked like it could apply to us, and walked past it at peace.It was early Sunday morning, and the traffic was scarse. After a few idle scratchy hours, a small car with a young couple inside pulled over for us and we rode with them into Valparaiso.

Monday, August 9, 2010


We crossed into Argentina early in the morning and the contrast with Bolivia is stunning: toilets have seats AND toilet paper, people look up, smile and reply when you say ¨buenos dias¨ to them, and the feeling in general is very friendly and relaxed. We walk out of town and encounter... hitch-hikers! We take our place in the line and leave with a truck a few hours later. Two truckers inside are friendly and talkative. We discuss the strike in Bolivia, Argentinian politics and the beautiful places to see in Argentina and Chile. They kept seducing us to travel with them to Salta, the ¨most beautiful city in the country¨, but we have already made up our minds about crossing into Chile at Paso de Jama. We will definetely come back to Argentina, but a little more to the south. They drop us off at a turnoff to Purmamarka, a quiet beautiful town located at the base of an incredible 7 colour mountain. We camp outside of town (bone-dry firewood once again makes cooking a breeze) . In the morning we buy delicious pastry and a litre of yogurt for breakfast and get stuck on the shoulder of the road for hours. We don´t mind though, because our bellies are full, the temperature is pleasant and we are facing the gorgeous geological formation the whole time.Our spirits are high. Eventually, a couple from Salta stops for us and we travel with them to their destination - Salinas Grandes. They drop us off in the middle of the salar, near a building entirely built of salt blocks.The sunlight reflecting off the white surface is blinding, but we only endure it for five minutes or so, when we get a lift from a customs officer going to his post in Susques. He tells us that it gets -15C at night there, so when we get to the village, we seek a room and sleep in all our warm clothes, under 4 blankets each, in a sleeping bag - we barely keep warm.In the fresh morning we meditate on the shoulder of the road amidst the breath-taking scenery for some hours before a Brasilean-Chilean trucker Victor invites us into his luxury extra-long sleeper Volvo. He is on his way to Iquiqe, but we get off in San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis located in the driest desert of the world.
We barely have time to by something to eat in a minimarket (a small bag of food for dinner now costs us $10 compared to $2 in Bolivia) and use Internet before the night falls. At only 2000 m above sea level now, the evening temperatures are very pleasant. We go a little outside of town after dark and miraculously find a perfect place to camp on the other side of the river, within minutes of walking from the main plaza.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bolivia II

We headed out of Sucre on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and when the sun went down we were 50 kms closer to Potosi. There were very few vehicles on the road, and that seemed rather strange to us that such an important road would have so little traffic.
In the morning we waited for hours, and, having got tired of the empty road, we started walking. In a few minutes a car pulled over and gave us a lift for the whole 9 kms more, to the toll station. There, we hitched for a few more hours, and when a truck full of people finally stopped, we hopped into the trailer. We were sure that we will be asked to pay later, but as it was the first moving thing we saw in 2 hours, we were happy to be moving at all.From the fellow passengers we found out that the road to Potosi is blocked by a strike, for an ¨indefinite¨ period of time. Indeed, the truck came up to a town of Betanzus and stopped in a long line of other vehicles. The road was blocked by stones, tires, buses, taxis and a whole lot of traditionally dressed people. ¨The road is closed to traffic¨, they informed us,¨until we have a talk with Evo!¨. The people had a list of things that they wanted the government to accomplish for them. We asked three of the protestors what those things were, but none could tell us. The answers came down to the fact that the government promised the people a lot of something, and now was not delivering, so the people are protesting until something gets done about the mysterious points.It did not seem likely that the roadblock will be lifted soon, so we walked through empty Betanzus in the direction of Potosi. All the businesses, including food stores, were also closed because of the strike. Nevertheless, we managed to buy 2 kilos of pasta to last us on the 50km hike to Potosi. We walked about 30 kms the next day when a minibus stopped for us and took us the rest of the way.
In Potosi, the scene did not look any better. Closed stores, demonstrations on the streets, no cars moving, and, the scariest thing, dynamite charges exploding on the streets once in a while. It cetainly felt like the Red Revolution we learned about at school. There is a huge mine near the town, Cerro Rico, and it is mostly worked by poor independent miners. Because of this, dynamite, an important thing for a miner, is sold in the town´s stores like bread. The protestors bought a lot of dynamite sticks, cut them up in small (5 cm!!!) pieces and were using them to boost the morale of the strikers.We had no desire to stick around and walked straight through. There was yet another blockade on the other side of town, so all the traffic towards the Argentinian border was also paralysed. At this point, we decided to forget about Uyuni and get out of the area as soon as we could.As we were walking away from the last blockade, a black pickup, the only moving vehicle around, cought up with us and offered us a ride to the border! The driver made a lot of effort to get out of town. He camouflaged his car to seem as if it was a protesting vehicle: two huge speakers in the box yelling ¨Potosi Federal!¨, red and white flags of the protestors all over and a paper sign stuck to the windshield: ¨AUTHORISED VEHICLE¨. As soon as we were out of sight of the barricades, the guy unloaded all his makeup in some office building, and we took off. We were as happy as could be to ride with him.
Little did we all know, that 30 kms down the road, there was yet another roadblock. It was the last one, but there was no hope of running through it, as the protestors would throw stones and dynamite charges at any vehicle that would get close to the debris blocking the road. The guy waited until 2 in the morning, at which point it became obvious that they will not lift the block any time soon. He then turned around to go back to Potosi. We stayed there and camped near the blockade, in between the parked trucks, for the night.
We waited for something to happen the next day, doing nothing just like the rest of the people around us. We met some really cool Argentinian truckers, they treated us with breakfast and lunch from their portable kitchen, and we chatted with them for most of the day. But as the evening fell, we again pitched the tent in the same spot.
As the rumours had it, the strike was becoming more and more widespread, and more roadblocks could be set up further towards the border any time now, and the border crossing itself may be closed off ¨indefinetely¨. This was bad news to us, so we decided to move at any price. There were buses circulating between the border and the blockade, but they were taking full advantage of the situation, charging two times and a half the normal rate. We found a taxi that was willing to take us for only two times the price, a good deal given the circumstances. The car had some mechanical problems and the engine would stall once in a while. When the engine stalls, the breaks quit as well, so we rode down a few steep hills on an emergency brake. The driver was racing like crazy on the bad dirt road (the main highway in the country), so within thirty minutes of the ride we got a flat tire. He put on the spare and kept on racing just as before. There were only six more hours to go. The guy had no gas in the tank too, and as there was a shortage of that as well, he spent at least an hour hunting for the last 10 litres of fuel in the village. He finally got it, and we got to the border at night.