Destinations, South America

Where is the Yellow Brick Road?

July 7, 2009 • By

Despite what many of you think I haven’t made many travel snafus on my journey yet I definitely made the granddaddy of mistakes traveling to Salta.  I hastily left Buenos Aires and failed to figure out what mode of transportation I would be taking to exit the country.  Salta is considered the transportation hub of the northwest of Argentina but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s bustling with activity.  Sure there are buses but if I wanted to fly to Santiago or possibly another city I had to return to Buenos Aires.  Where I last left you I may or may not have struggled carrying 5 bags through the Buenos Aires airport so I wasn’t keen on returning and paying an additional $60, plus cab fare to the international airport to take another flight to Santiago.  I thought it would make much more sense to take a bus to the Chilean border and then another bus to Santiago.  After visiting no less than four travel agencies in Salta, I worked out the best route.

Excited to see what many have said is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, I arrived at the bus station at 6 am ready for my 7 am departure.  The buses were relatively spacious with sufficient legroom.  When the sun debuted, it unveiled glorious mountains with peaks, valleys and the occasional river.  The colors were incredible and very reminiscent of the rust and sunset orange of the Grand Canyon (for those of you who have visited Arizona).  We winded through the mountains up to an altitude of 4200 meters.  I could feel the altitude but I tried to maintain my composure and enjoy the hours of nothingness.  I mingled with some folks on the bus; a couple from Paris, a student from Brasil, a German girl and a totally crazy guy from Adelaide, Australia who decided to scream out every hour that we were being poisoned from the lack of oxygen on the bus. After nearly 5 hours, we exited Argentina and I waved good-bye to a country I called home for nearly 4 months.  A mere 7 hours later I arrived at the Chilean border control and my final destination, a village called San Pedro de Atacama.

Since I left Salta on a whim, I didn’t have a chance to obtain accommodations.  That is not usually a problem for me but when I looked around, realized I was in a desert with adobe 4×4 “houses” and pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I relied on the kindness of strangers.  The French couple helped carry my bags to their hostel where I decided I would stay.  I took one look at their 2×2 room with a pebbled-rock floor and concrete walls and did some fast thinking.  I told them I would try to look for something more secure since I had an abundance of personal items I didn’t want stolen (not completely a lie but there was no way I was staying at this place).  Before my new French friends abandoned me with my bags, I made a mad dash to find a hotel.  Where I landed proved to be only slightly better but at least my room contained tile floors and included a bathroom.  What it lacked however was hot water, electricity and heat.

Atacama’s surroundings are indeed gorgeous and that was probably the only thing that saved me from going completely insane.  It’s a town that time forgot.  When I first stepped off the bus, I thought I entered a John Wayne movie circa 1800.  I wasn’t completely wrong.  There is a church, a few adobe type “buildings” and dirt roads. With the help of Joyce, I learned Atacama is a backpacker’s paradise filled with adventure activities like mountain trekking, volcano trekking and bird watching.  It all sounded great but I didn’t take into account that the desert gets extremely cold in the night and with altitudes of 4000 it’s going to be freezing regardless.

After I returned from checking out the entire 5 blocks of the pueblo and saying merci to my Parisian friends, I found the German girl balling in my “lobby.”  I thought someone had died.  I asked her if she needed anything but she waved me off and I returned to walking around the pueblo.  There isn’t much to do in a village THIS big.  The German girl (Kira) was still in the front room talking to the hotel manager so I asked her one more time if she was ok.  She started crying.  This time she blurted out that this was the first time she had taken a trip by herself AND she was only 18.  Her parents had given her this gift as a high school graduation present (very common in Europe) but she thought she would be with other people and she was completely alone.  I offered to take her to dinner and walk around for a bit since I needed the company too.  We had a very nice time sitting in front of a fireplace talking about our passion for Buenos Aires and her future.  She starts university in a week.  I never told her I was 35 and I had to laugh when she told me she did an internship in Singapore and her friend at the company “was much older like 30.”  HA HA!  For a change, I served as the friend to the stranger in need.  It was pretty funny I even heard from her parents who (like mine would be) were profusely thankful that I took her under my wing.

Suffering another night without heat and several emails to Joyce, I quickly realized I had reached the end of my yellow brick road and it was time to get the hell out of this town and return home (slightly sooner than expected).  Unfortunately, I learned traveling to Santiago would require a 30-hour bus ride and having just endured 12 hours the day before I wasn’t exactly up to task.  I signed up for a tour of the mountains, which meant I had a day to contemplate my decision.

Atacama is a village situated in the Chilean desert about 120 kms from the Bolivian border and a few hours from the Argentinean border.  The typography is slightly different even though few kilometers separate the countries.  Some say it’s because Chile borders the Pacific Ocean, while others argue it’s a shifting of tectonic plates and an active volcano. Still others blame (locals included) global warming and the cyclical nature of events.  We visited a number of salt basins where lakes have completely dried up and what remains are these beautiful mini-porous peaks of salt.  If you glanced quickly, you might think the valleys contained ice rather than salt especially since there are a few smaller lakes nearby.  Much of the vegetation in the area is dying because water is not reaching the roots.  It’s deep in the heart of winter here and not one mountain contained snow.  Locals are being forced to change their way of life as they search for other sources of water.  Irrigation is a problem and many of the tribes who call Atacama home are being forced to leave their way of life.

Similar to Salta in Argentina, indigenous tribes occupied these parts until the Spanish arrived in the late 1500s.  There way of life depended on hunting and the fertility of the land.  Now many live in poverty still fighting to develop new ways of living in this ever-changing world.  They grow crops of quinoa, potatoes, carrots and other types of beans.  They climb high into the mountains searching for sources of water and they continually create alternative irrigation methods to draw water from the mountains to the villages.  The rest of the world should learn to be this proactive as the scarcity of water is a sign of our present and a definite problem in our future.

After I returned from my trip to the mountains, I booked another bus out of Atacama to another land before time Calama.  I arrived in the dark of night and thankfully didn’t realize that even though the roads were paved it was just as barren and desolate as Atacama.  It did possess one thing Atacama didn’t have (or maybe a few things) an AIRPORT.  That’s right everyone.  Joyce booked me via Internet (her first foray into airline booking) a LAN jet to Santiago.  This time LAN only charged me $30 for my bags and when I got caught trying to sneak 3 relatively large bags on the plane as carry-on, I put up such a fuss I think the woman just let me go.

I arrived 2 hours later in the booming metropolis of Santiago.  Lying in the heart of the Andes dividing north from south in this pencil thin country, Santiago is the pulse of Chile.  Here I found Starbucks and McDonalds and all things I have learned to appreciate as modern conveniences and maybe a small slice of Americana (my side of the Americas that is…)

I’ll leave you here for the night but rest assure, I’ve enjoyed hot water, public transportation, pretty amazing food and beautifully handcrafted jewelry and artwork.  I am a sucker for a city.