My first excursion to the Republic of Chile didn’t go anywhere near what I had planned. The money changers at the border didn’t want to change my $100 bill, saying that the serial number was too new. I only had the equivalent of $11 USD in Bolivian money in my pocket. Although they offered to change these notes to Chilean Pesos, how far could I go with that? I could get a bus ride to the coast, but it was Friday night, so all of the banks would be closed until Monday, once I got into the coastal town of Arica. Very few places, including hotels, accept credit cards. If I chance a bus ride, I could end up broke and sleeping in a public park until the banks opened in three more days. Not anything that I would want to do! Damn, I really did want to visit one of the driest places on planet earth, to see the Pacific Ocean, and to dip my toes in the cold Humboldt current!
However, I would soon learn that sometimes the best experiences in life come about by flying by the seat of your pants. The decision I made at the moment turned out to be a good one; one which made my first day and night in Chile an unforgettable one.
I cleared Customs and Immigration at the remote border post near Lago Chungara.
Both border posts (one in Chile and the other in Bolivia) are about 4 miles from each other. In between, there is nothing but scrubland and high plateau. Had it not been for Bolivia losing the War of the Pacific in 1870, there would not even be a border to cross. Bolivia used to have a coastline. Now, trucks are lined up at the border crossings, as this is the landlocked country’s closest outlet to international trade by sea.
This is one of the most desolate border crossings I have ever been to, and that is saying a lot. I like desolate…..so rather than chance a trip to a city where I would be homeless and broke, I decided to camp out on the plateau and explore the area. Lucky for me that Bolivia lost their coastline, or I would have missed the opportunity to stay here.
I looked around. The scenery was stunning. To the north lay the Cerros de Payachata (Twin Mountains in the Aymara language. The nearest one, the Parinacota volcano, rises to more that 20,000 feet. To the south, the equally high Guallatiri volcano was spewing smoke out of its crater. I was midway between them, but both were more than 8 miles away…..too far for an overnight trip. I could camp by the lake, but what few buildings were in the area were clustered by the lake and it was too close to the road. I filled up my water bottles at the border post and took note of when the buses ran back to Bolivia on the weekend. I weighed my options and decided to head to the south, towards a smoking volcano. Can’t get that back home!
Leaving behind the line of trucks lined up at the border, I started to walk south up a gentle slope. Immediately, the lack of oxygen at this altitude started affecting me. The Tambo Quemado Pass where the border station is located sits at an altitude of 14,998′ according to google earth. Everything is uphill from here. The starting point for my hike is more than 500′ higher than Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. states. I hear the beat of drums in the distance. I stop and listen. It is my rapid heart beat banging through my ear drums. My pace slows to a crawl.
The lack of oxygen keeps my brain in a fog. I feel like I’m dreaming. I pass by a small lake with Pink Flamingos. Is this real? Aren’t they supposed to be in Florida? What are flamingos doing at this high altitude desert, which gets brutally cold at night? Maybe the hypoxia is making me hallucinate.
After an hour of walking, I feel like I am far enough away from the trucks and the border crossing to enjoy the solitude of the open space. A cold wind starts to blow as the sun lowers in the sky. There are no trees or high bushes to block the cold wind. I put my tent in a dry creek bed which is only about a foot deep….only enough of a windbreak when I’m laying down.
It takes way too long for me to pitch my tent. Usually, I have it up in a couple of minutes. My oxygen starved body was moving in slow motion. It took almost 10 minutes to get the rain fly on and stake out the tent. It seems I have five thumbs on each hand. It is like having too much to drink, but not so much that you don’t know that you are impaired. Similar to walking out of the bar and fumbling with your keys too long to get your car door open, so you know enough to call a cab instead. But there is nobody to call here and it is getting cold quickly. High altitude dry regions have some of the highest daily temperature ranges on the planet. I’d better have enough of my wits to stay warm throughout the night.
I fire up the stove and heat some water for tea. Then, I crawl inside the tent and layer on a couple of layers of warm clothes and pull out my winter jacket as my last layer. I hear other noises outside of the tent, wheezing noises that don’t seem to be just the wind flapping the rain fly. Peeking outside, I see some strange animals nearing the tent. It is a herd of vicuna!
Vicuna are the smallest members of the South American camel family. They are the smaller cousins of the alpaca and the llama. Vicuna inhabit more marginal high elevation areas, usually from 12,000 to 16,000 feet in elevation. They can graze closer to the ground than other members of the llama family. Their dense, silky fleece provides wonderful insulation against the cold, so it is prized for for making high-priced coats.
After downing a few cups of hot tea, I decide to stow my gear inside the tent and take a small hike and take only my water bottle and camera. The wide open spaces, the stunning panorama and the exotic animals, combined with the lack of oxygen all contribute to a feeling of intoxicated euphoria. Getting high (over 15,000 feet of it) can actually get you high! Naturally…..
I kept walking uphill to get a picture of the context of where I was camped. The little blue dot in the picture below shows the immensity of the landscape, which is both awe inspiring and humbling.
I paused to reflect on the place I found myself in and on the events of the day which led up to this moment. Had I been able to change my money at the border, I probably would been in a hostel in the coastal town of Arica, Chile. However, the cosmos long ago conspired many events to put me in this place, at this moment in time. Had Bolivia never lost their coastline in the 19th century, I would’ve never had a reason to stop at a border in the first place. All of the other events in my life, too many to articulate, had led me to be enthralled by wild, desolate places. Had there been a threat of rain, I would never have chosen to camp in a dry creek bed. I felt that being here was somehow predestined.
The sunlight was quickly fading. I determined to take in as much of this moment as possible, to burn the memory of this beautiful landscape into my mind forever. Eternity only lasts a brief time…..
Shivering, I slowly make my way back to my tent, looking down occasionally to not trip, but not wanting to take my gaze off of the volcanoes. The place would have been magical on its own, but the added intoxicating euphoria of an oxygen starved brain created a blending of John Muir’s transcendentalism and Salvador Dali’s surrealism.
I got to the tent as the sun went below the horizon. Then it got REALLY cold. I zipped my sleeping bag up tight and shivered, still dreaming of what lay outside of the tent. With the wind blowing and vicuna snorting, the transition from reality to dreams in my sleep passed without notice.