10 – 17 November
Well, I hope you all enjoyed the last update because it took me at least 4 hours to put the photographs on in Cusco and in the middle of it all we had Earthquake Practice! We were probably so high up the signal just wasn’t strong enough. Thankfully though we both managed to get some sleep and JC was off early the next morning to rescue the Toyota from her parking place amongst the chickens and the washing, before we headed off on the road to Lake Titicaca. Fantastic tarmac road even through the small villages – luxury, following the fertile valley of the Rio Vilcamata. Lots of farming here CMC – most of it being done by hand, although we did see one tractor.
We knew we were still at high altitude and would stay above 3000 metres until we reached the coast but we were shocked to see a sign showing the altitude as 4338m above sea level, when we stopped on a bridge where local Artisans were peddling their wares. Its all about bargaining here and we managed to by a beautiful alpaca shawl at 30% off by negotiating, walking away and almost driving away but she followed us to the truck, still trying to get more but when JC waved the money under her nose she took it. He thought he was going to run out of breath before we got sorted!!
High up in the Andes again the terrain changed back to golden Pampas with the mountains still towering above us. After following a railway line for 300kms we finally saw a train! The next town we passed through was Juliaca a filthy looking place with lots of traffic and blowing sand. We were right not to like the look of it. A policeman took most of our local cash as a “fine” for having the windows tinted. Now you will remember we have been stopped many many times in Peru and no police have ever had a problem with the windows. The alternative to paying him direct was waiting four days in godforsaken Juliaca and paying the fine at the municipality or so he said. Although this is only the second “bent” policeman we have met on the whole of our trip it does leave a nasty taste at the time and took the shine of our day, apart from leaving us short of ready cash!
At Puno, right on Lake Titicaca, the city was again a dirty looking place, in stark contrast to the beautiful colour and splendour of the lake, so we pressed on hoping to find somewhere to stay. When we saw another sign showing the altitude as 4530 meters we knew we just could not stay up at that height any longer and decided that, no matter how long it took, we were heading for the coast and sea level. After driving 15 hours and over 800kms over mountains with steep hair pins we finally parked up at 10.40pm!! We had wasted some time driving around the local town of Moquegua looking for a hotel with secure parking but no luck so we ended up asking a policeman - a friendly one this time – if we could park on the filling station car park. No problem, so too tired to put the tent up we settled down to sleep inside of the Toyota. Little did we know that the police were on a “stake out” and at about 1am in the morning JC woke up to find that we were surrounded by Police Toyotas and a SWAT team with sniffer dogs searching people and luggage from the overland buses passing by on the highway! We never do things easily do we!!
The lorries leaving the garage had us up early and away the next morning but our problem today was we were low on fuel, had no local currency thanks to our “friend” in Juliaca and the filling station wouldn’t take either credit card or dollars! What a road, we were surrounded by sand and still dropping down to the coast with steep drops off the side. This was probably what is was like last night in the dark – maybe just as well we couldn’t see it.
Fortunately we had better luck and found a fuel station that would exchange our dollars, so fuelled up we headed straight for the frontier with Chile. How civilized on both the Peruvian and Chilean sides – no “tramitadores” – little helpers looking to make a fast buck, just down to earth, honest officials willing to help us when we got stuck with the Spanish on the paperwork. Only problem we had was a “go slow” by the customs officials at the Chilean entry. We had a wait of 4 hours to do what we found out from a local only took 45 minutes. However, the people were pleasant and JC had more fun than me. I had to go through as a “foot passenger” with the luggage and he had to queue in the car. I was through in about 2.5 hours but had to sit there and wait at the other side of the barrier. It was like waving at each other across the Berlin Wall!! As I said he had fun – he met Pedro, a farmer from Southern Chile, whose sister lives in Wakefield. Then he met Pedro’s brother who had been to UK to visit his sister and visited, Whitby, Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay. They couldn’t believe it when JC told them that’s where he went to school! What a small world. A couple of jokers – especially Pedro’s brother, put his arm around John and said to the customs officer “you can’t hold him up he is one of Her Majesty’s subjects!” The queues of people looked on in amazement as JC and his new amigos laughed, exchanged stories and talked and talked and talked – even the customs guys were joining in. Wonderful people, Pedro invited us to visit them at the farm on our way South. He grows wheat, barley and oil seed rape and JC has worked it out it could be harvest time when we get there – so he’ll be able to keep his hand in driving a tractor!
We finally got through and drove off to cries of “Feliz Viaje” from almost everyone in the queues – what a difference from our experiences yesterday. We found a nice place in Arica and as we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean with cold beer and a pisco sour we relaxed and were very grateful to be back at sea level with plenty of oxygen.
I could tell JC was feeling much better as the next morning he was up early and unpacked the vehicle – re-organising things as only he can. Before we left the city we followed a sign with a supermarket trolley on it hoping to stock up on fresh supplies and expecting to find a “Tesco” type place. What we found was a vegetarians dream come true. A covered market selling every vegetable and fruit you could think of, huge barrels of olives, home made cheeses – you name it it was there. I was in heaven and to top it all my huge bag of goodies only cost me three pounds – nothing like Tescos. Sorry no pics couldn’t carry the shopping and the camera.
Back on the Panamerican Highway the road took us through the stunning landscapes of the Atacama Desert which stretches for over 1000kms from the border with Peru. Over massive pink dunes and dropping down into dry river beds like wind tunnels, no villages and not a lot of traffic to the ghost town of Humberstone – sounds familiar doesn’t it! A former nitrate town named after its British Manager its an eerie looking place crumbling beneath the desert sun – must have been a hard life here, despite the bandstand church theatre and swimming pool. The temperature around there was 30C with sand blasting across the plains.
The drive down into Iquique, situated at the foot of the 800 metre coastal range and with an enormous sand dune looming precariously above it was spectacular in the late afternoon sunshine. The guide book said no shortage of accommodation but we were about to move on after having asked at several places when we found the small Hotel Rodriguez. Cheap and cheerful it was like a flashback to a sixties boarding house with lime green flannelette sheets but at the price we weren’t complaining and happily went wandering off to the old town and had supper before returning to the hotel only to see a fire engine parked in the street outside of the hotel! Fortunately it was nothing to do with us at all.
Next morning we climbed back up to the Panamerican following a queue of lorries carrying imported lorries, cars and all kinds of stuff from the docks destined for Bolivia. Several of them had already broken down on the steep hills overlooking the town not helping the early morning commuters. One thing though the drivers here are definitely the most polite we have met on our journey – they even stop for pedestrians amazing!!
Down into Iquique..................... Old Town Iquique................ Can you imagine these loads in the UK.................................
Still in the Atacama its just one straight road through the driest desert in the world. There are places here where no rainfall has ever been recorded. The side of the road are littered with small shrines where we assume people have fallen asleep at the wheel and gone off the road. There are actually more here than we have seen on any of the mountain roads. Finally after 300kms we turned off and headed east towards the cordillera and San Pedro de Atacama, our overnight stop.
We had read that the scenery here is second to none with salt flats, volcanoes and shifting sands and I have to admit we were both amazed at the stark beauty of this place. We have seen many wonderful things on this journey but the vastness and colour of this area takes some beating! I hope the photographs do it justice.
After almost 500kms of desert road today, we were glad to reach San Pedro – problem is it is a very very popular place but we were lucky enough to get accommodation for one night at least and settled into our adobe bungalow in this wonderful place. The following morning we drove out onto the Salar de Atacama – salt flats which stretch for miles in order to visit the National Reserve for Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa. Whilst there were not as many flamingoes as we had expected it was a beautiful sight to see them reflected in the perfectly still surface of the lake.
From here we could have stayed on the salt road for 300kms back to Antofagasta but we decided to retrace our tracks and take the highway rather than take all day to do 300kms on the poor road surface. From Camala to Antofagasta the desert was full of the remains of former copper mines and their buildings. Once obviously thriving businesses and communities they are now just eyesores in the desert surrounded by miles and miles of disused piping. Quite a sad place. I think we were getting “all deserted” out and were looking forward to a change of scenery up ahead.
Today we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn – not far to go now!! We soon realized that we were driving through a massive copper mine right there in the desert with trains loaded with copper fillets coming from all directions and lots of heavy machinery moving about in the blowing sands. When we finally arrived at Antofagasta it was obvious that they are very proud of their mining heritage with lots of old machinery being used as sculptures along the sea front and painted buildings showing mining scenes. The rail line still runs through the centre of town to the docks to carry the copper for export. Imagine that in a sea side town in England! It was great to drop down to the coast for the night away from the desert.
Back on the road we did another 400kms of desert today before clinging to the coast for a short while – the Atacama seems to be never ending. Along the way we stopped at the “Hand of the Desert” sculpture to take some pics at this strange place. Its very very hot and dry as you would imagine – nothing lives out here not even flies but after another long days drive we hit the coast – where the Atacama meets the Pacific Ocean and followed the road along to Bahia Inglesa a small cove with beautiful white sandy beaches and lots of local people having fun on a Sunday afternoon. As the sun went down we realized how used we have become to the sunshine when we had to go inside out of the “cold” – it was probably just like a Summer’s night in England – we certainly are going to miss this good weather.
We are going to spend a couple of days here to catch up with everything again and relax after our few days of long distance driving.
To all of our local readers – watch out in The Advertiser there could be another article coming up!
WE HAVEN’T HAD ANY MESSAGES FOR A WHILE??????