Coming out of the Laguna Route of Bolivia is a strange experience. After 500km of slow-going roads (you can’t go faster than 15-20 mph because of all the corrugation) and high elevation, we crossed the border and got onto pavement at the next intersection. A quick drive down the hill (2,000m elevation loss in 30km) and we were in sunny, warm San Pedro de Atacama, where the primary language seemed to be English.
Our first encounter with Chilean customs was less pleasant, as we didn’t have the required paperwork for Leika. After a lot of discussing, it was determined that a vet has to be called, who showed up surprisingly quickly, rolled his eyes, did not inspect Leika and then signed some paperwork so that the paperwork could then be stamped by the customs folks. Welcome to bureaucracy.
Since we didn’t have car insurance yet, we decided to drive to the next big city, Calama, before anything else. It’s close to the largest open-pit mine in the world. Needless to say it would have been fascinating to visit and compare the difference to Potosi, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to contact the mining company in time. Calama was the starkest contrast to our previous few months yet – shopping malls, giant hypermarkets, nice cars, double lane highways. The supermarkets even stock German bread, imported from Germany.
With insurance in hand, it was back to San Pedro, where we met a number of other travelers (among them Cinco Osos from Austria) who were on their way north. We exchanged information as well as currency and headed back to elevation, to El Tatio, the highest geyser field in the world. We checked out the geysers early in the morning, which seems to be the thing to do around San Pedro as hordes of tour groups showed up before sunrise, and then decided that it was time to say goodbye to Chile for now. On our way up to the pass, we came across 3 cyclists from France that were looking for a ride up the mountain; they had just ridden over the pass, stocked up, and weren’t looking forward to climbing the 2,000m elevation difference all over again. 15 minutes later we were driving up the pass with 3 more people and 3 fully loaded bicycles in the car. Go Sprinter, I don’t know any other car that would have space for that!
We headed to Salta and had our first blue market money changing experience. Turns out Nikki is much better at negotiating prices than I am, so she’s now doing it every time. Because of Argentina’s currency crisis there’s now a big black (“blue”) market for the currency, where you can get a vastly better rate (~40%).
We took Route 40 to Cafayate, Argentina’s northern wine-growing region that isn’t as well-known as Mendoza. It’s distinctive because they grow 2 uncommon grapes here, Torrontes (white) and Tannat (red). We did some wine tasting, then proceeded to create our own wine tasting at the campground. It’s difficult to pass up wine in the stores, often at $2-3 per bottle. Another highlight here was the Torrontes flavored ice cream.
On we went, the plan was to zig-zag south between Chile and Argentina, and we had planned to cross over to Copiapo and visit Chile’s highest mountain, Ojos del Salado, on the way. We stopped for the night at the nicest hot springs we’ve been to on this trip, where cascading pools cool down between each step. You get to choose the temperature you prefer, and just move up or down if you want hotter or colder!
The next morning we found out that the pass to Chile was closed because of snow. There had actually been significant flooding in Copiapo where a state of emergency had been called out. Nothing of that was evident on the east side of the Andes, where we had sunny and dry weather. We didn’t want to wait, so the decision was clear: head south toward Mendoza.