March 19: The
French guys had attempted hang gliding at the
de la Luna, but the wind had defeated their ambition. Jürgen
the wobbly load on his bike with string.
We filled up on water for three days. Jürgen insisted on bottled water, since the tap water has a reputation of containing traces of arsenic.
After we obtained
exit stamps, we were off to the Bolivian
Altiplano (highland plateau). As we negotiated the bumpy route,
Licancábur (mountain of the Atacameños) loomed in the
This symmetrical cone on the Chile-Bolivia border exudes an entrancing purity and is understandably the most sacred peak of the Atacameños. A few wisps of snow streaked the 40° slopes near the crest. Two backpackers in the middle of nowhere were waiting for a lift. The German claimed he had climbed the volcano and declared the steep scree treacherous. The other guy came from Vancouver, Canada. Scattered pebbles of sulfur lined the track. Scraggly, stunted, and yellow desiccated bushes dotted the land.
We settled by the dry Quebrada del Cajón that cut through the desert. Jürgen was in joy. Jim came by on his motorcycle and warned us not to place the tent too close to the sheer edge of the quebrada, since we were in restless earthquake zone. He stayed the night, but he would not continue with us tomorrow, because of the awkward difference in speed, and for fear of running out of gasoline.
March 20: We proceeded in first gear 1300 meters up the Altiplano. Jürgen often waited for me to catch up. He initiated me to coca leaves, advising me to chew them a bit, then to put them between my gum and cheek. I felt a light numbing effect in my mouth, and the pain in my legs lessened somewhat, but nothing drastic. We still felt the altitude, now 4270 meters.
After we made camp, four Swiss and Brits scrambled over to our rocks when it started snowing. They nestled in a fissure, with only "pajama party" sleeping bags, and tended a tiny fire of shrub wood. I sat above and listened to their cassette playing "Licorice" dreamy synthesizer music, while drinking vodka and feeling great.
Unknown to us, a restless volcano, Láscar, stood only 55 kilometers away. On April 19, it would belch the largest eruption worldwide for 1993, spewing a column of ash soaring to quasi-space at 27,000 meters, which was blown all the way to Buenos Aires, 1600 kilometers away. Too bad I missed it... or did it miss me?
March 21: Jürgen complained of insomnia for the fourth day in a row. Soroche (Altiplano altitude sickness) was afflicting him, but my thick blood resisted its assault. We came across a lone Bolivian on foot, who looked quite surprised when we informed him of the 45 bleak kilometers remaining to San Pedro. The tenacity of these people is remarkable.
We were ecstatic at the Chile-Bolivia border marker post at the Cajón pass (4480m). We encountered no trace of a customs station. It was a joyride down to the shore of salty Laguna Verde (same name as the other lake in Chile). It lies in exotic terrain, surrounded by volcanos. At the trashy station, I was a little apprehensive, having heard a rumor that the watchman is occasionally mad. Jürgen knocked, but had no trouble finding out that a freshwater spring flows by the shore. Neglected mineral processing machines creaked and whistled in the wind, vestiges from the days of sulfur mining on local peaks. We rode on the rocky track along the shore, and said hello to some French girls in a tourist jeep from Uyuni.
We hid the bikes in
at the base of Licancábur, but I
that the guy at the station might come looking for them, because
had spilled out to him that we were going climbing tomorrow. We
loaded up the day packs for the night—attaching half the stuff on the
outside—and walked up to 4660 meters. We settled by some green
yareta-moss balls half a meter in diameter.
These unique resinous plants grow exceedingly slowly, but tolerate the nightly deep freeze. They had been obliterated on the lower slopes and hauled away by the truckload, in the age before the use of heating oil.
We ate ravioli and spaghetti while gazing at the blueish-green lake nestled in this other-worldly landscape. Its eastern portion, connected to the other via a narrow passage, is a lighter, more milky hue. I had fallen in love with this place just by seeing a photo in National Geographic (April, 1987). Jürgen was equally joyful to be here.
March 22: Leaving the tent, we walked up rocky hills passing ancient Inca ruins, until the trail faded out at the base of the steep slope. We started up a northeast boulder-strewn ridge in preference to the loose scree. Jürgen was doing remarkably well, moving as fast as I, despite our acclimatization difference. He traversed to the next ridge believing it to be less steep, but it was quite a detour and I was fine with this ridge as long as the boulders were convenient to climb, so we diverged. I kept an eye on him, but at 5300 meters he was eclipsed behind his ridge. One of my footholds collapsed sending my shin crashing on a sharp rock...
Licancábur has acquired an unsettling reputation of resistance, or even retribution to those who attempt to scale it. In November of 1884, Francisco J. San Román was commissioned by the Chilean government to explore this territory, seized from Bolivia the preceding year in the War of the Pacific. Two of his well-trained assistants renounced their attempts, but the mountain admitted Atacama Indian Severo Titichoca, and again on March 19, 1886, when he guided subdelegado Juan Santelices. In the 1920's, several mountaineers from Chuquicamata arrived in San Pedro, only to be discouraged with dire tales of chinchilla (a South American hare) hunters who had gone to the mountain and had never returned. One persisted for a full two weeks, finally admitting failure after suffering severe cuts and bruises. In November of 1953, a team of six engineers headed by Henning Kristensen and Martin Madden resumed the task, but were overwhelmed by extremely loose and unstable rocks on three attempts. On the 22nd, they left their 5200 meter camp, struggled all night, and finally summited at sunrise before the cutting viento blanco started blasting. Two weeks later, the region of Chuquicamata was devastated by the worst earthquake in anyone's memory. Of the six men's homes, the one belonging to Paul Hodges, the first of the team to have reached the summit, was the worst hit, being completely destroyed. Licancábur is all the more notorious, given that even higher peaks in the area present no exceptional difficulties, other than shortness of breath, many even having been mined for sulfur near their summit.
My leg bone had
spared, but I acquired another permanent
mountaineering souvenir scar. When the slope eased off, I went to look
down Jürgen's ridge but he was nowhere to be found. I blew a
but received was no answer. Had he abandoned or would he come up
later? I crossed wet snow patches, and eventually attained the crater
rim, where I beheld a green oval crater lake, a jewel of 85 by 60
I scanned the nearly even rim and went for the highest point at 5921
I screamed my Yah-hoos to my record high-altitude climb of 1200 meters in a day. I absorbed the fascinating vista of the entire Laguna Verde, snow-capped Sairecábur (5971m), dozens of other ghostly volcanos, amid dark clouds looming over distant ranges. Adjacent lovely red Juriques (5700m) harbors a considerably larger crater. Unlike many of its neighbors, Licancábur shows no trace of sulfur.
A nearby stone wall seemed to be a built wind shelter. Unfortunately, I was not then aware that it was actually part of a 500-year-old Inca ceremonial complex, where they made offerings, possibly including humans, to the gods. Although no mummy finding has been reported here, children sacrificed by freezing to death were found on several other Andean summits. High-altitude archaeologist Johan Reinhard has categorized this ruin, together with those we had witnessed at lower levels, as the most extensive high-altitude archaeological complex yet known. This volcano, along with over 50 other sacred peaks higher than 5200 meters, was not simply considered the dwelling place of deities, or a place to worship the sun; the mountain itself was venerated, for its ability to condense clouds, providing some rain and thus fertility to this otherwise desert land. Loads of wood from distant forests had been hauled up, presumably to burn offerings, make smoke for rituals or to signal the progress of the ceremonies to the complex below. The fires surely required absolutely dry wood and much prompting, in this rarefied and cold air.
descended into the crater, which holds the
world's highest lake (5860m altitude; 90m x 70m in size).
I leaned down and put my face in the water to drink—an urge to be one with the mountain. The water was divinely fresh, although I noticed that bright green algae coated the stones under water. Then I filled up my water bottle and realized that tiny red creatures were swimming in it, and I had not brought the iodine tablets. It could have been worse; I later learned that some volcanic craters have toxic or corrosive lakes, including sulfuric acid. That this high lake can persist without ever freezing up, betrays the presence of subtle volcanic heat, which never builds up to fumarolic activity, let alone any record of historic eruptions. Any outgassing would have fouled up the water, sterilizing this unique microhabitat of phytoplankton and zooplankton. The presence of liquid water on this peak must be the symbol that established the ultimate sacred status of Licancábur by the Atacameños and the Incas, as the master dispenser of crucial water resources. According to legend, the Incas had buried precious statues at the bottom of the 4-meter-deep lake. Reinhard's team, clad in full wet suits, conducted a search of the lake's bottom, but the prize was elusive, either being mythical or having been pillaged.
After the 60 meters up and out of the crater, I proceeded down the endless slope, producing a bow-shock wave of scree including 30-centimeter rocks. Was I ever glad I had brought two aluminum tent poles to keep balance while surfing this rolling scree. It was hard on the thighs and feet, but torture to the leather hiking boots. I blew the whistle occasionally in case Jürgen was around. When I arrived at the bottom, ominous clouds hastened nightfall, but I still had to traverse multiple boulder-strewn hills to attain the tent. I slipped into the rain suit when it started sleeting, and continued on my now aching feet over endless boulder hills. It became pitch dark without a moon and the beam from the Petzl headlamp reflected on the falling snow, blinding out my vision. It would be impossible to find the tent in these conditions and I didn't want to use up the battery in case it would get so cold later that I would have to walk to keep warm, so I lay down in the rocks using the backpack for a pillow. Is this Licancábur's retribution?
When I became thirsty, I drank water from pools of melted snow on some rocks, using a hollow tent pole as a straw rather than drinking from the bottle of crater lake water with the red bugs. The clouds cleared and I was able to walk on the boulders by starlight only. I crossed one ridge after another, but they all looked the same so I put off the search before overshooting home ridge. By 3:30 a.m., it was around -10°C, and I located a space under huge boulders where it wasn't so cold, so I stayed there to wait out the night. I lay down until my feet in damp socks became cold, then sat up and exercised my legs. I was extremely thankful to have otherwise packed along enough clothes and snacks to keep warm.
March 23: Man, was I happy to see the first hint of sunlight. I crawled out of my cave taking care not to touch the resinous yareta moss—it makes sticky black streaks on clothes. I continued searching up and down hills. The warm sun rose and soothed the soul.
Finally, Jürgen spotted me and yelled out. Wow, were we happy to see each other! He vehemently related that had run out of breath at the first snow patches (about 5500m) and that he had been walking like a drunk. Worried never to be able to go back down if he pushed on, he had retreated. I felt guilty for allowing us to separate—fortunately nothing happened. Just before dark when it had started snowing, he had found the tent and attached the fly. He had imagined every "horror story" about me, but knew I was "not crazy" having Aconcagua experience. He had yelled out for me in the dark until his voice was hoarse, and had left a candle burning to illuminate the tent. Had I failed to return by 10:00 a.m., he would have left that morning to alert the motorcyclists in San Pedro to organize a search and rescue. I was in ecstasy to eat and have access to all my stuff.
It was a painful hour over more miserable rocks to the bikes. There, to my astonishment, Jürgen told me he had not enough food and was sick of the cold and snow. He had the blues and wanted to go to Ecuador for some jungle. What a guy! Only a few days ago, he said he was so happy to go into the mountains with me. Now he's going back alone to San Pedro—with no tent. His anxious lonely night in the desert must have been traumatizing to annihilate his enthusiasm so soon.
A gloomy mood prevailed after he left that day, but his decision was for the better because he was not ready for such a rigorous land. Anyhow, I enjoy going solo. I can enjoy traveling just as well with partners, but it is a very different experience, particularly in remote areas. In addition to the well known drawbacks, my journeys of both varieties have identified several advantages to the solo experience. The solo explorer is free to go his own pace, which often varies depending on mood and the species of foreign infections the body is fighting; free to stop for visits, however trivial is the object of his curiosity; free to engage in activities at whim, such as photography or updating a journal; and free to do chores at odd times. He does not have to compromise his interests and preferences to a common agreement in the choice of the route, style, meals, campsites, activities, or agenda. Since a solitary adventurer must rely primarily on himself, he will be very thorough in preparations, be less likely to forget things, and will exercise far more caution. This self-reliance also spawns a deep sense of accomplishment. Finally, he establishes a deeper connection with the environment. Silence or natural sounds inspire a contemplative contact with nature. He may sense that he is an integral component of a grand scheme. He will approach a mountain in humility or even reverence as the tiny scale of his being comes into focus. He realizes that the influence of mankind is nil upon the colossal energies which toss continents around on a sea of magma, propelling them to crash into one another, uplifting these immense mountains.
I hopped across the stream between the lakes, then washed my hair and socks with the very salty water—doesn't lather very well. I started up the hill toward fantastically colored Co. Amarillo (yellow). The track took on the characteristic of the terrain: sometimes red, grey, or beige; sometimes ash, sand, gravel or rocks, depending on the composition of the most recent volcanic ejecta or flow. It is never maintained; when it gets too wavy, the jeeps just make another one alongside. You try different tracks and choose the best one. Sometimes 10 tracks all go the same way. I continually adjusted clothing; with only the meager heat-buffering effect of the thin atmosphere, I was alternately frozen and cooked as clouds passed. A form in the distance seemed to be a tent, but as I approached, the image crystallized to a canvas-covered truck. The two Bolivians with sun-darkened faces told me they had been waiting days for a mechanic.
I set up camp at
(4700m) between Co. Nelly and Co.
To celebrate yesterday's climb, I smoked more of the same cigar while absorbing the austere beauty of the realm of reddish mountains.
March 24: The sprinkle of snow melted fast in the warm sun. A motorcyclist passed by in the distance. I had planned to fill up on water at Río Chunchullerito, but its bed was dry sand. I dug a 30-centimeter hole and found wet sand, so I followed the bed up to a canyon, and finally reached clear flowing water. The water also emerged near milky grey Laguna Salada (salty lake), spreading into a wide grassy marsh inhabited with birds. The track turned white from salt by the lake shore. For over 1500 kilometers, the Altiplano does not allow any water to flow to the sea; all the precipitation must evaporate back out, leaving behind all the dissolved salts.
March 25: It was a freak navigating by volcanos and lakes in that alien landscape. Jeep tracks branch off here and there, so I had to stop and analyze the map, sometimes using compass and bicycle odometer to supply more data. Road signs were nonexistent. At the pass between Co. Pabellón and Co. Pabelloncito I again beat my lifetime cycling altitude record at 4750 meters. I was so acclimatized that my power was barely affected. Just beyond, the thunder was so soon after the lightning that I was obliged to sit down and wait for it to subside, while contemplating a great view of Laguna Colorada (reddened lake).
Near the shore, I
terrain of delightfully weird boulders,
bluffs, and small canyons.
and holes right
through rocks added to the intrigue. I put the tent directly under a
two-meter overhang. The roof was black from fires—who knows how
ancient. A truck that had been rendered decrepit from years of hauling
yareta stopped by.
The tires were worn to the fiber. The thick steel box was riddled with holes. Every part was dented and worn. They tilted the hinged cabin up to adjust the tired engine.
March 26: The
camera battery was getting so weak that I had
it in my crotch down my pants to warm it. Near Laguna Colorada, I
encountered a deserted airstrip with a tattered windsock. The road past
it had been graded. The lake is spectacular: water tinted red by algae,
white salty islands, and hundreds of pink flamingos.
These are not Florida-type flamingos; they are the rare James's flamingos that tolerate the bone-chilling Altiplano nights, as low as -25°C. I approached ever so slowly to take a photo. Llamas roamed nearby.
Campamento ENDE was built by the Empressa Nacional De Electicidad to develop geothermal energy exploitation. They had capped some steam vents with valves at Sol de Mañana 20 kilometers from here, but ran out of funding. Only a few people dwelled in one of the large buildings. Three British girls came out, happy to talk to a gringo. They were studying the lake's microbiology and flamingos, and were financed by university grant. I earned their respect when I related that I had studied the July 1961 National Geographic article about the flamingos. My progress had been slower than planned, so I asked the Bolivian guy if they had any food for sale. He gave me some bread rolls, but told me to hide them quick before the boss would see them. I found out that the French cyclist did pass here, but a month ago. Later, the boss came out and sternly gave me a long story of which I understood nothing. One girl translated that he was telling me to leave now. "It pisses me off!," she said, "Every time someone comes to speak to us, it's the same thing." For some reason, this man couldn't stand tourists. I stopped at the nearby adobe (dried mud) huts hoping to get more food. Junk was scattered everywhere. Chickens pecked the dusty soil within a fenced enclosure. A woman sat in a dark, dirty room. A three-year-old girl with a filthy face followed the man and I into the storage room. They had everything I wanted: sugar, vegetable oil, oats, sardines, cookies, cocoa, and candles. As I packed the food, guys were pitifully trying to refurbish a demolished motorcycle. I gave them some tire patches, which they added to an inner tube that was already riddled with patches. When they inflated it, it exploded a hopeless five-centimeter gash!
As I receded from
lake, I beheld the stunning effect of the
underside of the clouds reflecting the red hue of the lake. Another
jeep-load of European tourists stopped by to chat. My hands ended up
of oranges and candy. After a lightning wait, I explored a cluster of
extraordinary wind-sculpted rocks.
Some were wider on top, and I recognized the eight-meter-tall one whose base is a pillar; I had seen it in the Frenchman Michel Drapier's book.
As I wrote postcards by candlelight, the only sound was that of snowflakes gently falling on the tent. I felt genuinely privileged to be here and comfortable in such a remote and exotic place.
March 27: I ended up on the border of Chile by navigational mistake because I never found Laguna Blanca (white lake), so I mistook Co. Bayo (berry) for Co. Agua de Perdiz (partridge water). Fortunately, I found a numbered border marker post (LXXII) so I retraced only three kilometers. I definitely didn't want to trample off the tracks near this border, since I had read about explosive land mines that endanger exploring at nearby Salar de Ascotan because of the border dispute! They relate to The War of the Pacific (1879-83) when Bolivia lost its coastal possessions to Chile, although some were planted relatively recently.
That afternoon, I stopped to established camp as soon as the snow caused a whiteout, to avoid the risk of getting lost again. Is it possible to believe that I was in the tropics? (latitude: 22° S.)
March 28: The
morning sun was missing, so I felt down
breaking camp and shaking the snow off the bike. It cleared up later,
making the track blinding white, then the wheels started
splashing wet snow and dirt.
Yet another missing lake cast me into navigational limbo; I could not find Laguna Cachi (split), so I was very happy to find Laguna Ramaditas, which re-established my position. The track then weaves through a maze of hills, and each lake is a beauty: salt marshes, green bushes, grasses, and flamingos in this desert. Geochemists have observed that the lakes have wildly different salinities and composition, depending on the ash of their respective volcanic slopes. Only a few are alkaline lakes, their carbonates having been neutralized by the ubiquitous sulfur, which turns into sulfuric acid. At Laguna Honda, people in a jeep had heard about me from the German and Canadian backpackers we had met out of San Pedro 10 days ago—word gets around.
I camped by a rocky hillside of impressive Co. Caquella (5947m), orienting the tent by compass so that the east morning sun would hit the tent early.
Life was now reduced to paradoxical simplicity: stay warm, hydrated, and well fed; don't get lost, sunburned, robbed, zapped, blinded, asphyxiated, poisoned, shot, or blown up; in short keep moving and do all that is necessary to stick to the demanding itinerary. However complex these requirements may seem, they are far more simple than day to day living in civilized society, in which you must hustle to find a job, then work for half your waking hours, negotiate salaries, contracts, traffic jams and love relations; plan your engagement, wedding, family, retirement, and testament; choose, purchase and maintain a house, car(s), barbecue, swimming pool, and house pet; work out a budget making sure to omit Loto 6/49, Banco, Mini Loto and Casino expenses as well as any surprises; pay the bills for mortgage, electricity, water, gas, cable TV, PBS TV, touch-tone telephone with caller ID, internet access, credit and debit cards, golf course membership, political party contributions, and alimony; take out auto insurance, house insurance, life insurance, and worry insurance; subscribe to Chatelaine, Good Housekeeping, The Plain Truth and the thick, forest-devouring Daily Bad News, go to the supermarket, church, bank, repair shop, health club, dentist, optometrist, doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, hospital, funeral home, and purgatory, then you have to start all over again in the next life because you didn't have time to learn your spiritual lessons.
March 29: A gorgeous view of Co. Tomasamil (5890m) greeted me when I opened the tent zipper whereas yesterday that volcano was completely obscured.
My three-day supply of water from Río Huaylla Jara near Laguna Colorada was almost out, so I seriously searched the dry ravine of Quebrada Juco Huasi, but to no avail, so I was determined to get to the town of Ollagüe that day. Rounding Volcán Ollagüe (5865m), the salars of Ollagüe and Chiguana below came into a great view. They are whitish flats amid the mountains. The sulfur-mining track up Volcán Ollagüe was deserted. Near the Abaroa border train station, the track fizzled out so I cut across the desert for a kilometer. The tires intermittently sank though a crust on the ground, even as I walked the bike. Approaching the buildings, I discerned a motorcyclist. The ground became smooth hard dried mud, so I hopped on the bike and speeded toward him. When I realized it was Jim, I yelled out and dropped the bicycle. We two solitary adventurers ran to each other and embraced. The yearning for the familiar had sparked our emotions. Jim had practically covered the same route as I, but in four days, including getting lost near Co. Agua de Perdiz! What a freak that we arrived at the border simultaneously. He had climbed Co. Laguna Verde (5531m), but his motorcyclist friends had run out of breath and returned to San Pedro. I got the news that Jürgen also made it back there all right, but his baggage rack had disintegrated.
Jim and I wanted to enter Chile only for a few days, to get a ride on a huge truck up to the world's highest mine near the summit of Aucanquilcha (6175m). In the Bolivian customs office, the young guy was about to stamp the 30 day visa, that I got in Montreal, from March 19 (when I left San Pedro) to April 19, but I needed until May 1, so a "deposit" of US$20 made him forget to stamp it at all. He made up some other problem for Jim, but the story was less substantial and only yielded $10—Bolivian corruption at work. The Chilean customs in Ollagüe three kilometers away required two hours in three buildings for filling vehicle forms, agricultural clearance, and obtaining tourist cards. The bleakness of the town became apparent when we were told it has no hotel, residencial, or restaurant and only one little shop. That was odd, since we observed so many buildings and trains. A carabinero invited us to stay in a small old room with no water or electricity. Not exactly what I had hoped for, but it would do. In consolation, I had hoped to be with a gringo, and I had Jim. When the La Paz-Antofagasta train halted in town, I boarded to purchased some bottles of beer from the busy waiter. Despite the aroma of good food in there, I stepped off soon for fear that the train would depart with me stuck inside. Back at the dark room, we had candlelight dinner of real bread, meat paté, tomatoes and apples.
The carabinero invited us in his house to chat. We met his wife and five-year-old son. They were not too poor and had services. We inquired about the trucks going up to sulfur mine near the summit of Aucanquilcha. He explained that the price of sulfur plummeted when environmental laws, especially in Canada, obliged its extraction from petroleum, and flooded the markets. This spelled the end of mining, and almost of the town, which is now mostly abandoned. I was quite disappointed, but I finally understood why the sulfur mines that I had passed since Laguna Verde, had all been deserted. After all, it had been the very scarcity of human activity that had given the Sud Lipez expedition the remoteness element that had been so spellbinding to me.
March 30: It was so cold in the room that we went outside on the cement platform for breakfast. I went for a walk around town, but there was scarcely a soul to be seen. I found the back half of town in ruins. I was envious of Jim who would attempt to motorbike up Aucanquilcha. He could not give me a lift because the engine will be starved for oxygen.
I cycled the 10 kilometers to Amincha determined to hire a truck. Sulfur rocks were scattered along the track. Amincha had yellow hills, buildings with large processing equipment, huge (3.4-meter-diameter) worn tires, and several long buildings. The atmosphere was eerily quiet until a Bolivian-looking watchman yelled out to me, suppressing any plan I may have had to sneak in. I passed a herd of llamas with red ribbons on their ears, and located the only pickup in town that was still in one piece. I asked a lady if it worked. Yes it does, but it can't go up because of damage—end of hope. I considered cycling up but that would have meant two fewer days for the rainforest expedition. To this day, I am still kicking myself for being dictated by that airplane ticket date. I could have cycled to over 6000 meters, higher than British adventurers Nick and Dick Crane up Kilimanjaro! I went to examine the old cable transport system that had been used to get the ore down before that method was replaced with trucks. The cables stood quietly at rest on pylons to the mine 2200 meters higher. A shed was surrounded with impressive quantities of worn out components.
This was an ideal place to get a value for magnetic declination that I may need to navigate the next expedition: Salar de Uyuni. None of my maps quoted the declination, so I took compass bearings to several recognizable mountains, then measured their true bearings on the maps. The difference between them resulted in declination values between 0° and 8° east, average 4°.
Jim returned too early to have made it to the top. He had retreated at 5500 meters because meltwater had eroded gullies in the track, but a bicycle could have been carried over them. How fast nature reclaims its land! The track had been last used only three months ago. Now it occurred to me that the lady had been talking about damage to the road, not the pickup. We bid farewell again and he headed down to catch the train to Uyuni rather than drive on the track, which had such a infamous reputation of muddiness.
Back in Ollagüe, they had no postal service, and only one telephone. At the phone office, an operator establishes the connections from her desk, then transfers the calls to a wooden booth. She frantically fills piles of paperwork while customers speak. After waiting two hours for my turn, the operator lost the link to La Paz three times before I could give a sign of life to my family. Back in the same old room I tried pisco, a Chilean 30% spirit, but I don't like the taste. However; I certainly enjoyed its effect. I enjoyed the neighbor's taped music just as much, having been deprived so long.
March 31: The sky was clear so I finally could get a look at the fumes on Volcán Ollagüe.
Back at the Abaroa border office, the young guy I had bribed grabbed my passport before the boss had a chance to see it, and stamped it without a hassle. The others asked the price of my bike and felt the front tire. I would find that response typical of Bolivians.