20th Feb 2006 - San Pedro de Atacama, Jama pass
To continue our quest to discover the area we thought we'd have a peak at the Bolivian border today and a further part of the Flamenco National Park that lies over near Argentina, so this place really is a crossroads.
You cannot miss the road to the Jama pass as it goes straight from the side of San Pedro into the hills in what looks like a direct line.
That's not far from the case either, it climbs and climbs without the benefit of any bends of hairpins, it just goes straight up. No idea what the gradient is, but on the way back is was 40kms of downhill, half of which was direct freefall. Apparently most of the heavy traffic uses the other pass, and I can see why. The drain on HGV brakes of that descent must be enormous. The hazard is obviously that of the runaway train.
One thing noticeable in all of South America is the number of roadside shrines they are numerous, but never more so than on the Pan Am in the north, or on the big Andean mountain passes. Today was a fine example in how the roads combined with the state of the vehicles using them - at least in the past - conspires to dot the verge regularly with these shrines. It must be a Catholic thing I guess. The shrines vary tremendously; some must have over the years taken greater importance and have been built up and are sometimes signed, and most are fairly simple and rudimentary. The ones on in the desert are particularly interesting as they often have little enclosures and vegetation. The only way that can happen is if people water them, and obviously they do. Some shrines are surrounded by used water bottles, sometimes in hundreds, but I don't know the significance of that.
Anyway, what reminded me was the sight near the top of the descent (ascent) where we stopped today. There were five separate crosses and flowers, and just over a little berm a mangled HGV cab with various bits of axles and trailer bed laid around. Someone’s brakes obviously had failed, and you dread to think how long he was careering out of control fighting to save himself before the wagon finally went off the road and destroyed itself. Whether the other crosses were from the same accident I doubt, but it looked to be a father and son in the wagon anyway.
Shrines - result of crashes on road - see them everywhere once roads get dodgy - these on Jama pass
The road to the Bolivian border was dirt but reasonable, as we approached the gatehouse (Chilean customs are in town) the Bolivian guard came out, and almost looked disappointed as we turned before it, but soon went bank inside. I can't imagine this border getting much traffic, especially not as now in the rainy season.
We returned to the fine tarmaced Jama pass and continued onwards. The views of the surrounding mountains were impressive, even after all these months. There was no plated high point, but we definitely went over the highest point before we got to the park at 4300m, so say 4500m. Due to the nature of the ascent the bike seemed to notice this one more in some ways, all the long drags. The effect is the opposite of what I'd expect. I'd guess you need to leave it in lower gears at higher revs, but in fact it you over rev it coughs and spits, better changing up. Obviously there’s a limit - you can't stay in top. The bike did very well indeed; in fact better than most vehicles we met....which were few. For such a well made pass probably only 15 we saw.
Some of the colours were once again impressive, and the high altitude lagoons certainly so, quite a surprise. Seeing water up here was unexpected. Surely heavily salted or similar, but colours from deep blue, to green. There was wildlife too, not aplenty, but more than many places. Flamingoes, Vicunas (type of Llama) geese and some small birds. We also saw two Argentinean reg vehicles - first for an age !
Not llama, not Guanaco, but Vicuña
It was cold, which was actually very nice, and we had our cags on, but the sky was generally cloudless so the sun was warming.
The park was free and in sections along the road and quite beautiful. The rock formations particularly were spectacular. being you are surrounded by wide open space there is no reason not to just ride off the road and go to what you see (but watch the sand) which we did on a couple of occasions, quite liberating, image the comments you'd get if you did the same at home.
Tara, Salar Aguas Calientes, Jama Pass. There is a bike under that pillar
We returned to find an email from Miguel saying he had found a tyre and details of how we could pay and get it delivered by bus to arica. Here the buses are used a bit like couriers and will take parcels in exchange for payment. You can collect the parcels at their terminal. Spoke to Miguel later in evening too as email is fine but not a very personal approach. He has been so helpful to us, and it looks like we might well be back on track again which will be wonderful. To add to the feeling of well being the brake fluid level didn’t seem to be dropping as much today either. If stays like that we may be able to continue topping it up and catching the spillage with folded up toilet paper as per the last three months. Its one of those jobs I don't really want to do unless I have too as it could end up worse than now. Currently we have brakes that work fine; if the repair failed we could end up with no front brake. Not ideal on Andean mountain passes!
Tuesday 21st February 2006
Calama + Chuquicamata Copper Mine
Our first task was too get the details sorted for the tyre. Miguel had emailed the fact he was able to get one the right size and what the price would be and how we had to pay. As there is no banking facility in San Pedro that tied to Miguel’s bank we had to go to Calama.
Though the road across to Calama is pretty bleak it is a straight run and only takes a little over an hour, some long tugs up and down hill though.
To cut a long story short we got there, and the bank we needed couldn't accept deposits and with time running out before they closed we ended up paying into a relatives account in order to pay. It was a close run thing but we succeeded in the end. All of this is of course based entirely on trust. Miguel packed the tyre off to the Tur Bus company and it will travel with them to Arica were we go to their terminal and pay for the carriage (£8) and prove who we are to get the goods. Like many things in Chile the cost of the tyre is around 50% more than Argentina, and near the UK price (the tyres are made in Brazil). But no tyre, no further north, so it's a small price to pay.
The important task complete we had the option of gaining something from the long round trip by way of trying again to visit the worlds largest open cast copper mine at Chuquicamata
We thought there were tours at 8.30 and 14.30, the time now was just gone two! A bit of a dash up the road for 12kms and the time was very near half past.
The city basically is the mine now, as 8,000 folk works there and 30% of Chile's entire income is from this mine. So it's quite a place. The mine itself dominates the landscape as of course the spoil heaps are of enormous proportions, clearly visible for miles.
We dashed into the tour office to find that the tour leaves at 3pm and of course was fully booked! We could wait and see if there were any cancellations, there often are the woman said. Obviously you see all the folk, and the others who came before you who had no tickets and think, not a hope!
In fact we were lucky, everyone left, and there was space for two more only. We had to quickly do the paperwork and pay. There is no charge for the tour, just a donation to a local children’s charity. I opted for 5000 for the two of us which sounded pretty reasonable. We dashed out with our bike gear with us as the office was due to close. Luckily there was space on the coach for all the clutter.
We had the introductions and a test of how many different races and the tour commenced in Spanish and English - lucky for us !
I'll sketch some details in at the end, but basically the mine has been here since 1915 and extends down 850m, in standard fashion it is tiered out and upwards and so is an immense hole in the ground - unbelievably huge, hard to comprehend. We saw all this from a viewing point for about 20 minutes and it was amazing, like a human inverted ant heap.
The worlds biggest open cast copper mine - that truck is carrying over 100 tonnes
There are round the clock operations and obviously some of the biggest Tonka toys you've ever dreamt of. It's hard to describe the scene. We only saw the pit really; none of the processing side or finished product, but the guide gave us insights to the future.
Can’t get the scale, 3.5kms long, 2.5kms wide
They expect to mine for 85 more years, go down to a depth of 1100m - the economics of further depths rule them out, and link with two other nearby mines to create one super mine 15kms long. One big hole !
There were a few questions I would have liked to ask, but we weren't able to at the time. Such as:
Will they infill it (unlikely) or pay for fencing as security ?
Are there any side effects of having such a huge deep hole in the neighborhood ?
How warm was it in the bottom - apart from the suns heat, there must perhaps be the earth’s heat too ?
How long does it take one truckload to ascend ?
Other things that struck me were :-
If the copper market falls, Chile will collapse.
With an 85 year life the shares must be good
It's a state run company so must corruption you'd think.
On our return we stopped by yet another large memorial sat in the dessert. This one had a plaque in Spanish that I could at least understand. It was a memorial to 34 people executed here by the Pinochet Dictatorship in the 70s I think, the infamous "caravan of death" and good to see being recognized in this relatively newly democratized country.
Shrine to the victims of the ´Caravan of Death´ under the Pinochet regime
So all in all today was a definite good day, and we gained more than we ever expected so double bonus.
Wednesday 22nd February 2006
San Pedro De Atacama
Well, almost truly a day of leisure today. We came to San Ped to stay a few days mainly in order to pick up some leads being sent form AutoCom – the leads packed up first way back in November I think, we made them function until December when a replacement set were sent from the states – but the states dealer got it wrong and sent wrong parts (at $45 cost to us I add). We had a repair and a fiddle in Ushuaia that lasted on and off til about a month ago. Autocom were sending the right leads direct from UK to here Poste Restante (sp) but so far nothing’s arrived, beginning to worry we´re doomed to bad luck on the intercom front. It’s had a lot of use, but is disappointing that it’s failed as we really need it for the long boring riding days. Last chance tomorrow.
Had a very relaxing day, in fact spent the day doing little but getting frustrated by internet problems here. The upside was we got to spend quite some time with some other residents at the hostel a French family from Aix en Provence. They were very nice, and particularly nice to see a family interacting so much, definitely people we’ll keep in touch with and hopefully meet again. Even had a pool championship in evening. Shame they’re leaving in morning, off to visit a cousin who works at an observatory so very envious of the fact they’ll see a real telescope in action while here – bet that knocks the pants off the one we went too. You can visit the observatories here, the big ones, but only during day which seems against the whole point.
Thursday 23rd February 2006
San Pedro de Atacama
Another relaxing day with a ride out into the canyons hereabouts – another opportunity to get completely bogged in sand, but at least when only in the thirties rather than forties ¡
Trying to tell me something else?
Rode out towards the geysers, but never went all the way as road rough and they are best viewed in a.m. but don’t seem too spectacular by all accounts we’ve received – not with a 4am start anyway.
Some great cacti by road, we never knew those ´rain sticks you buy are made from dried cacti wood from hereabouts. It’s wonderful stuff as light and very ´vented for want of a better word.
Well that´s a surprise - forgot we´d cross this!
Sending this as our final task, then we’re up in morning an Arica bound. Lets hope we get the tyre more successfully than the intercom leads…sadly nothing arrived while here (allowed 10 days which is 50% more than it takes the CDs to get to UK) so looks like we’ll be shouting through Bolivia and Peru – a great disappointment.
Posted by Simon McCarthy at February 26, 2006 12:32 PM GMT