Chulean Coat of Arms

Chile & Bolivia 2004

Bolivian Coat of Arms

 

Having put off this trip due to my unexpected jaunt to Afghanistan, I pressed ahead with it in February 2004. Actually this was a much better time to go, as it was their summer time. I flew out to Santiago but rather than endure yet another sprawling, polluted city didn't stop. Instead I caught a coach from the airport down to Valparaiso. At least here it was cooler, quieter, and on the sea.

I only intended staying here for a couple of days before heading north to Calama and on to the Atacama Desert..  I booked into Valpaaiso Cathedrala Ascensores in Valparaisoreasonable hotel and after familiarising myself with the town made a booking for a coach three days hence. Actually it doesn’t take much effort to familiarise yourself with Valparaiso as most of its built on a steep hill overlooking the bay. The only problem is that your continuously going up and down hills in order to get just about anywhere.

In order to help you climbing these hills Valparaiso has a unique type of transport called "ascensores". Despite how they are des in reality they are best described as garden-sheds on wheels, which get hauled on cables up and down the hillside in the manner of funicular railways.. The inclines are really steep, at least forty five degrees, sometimes almost vertical. As you climb you watch the squealing cables out the glassless window, while the grounds gets further and further away. The fact there is no safety mechanism if the cable snaps, coupled with the knowledge that some of these ascensores are over a hundred years old is not reassuring. However I braved a few before loosing my nerve: not something I do often.

I spent a couple of days in Valparaiso not doing a great deal, although one day I took a bus down the coast the nearbyLord Thomas Cochrane - Stained Glass in Maritime Museum resort town of Vińa Del Mar, quite nice but resorts aren't really my thing. I took a long hike up into the hills above the town, even braving the ascensores and I spent quite a while touring around the parts of the docks which I could get into. I made sure I visited the Maritime and Naval Museum as I have a great interest in the Scottish naval hero and founder of the Chilean Navy, Lord Thomas Cochrane. And he certainly does my reputation as a Scotsman while in Chile a lot of good!

My intention was to make my way North, up to Antofagasta, Calama and the Atacama Desert. After Vina Del Marthis I had to get to Bolivia as I was flying home from La Paz. I wasn't sure but I had heard conflicting rumours that I could still get there by train, via Uyuni.

I had always realised that in the past 15 years I had been very lucky; in all my travels, apart from a couple of half hearted mugging attempts no-one had every tried to perpetrate any crime against my person or property. However the next three days were definitely set to restore the balance....

I was booked onto the overnight coach to Antofagasta, on my last afternoon I was standing at a bus-stop on my way back to my hotel when a couple of youths tried to grab my camera bag. As I had it looped round my neck as well as my shoulder they weren't successful but they were running fast and I got dragged a few meters along the ground before they ran off. The strap was ripped but I was unhurt and hadn't lost anything.

Half an hour later, standing at traffic lights another couple of youths tried the old sorry-I've spilt-some-sauce-on your-coat-can-I-wipe-it-off scam. I'd read about this one and acted accordingly; they withdrew rapidly. Two-nil to me so far! Altiplano Lakes - Atacama DesertExcursion in the Atacama Desert

The lucky run was not to last. Waiting at the coach station that night and being very careful with my luggage I slipped my day pack which I was wearing strapped on my front off one strap only for a second to take out a book. In that second someone wrenched it off my other shoulder and out of my hands and was off into the night. I couldn't run after them with a rucksack on my back. Fortunately I didn't have anything of  intrinsic value in the pack although I had lost both my guidebooks. Well pissed-off,  I decided to put off my departure till the following evening and went back to my hotel. It was fully booked out but the owner made me up a room for the night and wouldn't accept any payment the next morning.

Next evening I went to catch the overnight coach to Calama. The next 12 hours were some of the most eventful of my life.

The coach was a luxury model from a well known coach firm, what I didn't knowAtacama Desert - A Greener Part at the time was the Chilean practice of hiring un-vetted, Steam Vents - Atacama Desertcontract drivers. Also in order for the following story to make sense, the drivers' cab was separated and curtained off from the passenger compartment by a lockable door.

The two drivers started behaving oddly before they had left Valparaiso by picking up and dropping off a couple of hitch-hikers, one an elderly European man with a dog; when he couldn't get the dog into the cab he insisted on hanging onto the outside of the cab while carrying the dog.

As soon as we left the city they started driving like maniacs while shouting, chanting and banging on the dashboard. Then they veered off into a quarry and started driving round and round a circuit at high speed. This was very alarming, it was pitch dark, pouring with rain, they were continuously hurtling round tightLhamas - Atacama Desert bends on the track, just avoiding cliffs. They kept on going round and round this circuit for over half Flamingo - Atacama Desertan hour before screeching back onto the road and on into the night.

Many of the passengers had retreated to the rear of the coach but I stayed where I was in the front sear beside the (locked) door into the cab. We stopped momentarily a few times in the middle of nowhere, it was obvious that a few other people had got into the cab and also that other people were getting out. I couldn't see anything as the cab's curtains had been drawn but it seemed at least one person was hanging onto the outside of the bus.

By now it was obvious we had been hijacked. My money and documents were concealed on my person but I managed to hide my camera in a recess in my seat. Eventually a couple of guys let themselves into the passenger compartment from the cab. They claimed to be from the bus company and apologised for Valle de la Luna - Atacama Desertthe behaviour of the drivers which convinced no-one Tatio Geysers - Atacama Desertand there was a bit of a stromash with the more assertive passengers although I didn't take any part. They were obviously British which was all the more confusing. A few kids were with them whose main purpose seemed to be to distract us all with carnival novelties, i.e. water pistols, disintegrating cigarettes and puffs that fired coloured powder at us. There were also a couple of people hanging onto the outside of the coach, throwing these things through the windows.

This went on for hours. Going by the occasional glimpses of ocean I got we were certainly heading north, so at least we were going in the correct direction. Eventually we entered a large town which later, looking at a map, and reading descriptions of the place, was probably La Serena. Here, the insane driving started again. There seemed to be some kind of night market in operation and also that a good number of the trader's were known to our drivers, and rehearsed, as people were deliberately jumping out in front of our coach as we sped round the market, crashing through street stalls, driving head on at theHotel Tatio - San Pedro de Atacama walls of a church then skidding to a halt with inches to spare and driving Night Excursion - Atacama Desertround and round the town square at high speed for about twenty minutes. Then we were off again into the dark night, still heading North.

I must have fallen asleep but when I woke up later, the British guy who was obviously the leader started talking to me. He asked me to look in my wallet to make sure my money was safe. This was concealed in a zipped internal pocket. which he knew, also he suggested I look in my body-belt which he somehow also knew about; there was no point in denying there existence. Not only had my money gone but it had been replaced by novelty, printed bank-notes from "The Bank of Dope land" and the "Bank of Cocaine". They needed these back he explained, as they were quite expensive to buy. This was just sheer arrogance, if it hadn't been pointed out they could have probably got away without me having any idea they had managed to get at these well concealed pockets, next to my skin. Even more incredibly, this had happened to everyone else on the coach as well. On reflection I can only presume they introduced some sort of gas into the bus - it was the only the only way they could have relieved all thirty passengers of their valuables without them knowing. However I didn't feel ill or muddle-headed or anything. Nor didFiesta - San Pedro de Atacama anybody else. Fiesta - San Pedro de Atacama

There didn't seem any danger of physical violence and I started to work out where we were and what was going to happen next. The leader was actually very friendly and a bit over-forthcoming about their activities. Firstly, he revealed "they had skimmed our bank and credit cards with a portable card-reader in the driver's cab before replacing them" and proudly produced the counterfoils as proof; (Stupid, I cancelled them all next day). They had left everyone with some dollars, and their passports so we wouldn't be left destitute (thanks very much, I think not). Yes, apart from the drivers "they were all from Britain", but living in Chile. They had done this a few times in the past, in order to finance themselves with "alcohol, soft-drugs and luxury holidays". They knew they would get caught eventually. Three of them were flying out of Santiago the following Monday for a holiday in the Dominican Republic. This last piece of information was unbelievably stupid to divulge and I made sure I didn't forget it later when interviewed by the local police

Eventually the bus stopped and my "friend" and his colleagues got off and eloped into the darkness with their loot. ISalt Lakes; Atacama Desert was pleased that at least they hadn't found my camera equipment's hiding place. From what I could see only the two Chilean driver's were left behind, locked in their cab. The sensible thing would have been for them to rendezvous with a getaway car and abandon us and the coach in the middle of nowhere, but although in some ways the whole hijacking had been cleverly done, and no-one had been threatened or hurt, I wasn't so sure the drivers were particularly smart. Also, I had a feeling Cycling in the Atacama Desert - Where I Gave Up!that to abandon us in the middle of nowhere wouldn't suit the gang's strategy either - this would have inevitably made the whole thing high profile, risking a large-scale police hunt. Finally, as dawn was breaking the bus finally stopped in a seaport (Antofagasta it turned out). The drivers decided to drop four of us off. As I was in the front seat I was one of the four. We got off, I immediately started demanding my luggage out the boot, opened all the outside doors so they couldn't move and started unloading all our luggage. The driver's quickly began to loose control of the situation. A couple of other people got off. The drivers decided we should all get back on the bus. Some fucking chance! I started arguing with them. By this time two fellow-passengers were talking to a bunch of taxi drivers inValle de la Luna - Atacama Desert Spanish. By now someone else had found a phone. Myself and two others refused to get back on. The drivers got confused. They started trying to round us up by now it was too late and half a dozen militia-types turned up with  Whoever they were they had a couple of machine-guns and took control, although not after first trying to arrest the bemused taxi-drivers at gun point. They spoke English, I appointed myself unofficial spokesperson and explained what had happening. I actually ended up in the cab with the police/militia and the driver, who could hardly steer the bus owing to the fact he was shaking so much with a gun barrel Sand-Boarders - Atacama Desertpoking in his right ear!

However our adventure was by no means over yet as first the police had to find somewhere to put us up and get statements; it turned out they were taking this very seriously, probably because it didn't reflect well on their tourist industry. We drove for about two hours into the Atacama to a hotel but this was full. We spent the rest of the morning driving around from hotel to hotel along the coast, while they tried to find somewhere to accommodate us which was really frustrating. Eventually we found somewhere and we were put up for the night but still not free to go until we had given police statements. The gang it seemed were well known to them and my information re. there holiday plans was well received but... they wanted me to see them later back in Calama in order to verify the statement with their police chief. Why I don't know, it surely wouldn't make any difference who I told, but they were insistent. I was going to Calama anyway so pled that I had to get on with my holiday, promised to turn up, and made my exit.

Actually, I did report to the Calama police but they seemed to have enough information and took the briefest of details although at least I got a police report for my insurance claim. Whether, how or when the gang were eventually caught I'll never know but I like to think they were caught at the airport, on their way to the Dominican Republic.Leaving San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna - Atacama Desert

It took a couple of days to cancel my bank and credit cards and withdraw enough money from ATM's to continue. Deciding that some peace and a few days of more predictable tourism was due I headed out to San Pedro De Atacama, a small town in the Atacama Desert.

San Pedro turned out to be a pleasant little town, full of both Western and Chilean tourists, I took a room in a small hotel, the "El Tatio" in the town centre and ended up staying for a week. I went out horse riding, went on several day trips out into the desert by coach and by 4X4. One thing I liked about the Atacama was the diversity of "types" of desert. Part of it is dusty, scrubby landscape with the occasional deep blue  lakes complete with flamingos. Other parts are more like the deserts of Cowboy Films, with canyons and rocky terrain, eroded by the wind into strange rock formations. Then you turn the corner and all of a sudden its Sahara style sand dunes. There is also a lot of volcanic activity with hot steam vents and geysers.

One night I went out at 02.00 hours to an astronomical observatory. This was rather weird,Salt Processing Factory - Salar de Uyuni watching the stars and planets through Eyes Playing Tricks? - Salar de Uyunitelescopes in the pitch darkness while all around you were plumes of steam from the gas vents. I also hired a mountain bike but after cycling for about an hour and surveying the long straight road extending to the horizon in both directions I become a trifle dispirited (and it was bloody hot, and I'd drunk about two litres of water), and returned to San Pedro.

The evenings were rather fun too. I'm nor sure whether a fiesta was on or whether it was for the benefit of the tourists or even just for the pleasure of it, but in the evenings brass bands played, and dancers in spectacular costumes came out onto the streets. Mostly they played Chilean music but one evening they were met by a priest and marched into the Catholic Church playing of all things "The Man Who Broke the Bank in Monte Carlo"!Close-up of the Ground - Salar de Uyuni

Anyway all good things have to come to an end, and I still had to get to La Paz in Bolivia for my flight home. I knew that there used to be a train connection from Chile to La Paz although I understood it had been suspended a few yearsLandscape - Salar de Uyuni previously. However over the previous two weeks I had been getting conflicting reports that it was running again, but only weekly. Other reports said it ran only part of the way, from Calama to Uyuni, somewhere I wanted to stop off anyway, so I headed back to Calama.

I can't remember if there was only one train a week, but I was running out of time and as soon as I hit Calama I went straight to the railway station; there was a long distance train journeys, sitting on a single seat, squeezed between three fat, sweaty locals and a box of chickens etc - been, seen done it, and the novelty ran out a long time ago! Actually the coach may even have been heated as I don't recall cowering under blankets throughout the night either. What I do remember though is when myself and an adventurous German lady veterinarian climbed out of the carriage onto the roof, the train was only doing about fifteen miles an hour through the desert. Later we climbed back down and sat with the carriage door open and our feet hanging over the edge in the sunshine, taking some excellent photographs which somehow I managed to loose..

The Chilean/Bolivian border was the usual bureaucratic bollocks. We must have been stuck on the Chilean side for about two hours; for some reason the Chilean authorities seemed to want some sort of exit document from us (this despite the fact that you didn't need anything to enter the country apart from the standard currency declaration), and let us out to walk on the platform. Suddenly the train started to move silently down the track. We all ran after it and managed to clamber back on but it stopped again and it was the Bolivian Custom's turn. I can't remember what time of the day we arrived in Uyuni except it was daylight and I managed to get a room in a hotel no bother. I arranged with the hotel for a 4X4 and a driver for the next day and set out to explore the Salar de Uyuni.Uyuni - Old Rail-Car in Town CentreView From my Hotel Room - Uyuni

Of all the places in the world I have been the Salar de Uyuni must be one of the most bizarre landscapes of them all. It's a huge, flat, white salt plane, stretching as far as the horizons. At the time there was a layer of water on top of the salt which reflected the sun. This, coupled with the fluffy, white clouds in the sky made it really difficult to work out where the salt ended and the sky began, all sense of perspective or distance became confused, it was difficult to determine whether stony outcrops for instance were small rocks 50 metres away or large hills 20 miles away. It was very surreal, especially when one outcrop turned out to be a hotel made almost entirely of salt, right in the middle of the plane. Here, a crow of locals were gathered, paddling in a salty pool outside the entrance..

I would have liked to stay longer but had to keep going as I had to make sure I reached La Paz in good time for my flight home. As the railway ended at Uyuni I caught a coach the next day to La Paz. I found a hotel in the city centre no problem but after almost three and a half weeks on the road, and the high altitude I decided to take it easy from there on - I had at one point thought of doing a rush job to Lake Titicaca, but I'd been there before, and decided to take it easy. So I spent the last few days doing very little except some small-scale sightseeing around the city.

On my last day I decided to get a taxi to the airport. I got the hotel to book it early so I could makeCentral La Paz, Bolivia it to the airport with lots of time to La Paz, Boliviaspare. Unfortunately it didn't quite work out like that, in fact it didn't work out at all.

The problems began after the taxi had gone about 100 metres to the bottom of the hill when it got a puncture. The driver jacked up the car and took the wheel off. I expected him to put on a spare instead he brightly cried "uno minuto!" and disappeared into the crowds, wheeling the burst tyre like a hoop. After about twenty minutes it began to dawn on me he had gone to find a garage to get it mended! It also occurred to me that as my luggage was locked in his bloody vehicle I would have to wait till he got back, which wasn't till about an hour later. The new wheel was put on and we set of again. Unfortunately the road to the airport took us through some rather hilly terrain and it was a very hot day. Sure enough, steam started pouring out the bonnet, at first he didn't seem to notice but when it got so dense you could hardly see the road through it he finally stopped and got out. He put the bonnet up and started fumbling about; at first I couldn't see what the idiot was doing but then he produced a two litre bottle of chilled mineral water...

"NO!!" I yelled, but too late. There was a loud cracking noise as the carburettor burst, plumes of steam (how the moron wasn't scalded I don't know), when it cleared he was still standing in front of the engine clutching his bloody water bottle with a bemused smile on his face.

Eventually a truck stopped and gave me a lift back to the hotel. Fortunately I was able to get on a flight the next morning and made it back to the UK after an all night stop off in Miami.

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