Parinacota, the northernmost point of Chile, is slightly off the east of the Atacama Desert. The climate remains quite arid and barren yet, due to its high altitude, the soil receives more condensation and some humidity from cloud condensation. Our base during the Cordillera operations was situated in the commune of Putre, a tiny Andean village comprised of slightly less than 2000 inhabitants (apparently the population decreased by 29% from 1992 to 2002), and located at 3,500 m. Here, a major challenge I had never before encountered managed to overcome me: altitude sickness. Most people who suffer from altitude sickness or soroche begin to display symptoms starting at 2,400 m. The air pressure is significantly lower than at sea level. In my case, my skin becomes pale, my lips take on a purple colour and breathing becomes a difficult task. These side effects are sometimes compared to a harsh flu, carbon monoxide poisoning or even a severe hangover. In a worse case scenario, prolonged exposure to high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema, eventually leads to death. The Andean people combat soroche mainly chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea in order to stimulate the flow of oxygen. Another alternative to help stabilize your system is sucking on lemons or other citrus fruits. These villages are far from the luxuries of modern civilization, forcing the locals to ration food supplies, and their diet is basic. The main fauna consisted of vicuñas, alpacas and llamas. The llama was domesticated by the andinos and the animal’s meat is part of the regional cuisine. Chile had a signature sandwich called barros luco (named after the former President Ramón Barros Luco), using beef and melted cheese as the main ingredients. In Putre, the beef was substituted for llama and I thought the taste was quite exquisite. Llama sandwiches! Yummy.
|The main ingredient for Andean Barros Luco|
We valiantly ventured further into the mountains from Putre on day trips, travelling boldly where no Bickford had gone before. After a really slow 50 kms voyage - due to the rough terrain and limited road networks - we arrived to Lake Chungará. This lake sits comfortably at 4,517 m above sea level. You can imagine, based on the previous explanation, what colour my skin and face must have turned at this altitude. Behind the quiet idle lake stood the Parinacota volcano with an elevation of 6,348 m. I am still thankful we had no funny ideas of climbing to the top. I remember the natural beauty there but constantly felt ill due. The indigenous llamas would gallop gracefully around us yet I could barely walk a few feet. Most signs of human life we encountered along the way were living in small huts built out of rocks and straw. Locals were not accustomed to seeing people on a regular basis and would run for shelter when they would see us approaching at a distance. This made our adventures even further complicated, as we could not gather critical intelligence about our surroundings and points of interest. We had a road map but had not seen proper asphalt roads or any real settlements. Our plan was to reach the town of Visviri, a border town of 300 proud Chilean citizens sharing the area with Tripartito, Peru and Charaña, Bolivia. My Dad and Brian, having referenced the legend on our map, estimated that Visviri was not too far away and we could make it there and back to Putre long before nightfall. Our parliamentary committee weighted in and voted in favour of the aforementioned proposal, as this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How many other trips would we make to this part of the Andes in the future? Dad drove along a flat portion of land between several mounds of sand and bush, convinced that this path was now the road and would lead us to our destination. None of us learned from the early explorers who carried a compass and there were no GPS gadgets for personal use at the time. We were on the right track, bouncing around in our Samurai accompanied by the soothing sounds of Roger Whittaker serenading through our car speakers. It was a new world in the Andes for him. After an eternity of shaking and bouncing, we were relieved to see at a distance a settlement. This was our final stretch to reach Visviri but a brave nemesis blocked our path: a small stream of water.
This was by no means a regular puddle. We stopped for a moment to analyze this obstacle thoroughly, exhausting every option for tackling this roadblock and proceed to our promised land. Since there was no passing road traffic in either direction (I doubt we had even seen two motor vehicles since leaving Putre), there was no one to lead by example. My father, the most adventurous of the four, decided it was best to overtake the stream by driving off the road and through the mud. That moment was not our proudest. Our Samurai was now stuck in the mud. The first reaction from the man in charge was to find a board or rope to leverage the vehicle and increase tire traction. Boards and rope did not seem native to the region, so it would not be a simple task. To our surprise, I believe it was Brian who noticed a truck approaching. The drivers of the truck slowed down on their approach to the stream and my father pounced on the opportunity to plead for assistance. I still remember our desperation. If these fellow travellers would not help, who else would? It was not like we could call roadside assistance service. Upon receiving a complacent response from both truckers, my Dad brought out his wallet, a gringo’s deadliest weapon and declared: “I have money! Please help us!” They could have taken our money and left us forsaken in the mud there but they simply drove off. As the truck drove off toward Visviri at a distance, we began to cherish our last minutes on this Earth. Nevertheless, it seemed the Andean Gods had different plans for us and were on our side that day aside.
It seemed like an eternity since our trucker buddies had abandoned us when a Carabineros jeep made its way towards us. Perhaps the truckers feeling sorry for the foolish foreigners mentioned to the border patrol a family was stuck and sent a squad our way. The policemen secured a hook on the frame of our brave Samurai and backed their jeep pulling on the hook with a cable attached to their car. We were out of the mud! Afterwards, we were questioned about our methodology upon conducting a pointless manoeuvre. Of course we realized there was no good answer to that question. The officer proceeded to inquire on our headings and we proudly responded that we were going toward the picturesque Visviri. He suggested against this idea and proposed we begin our trek back to Putre otherwise we could be stuck somewhere in the dark. He kindly explained the quickest route back to home base, mentioning something about a road leading to a small isolated police checkpoint. Here another carabinero could give us further direction. He further recommended staying out of the mud. We graciously accepted this advice after overcoming a life-threatening experience. There would be no more major troubles until a bang caught our attention and as a result, our jeep no longer seemed to be level. My father stopped, observed the area around our red beast, and noticed a flat tire. I still get stories till this day on how hard it is to change a tire at over 4,000 m above sea level. He then proceeded to send the three of us off on a scavenger hunt with the easy task of procuring a brick or a large rock. I am not sure if he thought there were garden centres or landscaping businesses nearby, but again, not an easy assignment when bricks or large rocks are not indigenous to the area. We were able to find many pebbles. After a little while, Dad managed to get us back on our four tires and down the road, we found the carabineros outpost previously mentioned. The officer greeted us, gave us further directions and seemed to be amused at our chances of reaching Putre before dark. After our mud fiasco and the flat tire, we did not share the humour.
|Lake Chungará and the Parinacota Volcano in the background|
Our newfound friend recommended the route home, which we followed in turn. He instructed we stick to the road where we would reach la quebradita – a word implying a small ravine – cross a little river and continue straight to reach Putre. He warned not to go off road in order to stay a safe proximity from a military base and strategically-placed anti-personnel mines near neighbouring country to stop anybody attempting an incursion into Chilean territory. He did indicate that when we would see the army base, we would be almost back to our centre of operations. We now had a larger dose of action than we had initially bargained for. Once we reached the aforementioned tiny little ravine, it turned out to be the Chilean Grand Canyon. We followed the narrowest little path down – our Suzuki seemed to just fit on this path and we would see a huge precipice out the window – descending into the gorge. Once we were safely on a flatter surface, a tiny stream remained in our path. Maman, Brian and I instructed Dad to stay on the road straight through it this time. We did not get stuck this time, avoiding a panic attack and carried on our way praying not to uncover neighbouring mines. We were soon driving in pitch-black conditions with no idea as to whether we remained on a road or not at this point. All my father could do was guess and drive slowly between mounds of sand while the other three, prayed once again for the Andean Gods to bail us out. As luck had it, we saw the army base lit up at a distance after an eternity of darkness and, all of a sudden, our headlights found a sign indicating “Putre 5 kms”. We were on our way and we would survive to tell the tale.