Sick in the Desert

Day 62 – 4 May 2015

In hindsight, it’s incredibly interesting to me how many restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama have fish on their menu.  San Pedro is located in the middle of the highest, driest desert on Earth, the closest ocean being several hundred kilometers away through mountain roads (and this is South America, refrigeration and OSHA standards are not exactly a priority).  This is my view in hindsight.  My reflection came while I was laying in a run-down hospital bed, a hospital without soap or a functioning light in the bathroom, a hospital without a doctor.  I was waiting for the IV fluid to replenish my severely dehydrated body.

The series of events that led me to that hospital room seemed ordinary enough.  My bus ride from Salta to San Pedro climbed to a peak height of 4810 meters (15,780 feet).  Immigration between Argentina and Chile was located in the mountain town of Paso de Jama very near this peak height.  On a bus full of gringos, who had no idea the altitude we had reached, we all hopped off to go stand in line to clear customs.  Prone to altitude sickness, within minutes I started feeling dizzy to the point where I needed to lean against the wall.  I noticed men in orange coats were coming from a back room and tagging people out of line and taking them away.  Then there was some commotion out of my line of sight, when an orange-coated man came running with a wheelchair.  Someone had fainted.  The next bit is a little fuzzy, but the next thing I knew I was ALSO being helped into a wheelchair!!  I was taken to a medical room and hooked up to an oxygen mask, just one in a line of about 10 other travelers who had been showing signs of altitude sickness.  Apparently, this occurrence is so common at this particular immigration point that they staff medical personnel to deal with the fainters.


After that embarrassing episode, we continued to San Pedro de Atacama on a downhill trajectory.  My hostel reservation had been cancelled that morning due to an overbooking so when I arrived, I had a throbbing headache from altitude and was incredibly thirsty, yet I had nowhere to stay and I had to carry all my luggage around in the desert heat trying to find somewhere to sleep.  After 6 tries, I finally found a place that had availability and I collapsed into bed.  Some people I knew were also in San Pedro and I wanted to connect with them to find where they were staying.  As circumstance will have it, my chosen accommodation didn’t have wifi so I gathered myself and wandered into town hoping to find a restaurant with a decent internet connection.

And this series of events brought me to the moment when I was sitting in a restaurant, not feeling even a little bit hungry, but knowing I needed to order SOMEthing to be able to use the wifi.  Several days in a row with unhealthy options and my fainting spell earlier in the day, the salmon just seemed like the best choice.  Seemed like it anyway.  24 hours later I was in the hospital attached to an IV, being judged by all the locals that just shook their heads.  “You ate salmon….in the desert??”

Glad to be recovered after 2 full days in bed, I wanted to make the most of my remaining time in Chile.  There are so many options of activities to do in San Pedro, it was hard to narrow down the choices.  

First up was a trip into Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte.  It’s possible to ride into Valle de la Luna by bike from San Pedro, but due to the earlier events in the week (and the fact that I don’t like biking), I did the less strenuous version of going by van. The former, Moon Valley, gets its name from the moon-like landscape, reminiscent of another planet.  And the latter, Death Valley, proved to be the perfect place to watch the sunset.



The next day, I made a day trip to Laguna Cejar, a salt water lagoon with 10 times more salt than the ocean. With the high salt content, floating around in the lagoon was a really relaxing way to spend an afternoon.  We also made a stop at Los Ojos del Salar, two pools (like eyes) that offer the perfect reflection in the calm water, and a view of another sunset, like only the desert can offer.


My last day in San Pedro, I awoke at 4:30am for an excursion into an even higher elevation and colder temperatures to witness El Tatio Geysers letting off sulphur-scented steam.   Individually, the geysers were overall a little disappointing, but because there are so many of them in one spot, collectively, the geysers were quite a sight.  With a final stop on our return trip to taste llama skewers and fresh sopapillas, my final day in Chile was an introduction into what I could expect in Bolivia.  Two months after starting my journey, the time had come  to cross yet another border.


The Place with the Volcano

Day 39 – 10 Apr, 2015

It was a ghost town when I arrived, but I still had to go see what all the hype was about.  Before I left home, I knew I needed to visit Pucon, the adventure hotspot in central Chile.  I do love adventure after all!  

Not one week after I left home, I received an email from the US State Department informing me that Villarrica, the volcano that was the centerpiece of activity in Pucon, had erupted and that the town would be briefly evacuated.


Over the next few weeks, I kept my eye on the news, hoping the situation would improve.  A few people from home would ask if I was anywhere near the place with the volcano, never mind that I was actually hundreds of miles away but that I was eager to go there as soon as it reasonably fit into my itinerary.

From Bariloche, Pucon is a “short” ride across the border, about 7 hours.  By Argentina terms, 7 hours is short anyway.  So Hostel 41 Below in Bariloche became Ground Zero for backpackers deciding whether they continue on to Pucon or bypass and go directly to Mendoza.  The answer for me was easy.  If Pucon was accepting travelers, I would be there with a short stop in San Martin de los Andes in between.  A few friends I had connected with in Bariloche were en route to Pucon and I couldn’t wait to see this little town surrounded by monstrous volcanos, one of them still glowing with lava.

Immediately upon arrival, the first thing you can’t miss (unless it’s shrouded in clouds) is Volcan Villarrica, looming over this small town.  Every year, hundreds of thousands of adventure junkies flock to Pucon to climb Villarrica and ski down it’s gravelly slopes.  The second thing I noticed is that the town was virtually empty.  All of the reports of a smoking volcano had chased off the crowds.

It seemed the topic of to climb or not to climb was quickly put to rest when it was apparent the beast was still showing signs of activity.  But luckily, there are a ton of other things to do in Pucon.

Arriving to my hostel around noon, I was greeted by familiar faces.  Freddie, Harry, and the Australians (whom I met in Uruguay and Bariloche) were just preparing to go horseback riding and invited me to join them.  We rode for about an hour for fantastic views of Villarrica. My horse was incredibly stubborn so I was often at the back of the pack, but once he decided to gallop all I had to do was hold on and let the wind blow through my hair.


Ryan and Chris (see previous post) and another English bloke, Frank, were planning to climb a different, less famous and less daunting volcano, the next day and I just had to join them. Quetrupillan was our mission, standing at 2,360 meters. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a full day of steady uphill where we were finally rewarded with breaktaking views of Volcan Lanin and Villarrica herself.


As the story goes (and I’m paraphrasing), Lanin (seen in the distance above) was in love with Villarrica but he became suspicious that Quetrupillan was shagging Villarrica behind his back so he cut off the head of Q, which is why Q doesn’t have the characteristic cone-shape and is just a snow-filled caldera.  In reality, this story seems farfetched, mostly because volcanos can’t shag other volcanos.

While brief, my time spent in Pucon was memorable and inspiring, even without setting foot on Villarrica, which was still spitting lava as we walked to the bus station for an over night coach to Santiago.


Wild Patagonia

Day 18 – 28 Mar, 2015

What could I possibly say about the wonders of Patagonia that haven’t been said already?  It is truly one of the most beautiful and wild places on the planet.  Known for its unpredictable and severe weather, my 2 weeks spent near the bottom of the globe were predominantly sunny and mild.

First stop was El Calafate, famous for its proximity to the Perito Moreno Glaciar.  Here, I met Juan and Valeria, an Argentinian couple from Paranas who were also visiting Calafate for the first time.  Such lovely people and I thoroughly enjoyed having dinner with them and sharing travel stories.  Perhaps our paths will cross again one day!


I quickly moved on to Chile’s world-renowned National Park, Torres del Paine.  I wanted to soak up the outdoors and challenge myself with a self-supported trek on the “W” Circuit.  With a home base of Puerto Natales, Chile, I rented a tent, sleeping bag, pad, and cooking equipment and I bought food for 5 days, a little uncertain as to what supplies would be most necessary.  Luckily for me, I reconnected with my friend, Stuart, that I had met previously in Buenos Aires.  We agreed to complete the trek together so it was settled – trekking from west to east, Stuart and I set off to see some of the most fantastic mountain views in the world.




A couple weeks later, with some time to reflect on this trek, I am so glad I did it.  Carrying all my own gear was more challenging than I expected, but I have always liked pushing myself to the limits and beyond and I have a renewed sense of confidence in my capabilities.   Of course, I would have done a couple things differently.  I will write a separate post with logistics for Torres del Paine for those interested in taking on this adventure as well.

From Torres del Paine, it was on to El Chalten, trekking capital of Argentina.  Ursula, a friend I had met my last day in Puerto Natales, also arrived in El Chalten when I did so she and I spent 3 days there together.  We were desperate to do laundry so we sacrificed one day of nice weather to do some administrative tasks.  Little did I know that the weather would turn and my remaining days in Patagonia would go from cloudy to rain to hail to snow.   I continued trekking, in spite of the weather, but I quickly learned that it was time to move on.




 Moving on meant a 24 hour bus ride from El Chalten to Bariloche in Argentina’s lake district.  This would be my first long-haul ride and I’m ready to escape some of the cold weather!!