I think it was Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop in the UK, who once said that, if you think you are too small to make a difference then you have never spent a night with a mosquito in the room.
I wholeheartedly agree with this observation. Having arrived at Las Cañas hostel late the previous evening and quickly scoffed some food before stumbling bleary-eyed to bed, it became evident that the current residents of the dorm hadn’t followed my usual approach of being really careful with light/window combinations to avoid attracting the local insects, and that the room had more than a few resident mosquitos. Combined with the complete lack of air in the room, it wasn’t my best night’s sleep and I emerged the next morning looking like a chickenpox victim from all of the bites.
Undeterred, we made our way to Belen’s bus station to catch the twice-weekly Antofagasteño service. And to catch up on a few ‘town tasks’ which had eluded us in the remote village of Fiambala. Suitably stocked up, and off to the bus station:
Whilst waiting for the bus I chatted with Ben and Daniel (UK and Germany) who were joining us on the trip, having hitch-hiked up from Chilecito the previous day. Bloody long way=Good guys! It’s always good to meet fellow travellers as the exchange of ideas and tips is invaluable. As well as being able to speak a bit of native. They’d read about Antofagasta in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which I purposefully didn’t bring on this trip, although luckily Tamara made the suggestion to come here.
Antofagasta is 300km from Belen up a seriously challenging ‘road’ for the most part. Once you leave the main highway, you are straight onto a terrible dirt road with a number of small river crossings, luckily the rain had held off as sometimes it can become impassable.
Up we wound through the hills at a leisurely pace, starting to understand why the 300km journey was quoted to take 8-10hrs. Before long we came upon the rest stop, at a small village. I didn’t partake as I am starting to wean myself off scandalously priced Kiosco food…
The driver and his mate went around the bus re-tightening all of the wheel nuts. I’m not sure whether this approach to on-road maintenance reassured or concerned me, but it was good to know the wheels weren’t about to fall off anyway.
As we went further up into the hills the vegetation became sparser, and the scenery more and more extraño…
Completely bonkers in fact. The driver and his mate decided that this deserved a stop. An enormous sand dune, right in the middle of the hills. Fascinating and other-worldly in equal measure. Everyone apart from the local locals trooped off the bus for pictures and to fill our shoes with sand.
Before long, it really did look like we were driving across the moon. Flat, arid landscape with distant mountains, colourful salt flats and cliffs and a general air of slight desolation. We passed ridiculously hardy livestock, and small adobe houses nestled into depressions to shelter from the wind. I couldn’t imagine a much harder life than clinging to the dust up here. My altimeter read nearly 4000m at the highest point of the road, it’s definitely not somewhere one would want to break down.
Before dusk we reached the village of El Peñon, the final stop before Antofagasta. A peaceful, sleepy place with a pretty church and tall green trees throughout the village to protect the inhabitants from the wind and sun. Where water exists people follow, and the river running through the village confirmed this. Aqua vida. It surprised me that such verdant green could exist in an environment so dry and dusty.
The light slowly faded, leaving a sky of dark purple. As the light faded, so the road became worse, a series of jarring, unavoidable ruts slowing progress and making the bus rattle to the extent that it seemed like something would surely fall off sooner or later.
We arrived bang on schedule, pulling into Antofagasta’s dusty main street. We were approached by a lady offering cabaña accommodation up the road so decided to have a look. Ben and Daniel joined us, and together we were pleasantly surprised by what 90ARS (£4) each would buy us: A little 2 bedroom cottage with a kitchen and space for socialising. Perfect.
Our place, along with the rest of the village, had traditional adobe walls (Basically clay bricks) and a thick roof interwoven with straw. This kind of design is incredibly practical for somewhere that experiences such extremes in temperature, it stays beautifully cool during the day and the bricks actually store heat for the cool evenings.
The next morning I set off with Ben to explore the town, find our bearings and take some photos.
We decided to climb the Cerro above the town for a more panoramic view. This turned out to be harder than it looked due to the double effect of the slippery stones underfoot and also not being used to the 3200m altitude, turning us into wheezy old men in short order. The views were worth it though.
And so, back into town… The siestas in the hills are seriously lengthy, and particularly in a town like Antofagasta you can completely forget about obtaining any sort of product or service between 1 and 6pm…
Llamas are the hot farming animal here, I think they cope with the conditions far better than most livestock, and therefore provide ample fodder for the local love of Llama stews. Quite a tasty meat, wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice but up here it just makes sense. Comfort food for the cold evenings.
So, wandering opportunities exhausted, we took a walk on the road out of town around the canyon behind the cerro. Navigational difficulties made this a longer trip than expected, but a worthwhile one nonetheless.
We emerged from the lush agricultural land by the canyon and into an arid desert landscape. A condor circled warily above as we realised how far from the town we were. Complete silence and baking sunshine, a hostile environment for sure. Still, we knew we weren’t a million miles from town, so headed off in the general direction before getting completely fried.
Back in town, and a return to the same restaurant. An incredibly friendly family-run place where it feels like you’re all sitting down to a family feast together, rather than dining alone. All of the other guests greet you when you enter, and the waiter is one of the nicest people I’ve met here, who is genuinely pleased to discuss with people where they should go and to share his love of Catamarca.
This mutual friendliness was proven the next day when I was sitting outside the municipal wi-fi point checking e-mails. A large 4×4 pulled up outside, and the driver came over greeting me like an old friend. One of our fellow diners from last night, he explained that he had heard me asking the waiter about bus times, and that they could give me a lift back to Belen if I liked! Genuinely touching that people here take so much care of others. Sadly, I had to pass up this amazing 300km free ride as they were leaving immediately.
With the ‘mooching around’ possibilities of Antofagasta well and truly exhausted, we decided to hire bikes to see the nearest volcano, which is a short distance from the town. Setting off in the early evening was not one of the brightest moves after all due to the strong winds that appear like clockwork every day around 6pm.
The ride up was pretty easy, we turned off the main road and climbed the nearest elevation to check where we were and there it was. Mile after mile of lava-strewn desert. An amazing sight. A harsh, unforgiving environment in constant flux, even now the solid lava cracks and moves, providing more material for the dark sand. Photo opportunities with the yellow hardy shrubbery abound.
I experienced the strong evolutionary urge that quite often overtakes me in harsh environments like this, every fibre of my being yelling to me that it’s not somewhere I should linger… Very odd. But, upwards we needed to go anyway. The further volcano we had aimed to climb was, by a trick of distance and position, become far far further and so we turned back. Ditching the bikes at the slightly firmer gravel lay by, we struggled up through the soft sand. This was a seriously tough climb!
To say it had become ‘unfriendly’ on top of the volcano would be an understatement. The wind had built and built in speed until we could barely stand on top. Looking out further into the countryside, a growing sandstorm was a big, big hint that we needed to get back down quickly!
Once down, and back on the bikes we could relax a little, and hopefully enjoy a consistent tailwind back into town, along the road which really hadn’t looked this far coming out. That night’s llama stew was definitely earnt.
One major challenge to travelling this far off the beaten track is sporadic transport links. Whilst we were hoping to return to El Peñon and the Laguna Blanca on the way back to Belen it simply wasn’t to be. Two buses a week back to ‘civilisation’ makes planning a nightmare. We’d been informed that it was relatively easy to hitch to El Peñon however on a sleepy Sunday this simply wasn’t the case.
8 hours. Eight. Whole. Hours. Unsuccessful hours. Still, it was a pleasant enough day alternating between shady spots, reading and chatting and enjoying arcane stone-based throwing games. That’s the one thing you’ll never run out of here, anyway. Tails between our legs, we returned to the cabana where Tamara did the whole ‘told you so’ malarkey. To be fair, the house owner Maria did likewise, archly telling us before we left that the house would be available if, for some reason, we failed in our hitching bid!
One saving grace was that the bus back to Belen was due to leave tomorrow morning. We wouldn’t manage the El Penon and Laguna Blanca visits but it’s always good to save something to return to…