Journal Santiago de Chile – La Paz – Santiago de Chile
by Konstantin Mierau
From July 3rd 2015 to July 25th Joaquín Zuleta and I traveled by motorcycle from Santiago de Chile through the Argentinian Andes to La Paz, Bolivia.
The plan was to immerse ourselves in the area and study both remnants of the colonial period (paintings, architecture and folklore) and the present-day contexts within which these remnants functioned, such as a graffiti of La vida es sueño, the 17th Century drama by Calderón de la Barca on a wall in Potosí. As we are both professors of Spanish and Colonial Cultural History, we wanted the experience to not only expand our horizons but to also allow us to gather material for our work as scholars and teachers. Among others, the journey took us through areas of great natural beauty such as the Abra del Acay, and places of great political unrest such as Potosí, which was under blockade most of July 2015. We met many interesting people along the way and learned to appreciate the intricacies of intercultural cooperation. All in all, it was a truly life-changing experience.
In other posts related to this journey we will discuss specific themes (e.g. the arcángeles arcabuceros or the blockade of Potosí in July 2015), over here I’ll post a personal journal of the voyage focusing mostly on every day life on the road.
Visit us frequently for updates and pictures. ¡Hasta pronto! Your offroadscholars.
Day 1. Santiago de Chile – Barreal (368 km)
We left Santiago on July 5th, 2015. It was the morning after Copa de America final. Chile won, Argentina lost. Trying to stay ahead of several thousand Argentinians who had come to Santiago de Chile for the final, we got up before dawn, and pretty soon our trusty Honda CGL 125’s had taken us to about 3200 m above sea level, approaching the Paso Cristo Redentor. We had chosen the Honda 125’s as they constitute the stock beast of burden of much of the Andean region. As we are academics and spend copious sums on books and cashew nuts, money was also a consideration, and these little bikes have proven very economical both in fuel consumption and spare parts. The bikes did require rejetting to adjust to the altitude, which we did in Potosí.
After crossing the border control we descended to Uspallata, where we had some steaks to celebrate crossing the pass. The steak’s name – bistec a lo pobre – turned out to be a misnomer, and this mostly-vegetarian was rather taken aback by what was probably a pound of meat, garnished with two eggs and some bacon. In awe, I watched my colleague consume the entire thing; almost half my size, the man now weighed almost as much as me!
During this bachanal we were informed that the Paso Cristo Redentor closed due to heavy snowfall about an hour after we crossed, leaving several thousand Argentinians stranded in Santiago de Chile. In the picture, you can see the clouds in the mountains…
A proper nap after lunch is vital in order to maintain focus during the trip. Of all the minor and major falls we suffered, most were the consequence of fatigue…or sand, but we’ll get to the sand later…Here’s my colleague Dr. Zuleta, an accomplished expert in the art of ad-hoc napping.
Roadside propaganda is a constant in Argentina. The emphasis on the community of Argentina (‘Argentina somos todos’), as the slogan reads, will get an increasingly bitter taste as we follow the Ruta 40 further and further into the North Eastern Andes, and taste some of the water contaminated by the mining companies.
Day 1 ended in the dark, as we pitched our tent in a quarry, made some dinner and discussed the various reactions we had been getting from Argentinians concerning the epic loss of their national team. Football appears to determine much of social interaction: everyone from waiters to traffic cops ventilated their anger about the lost match, and the wildest theories were emerging as to the unexplainable loss to Chile, many of which involved allegations of either corruption or decadence (or both) on the part of Argentina’s star players. Joaquín, my Chilean travel companion, went to great length in interpreting the depressed mood of the Argentinians we had encountered so far, and I am quite sure he rather enjoyed doing so…
Day 2 Barreal – San José de Jachal (350km)
Day 2 starts before sunrise; we’ve got ground to cover. We hadn’t been able to get Argentinian pesos the day before, and we’re running low on gasoline. At the first gas station we encounter, I succeed in convincing the rather feisty lady in charge to let us pay the bill in dollars, a considerable achievement given the distance between my rather Iberian Spanish and the lady’s strong local accent. While I’m inside working my magic, Dr. Z is outside talking to a guy willing to exchange Chilean pesos for Argentinian pesos, thus temporarily solving our need for local currency.
The views on the road are spectacular, and traffic is all but non existent. As we follow the RN 149 past Calingasta we ride through a seemingly endless deserted valley.
Every once in a while we stop to inspect the shrines dedicated to popular saints, who seem to fare well by watching over travelers in exchange for water, cigarettes and candy.
By the time we pass the town of Iglesia, we begin to notice the impact the declining mining sector has had on the region. We talk to the local ex-miner, who now gets by working double shifts as gas station attendant and bus driver taking the local kids to school. He feels that the mining company have laid off most of the people, yet continue to contaminate the region.
Gas stations are few and far between, and take on an increasingly social function: they double as cash exchange, but also, perhaps more importantly, places to gather information about road conditions and local issues.
A little further up the road, in a place called Flores we stop for lunch at Don Remigio’s place, who gets by selling lunch to passing travelers. The stew (locro) is quite nutritious; the strong taste of chlorine somewhat worrying. The coffee suffers from the same substratum, and things don’t improve when Don Remigio tells us that the local water is contaminated to the extent that many locals suffer from skin diseases caused by washing in the water and life expectancy out here in the mountains was considerably lower than down in the flat lands. So much for a bitter aftertaste…There are considerable cracks in the walls and the floor of Don Remigio’s place, probably caused by the mining close by. Back home, the region I currently live in (Groningen, The Netherlands) also suffers severe earthquakes and subsequent building damage due to mining.
In San José de Jachal we visit the local church which features a 200-year-old Crucifix with a Jesus crafted in leather. The local priest blesses us and our journey, and I guess one has to appreciate any help one can get after having had coffee in Flores…
In the towns along the way, we spend some time looking for screws to fix Joaquín’s chain cover, which we consider necessary as considerable stretches of unpaved road await us. This gives me a chance to chat with people from the area.
Outside of San José de Jachal, we find a beautiful spot by a lake to pitch the tent and make dinner. As Joaquín rides back into town to get some water, I stroll along the waterfront, watch the sun set on the lake and dedicate several rather elaborate thoughts to my wife over on the other side of the globe.
Day 3 San José de Jachal – Belén (465 km)
We get up before dawn. The spot on the lake is beautiful, but a dog from a farmhouse down by the road kept me up part of the night. I ponder the rythm of the trip. The plan is ambitious, 6500 km in three weeks and it feels as though we rushing through much of the territory. I make a mental note to make a conscious effort to take the time to stop in villages and talk to locals. The morning is cold, the climate up here is quite harsh with a scorching noon and freezing nights. The first stretch of the day takes us along some beautiful curves: motorcycling at its best on what is a well-maintained part of the Ruta 40.
At our first gas stop for the day, a local tells us that that the upcoming pass, the Cuesta de Miranda would be closed for construction work, requiring a 400 km detour. This would cost us a day, and time being of the essence we decide to drive to the road block and bet our luck we can convince the people there to let us through.
The road to the Cuesta de Miranda is deserted, and takes us through several astonishing red valley’s.
As we approach the closed pass, we discuss how to convince the construction workers to allow us to proceed. We decide to improvise on the truth: we are researchers studying the Ruta 40, and we cannot deviate from the road. There’s no way I, having come all this way from the Netherlands, could possibly return to Europe having left out a section of the Ruta 40. We decide to tell them that we have specifically chosen motorcycles as these will allow us to overcome problems in the road. As we arrive at the block, I approach a group of resting construction worker, chat for a bit and then manage to convince them to let us through. This act, with variations, will come in handy once or twice down the road, as Joaquín and I tackle closed passes and striking miners.
The section of road under construction tests our off-road riding abilities, and it is no surprise that several cars that had also hoped to be allowed to pass have to take the detour. From this part on we were truly able to call ourselves offroadscholars!
Joaquín, displaying some natural leader skills with a little help from an abandoned hard hat, while we wait for the pass to open.
Having overcome this obstacle, most of our energy is commanded by covering ground. This part of the Ruta 40 is spectacular, to the point of saturation. Coming from what is probably the flattest place on the western hemisphere, this fascinates me and I have to make a real effort to concentrate on the road and not wander in contemplation.
We have a late lunch at ‘El Rafa’, who serves a so-called buseta, quite a treat for anyone who appreciates cooked stomach and intestines. My stomach is yearning for some fish…
And then we just roll along, keeping busy with the occasional rest stop and photo op. The bikes run ok, but at this altitude start to misfire at higher revs. We try to eliminate other possible faults (blocked air intake, blocked tank vent etc.) but have little luck in getting to the root. The only real solution is adjusting the carbs, but as we have no spare jets, this shall have to wait. On the road we horse around with the cameras and work on our tans…
We end the day at the municipal campsite of Belén, where we spend most of the evening discussing dictatorships on both sides of the atlantic. As Joaquín grew up in Chile, and I grew up in the GDR, this makes for quite some dinner conversation. The campsite is a rather non-descript parking lot by the river that doubles as a make out zone for local youth.
Day 4 Belén – Cafayete (320 km)