Back to Chile after 21 years

4th February 2013. Our bus from Uyuni in Bolivia to Calama in Chile leaves at 4am so we are up at 3am to get out of ‘El Salvador’, our less than salubrious hostal. My suggestion of just going for a late dinner and and crashing on a park bench hadn’t been met by much (any) enthusiasm and our 3 bed, £9.50 room with rather basic facilities was a bit of a climb down from the 4* Salt Hotel the day before. I am quietly satisfied that BZL share beds and sleep on the floor with few complaints, better to view a comfy bed as a luxury to be appreciated rather than an entitlement that the loss of ruins your day.

The Bolivian Chilean border

The Bolivian Chilean border

We are out the door at 3.29am to cross the road to the bus office, very glad that another gap year lesson of not unpacking everything each time you stop seems to be hitting home. ’Lazy Lara’ yet again refuses to carry her rucksack, no excuse as it only weighs 2.5kg, kind Dad having swapped her clothes for the kids life jackets. 2 years ago she carried a far heavier one in Cambodia like a trooper. I think the problem is a combination of being the youngest and a touch spoiled plus her force of nature personality that means she generally gets her own way and pushes the boundaries. Maybe I am a bit cynical (moi?) but I think she has worked out that ’Mummy, I’m tired’ is a great way of getting your bag, and often Lara, carried! One to work on.

The 12ish hour journey with Trans Azul has cost us 750 Bolivianos or £14/head (interestingly the ticket says 700BS so the lady in the bus office has made a quick 50BS, about half a day’s salary, I bet she loves this job!).

I stand on the pavement to watch our bags under the bus until the last minute, just in case. Our expectations are not high but the bus has reclining seats and suspension that absorbs some of the unpaved roads. The driver even seems sober although I watch another bus driver at the border have a beer with his breakfast before driving back so we were lucky.

Only Mo is awake to see the amazing scenery of desert and volcanoes  But her camera was out of battery and playing up and the photos taken on her phone were never downloaded 😦

Desert and volcanoes as we reach the border and then wait!

Desert and volcanoes as we reach the border and then wait!

We cross the border at Ollague, or rather we spend 5 hours there. Bolivia is still upset with losing their only access to the sea as well as much of the Atacama desert and untold mineral wealth to Chile in a war a few years ago. Without getting involved in the touchy subject of natural resources I hope that the discovery of 50% of the world’s lithium reserves in Bolivia brings them better fortune.

Avaroa,  dusty border town at 3700 something meters

Avaroa, dusty border town at 3701 meters

Bolivian immigration takes my last 75BS, I guess they need to eat as well but this means we can’t buy food from the local stalls. We don’t realise that this isn’t good news until later, I might have fat reserves to survive on but the kids don’t.

playing on trains at bolivia border town Avaroa

We can see the Chilean border control about a kilometre away, the countries obviously like a bit of no man’s land between them. Eventually we drive through the barrier and pull up in the middle. A neglected football field straddles the border, peace through sport? Several signs dot the border that alternate Chile/Bolivia and Bolivia/Chile, obviously no consensus on whether you need to see where you are going or coming from, confused? We were.

For a while we don't know if we're coming or going

For a while we don’t know if we’re coming or going

We unload our bags and await the bus from Chile, and wait, and wait… Ben has made a new friend and they alternate between exploring and squirting foam snow at each other. Lara is none too amused to be splattered.

The kids play with new friends

The kids play with new friends

Zoe and Lara also make friends and play with balloons.

Finally our Chilean bus arrives, at least we seem to have seats to spare, the passengers from the two rival 11 Julio buses are now crammed onto a single Chilean bus. Standing room is not going down well and they all get off and have heated discussions before reboarding. A wad of cash changes hands between drivers and we board our ancient Mercedes bus, it looks like it has done more than the 371,000 km on the clock, the driver has no windscreen wiper and filler seems to hold together much of the bodywork. I expected better in Chile (we later discover this was a rare exception).

Just Chilean immigration and customs to go. BZL quickly get their hands stamped as well as their passports, it’s becoming something of a tradition. It is customs that is painfully slow as every bag is opened and checked for flora and fauna, I declare our Twinings Earl Grey tea bags and a wooden spoon. Unfortunately Mo’s special honey is confiscated which sets off a flood of tears from Zoe until the lovely customs officer opts for peace and quiet and sends us on our way. Say no more.

A food stall! But they only take Chilean Pesos and there are none of the money changers we are used to at every border. Ben is dispatched to try and buy some pastries using dollars and agrees to 5 for $5 but then the last ones are sold from under his nose, gutted. We settle for finishing our sweets and apples (we weren’t silly enough to travel completely empty handed but are still starvin, Marvin).

Ben desparately tries tobuy food with our last $5 bill

Ben desperately tries to buy food with our last $5 bill but they’re selling like hotcakes!

The border crossing has taken a mere 5 hours! We shouldn’t take being able to wander round Europe across borders for granted!

Our new bus driver has a touch of the macho in his driving on the dirt roads but we spend most of the journey admiring the scenery, spectacular salt lakes, desert and snow capped volcanoes.

First views in Chile

First views in Chile

Only an hour and a half late we arrive early evening in central Calama. It’s hot and we struggle down the road looking for a bank and cafe. We are doing our best to get sorted but BZL are not very understanding and a talk is had about moaning not changing anything apart from making other people miserable. Is this too grown up behaviour to expect?

The town square is now pedestrianised, all I recognise is the church. I leave MBZL sipping water in the shade and find an ATM so we can eat.

We know from friends that Chile will be expensive but just the price of a very mediocre burger and chips all round is £35, the budget of a very decent meal in Bolivia. Accommodation has been impossible to find online unless we want to spend 1000USD on 2 rooms for 2 nights in a posh hotel or somewhere with dire reviews?!? We look at getting straight on an overnight bus to Arica to meet up with Oma but there is no availability so I head out to scour the streets for beds.

Shock. It is a long time since I have talked to so many rude people, best Spanish ‘do you have any rooms for tonight?’, ‘No’ before going back to what they were doing. Answers fired back at Mach 2 even if I asked them to repeat more slowly. My fond memories of warm, interested Chileans from 1990 perhaps, barring the customs officer, are gone? Is it a symptom of increased wealth and focus on jobs, material goods and aspiring to what you see on TV? Is it just Calama being a mining and tourist town?

I find an expensive room for 3 at an Aparthotel for a couple of nights and look forward to trying to rediscover the Chile I have such fond memories of in the weeks ahead.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Chris
    May 09, 2013 @ 06:05:30

    Sounds like Chilli is going to hit the bank balance hard!
    Keep living the dream guys:-)


    • Martin Clark
      May 09, 2013 @ 06:12:34

      Chile was a shock after Peru and Bolivia but a bit of self catering helps and we escaped backed to Argentina soon afterwards. Looking forward to Asia though, dollars go a lot further on street food!


  2. katebil
    May 09, 2013 @ 08:31:32

    Wow, I bet it all seems a bit extreme after some other places, £35 for burgers! Yes I think you were right on the expectation that the children would stop moaning when tired and hungry if you asked them to! 🙂 xx


    • Martin Clark
      May 09, 2013 @ 20:25:01

      If the burgers were decent fine but it was poor. We only got really great food in Santiago the capital. As to the kids they are pretty good considering what we put them through 🙂 and better to start with high expectations!


  3. Mark
    May 09, 2013 @ 10:31:35

    Be good to hear about the rest of the Chile (re)visit. Panchi told me you guys met up – she may be over here in June! Was thinking of you last weekend – mates of mine brought out a 22 year old bottle of Peruvian Pisco. I set about making Pisco Sours for a few hours until we were all broken 🙂


    • Martin Clark
      May 09, 2013 @ 20:27:16

      We have had a few Pisco Sours too :). Chile did improve a lot, especially down South but I wouldn’t be recommending Calama. Mo has plenty of blogs lined up so expect more soon.


  4. Gretchen Hollett
    May 09, 2013 @ 11:02:29

    Hi Clark family, we are thinking of you all from Vietnam! We have stayed clear though of the street food after eating at one kind of streetish restaurant in Hanoi. I hope if you all make it to Asia you are free of any issues. We hope you are well and love reading the posts when we have time! Heading to Cambodia next. Will email you to see where you stayed there…..Gretchen Hollett


    • Martin Clark
      May 09, 2013 @ 20:32:36

      We are so looking forward to Asia, spicy food has been missed a lot. I wonder if our South American gut flora will protect us, somehow I think we will have to build up our resistance again 😦 . Love to hear more about your adventures there.


  5. Sandra
    May 09, 2013 @ 11:12:41

    Hi Martin. Wow, that sounds like quite a disappointment. It is so not the Chile I experienced further south that I really hope you had better times after this. All the best to the five of you!


    • Martin Clark
      May 09, 2013 @ 20:34:58

      Hi Sandra, down South was a world apart I am pleased to say :). More posts to come although next stop is Argentina before we head back into Chile in Tierra del Fuego.


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