Our vacation is coming to an end, and today was the day that had to start driving south back towards Santiago. Almost immediately after we took off in the morning, we found ourselves behind a truck that was carrying a big load of wooden pallets. We noticed that one of the pallet’s looked extremely wobbly, almost like it was going to fall off the back of the truck at any second. We watched it bounce and joggle around for awhile, and we both agreed that it was just a matter of time before it fell off. Not wanting to get hit by a rogue pallet, Pierre slowed down, creating a huge gap between us and the truck.
Sure enough, we watched one of straps fly loose, and two pallets crashed to the road. Even though we had fallen way back, Pierre still had to swerve to avoid the debris that was now strewn across the road. We felt like there was no way that we could pass the truck, or even warn the driver, because we were afraid if we pulled up too close, another pallet would fall off. Over the next ten miles or so, we watched at least 8 to 10 more pallets fall off the back of the truck. Finally, the driver must have noticed or heard something, and he pulled over to the side of the road–what a relief!
Later in the day, we found a perfect spot for our afternoon coffee break. Pierre set up our folding chairs, and as we sipped our coffee as we watched the waves crash onto the beach. We saw a pelican sitting on a rock in the distance, and we were entertained by the shore birds at the water’s edge, looking for a meal in the surf.
The best part of the day, without a doubt, was the wine tasting! My son Tyler had asked us to bring him back a bottle of Chilean wine from our trip. We weren’t expecting to go on a wine tour…but we recognize serendipity when we see it, so we grabbed it! The wine was delicious, and I ended up buying three bottles to take home.
When we finished lunch, Elena told us that we were going to be the only ones on the tour and that she was going to be our tour guide. How in the world did we manage to get a private tour? The Wine Gods must have been smiling down on us! She introduced us to Alex, our driver, as we piled into the van.
The vineyard was located about 30 minutes south east of San Pedro de Atacama. Elena was extremely chatty, and fortunately she spoke English, but occasionally, she would forget a word, or speak in a way that was hard to understand. I had to really concentrate, but she kept us entertained with all sorts of facts and interesting tidbits about the local area. At one point, she pointed toward Alex, and said something in Spanish.
To me, it sounded like she was telling us his name, but it didn’t sound like Alex, so I thought that maybe I had misunderstood her when she had first introduced us to him. “I thought you said that his name was Alex,” I questioned, feeling confused.
A startled look crossed her face. “His name is Alex. I was trying to think of a word in English, but I couldn’t remember what it was, so I said it in Spanish and pointed to it. I was hoping that you would understand what I meant when you saw it.”
I laughed, “Oh—I thought you were pointing to Alex.”
“No,” She paused and pointed again. “One of those….what do you call it?”
“Pierre and I answered in unison, “A speed bump!”
We all laughed, and then she translated the miscommunication to Alex, and he laughed along with us. For the rest of the day, anytime one of us saw a speed bump, we would point to it and yell, “Alex!”
Immediately after we arrived at the vineyard, we walked around the property and Elena explained the process of growing and harvesting grapes in the desert. Of course, it was off-season so nothing was growing, but it was still very interesting to learn about the inner-workings of the operation.
After seeing the vineyard we headed to the nearby town of Toconao, which is where the grapes are processed and made into wine. Production isn’t happening at this time of year, but both Alex and Elena explained the machinery to us. I was surprised to learn that they only had one hand operated corker to put the corks into the bottles. Just one!
When we finished viewing the wine making facility, we walked a few blocks to the center of town to see the church and bell tower. Located in the square across from the church, the bell tower is freestanding, which is apparently a unique feature for a church in this region.
The church and tower were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1951.
After breakfast, we continued toward the wine store. Of course, we stopped plenty of times along the way to take pictures of the town. Stray dogs seem to be a country-wide problem in Chile, and San Pedro de Atacama had more than we could count!
We finally made it back to the wine shop, and we could see that it was open. When we stepped inside, we quickly realized that it wasn’t a store, but rather, a place to sign up for a wine tour. The woman behind the desk greeted us, and then explained the tour to us. We learned that El Toconar is the only vineyard in the entire Atacama Desert region, and that it’s run with clean energy and is 100% organic.
Pierre has never been on a tour before, because the idea of being crammed into a bus or van with lots of other people is a total turn off for him. I’ve been on tours before, but as a traveler, it’s not typically the way I like to explore a new area. The tour included lunch, a tour of the vineyard, the production and bottling areas, and of course, a wine tasting.
It sounded interesting, and although I knew Pierre probably hated the idea, I asked, “Do you want to do it? We could buy Tyler a bottle of wine at the vineyard.”
‘Yeah…if you want to do it. I’ll do it.”
I looked at him with surprise, but I knew that there were two major factors playing to my favor. Pierre is very interested in solar energy, and the woman had mentioned that it was ‘off season,’ indicating that very few people would be on the tour with us.
I decided that it sounded fun, but if I’m honest, the tipping point was the wine tasting! We signed up for the 1:00 p.m. tour, which was still about an hour away, so we decided to walk around town again. When we got back, Elena greet us warmly, but I could instantly tell that something was wrong. She told us that the van had broken down, and that they needed to either fix it, or get a new one.
I was waiting to hear that the tour was cancelled, but instead, she told us that the vineyard owned a restaurant in town. Her new plan was for us to eat lunch in town, and then leave for the tour. She walked us to the restaurant, and as she left, she called out, “Enjoy your meal and relax!”
“What time do you want us to head back?” I inquired.
“Take your time–there’s no rush.”
I’ve never signed up for a tour, with the guiding mantra, “Don’t worry–relax. We’ll leave when you get here!” It’s probably going to be a great tour!
My son Tyler had asked if we could bring back a bottle of wine from Chile for him. We had seen a wine store the first time we had walked through San Pedro de Atacama, but it had been closed. We decided to head into town once to take a few pictures, and to see if the store was open. We also wanted to see the Church of San Pedro de Atacama again. Built in the adobe style, this Catholic church was built during the Spanish Colonial Period and was declared a historical monument in 1951.
After looking at the church we headed toward the wine store. We were also looking for a place to have breakfast, and we stopped at a little place called, El Nortino Café. We ordered cappuccinos and we split an order of pancakes that was topped with mango, whipped cream, and honey (the honey was surprisingly dark–almost the color of molasses) and it was yummy!
After Pierre managed to get us down the mountain, I felt happy that we had made past the gate (and that we weren’t locked in), but I was still worried. Pierre was extremely sick and suffering from elevation sickness. His symptoms included: nausea, severe headache, chills, feeling feverish, and he also was having difficulty breathing normally. For lack of a better way to describe it…he was almost panting.
I thought he was going to pull over when we passed through the gate, but he kept driving toward town, which was still a few miles away. He told me later, that he knew that if he stopped, he probably wouldn’t be able to start again. He was able to stay focused until he pulled into the parking lot in San Pedro de Atacama.
As he parked the camper, I felt a wave of relief roll over me. Not because our problem was solved, but because I knew that I would able to get medical attention for him if he needed it. I’m certainly not a doctor, but I wondered if in addition to the symptoms that I already described, if he was also dehydrated. He had vomited multiple times, and putting it simply–he looked like hell! He was pale and lethargic by this point.
I asked him what he wanted me to do for him, and he replied, “I want to sleep.”
He crawled into the back of the camper and instantly fell asleep. The camper was dark and I stayed with him for a few minutes. I really didn’t know if he was okay. I watched him for a few more minutes, and then I decided to venture out and find food. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, and I knew that he had to eat and drink something.
I found a little restaurant close by, and the waitress spoke English. Again, I felt relieved…because now I had a solid plan. I would bring food back to Pierre, and if I discovered that had gotten any worse, I would ask the waitress to help me. When we were driving back into town, I had seen a big red cross (indicating a medical facility) on an informational sign, but I didn’t know where it was located. I don’t speak Spanish, but I had found someone who spoke English!
I ordered my meal and I kept the menu, so I could figure out what to order for Pierre. Everything seemed too spicy, or too heavy. The waitress brought out a bowl of chicken noodle soup. I didn’t order it, but she told me that it was included with my meal. It was delicious, and I knew exactly what I was going to bring back to Pierre–chicken noodle soup! I know, I know–how cliche–chicken soup for someone who is sick!
I explained to the waitress that my husband was sick, and I ordered soup to take back to him. I was afraid of being gone too long, so I ate quickly and headed out as soon as I was finished. He was still asleep when I got back, but he woke up when he heard me moving about. He said that he was feeling a bit better, and he was very happy to hear that I had brought back soup for him.
He sat up and I handed him the soup. He took a few bites, and asked, “Where are the noodles?”
I guess something had gotten lost in the translation, when I ordered his soup. It appeared to be same chicken stock, but his was filled with vegetables, and mine had been filled with noodles.
He said it was delicious, and in that moment, I was pretty sure that he was starting to feel better! Anyone who has the strength to wonder about missing noodles is probably going to be okay! In case you’re wondering, I never took a picture of the soup–mine or his!
When we were at the border control getting our passports stamped and processed, Pierre casually mentioned that his headache had gotten worse.
When I asked if he had any other symptoms, he replied. “My head feels huge—like it’s going to explode.”
I started to watch him carefully. He was in good spirits, and to the casual observer, he probably would have appeared to be acting normally. However, him complaining about a headache, or any ailment isn’t normal behavior for him…he NEVER complains about not feeling well. That should have been clue number one for me.
The longer we waited in line, the quieter he became. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah—but my head really hurts.”
By the time we got back into the camper, I could tell that Pierre was really sick, and that it was coming on fast. He was complaining about being freezing cold and feeling nauseous.
Pierre is an excellent driver, and I would describe his style as alert and assertive. In other words, he’s a very, very focused driver. I began to watch him intently, because he was driving much slower than he normally does. He wasn’t doing anything alarming at this point, but I kept an eye on him anyway.
I could see that a big problem was beginning to develop. He was exhibiting clear signs of elevation sickness. Under normal circumstance, I would have offered to drive, but I hadn’t driven a manual transmission since I had gotten out of college over thirty years ago, and I knew that driving down a mountain in a camper wasn’t the optimal time for re-entry into that particular skill set.
I was getting worried.
He pulled the camper over to the side of the road, and instantly flung the door open and hopped out. He didn’t even make it two steps before he bent over and violently threw up. I opened the passenger door, and headed to the back of the camper to get tissues and a wet rag for him. He was already back in the driver’s seat by the time I had returned.
“I’m burning up,” he explained.
I held the wet rag to his forehead and then ran it over his head, and down the back of his neck. Never, not once, in our 12-years of marriage had I seen him like this. His facial expression showed no affect, and his mouth was slack. He started the engine, and I asked if he was okay to drive.
I don’t remember if he answered me, but he began to drive anyway. The pattern continued—he drove, pulled over, and threw up. He drove, pulled over, and threw up. It happened over and over again. I knew that he was probably already dehydrated, or getting there, so I kept offering him little sips of water every time that he climbed back into the camper. To make make matters worse, the hot sun was streaming through the windows, making the interior of the cab feel like an oven (in the middle of winter), even though we had the AC blasting.
Around this point, the seriousness of the situation began to create havoc in my mind—we were heading down a mountain with an elevation of over 14,000 ft., Pierre was suffering from elevation sickness, and every few minutes he had to pull over and throw up. I’m was fine and not showing any symptoms, but I couldn’t drive.
I felt helpless and then I remembered something else. “Pierre,” I blurted out, trying to contain my fear. “You need to get to the gate at the bottom of the mountain by six o’clock, or we’ll be locked in.”
I wasn’t sure if he had heard me, because he had pulled over again, but this time it was to go to the bathroom. He was out there for what seemed like forever, and I watched him from the side mirror, every few moments. I suppose I thought he was going to pass out, but he didn’t. He looked sick and vulnerable.
He slowly got back into the car and said, “I don’t feel so cold anymore.”
“Good–now, focus on getting to the gate,” I instructed, once again.
I was on high alert. I watched him, I watched the road, I watched the clock, and I watched the mileage signs on the side of road. Silently, I kept recalculating the time and distance remaining, and I pretty much figured out that if he didn’t stop again, we would probably make it to the gate.
I inwardly prayed that he wouldn’t have to throw up again, but I could tell that he was pulling from his last reserve. I really wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to do it. I began to dwell on what would happen if the gate was locked by the time we got there?
“Focus on getting to that gate,” I stated calmly, but I was worried. How would I be able to get medical help for him if he needed it?
He got us to the bottom of the mountain safely, and we drove through the gate at 5:45 p.m. on the nose. I had always heard about elevation sickness, and that it was serious, but it was shocking to see how hard and fast it had affected Pierre. I suppose, as equally shocking, was that I hadn’t suffered any ill effects, other than my ears popping when we drove up the mountain.
We made it…AND we got our passports stamped in Argentina! The scenery was breathtaking on the way up, and the trip was scary on the way down!
P.S. It seems so strange that the only picture that we took after leaving the border is the picture (above) of me smiling broadly. The sun was so hot coming through the window, that it felt like it was burning my skin, so I pulled my sweatshirt over my head. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I laughed. It was right after taking this picture, that I realized how sick Pierre was.
This was the day that Pierre had been waiting for…driving through the Andes Mountains and crossing from Chile into Argentina using the Paso de Jama crossing point at the border between the two countries. The highest elevation along the route is a whooping 15,780 ft. The elevation at the border is 13,800ft. I was excited too, because of the adventure aspect, but mostly because I saw how happy and excited Pierre was. He was determined to get his passport stamped in Argentina!
A gate is closed and locked every day at the bottom of the mountain, and during the summer months, it opens at 8:00 a.m. and it closes at 6:00 p.m. If you don’t make it to the gate before it closes, you have to park on the side of the road, and either wait or camp there until morning.
Last night, we parked in the desert between San Pedro de Atacama and the closed gate. We could see that trucks were lined up through the night waiting for the gate to open in the morning. We decided at that point to let the truck traffic thin out a bit in the morning before we set out. Our goal was to get up to the pass, enter Argentina, get our passports stamped, and get back down the mountain before the gate closed. We weren’t keen on the idea of heading up a mountain surrounded by a convoy of big rigs.
When we crossed through the gate in the morning, there wasn’t a truck in site, so we liked the way our plan was shaping up. In fact, there was hardly any traffic at all. The road was paved and in excellent condition. Before we knew it, we could sense that we were quickly gaining elevation, and the view surrounding us was breathtaking.
A few days earlier, we had seen a volcano in the distance that we figured out was Lincancabur, a 19,409 ft tall volcano that straddled the border between Bolivia and Chile. Pierre was fascinated by it, so I started describing it as “his mountain,” or calling it, “Pierre’s Mountain.”
As we climbed, we could see Lincancabur rising majestically off to our left. Even though we were climbing fast, we were dwarfed by it. I felt my ears pop and I asked Pierre if his ears had popped as well. He said they had, and then we had a quick talk about altitude sickness. Apparently, it can strike hard and fast, and it’s not really clear why some people are more affected by it than others.
A short time later, Pierre said that he was getting a dull headache. I reminded him that we would have to pull over and turn around if he started to feel lightheaded, or if he developed any other symptoms. Other than my ears popping, I was feeling fine. A few times as we continued to drive, Pierre commented on his headache. I asked if he felt dizzy or sick, and he said that he was feeling okay…just a slight headache.
At think at this point, I think pictures will speak louder than words. This is what the scenery looked like as we climbed higher and higher into the Andes Mountains…
We saw so many alpacas and llamas, and I’ve kept a running tally since seeing the first one!
We made it to and past the 15,780 ft. mark! WOW! What an amazing adventure this is!
I’m going to begin by stating that there are NO pictures to accompany the first part of this post! As you read in earlier entries, we rented a camper while we were in Chile, but we decided early on that we weren’t going to use the shower and the toilet in the back of our living space. Both needed to be emptied and cleaned before returning the camper, and we just didn’t want to deal with the hassle. Up until this point, we had been able to find restrooms for the more delicate matters, and we both felt comfortable using “nature’s toilet” when we had to pee. Simply put–everything was working out according to our plan.
When we woke up in the morning, I told Pierre that we needed to scrap our original plan. We were quite far away from town, and we weren’t near any sort of facility that had a bathroom. We were in the desert, and I had done it before, but this time, we parked beside two roads–one beside the camper, and the other in front. We hadn’t seen any cars go by since we were up, but I knew with my luck, exactly when one would go by–yes, you know what I mean. I told Pierre that I was going to have to use the toilet in the camper.
Pierre had another idea–
The passenger side of the camper was facing away from the roads, so he dug a hole right between the front passenger door, and the back door. Finally, he opened the doors to create a little visual block.
He made me an outdoor loo–Brilliant!
When I finished, I filled the hole up with sand, and put a rock on top as a marker. A marker for what, I’m not really sure, oh yeah–that’s what Pierre had insisted that I do the day before! LOL! Next I heated up water, so I could wash my hair and body. A few days ago, I came up with an extremely “high-tech solution”–standing behind the camper, I bent over at the waist and poured warm water over my head. I used a dollop of shampoo and I scrubbed my hair until it was squeaky clean. I used the remaining water to rinse out the soap. Pierre shaved his face for the first time on the trip, using the the driver’s side mirror, and of course, he also washed his hair and body. For some reason, it’s very satisfying to bathe and get dressed outdoors.
As you can see above, I named this post, “Pooping, Shaving, and Showering in the Desert…and Worrying if Anyone Would Drive By!” I’m not sure why I worried so much, because we didn’t see a single car the entire time!
Although we had driven down the tiny roads of San Pedro de Atacama several times already, we decided to park the camper and walk into town for dinner. We also needed to find the post office. I asked a few people as we walked along, both Anglo and Spanish, and I was told that it was near the police station and the directions were always finished with a finger pointing us in the right direction. We walked–asked clarification–walked– and asked for clarification until we found ourselves in a bustling town square. At the center of the action, a small band was playing and there appeared to be some dancers getting ready to perform.
Many stalls were set up in the middle of the square, and were occupied by vendors selling a wide assortment of merchandise to include: hand-crafted items, soaps, food, honey, etc. Small shops and restaurants lined the square on three sides, and a beautiful old adobe church occupied the remaining side. We finally found the police station that everyone had pointed us toward, but we still didn’t see the post office.
I’m a big fan of the Amazing Race, but one of the things that bothers me is that the contestants tend to run around like chickens and they never seem to think that it would be a good idea to stop and ask for directions. So–not wanting to be accused of being a frantic chicken, I asked one more time, and we were given a scant description that we really didn’t understand, BUT we got the all important finger (no, not that one!), which pointed us in the direction that we should go. Sure enough–we found the post office tucked away on a side street, just down from the church.
We stepped into a small courtyard and waited our turn to buy stamps. The building was so small, that only one customer could step into the lobby at a time. The bike pictured below is one one the mail bikes that the mailman/woman uses to deliver the mail locally, and a fancy mail scooter was there as well.
After finishing at the post office, we set off to find a restaurant for dinner. We weren’t craving anything in particular, so we just picked a place called, Restaurant la Manada that “looked nice” from the outside. Wow~we picked well! Our dinner was excellent and the presentation was beautiful!