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The definition of an “itinerary” is “a planned route or journey that’s hopelessly optimistic and will need changing almost immediately”.  It’s therefore most surprising that we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama on the appointed day, 5 weeks after leaving La Paz.  Less surprising is the fact that the wheels fall off the itinerary almost as soon as we enter Chile.

Back in the day (pre-Covid), the Chilean immigration authorities would give you an exit stamp in San Pedro, not caring very much if you choose to leave Chile via the Paso Sico, Paso Socompa or Paso the Salsa, so long as there’s a friendly Argentinian border guard to welcome you on the other side.  That was a good arrangement for cyclists, as the Paso Socompa is only open to non-motorised transport and the occasional train, and takes you on a relatively painless 6-day hike/bike trip to Llullaillaco basecamp (my next destination) on some halfway decent roads on the Chilean side.  That arrangement has all changed now, as the authorities have started building dedicated border posts at each of the borders (well, I ask you!) and have the temerity to insist bikes now go to Argentina via the Paso Jama (way north!) or the Paso San Francisco (way south!).  What was a 6-day journey has morphed into a 2-week trek on 11 sides of a dodecahedron.

I could, of course, take my chances by heading for Paso Socompa to see what happens but, as I intend to come back to Chile later, I need that exit stamp and could have a bit of a “problemo” later if I don’t have one.  Even the receptionist at the hotel is agreeing with the Chilean border official I spoke with; if this is a conspiracy against British cycle-tourists, the conspiracy runs deep.

So now I’m resigned to getting the bus to Salta, as cycling there could take me a week leaving me another week (with a following wind) to get to Tolar Grande.  TG is the jumping-off point for all things salty in the Puna region, including climbing Llullaillaco, the continent’s 7th highest mountain.  No matter how many times I stare into the tea leaves, all I see is the outline of a bus pulling into this northern-Argentinian city 12 hours later.  And no matter how often I point at my itinerary, the woman at the bus station insists there’s no bus leaving San Pedro for another 3 days so I’ll have to wait even longer: drat and double drat!

On the plus side, I’m going to need an Argentinian SIM card, some pesos and (ideally) new pedals for my bike.  Salta will be a good place for those.  [Note to any cycle-tourists reading this, make sure you have double-flat-sided pedals rather than ones which are flat on one side with cleats on the other.  If you’re not wearing cleats (which I wasn’t) the pedals are guaranteed to be cleat-side up at the wrong time.  It is, seemingly, these little details that can drive you nuts, especially when you’re cycling through sand!]

Come Monday morning I’m off to the bus station.  The two drivers eye my bike with suspicion and insist the bike be dismantled, into pieces no bigger than a medium-sized washer, before it can be stowed. After some negotiation, I remove the wheels and turn the handlebars.  My bags are then tossed in a different section of the bus between a baling machine and the contraption with rotating knifes they routinely seem to carry on these vehicles.  4 hours later we’re at the border where everything has to be reassembled (outside in high winds) and wheeled through customs.  There I produce the pointless bike certificate the Chilean authorities pointlessly gave me when I arrived from Bolivia.  I wait for a pointless period of time for the certificate to be pointlessly processed before being pointlessly tossed in the bin where it belonged in the first place.   I’m miffed, not just because of the pointless bureaucracy (Argentina doesn’t ask for one), but because they described my bike as “copper” coloured when they should have known it was “Madagascar orange”!

Safely through customs and back on the bus (minus a water bottle lost in transit), it’s an 8-hour drag past some “Bolivia-lite” salt pans, through colourful but dusty-looking mountains, via plentiful roadworks and encountering endless (dare I say pointless) police checkpoints.  I arrive late but the mysteries of booking.com ensure suitably cheap accommodation awaits my arrival.

Salta is a city of around 600,000 people with, at any point of time, 300,000 of them queuing to get money out of an ATM.  The other 300,000 are in another queue to get, top up or cancel their SIM cards.  The first group are doomed to fail because the ATMs are (i) empty, (ii) broken or (iii) programmed by an evil villain to throw out an error message just at the point you think you are going to get some money.  The message will say you cannot have the amount requested, offering you two further guesses as to what the right amount might be.  If you do go for a suitably small number, the machine cheerfully informs you the bank charges will be 90% of the amount you are withdrawing, but the prospect of spending the rest of your life queuing at another ATM means you take what you can get, even when you know it’s a shake down.

Meanwhile, in the other queue, everyone in Argentina (except me) knows that a company called “Personal” offers the best mobile services, but their SIM cards are only available to people with a local DNI number (whatever that is).  They only tell you this fact after you’ve spent 2 hours queuing outside their shop but fortunately, being British, I welcome the opportunity to queue when the alternative is to spend a happy couple of hours looking around the city and enjoying the sunshine.  

Claro are eventually persuaded to give me a data-SIM without my having to offer them any limbs, but I spend the better part of a day on two rather straightforward tasks that had taken me 30 minutes in Chile.  Moan, moan, grumble. It may all be part of the cultural experience, but unless the locals enjoy the prospect of spending 45 minutes a day in a queue for an ATM, perhaps there’s a better way.

Buying bike pedals and a bus ticket out of Salta is a lot more straightforward, as there are a few good bike shops selling pedals that wouldn’t go amiss on a Ben Hur chariot.  The bus station is also hard to miss.  As there’s only one bus going west, a morning ticket to San Antonio de los Cobres is booked in fairly short order.  It’s a fun fact that the people of San Antonio drink water with arsenic levels 10x the WHO recommended limit.  Over the generations, they’ve built up a natural immunity to what would be poisonous for the rest of us.  But I’m not intending to spend much time there looking for strange arsenic-related behaviour, as I’m hoping to be able to catch a lift or ride the remaining 180km from San Antonio to Tolar Grande before anyone gets thirsty…