The definition of an “itinerary” is “a planned route or journey that is hopelessly optimistic and will need to be changed almost immediately”. It is 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 stamp you out of Chile in San Pedro, not caring very much if you choose to leave over the Paso Sico, Paso Socompa or Paso the Salsa, so long as there is a friendly Argentinian border guard to welcome you on the other side. That was a good arrangement for cyclists, as the Paso Socompa was only open to the occasional train and non-motorised transport, taking you on a relatively painless 6-day hike/bike to Llullaillaco basecamp (my next destination). 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 bicycles now go to Argentina via Paso Jama (way north!) or Paso San Francisco (way south!). What was a 6-day journey has morphed into 2-weeks or more.
I could of course take my chances by sticking to Paso Socompa to see what happens but, as I intend to come back to Chile later, I do need that exit stamp and could have a “problemo” later if I don’t have one. Even the receptionist at the hotel is agreeing with the Chilean border official, so if this is a conspiracy against British cycle-tourists, the conspiracy runs deep.
I am resigned to get the bus to Salta, as cycling there could take me a week and would leave me needing another week (and a following wind) to get to Tolar Grande, the jumping-off point for all things salty in the Puna region, including climbing the continent’s 7th highest mountain. No matter how many times I stare into the tea leaves, I see the outline of a bus pulling into a northern-Argentinian city 12 hours later (you can get a lot of detail in a tea-cup, if you look hard enough). And no matter how many times I point at my itinerary, the woman at the bus station insists there is no bus leaving San Pedro for another 3 days, drat and double drat!
On the plus side, I am 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. It is, seemingly, these little things that can drive you nuts!]
Come Monday morning I am off to the bus station. The two drivers eye my bike with suspicion and insist the bike be dismantled to 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 vehicle between a baling machine and the contraption with rotating knifes they routinely seem to carry on these buses. 4 hours later we are at the border where everything has to be reassembled (outside in high winds) and wheeled through customs. I produce the pointless bike certificate the Chilean authorities pointlessly gave me when I arrived from Bolivia and 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 am miffed, not just because of the pointless bureaucracy (Argentina does not ask for one), but because they described my bike as copper coloured when they should have known it was Madagascar orange!
Safely through and back on the bus (minus a water bottle which was lost in transit) and it is 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 appropriately cheap accommodation awaits my arrival.
Salta is a city of around 620,000 people with, at any point of time, 310,000 of them queuing to get money out of an ATM. The other 310,000 are in a 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 at getting the right amount. 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 receiving, but the prospect of another 45 minutes queuing elsewhere means you would rather be shaken down than spend the rest of your life ATMing.
Meanwhile, in the other queue, everyone in Argentina knows that Personal offers the best mobile services (which is why they have 2-hour queues outside their shops). But their SIM cards are only available to people with a local DNI number (not me). Fortunately, they only tell you this fact after you have spent 2 hours outside their shop – otherwise, heaven forbid, you might go and spend time looking around the city and generally having fun.
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 (moan grumble), but unless the locals enjoy the prospect of spending 45 minutes a day in a queue for an ATM, perhaps there is a better way.
Buying bike pedals and a bus ticket out of Salta is a lot more straightforward. There are a few good bike shops selling pedals that would not go amiss on a Ben Hur chariot (or at least on the Japanese Shimano-sponsored remake). The bus station is hard to miss too and, as there is only one bus going west, a morning ticket to San Antonio de los Cobres is booked in short order. The people of San Antonio, reputedly, have arsenic levels 10x the WHO recommended limit. That is a fun fact, although I am not intending to spend time there looking for strange arsenic-related behaviour. I am hoping to get a bus, catch a lift or ride the 180km from San Antonio to Tolar Grande…