No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows on the right-hand side. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture below. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…

16 Dizzy heights at Chungura


As I’ve implied earlier we liked most of the food we ate in Chile. While the cuisine is basic, there was a wide and exciting variety of raw material – animal and vegetable – and nearly everything was simply yet expertly prepared. This included the hamburgers, which, everywhere from Puerto-Varas in the south to Arica in the north, were always huge, freshly made prime-beef patties. Grilled over charcoal in the posher establishments, or on hotplates in the diners, they were reliably succulent and filling. The only problem I had with the Chilean hamburger was the choice of accompaniments with the burger within the bun. At first I found the ubiquitous slice of beef tomato, cos-lettuce and thick slab of avocado – yes, avocado – to be a novelty. A tasty and healthy change from cheese, bacon or salad onion say… But by the time we were in Arica the novelty – of the avocado in particular – had worn thin. I’d come to the conclusion that avocado and a beef patty just weren’t good bedfellows. They didn’t so much complement each other as vie for attention in the mouth. In simple terms, they just didn’t get on. But by removing the avocado, the burger then became somewhat plain and bare, and the local vinegary ketchup certainly didn’t help matters. Then one afternoon we were at our favourite eatery (where we’d already established a steady supply of good fresh coffee) and I asked the cook if I could have some onion with my burger in place of the avocado. First of all, he looked at me as if I were crazy, but then he shrugged his shoulders and accented. He asked me how I wanted the onion cooked? I tried to explain that I wanted it raw. More looks of incredulity and then another shrug of the shoulders…I went and sat down and waited for my burger, which came about five minutes later with an onion; with a raw onion no less; a bloody great onion, skin and all, perched precariously on top of my beef patty…

17 Too heavy on the onion...


For most non-European readers of these adventure, the next two episodes will not seem surprising at all. But for us, then, the whole concept of “fruit checks”seemed like a hangover from the Pinochet era – just a way of controlling the free movement of citizens. As it happens we were wrong and fruit-checks were / are a key method in preventing the spreading of potentially lethal agricultural pests. Nevertheless, the fact that in Chile, these checks were carried out by jack-booted carabineros with all the charm of a pack of pit-bulls on an enforced vegetable-only diet merely reinforced our misconceptions and resentments. Both of our fruit-check experiences occurred on the long bus ride back south from Arica to Santiago. The reason for this was that our luxury “cama” coach journey (we were feeling a bit more flush with our budget by now) crossed several regional (state) lines and the unlicensed movement of  fruit and vegetables was prohibited from one region to another. Our first check was on the Arica/Iquique border when we were all ordered off the bus while two officers searched the vehicle. We’d all been nervously standing around on the roadside for about five minutes when one of the carabineros slowly made his way down the steps of the coach. Holding up a half-eaten bunch of grapes in his right arm he glowered at us before demanding that the guilty party declare him or herself. After a few moments, during which we all exchanged anxious looks, a middle-aged man stepped forward with his head bowed in shame – like a naughty schoolboy being summoned to the front of the class by the teacher. The carabinero then read the poor man the riot act, threatening him with all sorts of sanctions and fines before eventually offering him a way to make amends – to finish the bunch of grapes then and there. This the man did, fairly gorging them down in his relief , and so allowing us to continue on our long journey…

18 Whose grapes!!

One thought on “CHILE – OUR REAL CARTOON ADVENTURE (part 6 of 11)

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