Paso Jama [an error occurred while processing this directive]
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In the Cordillera, the biggest snowstorm in over 20 years was blowing. From the Perú to Argentina a thick pack of snow was deposited which would cause the deaths of thousands of llamas and tenths of people ...

San Salvador de Jujuy

Rain forest near JujuyWe were not aware of this sad event, when we walked at a safe altitude of 1250 meters through the streets of San Salvador de Jujuy. We had just reached this capital of the province Jujuy by a color green dominated beautiful one day ride. After we had left the capital of province Salta in the morning and had climbed into the closely overgrown hills it started to rain softly. It was such a rain that appears to be not more then a few drips, but which can get you soaked in just several minutes. The road surface became wet. This was particular inconvenient for the cow that fled in front of us with a speed of not less then 33 km/h down the curled narrow road. In every curve it had difficulties to stay on its legs and not to slip away against the mountain wall. As the vegetation was so dense, green and humid, it appeared there was nothing abnormal on the low hanging clouds, but when we descended more, out of the rainforest back into the dry land, we saw that the low hanging clouds were everywhere as far as the eye could reach. The thick solid dark cloud-cover should maybe have alerted us that things were not going well, high above us in the Cordillera de los Andes.

It was quite busy in the streets of Jujuy. The people were ducked away in their coats, hiding for the cold and rain that drizzled out of the grey sky. We entered a cafe hoping to find some warmth and ordered a submarino, hot milk in which a bar of chocolate slowly sinks and melts. With it came a couple of fresh backed hot biscuits. Even inside, the temperature was unpleasant and the guests, only men, were still wearing their gloves and hats. Drinking our hot chocolate, we took some time to think over our plans for the following weeks. After eight months of traveling we had almost reached the most northern part of Argentina and could nearly put our bikes on Bolivian grounds. However, instead of crossing the border directly we had the plan to first go to Chile, and then, after cycling through the Atacama desert, enter Bolivia from the Chilean side. To reach the Atacama dessert we had to cross the Andes yet again. In the area of Salta and Jujuy there are two passes to choose from: Sico and Jama. We had set our minds on the Jama pass, because it has the name of being accessible, free of snow, the whole year round due to a(nother) microclimate. We already have had the unpleasant experience of standing in front of a closed pass before, and didn't need to go through again.

The waiter, dressed much more formally than you would expect from such a modest cafe, poured some more steaming milk in our cups to dilute the chocolate milk which becomes stronger with every draught you take. We spread out the map on the table and had another look at the road to be taken. That it would not simply be a single climb was clear. First a slope called Cuesta de Lipán would lead to an altitude of more than 4000 meter. The road would descent again to 3400m and after several climbs and descents the map indicated that Paso Jama would be reached at an altitude of about 4200m. Another map claimed nevertheless that Paso Jama was located at 4421m, but both figures would later show up to be not very relevant at all. In what manner the road continues in Chile was more or less unclear, because the Chilean map looked more like a colorful painting than like any form of reliable map.

A bed in the church

The overcast sky was still thick and low at the time we left S.S. de Jujuy to cycle north over the same road that leads directly to Bolivia. From the signs along the street it appeared that the road was still in the process of being transformed into a paved road, but no workers or machines were to be seen and the road kept alternating between several kilometers of asphalt and gravel. It didn't take long until we had climbed enough to find ourselves (but not each other) in the middle of the clouds which reduced the sight to about 30 meters. We wanted to stay in a hostal for the night, but as soon as we reached the little village Tumbaya we noticed that the local hospedaje was closed. Informing at the municipalidad where by chance a tourist office agent was situated, resulted in 10 friendly persons encouraging us to give it a try at the parish house next to the little church. The young pastor who opened the door received us as if he had expected us. He offered a fine room with comfortable beds, and access to a big kitchen. An offer we eagerly accepted.

Not far from Tumbaya we turned left, away from the main road, and got to know the way that must bring us to Chile. Several kilometers after the turn-off we cycled into Purmamarca, the village famous for the 'Mountain of the Seven Colors' in front of which it is situated. From this village to our destiny in Chile: San Pedro de Atacama, we still had 415 km to go, and could expect to cycle through only one other village. The habitants of Purmamarca couldn't give us much information about the route to paso Jama because strangely enough, they themselves never travel in that direction. Many even reacted with disbelief when they heard that we wanted to go to the 'extreme cold mountains'.

Cuesta Lipán

Instead of 13 km of flat road, like we were told in Purmamarca, the road already gained considerable height before it even had reached the foot of Cuesta Lipán. This Andes crossing was the first time we intended to cycle higher then 4000 meters and we were curious how we would react to the height. Although it is not a really high altitude one should be aware that a person can already get certain forms of high altitude sickness above 3000m. Above 2500m it is considered to be safe when you sleep less then 300 meter above the place of the night before. Some even say that above 4000m you should not climb higher then 150 meters per day. Anyhow, standing at the foot of the cuesta we were sure we would not reach the other side the same day. On the other hand, as we expected to get to the salt lake of about 3400m the next day it would be nice to sleep this night around 3100m. The cuesta was steep. The weather was strange. The wind blew from the back and from the front, sweeping sand high into the air, which made the sky foggy. We were lucky that at 3149m we bumped into a campamento that gives shelter to workers who are asphalting the road. Due to the economic problems in Argentina, the pavement project had been brought to halt since last Christmas. Only one man and a dog were left and it was their duty to protect all the machines that were parked on the terrain. So, there was more than enough room for two tired cyclists in the  busses filled with bunk-beds.

Road campamento

As already said, the cuesta was awfully steep and the higher we came the more often we had to stop to catch our breath, i.e. hanging over the steer, head down until the heartbeat drops to an acceptable level. It quickly became colder, amplified by the western wind that blew in our faces. The Tang flavored (Argentinean lemonade powder) water already started to freeze in the bottles. Not a big problem, because we chewed something that gave already such a weird taste that drinking lemonade would be completely inappropriate. The locals are used to chewing coca leaves to deal with the negative effects of altitude. We had also bought a little green bag when we were in Salta. A ball of green leaves between our teeth and cheek and now and then a pinch of bicarbonate, must supply the effective juices for about an hour. With a dizzying mouth we finally reached the top and read from the statue that we had reached a point on earth which is 4170 meters above the sea level.

Mud and salt

Descending, our faces covered with shawls, we could see in the distance the dry salt lake Salinas Grandes (not that big) which would be a safe sleeping altitude for us. We had been told that there would be a campamento for salt workers on the white flats, and before that several little houses should be able to supply us with water. We checked at the first group of adobe houses we saw, but "all water is frozen", said a woman with sincere regrets and to show it she demonstratively opened the tap. It was already getting late and the Salina seemed to be out of reach. Fortunately, we encountered a second group of mud huts. When we arrived, we saw a family that had just returned from buying food in Jujuy. The members were carrying their purchases to their house, one kilometer from the road. Asking for information, they offered us to stay in their house. It was another one of those kind offers we got during our trip. Again we eagerly accepted. The little old father tried to carry 50 kg of flour in a wheelbarrow through a sandy dry watercourse that separates their house from the road. Better for everyone, Tore could take over his burden; so that we didn't have to see the fragile looking man collapse in front of our eyes. We got to stay in the storage room of the little adobe house which had a solar panel on its roof in order to have light in the night. In most of the parts of Central and South America, you must be very cautious for the bug that spreads the Chagas disease. The 2cm long insect which carries the parasite that is responsible for the untreatable disease lives mainly in poor housing, in the cracks of the adobe walls and in thatched roofs. To protect ourselves and to keep the warmth, we put our tent up and slept excellently.

In front of the houses, the road changed from gravel into asphalt. First it descended and then it crossed the flat salar, where we could make some speed. We entered an area full with vicuñas and the similar but much woollier domestic llamas. The vicuñas reminded us much of the guanacos we had seen many months before in Torres del Paine. After the salar a real quebrada, with the risky name Mal Paso, brought us to 3845 meters after which we expected to have an easy descent to the village Susques. However, before we could reach it we were first teased by a long series of up and downs through ravines made by rivers.

Truckers in Susques

Entering Susques, the second thing we noticed was the long queue of trucks. In fact it was strange that it wasn't the first thing we noticed because they were parked at every possible location and in this way covered the whole village. However, the dirt, mud and poor houses at the village entrance were even more apparent for us at that time. The look of all the vehicles was more or less scary; what were those trucks doing here? It became clear soon enough, the truckers were waiting for the Paso Jama to open. We were surprised, but actually we already could have known that the pass was closed. People had told us that normally this road was frequently used by international transport, but so far we hadn't seen a single truck pass us. In Susques we understood that not only the trucks but also our bicycles might have to be parked for a while. In the evening we ate in a dubious diner where the truckers gather, most of them of Chilean and Brazilian nationality. A few had already been stuck for eight days in this small village with its picturesque church. The church didn't interest them, but they appeared to have quite a good time with each other. The truckers seemed to us a good source of information for the coming route, since they pass this area once or twice a month. We were especially interested in the Chilean part, because our foldable painting didn't give much of a clue. "Well," a Chilean driver said, "after the border crossing the road climbs up to an altitude of 5800 meters." And immediately his wife inquired in absolute earnestness whether we also carried an oxygen set with us. They must be kidding; even our colour drawing says that if these truckers are right, you will cycle over the highest mountain tops in the whole area. Fortunately, the man estimated the altitude of Susques about 1000 meter too high, so we didn't have to worry that much. However, we became more curious then before about the real details of what was to come. The customs,  which office is located in Susques, expected the pass to be open the next day, because the bulldozer was working hard to make the road free of snow.

waiting with the truckers in SusquesThe next morning the pass was still not open and it would remain that way for the whole day. We lunched with a Brazilian couple. A tasty rice meal (Arroz de Carretero), prepared in the kitchen of the vehicle by the cheerful wife who accompanies her man on all his trips. We talked Spanish, they talked Portuguese and we more or less understood each other. The afternoon of that radiant Monday, we filled with asking around about the road. Surprisingly, apart from the truckers, everybody gave the impression of never ever have been to Chile. Even the customs and police couldn't tell us anything useful, not even about the part in Argentina! Disappointed, we retreated to our hostal. In its entrance, some kind of diploma hang on one of the walls, stating that the owner was the first person who had driven with a vehicle over the Paso Jama in 1992, signed by a high authority of the provincial government.

Ice and thirst

When we left, the trucks were still waiting with running engines to keep the freezing cold outside the cabins. Although they still waited, the customs assured everyone that in the afternoon the road would be passable. The aduana had also assured us that the aduana office at the border, where we would have to get our stamps, was nothing more then a little house with no water, no room to stay, occupied by just one single person. We didn't completely believe this, especially their water story was a bit curious. However, we needed someone to help us with our water policy. We had experienced that on this altitude we needed 10 liters of water per day (rule of thumb: waterconsumption = altitude * 1 liter/km + 1 liter). We could carry enough liquid for about two days; meaning leaving a place with water after breakfast and arriving at the other site the next day before dinner. We thought it would take us three days. Therefore we made contact with a Brazilian family that had gone to the border the day before to find out if it was closed and for that reason had to return to Susques over the 120 km of bad road they already knew. Without waiting for an official go of the aduana (customes) in Susques, they gave it another try in the early morning. They were willing to take a container with water for us and drop it at a outstanding point: a crossing of two roads. Unfortunately, we didn't have more containers at the time they left and we could only give them 5 liters of water. The other 15 liters, would be dropped by the two Brazilian truckers who we had met the previous day. They would also drop 1 container at the same road crossing and 2 more at the border, in case the aduana was really short in water.

Having arranged this, we started to cycle the last 10 kilometers of asphalt in Argentina. We climbed to 4057 meters and went down over a bad sand road to the Salina Claraz at 3881 meters. In the late afternoon we saw many vicuñas running faster than we had expected them capable of. It was almost like they were being chased by some kind of wild animal. We looked for a place to put up our tent, with as much shelter as possible against the cold western wind. On the edge of the salina, we found a place behind a hill, but it was still pretty exposed. We probably don't exaggerate by saying it was a cold night... In the morning we woke up in a white igloo. The inner tent was completely covered with a beautiful layer of shining ice crystals. This was not so astonishing, as the temperature inside the tent was minus 8 degrees Celsius. When we checked the outside temperature during breakfast it was still minus 16 degrees Celsius. Better wait some time for the sun to appear...

Water to Perú

It took another one and half day before we would reach the Argentinean customs, which are located 2 kilometers before the actual border. In our way up we found the 5 liter water container, mainly frozen, which had been dropped by the Brazilian family. Because the trucks were still waiting in the village we couldn't collect the second container and were therefore running a little bit short on liquid. Fortunately, a car with Argentinean tourists helped us by supplying a few liters of water (and some cookies). They were heading towards the border and told us the pass would open in the afternoon.

At 4084 meters we were exposed to another cold night and therefore took precautions by hiding the tent in a gravel pit. We didn't make the mistake of the night before by not wearing as much clothes as possible. The small remainder of our clothing we spread on the ground to get some isolation. Warm bodies, covered with clothes, lying.on both backs as sleeping mummies inside mummies sleeping-bags, both lying.on clothes-covered cold grounds. Late in the evening the first trucks drove by. Not the trucks of Susques, but the ones that had waited in Chile were allowed to go first. Then, in the early morning, the first trucks went from Argentina towards Chile, including our Brazilian truck which passed us tooting his horn loudly without giving us any water and they also didn't drop anything at the border. They thought it would be better to carry the containers to Perú. Maybe they were right.

Dice and cards

The building of the aduana was much larger than expected. Not less then twelve men were working and living there. At the time we arrived they were just in the middle of their lunch. The youngest boy of the team asked us to wait outside until they were finished. Some moments later he came back, probably sent by a superior, and invited us to join them in their meal. The group, formed by two customs officers and ten policemen of the Gendarmaría Nacional, stay in this remote place for 6 weeks and at a post near their family for the next 6 weeks. They kill their time by practicing their shooting, letting out the big black Slovenian guard dog, cooking, playing cards and dice, and above all sharing gags. We had lunch with them, played dice and warmed up near the fireplace.

When we had waited outside we had noticed that the dog (a second one, much smaller and not chained) had looked rather miserable. His hair was stained red by blood and it looked like he missed a part of an ear. We learned that he had been attacked in the early morning by a puma. The puma, also called mountain lions by the locals, normally stick to a diet of vicuñas, but for some reason this particular puma had sought his luck in the neighborhood of people and an unfortunate dog. Therefore, we encountered some surprised reactions when we told we had camped the night nearly 30 kilometers from this place. Two men of the gendarmaría went out to hunt the puma, without success.

Dinner at the customsIn the evening dinner was prepared and, as most of the time in Argentina, big pieces of meat were roasted on the fireplace. As soon as it was ready everybody, including us, attacked. The cook had gone to the trouble of making an union and tomatoe salad and an extremely spicy salsa and besides that everybody ate and and drank loads of bread and wine. This group had just arrived the night before (late because of a flat tire) and were not yet adapted to the 4000 meters below them. Therefore, coca leaves with bica were served as dessert.

Paso Jama I

We only had to climb about 200 meters to reach the actual border crossing: Paso Jama had been conquered. Although we now had crossed the border pass, the real mountain pass, or better to say 'the real mountain passes', were still to come.

The road to Chile was up to San Pedro (almost 160 km) built from excellent asphalt. There was no reason to complain. There was still not much snow to be seen along the road, which made us wonder why it had been closed for such a long time (11 days). A pickup car of the Chilean road works crossed our way and its driver assured us that we had to get to San Pedro the same paso Jama day, because we were entering an area where you could not stay during the night; "a bad place up there". Sure that we wouldn't reach San Pedro that day we pedaled calmly up to an altitude of  at least 4300 meters. We passed a truck with big problems. The two drivers had spent the night before at this spot because their engine broke down. Not a nice altitude if you have just come from a place 2000 meters lower. We were still trying not to make too much altitude difference between the nights and were happy to see the road descending again. Through another one of those interesting landscapes,  open with nicely shaped brown rocks sticking out of the ground, we passed the first wet salt lake. We were just close enough to distinguish some of the pink flamingos, filtering the salty water in a search for food. At a small distance from our bird watching spot a truck stopped and the wife of the driver jumped out of it to make a little prayer in front of a little chapel. Is that necessary for reaching San Pedro safely?

Carabineros de Chile (national police) passed us on their way back home. They were so nice to explain us a little bit about the cycling program for the day after: "first some climbing and then only descending". As an encouragement they handed us half a pack of biscuits. We found a not so bad place to sleep at an outlook (4185m) at the second wet salt lake, part of the ‘reserva national los flamicos’.

Paso Jama II

We found the climb particulary hard and became pretty tired already in the morning. The beautiful view of special rocks in front of the mountain tops gave some relief but the thin air made things pretty hard. It was also difficult because we were still unsure how far and high the road would continue to climb before we could go downward. We had heard up to then values ranging from 4700 up to 5800 meters.

The highest point

Just after lunch we reached something that looked like the top. Cycling through a snow cleaned road we saw the altimeter showing a value of 4722 meters. We had a long downhill (still about 80 km to San Pedro) in front of us and although climbing in the burning sun was hot, descending generated a wind that was bitterly cold. Therefore, we packed ourselves in many layers of clothes, double gloves and let go off the brakes. Speaking about sun, you must know that for many months we didn’t need to use sunshield anymore and for that reason we had forgotten to protect our skin properly during the previous days. But as the radiation is merciless strong we ended up with our faces and noses covered with ugly yellow burning blisters. So, we let go of the brakes and for a while we went down fast. But soon it went less steep and after a while (we were between 300 and 400m lower) we found ourselves pedaling again. We were a flat valley with some scary high mountains and volcanoes in front of us. The valley was filled with snow and the few vicuñas that we saw looked rather helpless. The further we went the more snow there was, but at least always one lane of the road was free of ice. So, with respect to cycling the snow was no problem. It was unclear how we would pass the approaching volcano, but anyhow the closer we came the more the road started to climb. One of the drivers of the bulldozer that was still cleaning the road, gave the disturbing news that we still had to climb for about another 15km. This was disturbing because it had become already pretty late and we didn’t feel like staying another night on the barren cold height. Hardly finished the conversation with the drivers, the same white truck we had seen the day before stopped next us. Its driver was shocked to see us here and not safely in San Pedro as he had expected. "Put the bicycles in the back, we will drive you to San Pedro. It is an order!" It took some time to tell him that this could not be the case. "Well, then you have to yield of all rights to claim anything." He must have thought we were North Americans who would accuse him as soon as we had a few frostbitten toes.

Paso Jama III

We drove one quarter around the volcano and after that we could see the road climbing further up through the snow fields, towards the major volcano of the area: V. Licancabur. It looked far and it was far. There was a strong relation between the sun going west and us getting tired. Our bodies felt completely empty. It must have been an effect of the altitude. We became pretty worried that we wouldn’t reach the top in daylight. It looked quite certain that we wouldn't reach San Pedro, but at least we had to try catch the top and descend a large part, so that we could pitch the tent at an more pleasant altitude. We pushed the bikes and lost valuable time. The sun started already to disappear behind volcano Licancabur when we reached the highest point. Strange enough it was exactly the same altitude as the pass in the morning: 4722 meters. Frustratingly the road still didn’t want to descent. Still up and down, until 45km before San Pedro we finally started to go down and wouldn’t have to climb anymore. The sun had already set but it was light enough to have a good view of the road surface. Although we had reached the pass, we were still nervous that we were that late at 4500m, but at the same time we were glad we saw the Atacama dessert and the little lights of San Pedro below. We didn't wasted anymore time and started the biggest downhill we had ever seen. It is really a spectacular descent; from 4500m the road drops down in 45km to about 2400km, with the major height difference in the first 30km. Although the speed was high we didn’t omit to have a look at the right to see the snowed volcano, mystical red tinted due to the red colored sky. With an average speed of about 70km/h and a breathtaking maximum speed of 92km/h we let ourselves fall into the dusk valley.

A different planet

It went so fast that we decided to continue to the village without pitching the tent somewhere on the slope. It was easy to notice how the air became warmer and even more, how it became thicker with every meter we descended. A stream of air flowing over the lips. Slowly it became clear we would reach San Pedro and we became more relaxed. The last 15 km we went through complete darkness, but it didn't matter anymore, the speed was much lower because the road was not as steep anymore.

With a satisfied feeling but completely exhausted we entered San Pedro de Atacama, the so-called hip adobe village, base for many tours in the area of Atacama. For a moment we were aliens, being surrounded by all those shops, restaurants, internet cafes, tour agencies and many many tourists. Aliens who had not long ago left a cold lonely white planet, and had just landed on a new interesting dry overcrowded red planet after, ready for discovery.

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