How we Crossed a Border with no Border Crossing
In this post you’ll learn how we wanted to get away from altitude and ended up much higher than we have ever been before. Along the way we crossed a border without border crossing facilities, dealt with some awful road conditions, drove some surprisingly good Chilean roads, and enjoyed countless breathtaking vistas of the Andes. If you want to find out more please read on!
For several reasons we had both had enough of Bolivia (there’ll be a separate post about this very soon). One of these reasons was that our bodies didn’t cope very well with any altitude above 3,500m. Hence, we decided to leave after our visit to the Salar de Uyuni. To avoid more time in high altitudes, the nearest destination for us seemed to be Chile.
I started investigating possible routes into Chile on our paper maps, since all GPS navigation preferred to take the ‘long way around’, along main highways. Before I got the paper maps out I had thought we needed to leave the Salar towards the north, where a track connects with the main road from Oruro to the Chilean border. This main road is only a ‘surfaced dirt road’; these are usually hardened by spraying salt water onto the gravel and rolling the surface again.
But when I googled the road conditions I found that this track was supposed to be part rough rock, part long soft stretches of sand. Then I spotted a really short connection on our Chile map: there’s a road crossing the Salar in a straight line, from Uyuni in the east to a Llica in the west. From Llica it’s only ±60 km to Cancosa, the first town in Chile! The pass to get there is marked with 4,010m.
For comparison, here are selected heights of mountains elsewhere:
the highest mountain in Australia: Mt.Kosciuszko at 2,228 metres
the highest mountain in Germany: Zugspitze at 2,962 m
the highest mountain in Central Europe (Alps): Mont Blanc at 4,810 m
So it looked like the most promising and doable route, particularly since the Chile map showed a police post at the border. First we asked the Panamerican Travelers group on Facebook (replies: nobody knew about this route), and then finally the Immigration Police in Uyuni (reply: yes, of course you can go that way, you only have to get stamped out of Bolivia here in Uyuni). He also told us that there was nowhere on this route to return our vehicle permit, but this would be of no consequence unless we planned to return to Bolivia.
So off we went. We had left ourselves 2 days to explore the Salar, on the third day we wanted to drive to Chile. We entered the Salar de Uyuni on Friday and our Bolivian exit stamp was for Sunday.
Two days for the Salar proved to be completely sufficient, although we got lost once and spent some time backtracking. We know of fellow German overlanders who spent 10 days there, with what or why we don’t know. My eyes quickly got tired, endlessly flinching into brilliant white salt as far as they could see.
Leaving the Salar de Uyuni
The off-ramp to Llica proved to be solid: it’s a dirt track pushed across the soft salt edge, accommodating the regular 2WD buses and delivery trucks, which go to Llica. The road was relatively rough and rocky. That’s why lighter cars prefer to continue across the softer salt, merging with the heavy vehicle route close to town.
Llica was a pleasant enough town. We stopped to buy some bread (thank God – otherwise we would have been stuck later without. You’ll need to read on!) and have lunch.
From Llica to Cancosa
The road up to the border in Bolivia was really, really, badly corrugated. Some corrugations were between 40 and 50 centimetres apart which gave no option to speed up to ‘fly’ across the crests of them. It took us 4 hours to bump along less than 60 kilometres, with maybe 6 or 7 very brief photo stops.
When we reached the village of Bella Vista in Bolivia, we had to drive through the middle of a military post – there was no way around it. The young soldiers were initially a little confused by our appearance (I had to blow the horn to wake them from their siesta). But once we explained where we wanted to go they checked our passport stamps and let us through. Only the second boom gate wouldn’t open high enough for Berta to get past.
From the military post the road wound its way up the pass until we reached a rusted post with an embossed sign atop saying ‘Bolivia’ on one side and ‘Chile’ on the other. So this must be the border! Yasha got out to take a couple of photos.
The road ahead looked like a narrow path between rock-walled fields, barely wide enough for Berta’s wheelbase… Was this it? After all, the sign clearly indicated this as the border. A couple of hundred metres later I noticed three things: a second, barely visible road further downhill, our GPS wanting us to be on it, and ahead of us hardly any tyre marks on the track.
The rock walls on both sides didn’t leave any choice but to press on and look for an opening to turn around. So we did and then crawled our way back. Rock cuts in the sidewalls of our tyres prove how narrow it was. Finally, the alternate route (which had turned off the track well before the border marker) was much smoother, freshly graded, and only a couple of kilometres into Cancosa.
The Border without Border Facilities
The first structure we came to in Cancosa was the green and white painted building of the Carabineros, Chile’s police. It was surrounded by confiscated vehicles, easily identifiable on first sight as used Japanese cars bound for Bolivia. (We suspect these were supposed to be smuggled into Bolivia without payment of customs duties.)
Again we had to knock on the door to get some attention. The policeman who responded was very nice, but a little baffled by our appearance. Finally he told us that this border is only meant for hikers and locals from either country, Chile and Bolivia. Hence there wasn’t any customs office. He could stamp us into Chile, but to get our vehicle permit we would have to drive north to the ‘official’ border at Colchane…
The whole procedure took quite some time. First the generator needed to be started to get electricity for the computers (no immigration w/o computer entry) and their communication system. Then he had to call in, through short wave radio, to clear if we had any police records or immigration violations against our names. After a good hour he returned our stamped passports.
The road to Colchane set a new record for us
I was completely fooled by our Chile map which marked the pass, Paso Apacheta de Irpa o Cancosa, at an elevation of 4,010 metres. I already sort of understood, from a conversation with the Carabinero, that we wouldn’t get down as much as I had hoped in the foreseeable future. Since it was getting late, we decided to stay overnight in front of the police station, and drive on the next day.
In the morning, I wandered a little through the sleepy village, photographed its church and discovered a nearby water tap. So we filled our tank since its always difficult to find any water in the Atacama desert and surrounding mountains. Whilst we waited for the tank to fill, we talked with a local who explained in more detail that the road to Colchane goes around the high, glacier-capped Cerro Alto Toroni, which we could see from the Carabinero post. And yes, the road was in good condition…
So we set off for the 100 kilometre drive at exactly 11 o’clock. As soon as we left the village of Cancosa the road went uphill… Not a good sign! We were hoping to get out of altitude.
Well, let me tell you: within less than 30 kilometres on the road we broke an altitude record: a little over 5,100 metres! We’ve never been this high in Latin America; not this time, not last trip, and our truck Berta probably never in her life. Me neither…
There went our dream to get out of altitude as soon as possible. We weren’t sleeping well, had slight headaches, were out of breath very quickly, and in general didn’t have much energy for anything. Sometimes simply forming a clear thought was nearly impossible. All this despite drinking litres of Coca tea every day – from breakfast until bedtime.
But what else was there to do other than press on and hope for the best? Berta, our Mercedes 1019, was furiously belching out thick black smoke – but that was her only complaint. The road had changed from bitumen to gravel and became rather narrow, but overall the surface was still in reasonably good condition and didn’t slow us down at all – only the steepness of the mountains did.
Finally it went downhill, which was a good sign for us. The road surface first changed back to salt-hardened earth and later to smooth bitumen. We stopped in the village of Cariquima to eat some lunch and to photograph their simple adobe church surrounded by flowering cacti. By around 2pm we finally reached the ‘official’ border post in Colchane.
The official border between Bolivia and Chile
Of course we approached the border post from the Chilean side. When I drove up to it, I noticed the gate to leave Chile was closed. I waited around, beeped my horn, but the guard house was obviously unattended. There wasn’t much coming and going so I decided to take the left gate, the entrance side to Chile, reverse into that lane and park. After all: we wanted to complete our ‘entry’ into Chile.
We gathered our papers and looked for a way into the complex. Not as easy as it might sound, Chileans can be very efficient with their border checks = we had to crawl under lowered boom gates barring the entrance. Inside we found that this is now a combined border post, meaning that Bolivian and Chilean officials share one facility.
Initially I thought that this could be good news because I could return my vehicle permit. The first person we came to was a Bolivian customs officer, so I tried my luck. Bad idea!
She didn’t understand the issue at all. Her Bolivian immigration colleague, who sat next to her and understood the situation, couldn’t be bothered explaining it to her. So we moved on to the Chilean customs (ignoring immigration since we had our exit and entry stamps) and applied for our car permit. This was done in about 10 minutes, after which I tried to engage the friendly Chilean customs officer to once again return our Bolivian vehicle permit. But the woman behind the counter remained stubborn, so Berta never officially left Bolivia. Ah well…
Then followed a rather lengthy and fastidious vehicle inspection by both, customs and quarantine. It’s typical Chile, so we were prepared for it, to a degree. Finally we could drive on.
But not before we got some money and basic supplies since we had no cash and you are not allowed to bring fresh produce or milk products into Chile. Compared with everything else before this should easy. Should – except that there is no ATM in Colchane!
We had 20 BOBs (~3 US$) left with which we went to the only open almacen. Yes, she would accept Bolivianos for payment, but as it turned out for a dismal rate and her prices were at least twice of what you would pay in any city store – frontier country. And she didn’t have any bread. We left with 2 apples (but no milk!) for muesli and 6 eggs – plus a few useless small BOB coins. Luckily we still had some stale bread and a pre-cooked lentil soup (you are allowed to bring in cooked food).
And again the map was only telling half the truth: the border pass is marked at 3,695m, Iquique at sea level, so we were hoping for an all-down-hill journey. Instead we climbed several times to altitudes of around 4,300 metres before it eventually went downhill. At 2,600 metres we finally stopped on the side of the road and had the best night sleep for well over two weeks!
Never come cashless to Chile!
Our ordeal wasn’t quite over, though. The next day we continued towards Huara, the next bigger town, in the hope to find a cash machine there. Nope! We had initially thought to stay a few days around; there are a several green valleys hiding in the barren desert and we needed a place to relax. But without money no shopping; with no supplies, no lazing around.
The only solution for us: to drive on to Iquique, a large city with everything the heart (and stomach) desires. From our Chile map, issued 2014, I thought that we should be in the city within an hour.
Except: there’s a new peaje (toll station) on the only access road into Iquique. (This was inaugurated in September 2015 – after we left Chile last time.) And they won’t accept credit cards for payment – cash only! I think they didn’t even believe our story; after a lengthy wait we ended up with a ticket which we still have to pay (and no address where to do so…).
But finally, we arrived in Iquique which now seems much busier than we remember from 2008, our last visit. We were both starving by then (remember: our fridge was as good as empty and it was almost 4pm!) and tempers were flaring. After some searching we found a vacant parking spot at a shopping centre which for us promised a cash machine and certainly some food.
Disappointment hit immediately: the ATM at the entrance refused to pay out, “your transaction cannot be completed”, and the food court was closed for renovation. At least there was one coffee shop open on the top floor and the ATM there finally gave us some money…
Later Yasha found, in our online bank statements, that we were charged for two ATM transactions. This is an issue which still remains to be solved; we have notified the bank and are waiting for the resolution…