We took the road towards Bolivia. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towered over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.
We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.
Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could “run, jump, dance and play”. And it was true – I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I’d come to Chile to work. They’d heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they’d always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.