In the early 1980s, I hitched a lift on a flatbed truck from the Chilean mining town of Calama to San Pedro de Atacama and, about halfway there, we found ourselves in near whiteout conditions – in the arid Atacama desert, not just rain, but snow. Fortunately, I arrived safely but now, whenever I think of the world’s driest climate, that still comes to mind.
Last April, while spending several days in San Pedro, I did not experience any rainfall, but storms in the Andes caused flash floods that washed away segments of roads in the Quebrada de Quitor, briefly closing access to my accommodations at the Hotel Alto Atacama. Today, though, it’s much worse, as the online Santiago Times reports that heavy rains have left nearly 5,000 people in San Pedro without running water and electricity. Highway damage has also closed the Paso de Jama border crossing (pictured above) to the Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta.
Some similar has happened in Argentina, where mudslides caused by heavy rains in the upper drainage of the Río Mendoza (as seen in the video above) have closed the international highway to Chile – according to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, the road has been cut in more than 20 places. This is the most important border crossing between the two countries, as international trade relies on the route; its timing is particularly unfortunate for the tourism industry, as cross-border traffic is abundant at this season. Mendoza’s annual wine harvest party, the Fiesta Naiconal de la Vendimia, begins the first week of March.
To make things even tougher for border-crossers, repairs of the international highway on the Chilean side presently require one-way traffic: westbound vehicles from Argentina may travel during daylight hours (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.), while eastbound vehicles from Chile must travel at night (8 p.m. to 7 a.m.). Until the Argentines manage to clear the road on their side, though, this is a moot question, and it remains to be seen how it affects the summer season.
Meanwhile, any Argentines vacationing in Viña del Mar who need to be back to work on Monday will have find an alternate route, and the road over the Agua Negra pass (pictured above), east of La Serena and Vicuña, has also been closed. The next closest crossing is the Paso Vergara (pictured below), east of the city of Curicó, but that involves a detour of more than 200 km south of Santiago and, once across the border, several hundred km more north to Mendoza.
What with all the currency controls, it was already difficult for Argentines to travel outside their own borders, but this is making it difficult for those who could to return. The rest of the summer could be a real challenge.