We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. Click here to find out more. Allow cookies

arrow Register here

Forgotten password?

Full Circle

Day 179: Arica to La Paz

Michael Palin - Full CircleI'm beginning to feel light-headed myself. We've all been warned of the effects of altitude sickness, but all I feel at the moment is a curious elation, a kind of couldn't care less contentment. Now I know why they call it being high.

Six and a half hours after leaving Arica we have reached the Chilean frontier. A faded sign shows the official altitude to be 4068 metres, 13,305 feet. There is not much here. A few derelict sheds, some stone buildings from a more prosperous time which now provide little more than walls to pee behind and shade for those getting off the train for a smoke (not allowed on board). Around us stretches the altiplano, a wide, treeless plateau of boggy grassland in shades from rich emerald to pale green, bordered by implacable white peaks - Putre, 5824 metres (19,102 feet), Larrancagua, 5,400 metres (17,712 feet) and the mighty volcano Sajama, its cone rising 6,542 metres (21,500 feet). The air is clean and pure and the sunshine quite blinding. I stride off up the line to get the best view. Feel giddy after a few steps and have to slow down. I notice too that the ink flows more thinly from my pen as I try to make a note of what happened.

A mile further on, across a no man's land, populated only by grazing llamas, is the Bolivian border town of Charana. It's pretty clear from the look of the people and the condition of the buildings that we have crossed more than just a line on the map. Chile has a per capita GNP of $2730. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with a per capita GNP of $680. Most Chileans are mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, sixty per cent of Bolivians are pure Indian. No one in Chile wears a bowler hat. In Charana all the women seem to. The military in Chile are always immaculate. The soldiers on the Bolivian frontier wear shapeless baggy trousers, tight, creased jackets and cotton forage hats.
Choose another day from Full Circle


  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 179
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: Charana
  • Book page no: 236

Bookmarks will keep your place in one or more series. But you'll need to register and/or log in.