I have come to look for America: Part 2 – Northern Chile to Machu Picchu

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Written by Giovanni Stalloni, published in BIKE Magazine March 2022 Issue.
Article Author, Giovanni Stalloni.
Article Author, Giovanni Stalloni.

Giovanni Stalloni is a street photographer whose work explores the relationship between people and their surroundings. In 2021, Giovanni won the “Touring – exploring a city” category in the BIKE Photography Contest, saying “I mostly explore the environment simply looking through the viewfinder of one of my tiny film cameras”, now, he recalls the tale of his 2017 photographic journey across South America. Combining experiences of long-winded flights and Chilean Hospitals with an immense passion for the unique landscapes and fascinating people he comes face to face with along the way.

Northern Chile to Machu Picchu

It’s 4:00am. I woke up on the night bus I took in Puerto Montt heading to Valparaiso with my cheek pressed against the frozen window. Suddenly, something doesn’t feel right. Where is my small bag with my passport, the money and…what!? Oh no!! And my precious rolls of film!! Oh my God! Someone stole my rolls!! I’m lost! The reason why I’m traveling! 15 days of the trip cancelled forever! My life is ruined, I better go back to Italy right away, there’s no meaning in…

Oh…wait, here it is. My bag, resting against my leg, it must have slipped from my womb while I was sleeping and is now leaning down there, right next to this grate of the heating system and…Oh My God!!! My rolls are blazing!! Must have been laid against the grate for hours! Oh God, every picture taken in Patagonia has melted!! The whales melted! The penguins! The Chinese people in Ushuaia…all melted and lost forever… 

Ladies and Gentleman, the above panic attack is your everyday life when you suddenly decide to start a project involving traveling and analog photography in the digital age.

You have to face the fact that from the moment you fasten the seatbelts on your first flight, your rolls of film are your children. You don’t go anywhere without knowing they are safely stored in the driest locker you can find in the hostel; you tremble every time you pass by a security scanner that, with no doubts, has been created by digital demons to destroy your negatives.

Your rolls are your first thought in the morning when you are having breakfast and updating your photo diary, trying to remember how the weather was when you shot those kodak tri-x 400 that were probably more expensive than the trip itself.

Life has choices and consequences. You chose analog, now you suffer.

By the way, my rolls survived safely those hours of heath, 6 or 7 security scans, high humidity, cold temperatures, salted environments, floods and other natural disasters. Film is made to resist, even if some YouTuber will tell you that you must not expose them to the spring breeze which may result in a severe damage of the emulsion!”.

The reality is that some of the pictures I took on that trip came out so awful, I truly desired that the negatives had melted in the bus. 

But I wasn’t the only one suffering from the disease of film photography. As soon as I arrived in my dorm room in Valparaiso’s hostel, I bumped into this skinny, long-haired Australian weirdo, wandering around with his enormous surf gear. The guy had my same idea of traveling with a tiny film camera but he’d happened to break it that morning. He didn’t say much, just looked at my bag full of canisters and said: “Dude, I have something for you.” He grabbed a handful of Kodak’s crappiest film and smashed it in my hands. “They’re useless to me now. Enjoy.” I tried to act cool but I wanted to cry and hug him for his unimaginable generosity.

Later that day I found out that the guy had been carrying around those rolls in his humid surf bag for days, leaving them to marinate in a mix of sea water, sand, mold, dirty laundry and a wetsuit. If that wasn’t enough, the infamous surf bag was checked in and sent in the hold of several airplanes, passing through the nastiest security scanners. That is a recipe for film destruction. I didn’t care and used the rolls like they were new. I even processed the films with expired chemicals and, inexplicably, the negatives came out impeccable.

©Giovanni Stalloni
©Giovanni Stalloni

I stayed in Valparaiso (“Valpo” for the locals), for a couple of days. It was probably worth a longer visit but I was already behind my schedule. Valpo is a stunning coastal town built upon a few steep hills. It’s fun, young, bohemian,and culturally interesting, full of many kinds of activities, markets, bars and parties all over the place. The day I arrived in town I had the luck of attending a crazy Red Bull biking contest. A few roughnecks were throwing themselves downhill from the highest point of the city into the narrow alleys performing jumps and tricks.

Meanwhile, following the most exquisite Red Bull fashion, everybody else got drunk. At first glance, Valpo feels literally like Pinocchio’s Toyland, everyone you meet is in their twenties, partying and staying busy, studying, making music and drinking pisco sour, but as you move a little further from the marvelous historic areas, you’ll notice that those picturesque houses made of sheets of metal, hide struggles and poverty due mainly to the decay of the once main harbor of the south pacific.

The absolute local gastronomic highlights are pan con palta (bread with avocado) and the almighty Completo italiano which is a huge hotdog with tomatoes, avocado and mayonnaise. I know, it’s nothing fancy but when you’re backpacking, trying to save as much money as possible, you don’t go to fancy restaurants. That being said, a healthy, normal person shouldn’t consume the amount of avocados I had on this trip, especially in Chile. I definitely pushed

my tolerance to a point where I couldn’t even look at one of those bastards. Especially after a 23 hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama where I decided to narrow my food choice to pan con palta and coffee.

It is probably worth mentioning here how desolating the Atacama Desert is. I have always been very attracted to deserts but this one is just too void and arid, even for me. For hours the view of rocks and dust is only interrupted by some mining facilities, then rocks and dust again. At the time of my trip, Chile was mining lithium like crazy; I was explained by locals that most of Chile’s richness comes from lithium and looks like the more they mine, the more reserves they find.

Apart from that, traveling through this desert is the closest thing to being on the moon. If you ever wondered if the moon landing was a hack, well, coming to this region will definitely consolidate your conspiracy theories.The only oasis you can find in kilometres of nothingness, is San Pedro de Atacama, a nice touristic village and the base point for excursions and activities. It takes forever to get here because San Pedro is high, approximately 2400 m above sea level, located between the Atacama Desert and the Puna de Atacama, which is a plateau embracing northern Chile, Bolivia and northern Argentina.

This is where my headache began and didn’t stop until I descended, three weeks later, in Lima. About that, you know this thing they say about altitude sickness? That “you aren’t necessarily going to suffer it”? That “it’s ok, it only lasts a couple of days”? Well, no! It hit me hard and affected me enough to drink a few liters of mate de coca (tea with coca leaves) a day and a ton of ibuprofen. Although it didn’t really affect me strongly until I got to 4000 m for an outdoor trip to Piedras Rojas.

My bunk bed mate at San Pedro’s dirtiest hostel was the Australian bum I met in Valpo. It was the beginning of a series of painful hassles you experience when travelling the Gringo Trail; I couldn’t visualize the concept of mass tourism until I traveled the area of Northern Chile – Southern Peru.

We are talking about billions of people exclusively visiting the following tourist track: San Pedro de Atacama – Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) – Arequipa (Peru) – Titicaca Lake (Peru) – Cusco and Machu Picchu (Peru). Oh, did I say “visiting”? I meant “getting drunk at night and sleeping during the day”. After all, why not go to the other side of the world and do the same things you do at home? The least that can happen is meeting the same people over and over again. 

©Giovanni Stalloni
©Giovanni Stalloni

I couldn’t complain about San Pedro, though. It offers amazing surroundings for outdoor activities, hikes, tours to salares (salt deserts), wildlife, geysers and a surprising community of amateur astronomers, mainly a bunch of spiritual weirdos/artists gathering at night in the desert, smoking and doing rituals. A few of these guys invited me to the desert after we met in a restaurant and had dinner together, but I had to wake up early for a hike so I didn’t go.

I think I missed out, but I was in my late thirties, I could socialize and I could hike, but I just couldn’t do both. Speaking of sociality, my bus to Tacna was late (5 hours late), so at the station I was forced to make friends with frustrated travelers and a guanaco; they are everywhere in the Puna de Atacama and their social skills are outstanding. One of them followed me into a tourist shop, trying to obtain a free ice cream.

Late that night the bus was finally ready to go, next stop was Tacna, the first town after crossing the Chile-Peru border, a loud and confusing place. Once I arrived and was off the bus, I made my way through a thousand booths in the dirt, selling tickets to everywhere; to buy a bus ticket to Arequipa I had to wrestle with a crowd of yelling people and an old lady behind me pushing hard to overtake my place. It was tough, but I made it.

There, in the crowd fighting, I met Sandra, today’s travelling mate: a French-Italian girl who was travelling to run away from her family. Her parents were both conservative folks from Calabria, a southern Italian region, trying at all costs to find a Calabrese husband for her. So, she left France for Canada and, when her visa expired, she decided not to return home fearing her family would fix the marriage southern Italian style.

The final chapter of a very long day was a tiny Peruvian fellow with a moustache and microphone hopping onto the bus to sell a Chinese medicine for prostate failure. His presentation was very professional and supported by a series of illustrations of the prostate but it went on for a couple of loud hours. I thought: “Welcome to Peru, my friend”. 

Our journey with Giovanni continues in the next issue of BIKE Magazine, where we bring you part 3 of his photographic tour of South America.

Want to contact Giovanni? Find him at: gstalloni@gmail.com, or on Instagram.

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