40 Minutes at the Bolivian Border Post at Portezuelo del Cajón
This stark, isolated setting is home to the Bolivian border post at Portezuelo del Cajón, a mountain pass that separates it from Chile in the high Atacama. At 4,488m (14,724 ft) above sea level, it’s home to one of the highest* immigration and customs check points on the planet. And to a sublime ad hoc art gallery housing portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley and Salvador Allende, among others. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
The vast majority of travelers going to and from Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, about 45km (28mi) away, will cross here. The salar is some 160km away, or two days and nights by organized tour.
The Juriques and Licancabur volcanoes, which touch the sky at nearly 6,000m, loom large when seen from either side, making the pass an apt introduction to what’s coming next, regardless of which direction you’re headed.
For us, crossing into Bolivia, this wide expanse, whose thin air and saturated colors playfully bounced between the gold surface of the plain and the bright blues cloudless skies, was our gateway to the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a surreal high altitude reserve whose otherworldly desert landscapes feature luminescent salt lakes, rare flamingos and volcanic peaks reaching nearly 6,000m (19,685ft), itself an intro of sorts into the 10,582-square kilometer (4,086 sq mi) Salar de Uyuni.
I arrived from San Pedro on a tour; that necessitated switching to a Bolivian car and driver here while a nearby outbuilding provided a locale to host the highest lunch spot I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Enter the world’s highest portrait of Marilyn Monroe.
Inside the modest but utilitarian building, shared among outfitters chauffeuring travelers to and from the salar, were three tables displaying our spread of lunch fixings; opposite one a framed portrait of Jim Morrison sat on top of a grill leaning against the stucco wall. It wasn’t out of place.
Morrison was flanked by others, Monroe to one side and Marley to the other. Another paid homage to Chilean folk singer Victor Jara and former president Salvador Allende, both killed in the 1973 coup and figures still very much revered. There were drawings of native warriors, some tools and a few open windows letting in the midday sun’s warmth.
The décor was the work of the drivers, encouraged by their employers to leave a small but indelible mark. That’s according to our driver, who told me the Monroe portrait was his contribution. After spending two day getting to know him, I decided I didn’t believe him, but it didn’t matter. Like Morrison and Marley, Monroe was very much at home in that desolate landscape, too.
There is no regularly scheduled cross border public transport via Portezuelo del Cajón so you’ll only pass through here if you’re making the trip on your own or as part of a guided tour. For the former, prepare extremely well. For the uninitiated, this is unforgiving territory.
*I couldn’t find an official list of the world’s high elevation border crossings, but the Khunjerab Pass connecting Pakistan with the southwest corner of China’s Xinjiang region is, at 4,693m (15,397ft), widely considered the highest paved international border crossing in the world. So by default, Portezuelo del Cajón can’t be too far behind.