As we descended into the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth outside of the polar regions, on Sunday 12 July, we were expecting to spend around a week exploring the area around San Pedro de Atacama, but that wasn’t quite how things turned out…
We were very excited to have made it over the Paso de Sico from Argentina with no issues with the altitude, both with the van and ourselves, and pleased to see the Salar de Atacama (the salt flat) laid out before us. As we drove north up the side of the Salar, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn for the first time, which, as it turned out, we were to cross several more times.
We did indeed initially spend about a week exploring the area, driving to see the lakes in the middle of the salt flat (with just a few flamingos at this time of year), continuing on a circuit around the Salar, heading up to over 4,300m for the night to see the Geysers del Taito at dawn when they are most active, stopping to swim in the thermals of Puritama on the way, plus checking out some climbing spots in the many gorges that run down the sides of the hills towards the old dry lake. (See the gallery below for pictures.)
We stopped in the mining town of Calama, a short distance from San Pedro, hoping to visit the largest open cast mine in the world – apparently quite an impressive site, if not only for the sheer size of the machinery. It was made (in)famous, by Che Guevara in his Motorcycle Diaries memoirs, it being the place he met his first communists. He was influenced heavily by their political beliefs and the bad conditions for the workers back then in the 1950s.
Working conditions are different now, of course, but there are nevertheless regular disputes between the workers and the company and, as it turned out, we drove into one! As we arrived, we found blockades at the major junctions into the city, which, with directions from a policeman, we were able to navigate around. Once at the campsite in town, we learnt that the mine was also closed by protests and that evening. We could hear the noise of protestors and clashes with police in the city below – so it seemed unlikely we would be able to take a tour! Nevertheless, we emailed to enquire and were told that tours were currently suspended due to “poor weather conditions and operational issues”, which was one way to put it. The protest turned out to be ongoing, only resolved a few days ago, once we had left the country, after 23 days of strike, so we never did get to visit the mine.
Back in San Pedro after our circuit of the area, we took stock – we had both still got a bad cold bug that we had brought with us from Argentina that was giving us each occasional night fevers and was refusing to budge, probably not helped by the extremely dry, cold and often very dusty air around the Salar. Plus, the little diesel heater we had to warm the living area of the van, which was making evenings and early mornings much more comfortable at cold high altitudes, had packed up and was refusing the restart. Our helpful supplier in the UK speculated that it could be a problem with running it at altitudes (in thinner air). So we put both things together and decided to head to the coast to a better climate, driving down to Antofagasta on Wednesday 22 July.
Antofagasta, Chile’s second city, was historically the port town serving the mining industry all the way up into Bolivia and doesn’t really have a lot to offer the tourist. Now, it’s a modern, relatively rich, working city at the centre of Chile’s mining industry. Although it doesn’t have a campsite (which we really could have done with), it does have comfortable hotels, so we treated ourselves to a recovery period in a hotel, followed by a drive out into the dry, warm desert for a couple of nights, free camping near the famous El Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert sculpture).
As we drove away from the hand, we found the van was making a new noise, especially at speed (on tarmac), which was horribly reminiscent of when we needed to change the wheel bearings down in southern Chile a few months earlier. So… back in Antofagasta, our new mission was to find a garage that could take a look. A little driving around later, we found the one garage that apparently serviced VWs. They started by diagnosing a front suspension issue (just some new rubber washers needed), so we rented an apartment for a couple of nights and took the van back for the work the next morning. Friday morning, suspension repaired, we took it out for a longer drive and found the noise still there – so we returned to the garage. They suggested it was the wheel bearings again and we speculated that perhaps they were worn because of the suspension issue, whilst they reminded us that wheel bearings should always be replaced in pairs (we had replaced one set only). So we should bring it back on Monday…
So, with a weekend to kill, we remembered something we had read about being able to visit the European Space Agency VLT (Very Large Telescope) about 100km south, where tours are run on Saturdays only. You are supposed to register for a place in advance, so we cheekily filled in the online form the night before and, after a night free camped on the coast, we drove out the following morning to try our luck on the afternoon tour. As we had completed the registration form, the security guard was happy to let us join the tour, which turned out to be a highlight of our time in Chile.
The following Monday, with the work to change the wheel bearings completed, we were sent off to get the wheels aligned and balanced, where the mechanic pointed out the uneven and different wear patterns on our front tyres, caused, probably, by the wheel bearing wear a few months ago, then the suspension wear. He suggested moving those tyres to the rear. Now the noise was still there, but different – perhaps it had been down to worn tyres all along? So perhaps the bearings hadn’t needed changing? But we did really need to change the other set anyway, another spare set had proved cheap to come by and the garage was really reasonable and didn’t charge us for the second day’s work. We decided it must be tyre noise and put it behind us, deciding to get used to the noise and get on our way – we probably won’t see that much tarmac for awhile now anyway!
On our final stop at San Pedro, picking up our route again, we visited the ruins of a pilcara (fort) just outside of town. The views from here finally gave us a perspective on quite what an oasis in the desert San Pedro is, which is the reason there is evidence of human occupation since the earliest arrival of humans in the area, 9,000 years ago. We were then further delayed a couple of days by a storm passing through, which closed all the mountain passes and hit the coast around Antofagasta hard, with the floods and mudslides leaving six dead.
Although our trip to the coast and our explorations of that part of the Atacama Desert had not originally been in our plans (such as they are), looking back, we are really pleased to have experienced this amazing desert more fully. Finally, on Tuesday 11 August, having stocked up with food and water, topped up the credit on our satellite phone (which would prove to be a useful piece of kit), filled the fuel tank and the spare, we excitedly headed off to finally take on Bolivia’s infamous Lagunas Ruta (Lakes Route).
PS We never did get the heater started again, despite trying a number of ingenious hacks suggested to us by experienced members of the Silk Route Network in the UK. It seems that they quite commonly fail when used at altitude for long periods and we should have fitted an expensive altitude kit. For the moment, we would just have to live without until we can bring some spare parts and specific tools out from the UK.
Here are some more pictures of this dramatic region: