After two months in Peru we made it to our twelfth country, Chile.
We spent our first week on the northern coast, which much like southern Peru continues to be one big desert with a rocky coast that in some ways reminded us of Big Sur. Unlike the other countries up north, Chile is very prosperous and the northern region is fueled by mining and free trade zones given its proximity to seaports, Peru and Bolivia. Gone were the black smog and swerving taxis, everyone had a car and there was order on the road. Pedestrians once again had the right of way, something I don’t remember having since we left USA. Once again one could buy food in bulk from Walmart which they call Lider’s here. We spent our first two nights camping in legitimate cities with high rise apartments. Then on the third night, got some breathing room boondocking on a quiet rocky beach.
We were on our way to Antofagasta to get our van oil pressure checked out by a shop recommended on ioverlander. We ended up living four days out of Luis’ shop. Luis is not really a car mechanic but is a crazy smart engineer designer fabricator inventor for all things mechanical. He is also an incredible host opening up his property to traveling strangers plagued with car problems, even when the work was done at another shop. We along with two other sets of overlanders made his shop home for a few days. We just couldn’t believe how kind and generous he and his crew were.
San Pedro de Atacama, in the northeastern corner of Chile, is a popular but still off the beaten path destination in the Atacama desert. People come here to see natural wonders like altiplano lakes, salars, geysers, volcanoes and much more. Because of its proximity to Peru and Bolivia, once again there were indigenous presence and traditional mud homes, compared to coastal Chile which was very modernized. This area is really very cool and unique and worth a visit.
When we arrived in San Pedro, we were happy but exhausted from the days of running around Antofagasta. As a result we were not motivated to do a lot except for a trip to the Puritana hot springs. Unlike any other hot springs we had been to, these are natural looking rock pools built along a thermal river. It was an excellent way to unwind for a day.
Another thing about San Pedro was that it was incredibly sunny and dusty. Not necessarily a bad thing for a desert but bad for camping. So after a few nights we decided to head for Argentina. The plan was to visit Argentina’s northern wine region before crossing back to central Chile. On the way to the border we passed some tire tracks leaving the highway leading into the desert, a spot that I actually knew about and had highlighted on the GPS. As we passed it, I might have cranked my neck longingly after the tracks as I said to Simon,
That’s it. That’s the way to the Salar de Tara. It’s supposed to be really cool, but I’m not sure about the road conditions and it can get really cold.
A few minutes after we passed it, Simon turned the car around. And I’m so glad he did because more than the hot springs, this was our highlight of the region and of the trip. We headed back following the tracks in the sand through remote desert that eventually opened up to a beautiful saltwater lake.
In the early afternoon there were a few jeeps on a day tour from San Pedro. After they left it was just us and the friendly rangers, who stopped Luna from going on the trail, a reminder that we were now in law-abiding Chile. The beauty was surreal.
It wasn’t easy for us though. Simon doesn’t do very well at altitude and we were over 14000 feet. It was also very windy and we couldn’t pop the top up. So after a dinner of canned foods all four of us went to sleep downstairs. Simon slept on the floor. I slept with the kids on the only bed and Ty splayed out as usual leaving Jamie and I to fend for ourselves. Luna had the best deal. She curled up in her usual seat.
But it was all worth it. During the day we left the shelter of the van a few times to see the flamingos and the changes in the light. One time we followed a herd of wild llamas on the plains and another time came across a few vicuñas by the lake. It was awesome to see wildlife in a place where humans are truly the rare visitor. The light and colors were unbelievable. To be able to experience part of the earth so other-worldly and breathtaking was very special.