North Chile/Atacama Desert

Once we arrived at the mountain pass between Bolivia and Chile, we were surprised to see how sharply the land dropped off below us. Somewhere, more than a mile’s descent in elevation was San Pedro de Atacama. Another high mountain pass running north-south was on the horizon in front of us nearly 100 miles away. The air was filled with dust from the gale force winds filling the valley but the distances one can see from this high up was incredible.

Emerging from the woods (or lack there of) after five days of relative isolation was difficult to adjust to. Traffic in San Pedro hummed and tourists were busy exploring the cute city streets. The difference between Uyuni and San Pedro was night and day. As our friend Andy described, it’s like Uyuni barely graduated high school while San Pedro has a PhD in tourism.

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A few miles down the highway from San Pedro we headed south on another rough gravel road. Thirty miles later, we ended up at small chain of seven salt lakes. In the middle of the desert, rock changed to salt and eventually the lakes formed. In the first and the last, we were able to swim. With so much salinity, the buoyancy pushed us right up to the top and reminded us of swimming in the Dead Sea a couple years earlier. Although the water was cold, the sun was hot and it was an oddly refreshing experience. The baby blue lake was our favorite!

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Here you can see the salt remaining after the water evaporated:

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Over the course of the next few days, we drove a great deal and took some time recuperating from several days in the Salar and Laguna Route and border crossing. Our groceries were all but depleted (including the bacon confiscated at the border), we hadn’t showered since leaving Uyuni and we badly needed a car wash. In and around Calama, we took care of everything and were in good shape once more.

Between San Pedro and Antofagasta, we were met with significant mining activities all around us. From the highway we could see mines operating in full force. Small trucks and trucks hauling heavy equipment whizzed around us and we realized we were in the middle of the gold, silver, platinum, copper and lithium mining region that is a major economic force for Chile. Every so often, we would see the remnants of small villages that were now ghost towns. Being in the middle of the desert, there is no doubt almost every one of these towns must have been founded for some sort of mining activity.

At this time I should mention that the northern region of Chile is almost entirely desert. We were in the Atacama Desert which is the driest desert on earth. So dry was it that there was literally zero vegetation. None. Not even a blade of grass. The landscape was quite mountainous consisting of nothing but rock and sand.

We stopped into one of the biggest ghost towns along this route which has been preserved since being abandoned nearly 75 years ago. Chacabuco was founded to produce nitrate that was exported for use in agriculture beginning in the 1920s. At its peak, 7,000 people lived here until the company that built the town went bankrupt and was abandoned in 1941. Today, visitors can pay a small fee and wander through its streets. The “fat guy selling tickets” as described by his coworker offered for us to stay for the night. We declined thinking we could find a better night sleep anywhere else!

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Eventually, we declined in elevation all of the way to sea level when we arrived in Antofagasta. This rather large city is beautiful considering it lies where the desert meets the ocean. It was our first taste of the “most economically thriving country in South America” and we weren’t disappointed. Modern high rises, modern infrastructure, modern shopping and anything anyone might want or need could be had here. No doubt it benefits from the nearby bustling mining activities and the people that live here have a high quality of life.

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From Antofagasta, we continued south on Ruta 5 before arriving at the Mano del Desierto or Hand in the Desert. This sculpture in the middle of the desert is exactly that – a hand emerging from the sand. Oddly satisfying, we spent a short amount of time here admiring the sculpture.

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Following the Hand in the Desert, we made our way to a mirador overlooking the Pacific Ocean from nearly 6,000 feet above. The sun shone brightly with a light breeze when we arrived. Shortly thereafter, cars began arriving and before we knew it, the whole mirador turned into an observatory as the sun set. Just after midnight, everybody left and the wind began to howl. We are from Casper, Wyoming so when we say howl, we mean mean it. It was like hurricane force winds. All night, the wind pounded the camper from the front end and our plans for a big birthday breakfast for Laughlin were scrapped when we thought the wind might take the upper half of the Alaskan to the bottom of the ravine below us!

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We dropped off the mountain top fast. Over just a few miles we dropped all of the way to sea level. The nice, new paved road quickly turned to corrugated gravel and our “nice birthday drive” turned into a continuation of the Laguna Route. Luckily, in rural areas of Chile, the government builds roads called “ripio” which literally translates to rubble. In more detail they are actually compacted sand and gravel making for easy travel at high rates of speed. We arrived in the small town of Taltal just a few hours later. After arriving, we decided we would stick to pavement for a while after racking up nearly 700 miles of off pavement driving over the previous three weeks.

In Taltal, we set up our camper on the beach and enjoyed a barbecue for Laughlin’s second birthday on the road!

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These nice ladies even gave Laughlin a piece of mocha cake for her birthday after we stopped in for some coffee.

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From Taltal we drove towards the city of Copiapo in the heart of the Atacama Desert. As we neared, the highway cut between small vineyards and many small olive plantations. Eventually we were met with a small but modern city in the middle of the desert.

While in Copiapo, it was time to pay a visit to a mechanic as a front end vibration in the Dodge had become more and more pronounced over the previous few days. Three mechanics turned us away before we ended up at a small shop. It was so small and, dare I say it, unsophisticated, that we almost left. Luckily, Fernando and his guys got right to work diagnosing the problem. We found that the front bearings just needed to be repacked with grease and that fixed the problem. While in the shop, we had the guys service the differentials, transmission and transfer case as we were overdue. Later that night after looking over our service history, I saw that we had driven right around 30,000 miles since leaving Wyoming the previous year. It was time to treat the Dodge right!

From Copiapo, we headed to the coast. It was the day before Thanksgiving and we needed a place to settle and relax for the holiday. Although it is not a Chilean holiday, we still felt the need to recognize the holiday as we have a lot to be thankful for. Turkey is hard to come by in Chile, so we baked a full chicken and made mashed potatoes, fried zucchini (couldn’t find green beans), rolls and chocolate cookies. The weather was cool and cloudy but we didn’t mind as cool weather can usually be expected back home. We opened a bottle of port wine we bought in California over a year ago. It probably would have been matched better with a nice cut of red meat, but the toffee aromas put us right in the fall mood.

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Two days in the clouds and gloom was more than enough for us so we moved inland to the desert once more. The desert near Vallenar contains much more plant life than the northern parts. When we arrived to our camp spot, the purple flowers were blooming clear out in the distance. Apparently we caught the tail end of the “desierto florida” which is a phenomenon when the entire desert blooms. The peak of the phenomenon is closer to September but were happy with the results we experienced.

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Being in the Atacama Desert creates a combination of factors that makes seeing the stars better than almost any other place on earth. Many observatories have been built in the southern region of the desert and we decided to visit one. Visits at La Silla Observatory are only daytime tours on Saturdays (they are also free!) but well worth the trek. Aside from the four school busses of children, there were only a few other visitors. Near the entrance gate at the bottom we were met with swarms of parrots noisily squawking before we drove up. At the top, we could see nearly a dozen large “silo” type structures with the domed roofs that open up at night time. One of the biggest telescopes we visited measures many different wavelengths of light along the entire spectrum and its primary function is searching for new planets. It was very cold inside as the previous night’s temperature is maintained to allow for faster calibration the following night. We also visited a nonfunctioning radio wave detector that looked like a giant satellite dish and one other telescope called the NTT which stands for New Technology Telescope. Over the course of the day, we cracked up by the names given to the telescopes. Names such as the NTT, ELT for Extremely Large Telescope, VLT for Very Large Telescope seemed to be straight out of an Austin Powers movie!

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Clearly, this region of the Atacama Desert is useful for stargazing. In fact, the highways around this area are dubbed the “ruta de estrellas” or “route of stars.” Near the small town of Vicuna, tour operators take advantage of the nighttime skies and offer tours to several of the nearby observatories. We scheduled a nighttime stargazing tour at a small “observatory” in the middle of a vineyard. Our guide gave us information about several small clusters of stars and would then line up the telescope for us to see up close. When we looked inside, we could see galaxies with millions of stars tens of thousands of lightyears away. It was incredible! The moon happened to be out during the night which isn’t great for stargazing, but our guide put the telescope right on the moon and it was so impressive to be able to see the craters of the moon from this far away. We got some pretty cool photos too!

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Vicuna lies in a massive valley between two impressive mountains. The valley is called Elqui Valley and is the primary pisco producing region of Chile. Pisco is distilled liquor produced from fermented grapes. Everywhere, vineyards covered every square inch of land not occupied by buildings clear up the mountains until they became too steep. We sampled a drink called a machi at the largest pisco distillery and really enjoyed it.

Earlier in this blog post, you may remember we got the old Dodge back in tip top shape. Well, we did, but that was temporary. Over the course of the route from La Silla to Vicuna, we started smelling diesel and eventually began to see diesel dripping from the fuel filter/water separator. A little bit of research showed that diesel is more dense than water, so, theoretically, the water should float on top of the diesel in our fuel tank. As our tank level got low for the first time in months, the water eventually began to enter the fuel lines and be separated out by the water separator until it became too full and began to leak. Luckily, we popped into a shop before leaving Vicuna and had a friendly guy at the service station change the filter free of charge. There were a few nice chunks of gunk in the filter but otherwise things were looking good… well almost. While our truck was in the shop, I looked under the truck and noticed a wet spot on the tire. A wet spot on the tire is almost certainly indicative of a leaking axle seal. When we had our bearings worked on in Copiapo, it is possible that the mechanic damaged the axle seal when replacing the axle shaft. So, as is our experience, problems usually come in packages of three and the axle seal was number three. We continued driving with the small leak until we could have it addressed in Santiago.

Continuing south along Ruta 5, we returned to the cloudy, dreary Chilean coast once more. We prepped ourselves to enter the city again as we approached Valparaiso and Santiago. We will pick up there in our next blog post!

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