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Left Croydon this morning. Watching the sun set over the Pacific in the evening!

Packing etc. done we finally called a cab from EC station to take us to LHR – the journey had started! Got there far too early in effort to secure decent seats on the plane. Eventually check-in opened and the first coupons were used. The rest was the usual airport story – a bit of shopping (bags & fags), parked ourselves in the Iberia lounge courtesy of BAEC (does have its uses now and then), and boarded our flight with some delay. Normal seats – figured the good seats would be just for the long haul. In Madrid it was a quick transit to the next gate (long walk to A6), but had enough time to get at least 2 smokes in. Crap seats but at least we had 2 to ourselves instead of 3 with an extra person in our row.

Flight was in the dark for the trans-Atlantic part and we both dozed through it, punctuated by the odd bit of food & drink. Finally we’re somewhere over South America. What a beautiful dawn! Looking out to “port” I can see the clouds below us, stretching away as far as the eye can see. A spectrum of colours, from an intense red (vermillion?) going through oranges & yellows to greens and the most spectacular turquoise, purples, etc. Its only a thin layer, seen from the plane, above that the sky is still dark, and above that the sky is still lit up with so many stars. Ness is asleep, didn’t want to wake her – now wish I had. The screen says we’re somewhere over Brazil. As it gets lighter we start to get glimpses through the cloud – yes, there’s definitely land below but it’s looking rather grey in this light. Later the cloud disappears altogether and the views are of mixed territory: green flat country, looking desolate, hardly any trees, mostly grass, and some roads (tracks) running straight for very long distances. Then the country becomes more organised, cultivated plots in neat squares, circles, a patchwork of agriculture. As we get close to the Andes, according to the screen, we can make out a mountain ridge. We get excited at flying over the Andes but the sight fails to impress – was expecting spectacular snow-capped peaks but this was just a brown ridge. Is that it? The country-side that follows is more of the same – farmed fields. Where is the Pacific? Then… see we were too soon – here are the real Andes. Black mountains covered in dusted snow. They’re high! Wild country, and it goes on and on. Most passengers are now awake and those in the middle rows are craning necks to get a glimpse.

Plane starts descent to Santiago while we’re still over the Andes. The airport is small, modern, clean – anonymous – but devoid of people. Saw a sign for the “ARS” bar – appealed to the little boy in me. First bit of Spanish dusted off when I try to pay for coffee & snacks. I was in a queue of people whose flight to Punta Arenas was delayed and therefore entitled to a free “jamon y queso” sandwich on presentation of their boarding card. Japanese guy behind me helped me out! Tempted to buy an Inti Illimani or Ilapu CD but it sounds like folkloristic traditional rubbish (Hypocrite! You’re typing this up while playing the Inti Illimani CD you bought at Santiago airport on the way back!!) Considered the Groove Armada CD instead but managed to leave WHSmith without buying anything.

Plane starts descent to Santiago while we’re still over the Andes. The airport is small, modern, clean – anonymous – but devoid of people. Saw a sign for the “ARS” bar – appealed to the little boy in me. First bit of Spanish dusted off when I try to pay for coffee & snacks. I was in a queue of people whose flight to Punta Arenas was delayed and therefore entitled to a free “jamon y queso” sandwich on presentation of their boarding card. Japanese guy behind me helped me out! Tempted to buy an Inti Illimani or Ilapu CD but it sounds like folkloristic traditional rubbish (Hypocrite! You’re typing this up while playing the Inti Illimani CD you bought at Santiago airpport on the way back!!) Considered the Groove Armada CD instead but managed to leave WHSmith without buying anything.

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I used to have one of those...

Plane starts descent to Santiago while we’re still over the Andes. The airport is small, modern, clean – anonymous – but devoid of people. Saw a sign for the “ARS” bar – appealed to the little boy in me. First bit of Spanish dusted off when I try to pay for coffee & snacks. I was in a queue of people whose flight to Punta Arenas was delayed and therefore entitled to a free “jamon y queso” sandwich on presentation of their boarding card. Japanese guy behind me helped me out! Tempted to buy an Inti Illimani or Ilapu CD but it sounds like folkloristic traditional rubbish (Hypocrite! You’re typing this up while playing the Inti Illimani CD you bought at Santiago airpport on the way back!!) Considered the Groove Armada CD instead but managed to leave WHSmith without buying anything.

Right at the back for the flight to Arica, via Iquique. Got lucky with seats on the “starboard” side – one long panorama of the Andes! I fell asleep as Ness peered through the window. The cultivated green of the Santiago area was nowhere to be seen when I woke up. Just brown and grey, looking dusty. Very little, if anything, in the way of “civilisation”. Guy sat behind us could snore for England! Brief stop at Iquique, then a short hop to Arica – our destination is in sight!

The airport is small, similar to El Calafate, and the Hertz desk is… unmanned and apparently closed. Here we go. After a few minutes two Hertz women arrive. We have [a] truck! Brand-new 4x4 pick-up – toy!! Will have to play with this – Ness might not be too keen I wonder… Must remember it takes diesel – shouldn’t be too hard with that noise!

We manage to get to the hotel by the back-route, rather than the sea-side. Finally, finally… we are really here! Shower, change, and head for the terrace to have our welcome PS as the sun sets over the Pacific. Eventually we both work up the energy to start the diairies, fuelled by a few more PS’s! When I went up to order the third round, the barmaid’s reply was an astonished “más?!” And that’s day 0+1!

PS. First beer in Chile at Santiago airport: can of “Crystal” with a yellow bruiser on it! Took a picture. Tried to tell the waiter that “es mi coche!”

PPS. Dinner in hotel restaurant, simple but effective. Mushrooms out of a tin with my steak – maybe they were simply mushroom-shapes (without mushroom flavour added!)

PPPS. Flowers at reception are fake, like most in the hotel and even have fake dew-drops!

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Our dealer's store, cleverly concealed as a florist.

First stop, after breakfast on patio overlooking the Pacific!, was a trip into Arica. Getting to grips with the Basher, as Ness has named our jeep-truck-monster, in traffic proved quite easy. It’s big though. No luck finding a parking space at first. Eiffel’s iron church looks colourful in the main square – it’ll keep for later. Finally gathered that the handpainted signs for “Estacionamiento $300/hora” are Arica’s equivalent of NCP’s!

Trying to find the Tourist Info, Sernatur, we asked the doorman at an office block – he asked us to follow him, and then walked us into the bank inside, down the backstairs - I thought at first it was his way of showing us the door, the back door that is. But he carried on and almost walked us all the way into the Sernatur office. Inside a tiny office – 3 desks. Picked on the older looking woman as I figured she might know most. She spoke fluent French, having lived near Lausanne for 18 years.

We walked out with a few more maps and booklets and a recommendation to visit the Azapa valley. She also gave us counsel for our visit to PN Lauca in a few days: drink water, don’t eat much, and chew coca leaves if you do start to feel unwell. And some suggestions for local shopping and eating – the cynic in me tends to think these would either be: a) the places she sends all the tourists to, or b) owned and run by her cousins, grandparents, friends.

But we did decide to seek out the market she told us about. First I thought it simply consisted of the small street stalls and the guys selling fish/eels? from plastic white buckets – must find out what they are.

Then we found the market, through a small passage into a large covered area with stalls, hemmed in tightly, selling veggies (lots of avocados), and small “cafetarias”. At a stall we bought some water, and I asked again for “hojas de coca”. Before we went into the market I asked one of the fish-sellers. “No, you can’t get coca leaves anywhere here.” But at the stall where we bought the water the old boy’s wife suddenly got off her stool in the corner and went over to the flower stall across the “aisle” and then beckoned us.

With her help we procured two little plastic bags of what looks like bay leaves (they may very well turn out to be just that!) As we left the market I was proudly telling Ness that “I bought some really good shit!”

The town centre feels friendly, people going about their business shopping, talking. It’s got that middle-American feel to it, not unlike Salta but less threatening, not threatening at all in fact.

Next we headed out of the town centre towards the Azapa valley. Glad to have the extra height that Basher affords us – don’t mess with us! All around, except for the immediate stretches of land either side of the road, is brown. Brown hills, brown stones, brown sand. High rugged hills stretching away on either side as far as we can see. The town buildings give way to agricultural buildings as we move inland.

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Nothing, a lot of nothing.
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Geoglyphs.
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Whatsisname looking over the citizens of Arica.

Taking a turning off to the right at about km.7, we start to leave the fertile central part of the valley behind. A bit later the road becomes a dirt track, quite wide. Time for Basher to start showing what he’s worth I hope! Buildings thin out even more, and after a short while we’re driving along a road which is hard to distinguish from the rocks and sand around us.

Wooden posts here and there are the only sign, and the tracks left by other vehicles. Small primitive cabins, no bigger than portaloos, constructed out of bits of flotsam and jetsam, on either side, but some even have little curtains behind the cracked panes of glass. What are these constructions? Who uses them, and for what? Out here, in the middle of nowhere.

It’s amazing how quickly we have left behind the inhabited world. Now there is no-one around us, no-one in sight, and we carry on. Seems safe so far, although I am worried about what we’d do if something went wrong with the car – we don’t seem to have a spare wheel anywhere. The track starts to get even rougher, now there are not even any of the portaloos around us. Then the “road” ends abruptly, with a drop on our “starboard” and in front of us, and an incline of brown sand on our left. Time to turn back. Hairy moment as we do so – I’m aware that, even in Basher, it would be all too easy to get totally stuck in the sand here. Carefully, using Basher’s L4 drive, we manage to turn round. Heart pounding, trying not to let on to Ness, we drive back.

The views looking back are even more impressive, i.e. looking back towards where Arica & the Azapa valley ought to be – except they are nowhere to be seen. We take it slowly, taking a few pictures on the way. This is what we have come to see really, not the museums and geoglyphs (which were the excuse for the trip). Both in good spirits – good!

As we come back to the furthest lying farmhouses we pick up a middle-aged couple who ask us for a lift. Find out this place is called Alto Ramirez. They give us some more info about where to drive, what’s being grown in the fields around us (maize, olives, tomatoes). Dropped them off at the main road and, after a minor misunderstanding about which way we should head, we continue along the main road.

We turn right a few kms. further and follow a track between farms, eventually sighting the geoglyphs. Picture, for the books. The road ends at a farm a bit further on so we turn round and end up back at the main road.

We carry on up, through the central bit, which gets narrower as we continue. Here and there we pass a school, numbered. Then we drive through San Miguel de Azapa, a small village, but the “big town” by these standards. There’s a police control, duana, at the entrance to the village. We must have doubled back at some point, trying to find the local archaeological museum.

There’s a small shack selling bebitas just opposite the museum. Two more turistas here – aargh, Germans! We have water & coke, plus local (purple) olives. The Germans are driving to Putre today and are driving down to Santiago – they don’t look the type though. Some chat with the shack-owner and buy biscuits to have something to nibble on.

Then we visit the museum. It is small and a bit stuffy, to be expected, but very good all the same. The mummies are minuscule – are these real people? Apparently they are. Macabre.

A group of school-children enters as we are halfway through. All in unifform red-white-blue uniforms. They liven the dead place up – it needed it! Ness is taking her time so I carry on, ignoring the young couple we saw on our flight from SCL to ARI. The central room has a gigantic olive press (C18-20), which was still in operation until 1956. As I’m reading about it in the guide I’m approached by one of the kids who asks me about the olive press. I start telling him that it’s an olive press, dah dah dah, 1956 (had some trouble with that in Spanish!), and in the blink of an eye I’ve got twenty munchkins around me asking me questions, what’s this, what’s that, what are these rocks for? The rocks aren’t in the guidebook so I have no idea. Still, don’t feel I can let them down or ignore them so I start talking about the other piece on display. Turn for help to their schooltrip guide – “es una visita de escuela, sí?” “Sí.”, shrugs her shoulders, leaves me to it. Make an exit for the visitors shop when the kids attention is elsewhere.

Forgot to mention: before we visited the museum our Plan “A” was to cross to the Valle de Lleuta but the road looked like hard work. Could have been fun but I doubt it. Very glad with hindsight we didn’t attempt it – would have probably taken us 2-3 hours just to cross the ridge.

Continue up the valley, which now starts to get very narrow and even poorer. We pass another school. Two little schoolgirls further down the road, we give one of them a lift, she was called “Shirley” (or the pronounced equivalent) and we dropped her off at the very last house, past km.40. The road then become a rough track again, rocks looming over us on our left, and seemingly no way of turning back. We don’t know what lies ahead, if anything, so we reverse back and eventually find a spot to turn. Then it’s an easy drive back to Arica. In parts the road is half-covered in sand, from the rockfalls.

Reminds me, when we turned round after our first “excursion”, beyond Alto Ramirez, we noticed a sign saying “don’t go beyond this point”, on our way back!

Back in Arica we decide to take a detour to the big statue of Christ on the cliffs overlooking Arica. At the top there are a car park, museum & some statues. Something about the battle between Chile & Peru over Arica. Chileans won. Now there are a big bronze Christ figure and some commemorative plaques to generals from the battles. Not much else.

Ness freaked me out walking close to the edge of the cliff. Birds of prey, vultures of some kind, circling above and below us along the cliff. Drive back down, through the poorer shanty-like parts of town. Eiffel’s church is now closed so we just head back to the hotel. Drinks on the terrace, dinner in the restaurant, rather than heading into town – we’re both feeling tired, despite having spent most of the day in the car. And now… bed! (to sleep off the PS’s!)

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Lots more nothing.

After our breakfast/planning session this morning we decide on a tour of the pre-cordillera, which we reckon to be a good day’s drive across good and not-so-good roads, passing a number of small villages on the way.

First stop is a visit to a petrol station in Arica to make sure we leave with a full tank. Then we try to find the famous Panamerican highway, ruta no.5 in Chile, which runs the length of America, from Alaska to the south of Chile. Carry on past the hotel and we follow a coastal road, one lane each way, along a few playas deportivos. Then the road runs out on us – we’re making a habit of this! Ness starts laughing on the way back – turns out we need to head back into town and pick up the Panam there.

Second attempt works better. Soon we’re heading out of town, past the sign fin zona urbana. Very rapidly the roadside gets emptier and emptier until there is nothing except a brown valley with towering brown hills on either side. Not surprisingly, there is the odd truck, bus or car.

We pass a prison complex, in construction but operational. The “social rehabilitation facility” has echoes of the Pinochet era. Then we gradually start to climb the hill on our right. Below us on the valley floor is an odd assortment, in a grid pattern, of what look like shacks, but not a clue as to its former or present purpose. The road is wide and tarmac’d, with three lanes, two going up, one for slow traffic, with run-offs provided for out-of-control traffic coming down, reassuring! They look recently used. One has an army jeep with five or six lads in desert camouflage slacks poring over the bonnet. We swap driving Basher a bit further along, Ness happy to get acquainted with Basher properly at last. “It’s a f*cking monster Stef!”

Pretty soon Ness is settled in and I get to enjoy the views. We are in a special place here. Big country doesn’t even begin to describe it. We have climbed quite a way and are now on a plateau. The horizon is wide, in any direction. Just the brown, ochre and yellow colours of dust, rocks and sand.

On the first stretch we pass a few billboards, facing the other way, for drivers heading towards Arica. One says “aah, paté”. Further along there is nothing but the strip of the tarmac, the desert plateau, and our car.

Either before or after this plateau, maybe there were several, we climb then descend, towards the Caleta Vitor, another valley. This one has a few green bushes but so sparse and no sign of farms. Then climb again. Ness is driving, focused on keeping us on the road, I’m looking left and right, grateful to see these places. Right now it feels like the most natural thing to do, driving (being driven, sorry!) a monster-jeep down the Panam through some of the most inhospitable country anywhere. At least if we do break down here there will be someone along pretty soon. There is no apparent danger. How can any place be this empty? I think Keenan said “this is a whole lot of nothing!”

We get to the turn-off to Codpa. The road is still good, tarmac’d, but covered in caked-on dust for the first few miles. Now we’re leaving even the relative civilisation of the Panam behind, although even this road probably sees frequent traffic – it’s part of the Sernatur advised route, but it does feel like we’re on our own now.

Perspective is deceiving. What we thought was a carabinero station and a long way away, turns out to be yet another roadside shrine – Chilean flag and fresh flowers. Push on. We’ve got the “Alex mix” on. Road starts getting bendier with dips and climbs, we’re taking it easy – hard to tell what’s ahead.

It’s 40km to Codpa. At some point the proper road ends and we’re on a dirt track. This gets progressively worse until we get to a few signs saying “Peligro, road under construction”. We swap and switch to 4WD. Pass a few construction gangs, quite happy to let us pass their big machines. Figure this must be as far as they got and we’re now on dirt tracks for the rest of the way. The road starts to descend, gets narrower (still wide enough for 2, just), and it’s a slow cautious drive down to Codpa.

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Codpa, a surreal vision after all the desolate dryness
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Shopping in Codpa...

Codpa is like a surreal vision. We round a bend and there it is, straight out of a spaghetti western. A tiny hamlet, hemmed in all around by crumbling rocky/sandy hills. Most striking, and most absurd of all, is the roof with the white-painted “Hosteria Codpa”, surrounded by a dozen or so cabins, with two swimming pools and a lawn. It looks totally out of place here and next to the village with a small church, adobe constructions and shacks made of “F&J”.

We drive into the village, first stop for a drink and pitstop, so head straight for the hosteria, without guilt, and have a coke & agua, sat on the terrace by the pool. Not a soul here, apart from the young girl in the kitchen and her son. Something nice was cooking.

In the background we can hear the cacophony of a mock-fiesta laid on for the turistas. There were two coaches parked in front of the little church when we got there. By the time we get there they’ve gone and the church, which seemend to have a full mass on, is padlocked. Manage to get a glimpse inside through a hole – pretty, just another church.

A forlorn-looking stall in the main square is the only opportunity to buy a memento. Thankfully it’s stuff we actually like rather than arts & crafts. We come away with a small jar of “locoto” (cayenne pepper I think) and Ness buys marmelade of “tuna” – que? (Later explained to us that tuna is a cactus fruit, supposed to be totally green)

Then we try to pick up the road to the next villages. We find the roadsign [near the hosteria], study it carefully, double-check with the various maps we have now acquired, and turn right, direction Guañacagua.

The road is terrible, a single track following the little oasis-valley below us, and we take it easy. I keep mentally noting the last turning point, just in case… Engine working hard, but the temperature stays steady. Pass through Guañawhatsit. Pass two nuns (I think) who look like Japanese tourists (missed the coach?), up, down, eventually get to a few houses.

Ask a local guy how much further to Timar, the next village. He tells us the road runs out further ahead (i.e. another “road to nowhere”!) but we can turn there. The road to Timar, he tells us, can be picked up just behind the hosteria in Codpa! Five degrees and one clear road sign and somehow we still manage it! So we turn round, picking up the two “nuns” on the way back. One of them looks very “indigenous”, sharp nose, high cheekbones – where is her pan-flute? We drop them off at Guañaetc.

Back in Codpa, eventually, we plan another visit to the hosteria but its gates are now padlocked (us?), so we settle for biccies from a local stall, manned by local “opa”. He has to blow the dust off the packet of Triton biscuits I settle for. Then we leave Codpa, heading back the way we came – sensibly decided against pushing on to Timar, now that we have found the correct route. Both wondered at how we could have misinterpreted the sign (see picture!)

Back on the road in construction we find that the road builders have demolished the road in our absence! An earth-mover is shifting rocks and we have to wait, behind the carabinero on his motorbike. Pretty soon a jeep with two more carabineros pulls up behind us. This country is full of absurdities – love it already. After a while the earth-mover has created a space for us to pass. Manage to keep the car moving and soon we’re past them. I let the jeep of carabineros pass. Next stop arries soon – the jeep has stopped. Ahead there is a construction gang. The carabinero explains they’re about to set off some explosives and we have to wait. This will be a spectacle! Bugger – they’ve decided to let us through first. My Spanish is not up to explaining to our friendly policeman (big hat & shades!) that we’d rather wait and watch the kaboom if it’s all the same, so we drive on, wave to the people – police, builders. Bit further on, having climbed, we’re in a spot to get a good view of the explosion so we step (not by mutual agreement!) and wait, and wait… nothing happens. Good spot to enjoy the views across the plateaux anyway, we can feel the clear (but dusty) air of the high plateau.

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Pisco by the pool.

No kaboom, so we carry on and are soon back on the tarmac’d part of the “A-035” (for that was what it was!) which seems to carry on for ever. I’ve never seen horizons this wide, anywhere. Andes can be seen far in the background. Back on the Panam and drive back towards Arica, across high plateau, into and out of the Caleta Vitor again – I had forgotten about this bit – must have been hairy for Ness to drive – on the way out the climb and descent into the Caleta were on the side dropping away into the valley and I was aware of it just driving back on the “safe” side hugging the hill-side. The horizon is full of dust, can’t be fog or clouds, it’s too yellow, filling the air ahead of us. Here and there dust-devils suddenly whirl up, then die down just as quickly.

After a long drive we reach the sign “Bienvenidos a Arica” (quick u-turn for picture) and head back into the “zona urbana”. We stop at the statue of B O’H and get a local guy, who seems to look after and dust off parked cars, to take a picture of us with B O’H – will never come out the way he was holding the camera but not wishing to upset him we thank him and head back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel the bar beckons – two PS’s (+ local olives – by now I’m sick of them but keep on munching), sun is out, and Ness suggests a dip in the pool. We take it in turns to change and soon are splashing about in the pool, the water is warm, the sun is still high enough to enjoy the last rays. A bit later we’re stretched out on sun-loungers by the pool – it feels like the Med, but not quite. Five minutes and I’m bored, so simply wait to dry off and start diary. Ness heads back to the room to change, I carry on writing, fueled by one more PS.

A quick drink in the bar and then we drive into Arica for nosh. The town centre is alive, we park Bash at an estacionamiento and wander for a bit, towards a restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge. It actually turns out to be a real find – great meal (Ness: chicken “provencal”, i.e. garlic!, me: huaso platter – superb slab of beef) + a few more drinks. Had to pay with the Amex just to get that on the statement! All of £16, ouch!

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Pit stop at the world famous Restaurant Internacional
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At super-scenic PN Lauca, in front of Lago Chungara and surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes
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Llama pooh
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Sign says "drive with caution, frequently crossing vicunas". They're not joking!
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Bernie no. 1
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Parinacota

Early start today – up at 6.30. Gary is picking us up at 7.30. He’s our guide for today, and called us at the hotel last night to agree where / when to meet. There will only be four of us: Ness, me, Gary and Juan, the driver. Gary speaks fluent English, having spent his first 14 years in Toronto we learn later. Juan only speaks Spanish, but is in fact the owner of the minibus it turns out. We get on easily with Gary, and Juan seems friendly although our conversation with him (Juan) is necessarily limited.

Gary is studying to be a teacher, at the University of Tarapaca. He is easy-going and I think he quickly picked up we’re not too keen on the standard tourist patter, so we chat, interspersed with the odd factual bit here and there.

Out of Arica we head inland on route 11, towards the Bolivian border. It’s a long drive, up into the mountains, along the Lluta valley initially. It’s wide and cultivated. We stop at a little decrepit church at Poconchile – nothing to see of note but it’s on Gary’s itinerary for us. His heart’s not in it really, get the feeling he is more interested in the mountain bits.

The drive takes us further along the valley, and the plots + cabins get noticeably poorer. We pass a sign for “cabañas turisticas” – one look confirms suspicions: primitive motel-style cabins made from plywood! The landscape changes several times as we continue. First to arid sand and rocks, with not even the odd bit of vegetation anywhere. We pass a mine-complex, where mounds of salt are brought to go through a natural drying process. The road climbs for a long distance, then we’re on a plateau, which simply is the floor of a higher valley. And so it goes on, winding gradually higher.

We stop somewhere, “Restaurant Internacional”, for a sandwich and drink. I try the coca tea – tastes like spinach. Gary looks at me, “what’s spinach?” his expression seems to imply. Juan is at the back chatting up the owner’s daughters. Before we reached this stop we passed a tourist wind-up, the “zona magnetica”, an optical illusion: car seems to roll back, uphill, but it’s a trick of the eye – look back and it’s obvious we’re actually rolling downhill. Another tour, this one in a bus, is close to us. We stay ahead of them for some time, then are overtaken by them at one of our stops.

We have now started to climb into the sierra and get the odd sight of snow-capped mountains which are visibly getting closer. One stop is at the edge of the sierra, where a narrow gorge indicates the division. Below are a few cabins and patches of green – people pick the most absurd places to eke out a living.

A hippie-bus, “solar camp”, on the way, still in the sandy bits before reaching the sierra, has adverts for “natural juices”, etc. Tourists would seem to be their mainstay income, probably contrary to the hippie view of the world. In the sierra we pass from one valley to another, still mostly climbing. Starting to feel the altitude now, but still lighting up, as is Gary, at every stop. One stop is a view of Socoroma, an old village which has chosen to stay isolated and self-reliant. From a distance it looks modern, with grey corrugated iron roofs, but through the binos we can see that the buildings are actually quite old, a lot of adobe.

Further on we get a good view looking down on Putre below us, surrounded by green fields (mostly alfalfa, for cattle food), with a snow-capped volcano in its immediate background. This is where we turn off route 11 and start heading into Lauca PN.

Early on, before we have even reached the park, we pass some guanacos by the roadside. The bushy sierra is now being replaced by a more mountainous flora – more plants, and of different types, more rock, and less sand. Once inside the PN we start to see more and more vicuñas, guanacos, llamas, etc. (see list!)

They’re wandering around, grazing, keeping a distance without being “skittish”. They simply move on a bit if they consider you’re getting too close for (their) comfort.

We stop for a short walk up and down, taking it very slowly now, no big movements. We can all, except Juan, feel the altitude – a bit tight-chested, relieved by taking deeper breaths of air. We are now above the 4000m mark. Onwards – the snow-capped volcanoes now look very close, all the more impressive for it.

Finally we reach Lago Chungara. It is a stunning place. Surprise, surprise, it comes complete with facilities for the visitor, which includes a number of Aymara peddlers of tourist junk. They don’t try too hard with us though. Gary leaves us to wander down to the lake while he digs around for some snacks in the car.

There is a little bench by the lake, which we occupy. For a few minutes we get to enjoy the place in all its full beauty. Vicuñas grazing here and there at the side of the lake. Giant koots dotted around, doing koot-like things (preening feathers, feeding, seemingly walking on the lake itself). On either side there is a (yes, snow-capped) volcano, the lake looks fresh, the air is clear, and there is no sound except the animals and the wind. Not even from the small car park behind us, which we have completely forgotten about.

This is what we came to see, enjoy the moment… aargh! The other tour has caught up with us and now behind me I can hear a few voices, unwrapping of snacks, slurpy noises from the cartons of juice-drink. A middle-aged guy circles our bench with his handy-cam, no word of greeting. He tries to find that perfect angle to take film of the Lago and take it home to Neuilly – yes, they’re French (could be worse – they could have been German, or Dutch!) Clearly hopes we’ll move on but I’m in “this is my lake, bugger off frog!” mood - actually enjoying it because it’s comical noticing the reaction from the various people who have by now surrounded us. A few are sensible and simply walk a bit further along the lake. The frogs hand around – earlier I asked Ness if she could tell me what “bugger off, this is my spot!” is in Spanish, but I think they have figured it out for themselves. Two Dutch girls were hanging around earlier (“Ik will effe zitten”) but when I spoke to one of them in Dutch she gathered we weren’t going to move – probably because I said “dit is mijn plekkie” – didn’t even have to add the “dus rot op!”

A friendly Spanish guy asks us to take his picture with his girlfriend/wife. He gets the works: lake, koots, vicuñas, one volcano (not bad) + llama pooh!

Llamas have the concept of a toilet – they pooh in “communal” spots, whereas vicuñas just pooh all over the place – I took the pictures to prove it! We chat with the Spaniard, from the Canary Islands. He’s a good laugh – shame he’s on the other bus, otherwise he would probably have been a good drinking partner – seems to have an infectious good humour. I share some of my coca leaves with him. He agrees, they taste like shit. Their bus is leaving. Before he goes, our Canarian friend tells us to look up Hector and Linda in Ancud. He hasn’t realised that we’re actually staying at their hotel (unless I’ve missed something) (Yes, I had – we never did find out who Hector and Linda were). Then we have the place to ourselves again, and spend a little while just gazing. Don’t know what thoughts are going through Nessie’s mind right now – mine are pretty simple, probably at the “ooh, aah” level, not looking for any profound thoughts, just happy to be here (minus froggies and cloggies!)

Back at the car Gary has, after much rummaging around, produced three kinds of biscuits, one kind of juice, and water. Juan still has the “Alex mix” playing – can’t work out whether he’s playing it for us or whether he actually enjoys it, probably the former. Now we turn back and follow a separate trail, along the bofedal. This passes a little “lake”, as in one of those puddles on a salt flat – on the other side we see some flamingos, and there is a single vicuña drinking. We also pass a herd of male vicuñas – they seek safety in numbers against the dominant male, so these groups are composed of mostly young and old animals. We carry on, seeing so many llamas, guanacos (v. similar & mix in with the llamas, although their offspring is infertile, i.e. llamas and guanacos can have joint offspring, but these animals are then infertile), vicuñas (smaller, short-haired rather than woolly), and a few vizcachas (rabbit-size), and alpacas (thicker and sturdier than llamas), as well as birds, etc. Once out of the PN we stop at Putre for lunch. The other tour is having their meal in the same restaurant. Juan is at the back again – family here or something. Gary has lunch with us (beef, fried potato, beetroot and rice). Our friendly Spaniard comes over for a chat before they leave.

Gary let slip that there is a Bernardo to be had here! B O’H is located in the main square, just a bust this one, not a full glory B O’H with horse like in Arica.

I forgot, before Putre we stopped off at Parinacota, a v. small and old Aymara village, allegedly used only for ceremonial purposes – which presumably includes the blessing of the cash registers before the tourist season begins! The little church is a real oddity, but Gary’s knowledge isn’t quite up to it. I relent and end up buying a rug/rag-thing made locally – colourful but v. simple, no pattern, simply a collection of differently coloured stripes. And got a stamp in our passports, the Parinacota municipal stamp (which the guy manning stall digs up – it’s clearly the town stamp and not some touristic gimmick!) Gary’s got delhi-belly.

So, having visited Parinacota and lunched and Bernardo’d in Putre, our drive back begins. Missed the opportunity in Putre to take a picture of the little girls carrying a little lamb (baby llama?), likewise in Parinacota I decided against taking a picture of a lesson in progress in the school (lessons in Aymara ceremonial? more likely basic accounting!) The drive back takes forever. I’m amazed at the length of it, and the variety of landscapes we have passed through. Back on the main, no.11, road, which is still a winding mountain road with a single track each way, we see the odd truck. Big articulated lorries transporting wood etc. to/from Bolivia. Reminds me of the film “The Wages of Fear” (Honestly! Ness told me I was a copy-cat because Keenan/McCarthy made the same observation). Ness doesn’t know the film so the metaphor stops there. At one point we have to wait behind one truck (Bolivian, lumber), until a truck with an enormous load has crawled round the corner on its way up. The carabinero accompanying the Bolivian truck in front of us hops out of the cab and joins his colleagues providing an escort for the wide load. More views than you could shake a stick at on the way down. The mountain vegetation starts to disappear and before long we’re back in a brown arid land. The drive seems to take forever, but eventually we reach the valley floor again, still a long drive towards the coast. Already mentioned the “cabañas turisticas” I think. Gary and Juan drop us off at the hotel. It’s dark by now. We’re weary dusty travellers, and make a bee-line for the bar! Gary was good fun to have as a guide today: easy-going, not full of himself, intelligent and articulate, though probably lacking a bit in encyclopeadic knowledge compared to “professional” tour guides, which I am quite glad about! Europe is an alien place, out of history books, to him – he has never been there. His frame of reference is Canada, Chile and other parts of America. He’s off to Guadalajara, in Mexico, for a conference and plans to travel round the coast of Brazil for his holiday. Throughout the day we have learned more about the Chilean way of life from him. Christmas, for example, is celebrated in much the same way here, i.e. with christmas trees, santa’s and lots of references to snow, despite the fact that it falls in the middle of the Chilean summer. He is proud of his country, that shows, but I get the feeling he wants to “apologise” for parts of it, and he clearly misses the green, fresh, snowy and windy Canada he has left behind – probably as much for the climate as for the fact that his parents and brothers are all still living there. We “dust off” our dry throats with customary PS’s, both now flaked. The ceiling in the bar is leopard-skin. We’re sat on the patio underneath the big tree, the sound of the waves and birds (I think?) in the background. Off to Calama tomorrow – we have an early-ish night, packing can wait until the morning.

(list of animals here?)

Notes:

- Iquique, on two levels, one by the sea, the other on top of the plateau

- On plane, waiting to leave – Saga arrive en masse!

- Sign tells us to not use remote controlled cars on the plane!

Our last day in Arica today. We have a bit of time to kill before our flight to Santiago & then on (back) to Calama, and we already have two must-do’s: visit the San Marcos church & “do” Arica Bernardo properly. Bernardo is first on the list. There is a small grandstand across the road, perfect for a shot worthy of the great man (+ Bernardo in the background!) The church is a bit of a non-event. Yes, it’s designed by Eiffel and is entirely made out of iron, and colourful inside, but that’s about it. We wander for a bit, and I send a postcard home. Ness is getting worried about catching our flight, we head back to the hotel, check out and head to the airport. Turns out my watch was ½ hour slow – just as well we got there on time – check-in is slooow, and we don’t even have a big queue ahead of us. Drop keys off at Hertz – we drove 493km in Basher. I asked for seats on the Andes-side of the plane. Security guy is confused by my (empty) hip-flask.

Flying back to Santiago you really get to appreciate the scale of the Chilean north. Robbed of a last view of Arica and our hotel due to low-hanging clouds, but do get a glimpse of Alto Ramirez and the bit we drove through on our first day. Juan clarified the mystery of the portaloos to us – nothing romantic or mysterious though: it’s an area earmarked for future development, plots of land have already been marked out, the portaloos fulfill some function in this. I can see some of the roads we’ve driven along. The areas all around, with the exception of the narrow strips of green along the valley, are totally barren, desolate. The plane stops briefly at Iquique, then carries on to Santiago. The view of Iquique reveals a town on two levels: the original town by the sea-side, with a second half of the town built on the top of the plateau immediately behind Iquique – there is no room for the town to expand further inland, other than on this plateau. The flight from Santiago to Calama takes us back in the same direction we’ve come from, but on balance it is still a lot quicker than the drive, which would probably have taken us all day and been extremely monotonous. The plane is quite empty and just as we think we’re about to leave, a group of 15 or so “olds” arrives – Saga holidays, that’s all we need! The safety briefing, on drop-down screens, tells us that the use of remote controlled cars is not allowed on the plane.

At Calama airport we collect Basher 2, same size an colour as Bash but not 4x4. The hotel is a very short distance down the road from the airport. Above the entrance a welcome banner tells us that we arrive in the middle of the 53rd (or 35th?) Annual Conference of Chilean Mining Engineers – visions of rowdy rough miners sprawled throughout the bar, mixing with the Saga group who are also staying here! The hotel is plush, more a business-hotel than a touristic one. Our room is well appointed, in business fashion. A railroad runs behind the hotel, carrying freight to/from the mines. We decide to head into Calama for a wander and possible dinner. It’s early evening, still light, and the town centre is bustling. We find an estacionamiento and walk to the main square. The first streets already demonstrate that this is no picturesque touristic town but a service town for the miners. Rough-looking bars, strip-joints, shops catering for the miners (equipment, technical services). The people look unsophisticated and a bit threatening. Neither of us feels at ease. Try to re-assure Ness by telling her I’ve seen some more turistas here and there – the only ones I saw were a young couple coming out of the church on the Plaza 23 Marzo, also looking a bit ill at ease. A teenage band + dancers are playing in the main square. Not sure how anyone can follow the service in progress in the church – its doors are wide open, letting in the street noise. I’m actually enjoying the views + feeling of the place but Ness is getting more uncomfortable. Suggest we have a drink or bite somewhere, but that goes down like a lead balloon. We walk round a few more blocks, on the way I try to find out where Calama-Bernardo is – a woman in the photo shop where I ask lights up with a huge smile when I manage to make myself understood, clearly pleased at my interest rather than a “silly turista” smile. Bernardo is hard to find and I’m not confident that I’ve understood her directions clearly. The statue of the miner outside the shop will have to do. There are a lot of dogs, of all shapes and sizes, seemingly loose. A few of them are drinking from the fountain by the miner’s statue. We wander back to the car park, the streets feel more threatening now that it has started to get dark. We find our way back to the hotel, and I’m pleased we’re not staying in town longer, but also glad to at least have seen it with own eyes. Time for the welcome drink in the hotel. As we’re sat there in our dusty scruffy clothes, more and more conference delegates arrive, dressed for a gala dinner. No rowdy rough miners in sight, these are the managers, engineers, directors, etc. After dinner in the hotel restaurant I take a peak downstairs inside the dining room – looks exactly as it would in London or anywhere else in the world. Dinner was excellent: chicken + cheese, capers & anchovy for Ness, steak/stew with peppers, onion, chili (& capers & anchovy!) for me. No clue as to our excursion to Chuqui tomorrow. Knackered we both head for bed – a huge king-size job!

At breakfast we have cloggie company, a group of grey-haired Dutch people talking about bargains they have been able to pick up. No butter on the buffet so I ask the waiter for “burro” – thankfully he doesn’t bring me a donkey!

Getting concerned about the lack of news about our visit to Chuqui. While I’m enquiring at the reception (who suggest we could take a taxi), the driver for our tour turns up. He is expecting two others besides us but when they haven’t turned up at 8.05 we leave without them. On the way we pick up another guy at a hotel in the centre of Calama. Clive is a flight consultant with JLA and this is his reward, a ten day trip to Chile, for getting the highest sales figure. He reminds us of Phil. Our driver takes us to the tour entrance for Chuqui, and tells us he’ll pick us up again at around 12. So he is just a taxi service. Inside a cafetaria we have to fork out $1000 each for the tour (some confusion as Clive has paid $3000 without realising it is for all of us). There are about 50 people in total, including our two German friends from Arica. First we’re treated to a welcome briefing and short video about the mine, covering the company responsible for its exploitation, Codelco. The whole thing is a side-line for Codelco (the tour/visit, that is) and is managed by the company. After the video we board a bus, Ness and I end up sitting apart, because the bus is already pretty full (all the Spanish speakers left after the first run of the video, in Spanish).

The bus takes us into the mining complex itself, the guide points out various things of interest en route – hospital, etc. Then, after a brief stop at a checkpoint, we’re provided with hard hats, colour-coded red, a kit containing metal foot protectors, plastic safety glasses, and breathing filter thingy. We have to wear the hard hats at our first stop, a viewing platform overlooking the mine. It is a huge operation. The scale is emphasised by the realisation that the tiny little toy trucks we can see driving through the mine are in fact colossus machines capable of carrying hundreds of tons of rock and ore. One of the “small” versions is parked by the viewing platform. The bus next takes us to a large building where the monster trucks are serviced. We stand around for a bit, gape at the scale but even that soon wears off. Next stop, passing through other parts of the mine, conveyor belts running alongside and overhead, is a visit to the refinery. The breathing masks are now required. We’re split into two groups for the visit – LHS and RHS (of the bus). Ness swaps with the German woman, so that we both get to go on the same group [i.e. Ness and I together in the second group, German woman together with her man in the first group]. I nod off for a few minutes and wake to the first group coming back – someone collapsed so the rest of the visit is cancelled. It doesn’t matter, we were near the end of our tour anyway. A large copper-coloured statue of a miner, similar to the one in Calama centre, stands just outside the refinery. The whole place is one of industry, men (and women) digging mineral wealth out of the earth. It all ends up in an unfinished product which is distributed across the world for us in production of copper parts. Our mini-bus driver is waiting for us when we get back. The two others, a middle-aged French couple, did make it to the tour and are already waiting for us in the mini-bus. I end up doing translation to involve Clive in the conversation, Ness seems quite comfortable with the French [language, that is]. The conversation picks up, then drifts off – we’re all doing the same “trail” in one way or another. Clive angles for a lift (“do you know where I can get a taxi to the bus station?”) and we offer it, why not? He buys us a drink in the hotel while we get our bags and check out. He is friendly and does have something to say, but neither of us are keen to spend any more time with him than necessary I think.

The drive from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama takes us through flat country, climbing or falling gradually, with long straight roads. Alex mix provides background – it’s now getting tiresome but it’s the best (i.e. only) tape we have. Some pictures are taken en route – us with our Pentax MZ-50 with 35-50mm + 80-200mm zoom lens, Clive with his Kodak disposable. Again, the country around is absolutely stunning and hard to capture, either on film or in words. We’re definitely in desert country, but sheltered from it by a well-managed strip of tarmac and Basher Two’s airco. Andes in the background – don’t seem to get any closer.

We drive into San Pedro de Atacama. It is tiny – a few streets, a grid system despite being an ancient village. First we try to find Clive’s hotel. We still manage to get lost, even in a place as small as this (hundreds rather than thousands of inhabitants). We pass many hosterias and hotels, and with a few directions manage to find Clive’s hotel. Then it is our turn. No-one seems to have heard of the Altiplanico, but eventually we find a woman who has. We’re in Quitor, a bit outside town. Most, if not all, of SPdA consists of low adobe buildings, with narrow dusty streets (rock and earth, no tarmac!) Description of its shops and entertainment can wait until tomorrow. Our hotel is an eclectic collection of brown-red adobe cabins. You can tell it’s a recent construction. The welcome is friendly. It reminds us of Yacutinga. We’re in cabin 6A. Aah, we can dump and unpack our bags for a few days. Holds promise!

We have a little secluded and shady patio. After unpacking we head to the main building for a drink. Afterwards we drive into SPdA for dinner. The main places are on Caracoles, and we pick Milagro. Outside all buildings present a simple plain adobe front, with a sign advertising its business – restaurant, artesianal, turismo (a lot of adventure and trekking). Inside Milagro we find an open courtyard with a central space for an open fire. The place is alive with conversation and up-to-date music. We’re there a bit early. Dinner is excellent: pollo & arroz for Ness, filete Milagro (“el mejor de la mejor!” the waiter says) for me. The fire is lit as the light fades, and two little girsl, the owner’s daughter and her friend, scatter some fireside cushions about. SPdA is beginning to grow on us and we leave the restaurant happy and full. Ness has an upset stomach on the way back – nothing too serious but confirms her decision to take it easy on the food and drinks, I’m meanwhile increasing the chili intake – about par for the course for our holidays!

Today we’re going to drive out to the Atacama salt lake, the Salar de Atacama. It’s a good drive south of SPdA, but the roads are, mostly, very smooth and tarmac’d. The drive takes us round the northeast corner of the Salar, through flat open country. The volcanoes of the Andes are on our left. Leaving SPdA we pass another internal carabinero control, and another one at Toconao, the village where we have to turn off to head into the salar itself. An unpaved road leads straight to the heart of the salar, to a set of lagunas, Laguna Chaxa. A small building marks the entrance to the laguna, entrance $2000 each.

There are a few other cars, 2-3. A wide path is provided to walk towards the lagunas. A small winding trail off to the left provides an alternative route, passing close to a few other lagunas. The narrow trail gives you a better impression of the nature of the salar. What looked like brown earth from a distance now turns out to be lumps of salt crystals. Even the path we are walking on consists of nothing but salt. It is sharp and rough to the touch.

We get quite close to some of the flamingos which are feeding in the water. The lagunas are simply very shallow areas of saline water. Underneath the salt crust there is a massive lake – the water evaporates and forms the salt layer above it. Or something like that! We are both in our shorts and t-shirts and sandals, but don’t really feel the burning heat because there is a light breeze.

All around the salar there are hills and mountains. They seem distant and nearby at the same time. Perspective is deceiving, as it was in Arica. We take some more pictures, including fiddling about with the Bariloche tripod, and then walk back to the car. A huge people carrier (i.e. imagine a Renault Espace with Basher-on-steroids characteristics) is parked next to us. They’re German – as if to confirm the stereotype, the driver, a big German guy, sits in the drivers seat stuffing his face.

Next we drive further south to some of the villages higher up from where we should get a good view of the salar. On the way we should pass the Tropic of Capricorn – memories of our drive from Salta last year. We pass a small pyramid shape, which we figure must be the marker. More fart-arsing with the tripod – let’s hope we don’t lose this film! I also take a compass reading. Ness is patient with my more nerdish character traits! Tumisa at 104°, Licancabur at 29°, Del Quimal at 317°. Let’s see how close that was later.

After another half an hour we get to Socaire, a small collection of adobe and breeze-block buildings, loosely scattered around a square and church. The views of the salar are superb. There does not appear to be anywhere to stop for a drink, but we buy a bottle of coke at a small shop, the only sign of any life in the place. Then we head back to Toconao, Ness taking over the driving. We follow the other road back, first on smooth tarmac but when that runs out the road becomes a rough track, very lumpy.

I’m a bit worried about getting a puncture here, but what worries me more, for some inexplicable reason, is the car catching us rapidly. We are in the middle of nowhere her and this road is probably not used regularly by the turistas. The car behind us may very well have less than noble intentions and there is nothing we can do about it. Of course it turns out to be a false suspicion, but it does make me wonder how cavalier we sometimes are about our “little excursions”.

Soon we are back on decent road and pull in at Toconao, 500 inhabitants, same layout. A local woman points out where we can have something to eat. Le menu du jour consists of cazuelo (broth with lump of unspecified meat, spud – tastes good) and pollo + arroz (no explanation required!) I have fun eating it off the bone – tastes so much better getting your fingers dirty!

After this “fortification of the inner soul” we drive back to SPdA. I comment to Ness, “being driven through the Atacama desert by mi amor, lovely bit of lunch inside me, sun is shining, the view is splendid – happeee!”) Sometimes you just feel things can’t get any better! We both have a snooze back at our cabin, feeling quite tired again even though we spent most of the day in our air-conditioned B2.

Refreshed, we try out a different place for dinner. We give a lift to two Chilenos on the way into town. The guy talks about how he spent seven months in the Bolivian Amazon, not needing any clothes there. He is quite dismissive about Chile and Argentina as being “occidental”. On the way to Caracoles, after parking B2, we pass through the feria artesianal and I help some kids to retrieve their balloon which got wedged between the roof of the feria. Dinner is at the Adobe, next to last night’s Milagro. The food is not as good but still tasty. It too has an open courtyard, fire, and a good atmosphere. Two musicians provide a welcome break from the CD music. When one of them later comes round with the hat, the table of French guys behind us make a real fuss over making a contribution. We spend a few minutes star-gazing back at our cabin and then fall asleep in our mega-comfy bed.

PS. Older woman who seems to be in charge is short, round, with long greying hair and flowing clothes. She gets dubbed “Pacha Mama”, earth mother!

Late start, blame it on the comfortable bed! We’re happy to have a laid-back morning, planning to visit the Valle de la Luna later this afternoon.

The Gustave le Paige museum gets a good write-up in all the books so we pay it a visit. It is part of the university of so-and-so. Inside, round a central space, are small corridors with various exhibits about the atacamena culture. It includes a few mummified bodies (including one in a clay pot) and deformed skulls (local concept of beauty and status) – gruesome. And now we’re having coffee in another one of Caracole’s places, Estaka. We can overhear the conversation between two young Americans who are planning to head for Salta, then down to Bariloche and Ushuaia – aah, memories! I walk over and tell them about trout-fishing with Andres through Barruzzi, and the para-gliding – they are interested but money is their prime concern so they probably won’t go for it.

Refreshed and relaxed, it’s time to go and see stuff. Valle de la Muerte sounds suitably intimidating. It’s on a small road off the main Calama-SPdA road. Road doesn’t look too good so we spend a few minutes pondering our next move. Two jeeps go past us so we decide that it’s safe and follow them. A bit further on they are parked in a bend and a group of French tourists, who have obviously just completed a walk, are having some refreshments in the shade provided by overhanging rocks.

We park the car and I check with their guide how far it is to the VdlM – 1 km along this road he says. We start our walk, along the same road, gradually climbing. It is hot and we take it easy. Glad I bought a silly floppy hat – it’s stopping my neck from getting even more burned. Around us are sandy rocks, with chips of what looks like mica embedded throughout. The scenery doesn’t change much and, whilst impressive, doesn’t have any great interest for us. Sand hills, like dunes, on our right. We round several corners but no great “Valle de la Muerte” is revealed and we must have gone well over one kilometre now. We turn back and return. We have walked a lot further than I thought, but at least it is downhill all the way now.

A quick drink in the shade, copying the French group, and we get back in the, very hot, car. We decide to try the Valle de la Luna next. It’s on a road closer to SPdA. At first the road is tarmac but soon turns to rocky lumpy stuff and we’re hobbling along. The road takes us right through the VdlL. It does look impressive and other-worldly, but not stunningly so. En route I help out a German biker who is taking pictures of his bike against this backdrop. [Visions of his holiday snaps showing his bike against various backdrops!]

Earlier Ness walked ahead of the car as scout to check out the road beyond a particularly sandy bit. I make my mark in the valle, in time-honoured fashion. Then we drive on. The best time to visit the valle is at sunset but we are about three hours early and not really that bothered. The road loops round back to the main Calama-SPdA road, a bit further on.

We still have plenty of time and while we’re in this area might as well visit the Tulor ruins. Turning off again, at the same road (VdlL + Tulor), we see some people who are cycling or walking (only a few) – must be mad we say to each other. Pick up two local girls (and their dog, which they had kept well hidden until actually in the car). They’re happy sitting in the back, i.e. the open bit. Drop them off at a small village, a group of adobe houses really, nestling among the green trees and crops. Then we end up stuck behind a herd of cows. Keeping a safe distance we crawl along until they turn off.

A bit further on we come to a few round huts, adobe of course, where we pay the entrance fee, $1500 each. The ruins themselves are mostly covered in sand. A raised walkway provides a viewing platform.You can see the outline of the circular houses, “glued” together. It is windy and we have to hold on to our hats.

Time to head back to SPdA for a late lunch. Intending to have “lite bite” and then return to the hotel to unwind, we try another of the places on Caracoles, can’t remember the name, but it had a tiled corridor leading to an open courtyard at the back. No-one there except the manager doing his sums. Place is buzzing with flies but we’re already committed so just order a water and lemonade, down them, and then go to Adobe next door. Ness went for quesadillas, I had the “lomo a lo pobre” sandwich – thud! Half a cow, a field of onions and eggs later I declared “happeee!” – having also finished the remaining bread with generous helpings of olive oil! All washed down with beers (Ness – Escudo local brew, me – Corona because it comes with a bit of lime). Relax back at the Altiplanico, freshen up, and we’re ready to do it all over again.

Disappointing bit of news is that the Tren Nocturno is not running, due to an accident, so we will have to come up with an alternative. Driving does not appeal now that we have started to respect the distances in this long country.

For our last dinner at SPdA we return to Milagro, where the mood is a lot more mellow. Both opt for the modest fettucine al’fredo but it tastes of not an awful lot. Still, the piccie is going down well.

We have a ridiculously early start tomorrow but the mood tells us otherwise. We have more piccie than is sensible, enjoying the evening and crawl back to our cabin in cruiser basher. Fortunately we packed most of our stuff before coming out and since no-one will be using our cabin tomorrow we don’t have to worry about clearing out at 3.30am! Bed beckons.

A knock on the door in the dead of night wakes us up. I mutter/growl “gracias” to the night security guard. We both carry on snoozing but do make it out of our pits on time. Ness has a piccie-hangover, I’m just a zombie. Outside the stars are beautiful: the half-full moon has now disappeared over the horizon and the milky way is easily discernible, a bit lost on Ness who has other things on her head – ouch, pun!

There is a small crowd of froggies – oh non! A van for “Desert Adventures” turns up, but it is quite clear (somehow, in the dark) that we are not part of this group. A bit later our man turns up, also in a DA van. His name is Germán, a nice touch since both Sarah Wheeler and Keenan/McCarthy met Germáns on their trip, admittedly this was an aristocrat and not a mini-van driver! Gives us a bit of a sob story about how little he sees his girlfriend. I even tell him that he can bring her along if he is happy to wake her up at this time but it is lost on him. Bit further, sob story having been expanded on, he asks if it is ok if he brings her along. “Of course” (what else can you say? But I do genuinely mean it – a “foursome” might be more convivial anyway) [Aargh! did I just say it would be nice to have a “foursome”?!!] We pick her up from a house in the outskirts of SPdA, name is Gloria but can’t make her out in the dark.

Ness and I drift off to semi-sleep for the long lumpy drive, while Germán and Gloria talk intermittently. It is still the middle of the night and when I open my eyes I can see a starlit sky out of the van window. Ness is dozing, probably semi-asleep too. Every now and again I take a peek, the sky gradually starts getting lighter and the road lumpier. There is another van behind us and we are probably part of a daily convoy of vans “doing” the Tatio trip. The road climbs gradually, to altiplano level, and even with the heater full on it feels cold. The road disappears altogether in places and we have to cross frozen streams at various points. I would have been hesitant doing this in a bruiser-basher but Germán steers then van through slowly and confidently.

Finally we get to the Tatio geysers. Plumes of steam rising from earth. The tour vans converge at this point but rather than detracting from the experience it actually adds to it. We park ours and after a short lecture by Germán, which amounts to “it’s cold out there” and “don’t fall in the geysers”, we (Ness and I – Germán and Gloria stay in the van) wander around in a daze. We’re still not entirely awake (+ added piccie-factor for Ness), and the whole place is other-worldly. It is freezing, walking through the steam warms us up. Everywhere there are small groups of people wandering about, similarly dazed.

Back at the van Germán has breakfast for us, so the packed breakfast provided by Altiplanico stays in its plastic bag. Coffee, hot milk (heated in the geyser), salami and queso baps, and a bit later we are treated to boiled eggs – yes, geyser-boiled. Germán looks on incredulously as I heap 3-4 spoons of coffee powder in my cup. “You like the tea, yes?” he says to Ness, knowing that we’re from England.

The sun is out by now and we have another wander through the geyser field, appreciating it more now. It is spectacular, a trip well worth the early start. After a while we troop back into the van and drive on to a few bigger geysers, spread out more. Loose circles of rocks have been placed around the largest one. These geysers are deeper. Germán tells us how not long ago a Spanish guy fell in. He had walked into the centre of the geyser, the steam enveloped him and he lost his bearings. They pulled him out alive, minus most of his skin apparently, but he died en route to the hospital. A piece of skin has been left by the geyser as a warning – it even still has got hairs on. Euaargh!!

Now we go for a long drive across the altiplano, spotting many vicuñas along the way (seen it before!) The drive is cross-country in many places – superb! After a stop for Germán (“this is the rocks of pee-pee”), we come to a stunning view of the salar. By this time I have managed to get Alex’s tape changed – same syndrome as with Juan in Arica. The view of the salar is wide, stunningly beautiful and very special. It all gets a bit much for me and I have to choke back tears that are welling up. No-one has noticed thanks to my dark shades. We stop and get out. I ask Germán to switch off the engine and leave the music playing. Bottom lip now beginning to quiver so walk forward out of sight. This is very, very special, this moment – don’t think I’ll forget it in a hurry. Try to take a picture with the big lens but decide against it – how can you capture it? The picture would just show a distant flat plain. It’s 100 kilometres long Germán says, and we can see most of it. I tell him that’s equivalent to half of Belgium!

The drive continues, towards Puritama. It’s still a long way. The Puritama thermal baths are down a gorge, quebrada, along a very bad and narrow stretch of road – even Germán admits this and says he’s worried about the effect on his tyres – reassuring!

A small shack with attendants is erected below. There are a few more vans parked. A walkway leads down the quebrada along the pools. There are changing rooms. Fortunately one of the big groups, Explora, will be in one large pool at the top so we have the pick of which pool we’ll go for. Ness hops into ladies & changing room, I walk on down with Germán and we find a idyllic pool. I start to change while he acts as lookout to stop others from jumping in the same pool. Quite unnecessary since there seem to be plenty of pools for all of us. Pretty quickly I’m in the pool – lovely warm water, with pampa grass and rocks around. A low wall and underwater benches have been built out of rock to provide a small pool from which the water cascades calmly down to the next pool. A wooden platform has been built by each pool. It is impossible to see the other bathers, either above or below us.

Soon Ness joins me and we both declare “happeee!” Germán and Gloria have carried on to a pool further down. The whole setting is idyllic and we spend ½-1 hour relaxing in the pool. Some older people walk up and down the walkway, clearly not intending to jump in. Just not their age’s thing to be so “free” I guess – don’t know what they’re missing! Feeling refreshed we climb back in the van, so chilled now that I hardly notice the hairy drive up, even though I’m sat on the outside. Ness looking more human now, but dozing most of the way back. We stop at a group of large cacti which Germán claimed were his secret. Two vans are already there. “Not my secret anymore!” He takes a picture of me stood next to the largest cactus, 6-7m in height. The drive back is still long but we’re so chilled now it doesn’t really matter. Germán tells me about “Come on Chile way!” – not sure about the explanation but it’s meaning is clear – “adelante!” he drops us back at our hotel, around 1-2pm.

Ness has a snooze to sleep off that last piccie and I have a quiet half hour on our terrace. Then it is time to get going. Final bits settled at reception, we start the drive back to Calama. Ness has now fully rejoined the land of the living and is driving. On the way we take a picture at the something of patience, an area of cracked earth. It’s a long monotonous drive back. Over the final hill we get a good long-distance view of Chuqui – it’s massive. If you didn’t know what to look for you would easily mistake it for a mountain.

At Calama we end up driving through outlying bits of town, having missed the turning for the aeropuerto, but soon find our way. We both feel absolutely knackered and conversation is limited. On the plane we both sleep, me more than Ness who is still awake. We’re looking forward to getting away from all this dust, sand, desert, etc. Our hair, ears, noses, everything seems to feel sandy and dusty. Santiago will hopefully rejuvenate us and we’re looking forward to heading to the fresh green south.

At Santiago we’re met by an ADSMundo rep + driver, and have a comfortable car. The ride takes us through some less than scenic parts of Santiago, the auto-route was blocked because of an accident. Bosque Norte is a recommended street, in Las Condes, for good dining – we’ll see. Hotel is smack bang in the centre, on a large square with La Moneda along one side. We trudge in our dusty scruffy gear, feeling under-dressed. Dump bags and quick splash of water, followed by welcome piccie in the wood-panelled bar. The nibbles are giant green bogies! Now waiting for room service to arrive... Ness is already asleep!