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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!