The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and one of the most impressive spots for renting a car and road tripping into the unknown.
What makes it most spectacular for adventurous visitors is the wild freedom that a 4×4 and a blasé approach to your own safety can bring: whether you’re seeking to drive the road less travelled (or least paved), or push your body to its limits by climbing one of the volcanic peaks encircling the 600 mile plateau. With your own wheels, anything is possible.
Here you’ll find some of South America’s most unique and striking landscapes: flamingos speckle azure lakes bordered by crisp, white salt flats; geysers explode steam into dawn skies; and semi-dormant 6,000m volcanoes loom above the desert plain, puffing wafts of smoke into the air.
We stood at the bottom of one, staring up as the thick, sulphurous clouds issued from the main crater.
“We can totally get up there,” Rich – one of the new ‘friends’ I’d made two days previous over three bottles of wine and a promise of an adventure – assured us. We peered up the near-vertical slope towards where the billowing plumes were drifting into the otherwise cloudless sky.
I wasn’t convinced. Over the past year and a bit of travelling in the fair continent of South America, I’d fallen foul of the self-assured belief that there is always a path to follow and that the top of that hill is exactly where you think it is.
“Look, there’s even a path here…” Rich muttered, before striding purposefully off up the mountain.
We had rented our gleaming red 4×4 the previous day, and that morning we had chosen to disappear into the desert. We had no real direction in mind; just the open road ahead, sandy miles of nothing stretching in every direction, and the eerie wailing of traditional Balkan songs thanks to another companion, Mark’s, eclectic music collection.
Finding the least accessible stretch of road, Rich had taken it upon himself to see how quickly we could pop our first tyre by throwing the vehicle down any available vertical dirt track. Luckily, he had failed in this pursuit, and instead we had found ourselves far from the main highway, drawn by the challenge of the steaming monster ahead of us and contemplating climbing this 5,000m mountain with provisions comprising two breakfast bars and a bottle of water.
We watched as Rich ploughed ahead with unexpected speed, while Dan and Mark – again persuaded to join our car rental gang by excessive quantities of alcohol – and I exchanged grimaces behind his back, before dubiously following the ‘path.’
Climbing a mountain at 4,500m will always be difficult, even if you’re altitude-acclimatised. Climbing one made entirely of sand – no doubt from the last eruption of the volcano towards which we were heading – is almost impossible. Think climbing a sand dune made of flour, while someone squeezes your lungs at intervals and holds a piece of cling film over your nostrils.
I stopped every ten metres on the pretence of snapping a few photos of the surrounding landscape: the tufts of spiky grass that peppered the ground every few steps; the thin valley below full of grazing llamas where our filthy jeep was parked, still bearing the legacy of Rich’s insistent attempts at off-roading. Beyond the dusty track was the distant haze of the Atacama Desert, stretching into what seemed like oblivion; a muddle of pastel shades where it met the snow-like expanse of the salt flats – El Salar de Atacama.
After thirty minutes of painful hiking, we had reached what seemed to be around half way: we could see that the route was levelled out for a short while before abruptly becoming steeper once more, and in the distance, the white plumes continued to float aimlessly upwards.
Dan stopped to point out a collection of llama bones scattered across a small patch of dirt – clearly an unfortunate cousin of the herd grazing below, which had strayed too far from safety. The bones were stripped clean of meat, and only the long, slender neck bore signs of its previous existence in the layer of dried, leathery skin that still covered it.
Moving on, we realised that with every few meters of height that we gained, there was another llama carcass; the bones confined neatly to a small area of ground, and each carefully stripped, except for the skin on the neck.
“What do you think, Dan?” I asked. “Mountain lions, right?” Dan glared at me – we’d already had a discussion about how llamas in herds made him nervous, and despite being the size of an American quarterback, you could tell that he wasn’t completely kidding when he had made the comment.
“I’m pretty sure this is an ambush zone,” Dan muttered, stopping to peer around us, before raising his arm to point towards an outcrop of rock a bit further up the slope.
“That looks like a perfect puma hideout over there, don’t you think?”
Great. We had walked straight into the puma’s lair.
“You could be right,” Mark chipped in with forced cheerfulness, continuing the ascent of the hill with a noticeable increase in speed.
Dan pushed me gently forward, ahead of him.
“Don’t let me out of your sight,” I pleaded. “I’m the perfect size for a puma dinner.”
We skirted the ominous outcrop, struggling with the incline and the fact that here the ground was even more powdery; I took to leaping between grassy hummocks to try and avoid sliding back down towards what we had agreed was certain death.
Rich had scampered up the final ascent – weaving too closely to the den at points, but none of us were feeling particularly inclined to save him if the puma felt a need to attack – and was waiting for us at the top.
“You’re not going to like this,” he shouted, gesturing towards another mountain, much further over, which was the one billowing smoke. The dark, volcanic rock of the outcrop – which had clearly seen a number of fairly impressive eruptions – was a vertical expanse of unclimbable scree. Our ‘mountaintop’ was a dwarf in comparison – and clearly hadn’t been what we had seen from the track below.
Although it wasn’t the top of the volcano, the views back across the Atacama Desert were magnificent: the afternoon haze turned the desert into a landscape of milky, cloudy yellow with the strange, ethereal opacity of distant mountains.
We settled down on rocks to admire the scene below us, turned against the howling wind that assailed us from all angles.
“We could always have a crack at it, you know…” Rich muttered. We ignored him, and I took off my walking boots to pour a steady stream of volcanic dust back onto the ground before attempting, vainly, to excavate the sand dune from my socks.
The route back down was quicker: we skirted around the puma lair, almost hoping this time that it would choose the moment Rich got a bit too close to pop out and claim its territory.
As we got to the half-way point, the boys began to run, leaping at full pelt down the sandy slope, hurdling patches of grass, rocks and the occasional llama carcass as gravity bore them down towards the jeep.
Knowing my own capacity to fall over on flat ground, I didn’t run, but with a quick look back towards the puma hideout, I quickened my pace and followed them down the slope.