Road Trippin' in Northern Chile - More Fun Than You Can Shake a Llama At

by Curley32 on May 10, 2011

Road Trippin' in Northern Chile - More Fun Than You Can Shake a Llama At

Everyone loves a good road trip--freedom to plan your own itinerary; independence to make spontaneous stops along the way; the excitement of shopping for supplies; and, of course, the opportunity to get behind a wheel again, albeit a wheel that is on the wrong side of the road from what you are used to. All of these things conjoin to make the idea of a road trip a whole lot of fun in theory.

Spontaneous Itineraries Are the Most Fun

And the reality? It is all of the above and a lot more hilarity besides. Unintentionally crossing borders; stumbling upon an elaborate goods-smuggling racket; staying a night with the police (voluntarily!); eating llama jerky; being typical girls; getting the jeep stuck in a bog; and having a natural thermal pool to ourselves at sunset are among some of the offroad adventures that you can have in the northern desert area of Chile.

Some Stunts Are Best Left to the Pros

When journeying to altitudes of 4,500 meters, one has to deal with pressure headaches and shortness of breath, not to mention the cold, which was below freezing at nighttime. That meant we had to sleep in all our thermal clothes, even donning our woolly hats in an effort to stem the exit of warmth out of our heads. Don’t try this at home because, of course, as any good mother will be able to tell you, this only makes said clothing ineffective in the glaring chill of morning. To counterbalance this, we ingeniously stripped off the slept-in clothes quickly and re-dressed in an attempt to fool the body into believing it was acquiring a new layer. This is traveler adaptability in its simplest yet most effective form.

A Lawful Encounter

We were to first encounter the Chilean police on our second morning. I was trying to appear masterful at left-hand driving, when I was told from the backseat to pull into the Colchane police station so that we could inform them of our intended evening destination. This is not altogether excessively cautious for, this close to the Chilean-Bolivian border, there is a lively turnover in stolen cars that are sold on the other side on the black market. So, four foreign chicks in a rental jeep were quite probably a tempting moving target.

A policeman, who looked like Clark Kent but with a firearm strapped to his thigh, emerged looking rather serious, and he began talking in rapid Spanish through my window. Inexplicably nervous as I always am around police--in this instance, partly due to the fact that I could catch very little and partly due to his serious tone--I began to think I had managed to commit a crime without my own knowledge. However, it turned out that the ominous tone was hiding a dry humor, and all he was saying was that he had seen us the previous day back in Iquique, where he had gone for an annual police march. I imagine that they get quite lonely at their remote police outposts, for he was reluctant to let us away, keen to chat and highly amused that we thought he looked like Clark Kent.

"You Can’t Get Lost. No, really."

The second day's driving was through a national park past volcanoes and abandoned villages. It was one of those immense landscapes that makes you feel small and that made us feel, at times, that we were driving on a rugged, constantly changing canvas. Confusion set in when the road inexplicably and without signs--things that are essential when you are offroading in the desert--divided into four roads that looked disconcertingly similar but were headed in varying directions of the park. It was a conundrum indeed. Which road to follow? None was any bigger or more main road-looking than the other. Through no fault of my own, I had gotten predictably lost. What was surprising, though, was where we ended up.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil...and Everyone Gets out Alive

After driving aimlessly for a time--we stopped frequently to consult the compass, which seemed to work only if you already had a clear grasp on which direction is north--we stumbled upon what appeared at first to be a mine. Relieved that we could ask directions, I drove right into the middle of the gathered trucks and curious crowd. Imagine my surprise when the deadpan reply was "Bolivia." Surprise quickly turned to apprehension when I surveyed the surroundings with a more critical eye and realized that this was no mine but a smuggling operation in progress. They were loading the trucks with clearly stolen electrical goods, ranging from DVD players to washing machines, and who knew what else. While the workers seemed friendly enough--they were also a touch anxious to divert us from their illegal den--things could easily have turned nasty as I turned around to see one of the girls foolishly hanging out of the car with her enormous lensed camera trying to capture this criminal enterprise for her Facebook page and perilously endangering all our lives in the process. It was time for a sharp exit.

Pooh Versus Pretty

Finally on the right road, we traveled through rugged landscape dominated by regal, snow-capped volcanic peaks that watched silently over deserted villages and lamented the loss of rural communities that had migrated to the cities in the hope of a better life. Many photo stops later and with hundreds of pictures of llamas, which I had come to secretly regard as just sheep but on a different continent, we came to the Salar de Surire, which is home to the girlie birds, the flamingos. More fascinating for me than these femininely graceful, pink creatures were the large, circular areas of llama pooh that we passed while walking on the salar. Clearly, there is among the llama some formal form of toilet etiquette. They are not, after all, just cute but vacant, doe-eyed sheep types with a funny run.

A Priceless Moment...for Everything Else There’s Mastercard

A magic moment was had at the thermal pools that are on the salar. These natural pools were steaming with heat and were sulphur-smelly with an incredible volcanic backdrop. We had met very little other traffic all day, and so were not surprised to have them to ourselves. It was an idyllic setting made perfect by the setting sun and the lack of other tourists, a rarity indeed when one journeys on well-traveled routes. The night cold had already begun to approach and so the steaming, enveloping caress of the thermals on car-cramped limbs was very welcomed indeed. The grey mud was at first slimy and sludgy beneath the feet as it oozed through toes and slobbered over feet. But once the initial itchiness passed, we made face mud baths that left our skin very soft and smooth indeed. Suitably beautified, we pushed on to our next stop, the police outpost, where we had a master plan to charm the police into letting us stay for the night.

Unlikely Domesticated Gods...

By the time we reached the police outpost at the other side of the salar, darkness had fallen, cold had permeated the inner recesses of the jeep, and our petrol tank was flashing the perilously close-to-empty light. Here’s hoping we would be welcomed in this law-abiding abode. After initial surprise, the Chilean policemen, of whom there were five, were extremely welcoming indeed and turned into veritable domestic gods. They did everything possible to make us feel welcomed, from baking a cake to giving us their beds and producing furry animal slippers to warm our frozen flip-flopped toes. We, in turn, reciprocated by giving them wine and teaching them how to play card games with pink Barbie cards, communicating quite effectively in Spanglish, a delightful mixture of Spanish and English that I have almost perfected during my travels in South America.

…with Hearts of Gold

In the morning, we all watched the royal wedding of Kate and William together over coffee, which is definitely one of those where-were-you-when-this-happened moments that we will have fun relaying. The police often get a bad reputation and are invariably portrayed as corrupt disregarders of the laws they are meant to uphold, or as lazy, donut-munching imbeciles. But neither of these could have been further from the truth for the Chilean carbineros who showed us such warmth and kindness. Out in the back, there was a grave with a headstone that had been engraved with words of loyalty and friendship. This grave was for the dog they had who had died only last year but who had meant so much to them, evidence of incredibly big hearts and fiercely loyal characters.

And so the Journey Continues

Although reluctant to leave our friendly officers--we threatened to stay for more days to be pampered and fed--we hit the dirt road once more, aiming for the little mountain township of Putre, which is the springboard for adventures around one of the jewels of this northern area of Chile, the Lauca National Park. One of the bonuses of hiring your own vehicle is that you can stop whenever you want. We certainly took advantage of this, swerving almost recklessly at times to pull off the road at sightings of condors in the sky or vicunas, which are the rarest of llamas, in the fields. Much time was spent in the back playing the alphabet game backwards and the famous person name game. Never let it be said that long term travelers neglect their brains, although sensible decision-making is not always their forte either, as the following incident proves.

4 Girls + 1 Marsh – Collective Common Sense = Stuck in the Mud

After an early morning start to make the most of our day in the national park, we headed along a pleasant dirt road towards the tiny village of Parinacota, which nestles at the base of the perfectly formed, snow-covered majesty of Volcano Parinacota, and is the beginning point for some scenic walks. Rounding a corner, we found ourselves faced with a massive pool of water that looked precariously deep, probably too deep for our compact little 4x4. After some inspection, which amounted to tossing a rock in the center and not liking the subsequently loud plonking sound it made, we decided not to chance it, but to instead drive around it. Logical-enough sounding, except that the surrounding area was marshland and we hadn't gone two meters before the left front tire became stubbornly stuck and rapidly sinking. What was to become of these idiotic damsels-in-distress? Were they to live to fight another day, or would they meet their demise in this watery grave, far away from their loved ones?

Knights in Shining Armor DO Exist

Holy smokes, Batman, what was this flash of shiny red moving at great speed towards us? Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No, better than any of those. It was a bigger 4x4 jeep with three capable engineers inside--our Chilean knights in shiny armour. With professional precision, they appraised the situation: four silly girls, one stuck vehicle, and zero towing equipment or knowledge between them. This situation called for men in high-vis vests, which fortunately they were. Ropes were produced and plaited to strengthen them. Miraculously, one of our rescuers had been in the marines and so could fashion sturdy knots blindfolded. Meanwhile, said clueless girls produced cameras and began happily snapping pictures of the amusing disaster, distracting the men from their rescue mission by insisting on group photos.

Pretty Animals Make Tasty Meat

On the road once more, we finally reached the village of Parinacota, which sits at an altitude of around 4,500 meters. Here, we fortified ourselves against altitude sickness by snacking on llama jerky and drinking copious amounts of coca tea. The walk was definitely worth the adventure for the view of the volcano was spectacular and so picturesque, set behind a faultlessly blue sky. It seemed like we were looking at a Photoshopped picture and not the real McCoy. The girls amused themselves for many more hours taking pictures of more llamas, which at this point I was rather bored by. They just don’t DO anything interesting. Morbidly, perhaps, I was altogether more fascinated by the washing lines of freshly drying llama meat we found and the lack of flies or buzzards hovering around them.

Wanna Be in My Gang??

Get yourself a posse together, and get on the road. There are no shortages of peeps lounging around hostels, blissfully unemployed and with all the time in the world to take off on spontaneous road trips. Like your own good self, these people are open to new experiences, generally love meeting new people, and will most likely try anything once. The beauty of a road trip is that is can be planned, or partaken of completely unplanned, anywhere at all on our amazingly, diverse planet.

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