After finishing our journey south through the beautiful, but cold and wet, Luaca National Park with a surprise 30 minute jaunt in to Bolivia and a couple bolts shaken loose, we made the two hour drive down 13,000ft back to sea level.
We spent a few days soaking up some coastal sun and running errands in the duty free zone of the Port town, Iquique. Our truck was still in need of a couple repairs, after Peru, including a passenger side window, new front brakes and, of course, the two front wheel bearings (making it our seventh bearing replacement of the trip). Unfortunately, nowhere in the massive shopping district were we able to find parts for our Tacoma. So we decided to head towards the next biggest town on the map, Calama, and try our luck there.
We took the coastal road south and were surprised to find the overwhelming amount of tent camps set up all along the coastline. Chileans sure do love to camp! We were lucky to find a semi remote beach and set up an early camp to enjoy what we knew would be our last view of the ocean for a while.
Set a couple hours inland, Calama is a dusty mining town in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. There is literally no life outside of the town for as far as the eye can see. It is oppressively hot in the day and cold and windy at night. It is not the ideal location to have a shady mechanic, who claimed he could fix the whole front end in 90 minutes, smash it apart only to find that he didn’t actually have the right part, nor does any store in town, and he is unable to put it back together until he does.
Fortunately, after talking to nearly every shop in town, we found one that could get the part shipped in by the next afternoon. Home on the highway was nice enough to hang around and each night we would grab our tent and sleeping bags and all crawl on to the platform in the back of their already packed 4 Runner and get tossed around for a bit as we 4-wheeled it out in to the desert to camp.
Each morning we would return thinking this was the day we would surely be done and move on, however we were getting our first taste of the Chilean work day. Nothing opened before 10am and then everything closed at 12:30pm for siesta and opened back up somewhere between 4 and 6pm and then they would work till about 8pm; not very productive. Finally, on day four our truck was back together, sans window, and we were able to head out of town towards San Pedro de Atacama and the Argentina border.
We put a couple hours of driving in that evening until we could see the volcanic mountains popping up in the distance. Then made camp in a dry river bed, where we celebrated our departure from Calama by drinking wine and trying to figure out the southern constellations as we watched the full moon slowly erupt in to the sky from behind the cone of tallest volcano.
Feeling a little tired of the desert and ready to see some green, I was not expecting much of our drive the next day towards the border of Argentina. Thoughts of the happenings in Peru, which sat constant and heavy in the back of my mind, shadowing my experiences, were pouring forward this morning causing me to ponder whether I was still in to the traveling life at the moment. The patience and ability to shrug off the little things that every traveler needs, and we once had (for example, dealing with shady mechanics who want to overcharge) was now non-existent.
Regardless of my feelings as we set out down the road, it would have been impossible to deny the beauty of this stretch of land with vibrant red rolling hills, tall snow covered peaks and white salt flats with a scattering of crazy rock formations.
We officially stamped out of Chile in San Pedro de Atacama, and what was said to be a three hour drive to the next border in to Argentina ended up taking us all day due to the many stops to take it all in. My negative thoughts were being constantly cut off as we stopped and jumped from the car to catch better looks at our surroundings. At one such stop, a motorcyclist from Brazil that we had been playing leap frog with, stopped to ask us about our trip and offered to share a gourd of mate with us.
We happily obliged and it was just the right buzz of kindness to squash my pondering of retreat for the day and turn my thoughts toward brighter ideas, like the magnitude of the fact that we were entering in to our FINAL COUNTRY!! We had officially driven from the US to Argentina!