San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is located in a desert valley surrounded by mountains. For tourists it is the hub from which to explore the surrounding area and a starting point for tours into the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
Arriving in town we were shocked to be amongst so many tourists.
Our preference is to be in locations with minimal effects from tourism. Having said that with increased tourism comes extra perks like good restaurants, and good facilities but usually at an inflated price.
Thanks to our 2 travel apps, ioverlander (an app established and updated by over Landers containing campsites and local information) and Forever Maps, we were able to navigate the one-way streets and find a great hostel, Puritama. The hostel has a parking area set up in a garden area where you can camp and use the facilities of the hostel. For us it was an oasis. For Keira it had ducks, a dog, turtles and other kids to play with.
The first couple of days there were spent recovering from the effects of altitude sickness. I was feeling better now we were down in altitude but I was exhausted.
Whilst in San Pedro we had the pleasure of meeting Tori, a guy from New Zealand who had ridden his bicycle from the northern most part of Canada through Central America and Sth America. What an amazing inspiration!
We also met a wonderful Aussie family who are living in Santiago in Chile. The children, Edward, Nina and Keira explored together and had a lot of fun playing. We shared meals, and many conversations with Lucy and Scott.
The second night in San Pedro, a cold front moved through the area bringing with it 4 foot of snow at higher elevations. This closed some of the roads to the tourist sites. It also closed the Paso Jama, which we had crossed from Argentina, and the border crossing to Bolivia. The tours to Salar de Uyuni were unable to operate, and our plans to do this trip were also put on hold.
We heard many stories of accidents on the pass, and of poor road conditions.
A French couple we met at the hostel had completed the border crossing into Bolivia on the day that it snowed. They had to be escorted out of the area by Bolivian guides, as the roads were no longer visible.
We made a trip into Calama, a bigger city, and an hour’s drive from San Pedro. Calama is a city built to accommodate the needs of the biggest copper mine in Chile. It is a city known for its high crime. We needed to go there as Mike still had some concerns regarding the car.
As we arrived in Calama, the car began to make a pretty loud noise. Mike suspected the brakes and was correct. All 4 of our brake pads were worn down. We got these replaced at the Toyota dealer and they ran a diagnostic on the engine, with nothing detected again. The check engine light turned back on as we drove out of Calama.
Mike with the help of an Internet resource removed the cold start censor from the car and cleaned it, with the cold start problem improving, but not completely.
We were in a dilemma as to whether to cross into Bolivia to complete the Laguna route and Salar de Uyuni. We were getting mixed reports about the road conditions and the pass was only open intermittently during the day. The tour groups had resumed going, but they were experienced on the roads and were familiar with the route.
We had been searching for other over Landers to do the trip with, but there appeared to be no other over Landers in town. I went to the immigration office to check the road status and ran into Petra and Heinz, a German couple in their own vehicle who also wanted to do the trip. We made a plan to meet the next morning and if the border was open to make the crossing.
Mike and I have always taken decisions like this one seriously. We have never put ourselves at any risk, and now we had our little girl to consider. We would tackle the trip but if road conditions were unsafe we would return to San Pedro and take an alternative route.
We fueled up, carrying extra fuel in 2 x 20 liter jerry cans on the roof, prepared meals for 2 nights so we didn’t need to cook in the cold conditions, and filled up our water supplies. We were happy that we would be travelling with another vehicle, confident in our preparations, but a little nervous about the unknown. I was a little anxious about getting altitude sickness again. Mike was apprehensive about the car, and of course Keira was ready for anything. We had the perfect elements for a perfect adventure.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: our brakes
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- meeting Tori and the Aussie family; Keira- playing with Edward and Nina and looking after the turtles; Riss- watching the sunset over the lakes/meeting cool people
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike- working out the issues with the cold start censor/getting accurate information regarding the road conditions on the Laguna Route; Keira- getting out of the tent when it is cold; Riss- dealing with the after effects of altitude sickness
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- gigantic empanadas (pastries with meaty goodness), Keira- apple and lemon ice gelato- sin leche (without milk); Riss- Jumbo supermarket in Calama to restock supplies
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Puritama Hostel
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.