Having had breakfast and done all the usual ablutions we explored the abandoned house we had camped near before we headed back to the road. Built possibly from Salar bricks and tin and thatch roofing it was very much in the traditional style of building. With a couple of old bedsteads still inside, the remains of an outdoor wood fired oven and a couple of now collapsed outdoor toilet blocks, we could only wonder about the family that had eked out a living in such a barren place so close to the salt lake, and why they might have abandoned their home.
Following the map we noticed a town marked that was right on the road – Laguna Seca. When we reached there we were surprised to see only a half dozen buildings lined alongside the railway track that ran between the buildings and the road. It looked like a very modern town, with its 1970’s style tiled roofs and brick built chimneys. Slowing down we realised that this was a ghost town. Not a living thing stirred. A dead donkey lay where it fell, its flesh dried on its bones by the harsh desert winds. Four blocks stood in a row, each making up a small terrace of four houses, each block with a double toilet outside. Windows overlooked the railway line while the doors were at the back of the houses. A water tower with a dry well stood beyond the houses and beyond that a maintenance building with an inspection pit, rails leading from the main line and evidence of a turnstile. The town signs were in the style of old fashioned railway station names and there was the remains of the levers for changing the “points” that enable a train to change tracks.
As we left the town behind we passed the dry remains of the Laguna after which the town is named. Laguna Seco:DryLake. It must have been dry for a very long time.
We have been following a small section of the old 1994 Camel Trophy route. At Salar de Pocitos we took the right fork in the road, crossed the Salar Pocitos o Quiron and drove on towards Talar Grande. Along the way we passed through the Desierte de Diablo (Desert of the Devil) and Salar de Diablo (Salar of the Devil). Here the desert floor was a large flat plain of bright red-orange dust, with the surrounding hills rising in shades of the same colour around the edges. Not a single piece of green, or any other colour, apart from the bright blue of the sky with occasional white fluffy clouds, could be seen. At the end of the road a sign appeared “Siete Curvas – seven curves”, as the track rose up the hill in front of us. We were not quite sure how the sign writer came to the number seven as we counted thirteen hairpins as the steep track wound through deep sand to the summit plateau. Having risen to the Cabeza de Valla (top of the Valley) the track took us down into the valley again, and wound through a surreal landscape that for all the world looked like giant scoops of melting chocolate ice cream.
For much of the day we have had the deserted and disused railway line running to our right, later passing another deserted railway town, this one with a rusting old railway carriage sitting on the line. Throughout, the mountains around us have been reflecting the colours of the minerals in the ground here: reds, browns and greens, taking on a velvety appearance. From time to time we have been driving through altiplano with the mountains in the distance either side of us. Then the mountains have closed in and we have been driving through narrow gorges and passes. Small salars appeared to our right and left. The hills showed sedimentary layers in their formation, suggesting they may have once been part of a seabed. At one point the road ran through what was once a river. Occasionally there were tracks running off to the side but for the most part this has been a vast land untouched by human presence in many years.
We have seen little traffic, the occasional pick up truck or lorry (truck). How the larger trucks manage on some of the narrow winding roads we could only marvel at. For most of the day we have been driving at elevations of between 3,500 and 4,500 metres. The sun has been blazing hot but the wind has had a colder edge to it. The wind has ensured that the dust kicked up by our tyres has had the maximum opportunity to reach into every crack and crevice of our vehicle, billowing in through the gaps between the doors and the door frames.
Finally we reached the small desert town of Tolar Grande. It too was once a railway town, but its large warehouses and railway buildings now stand disused and falling into dereliction at the entrance to the town. Rusting railway carriages stand sadly beside them. Further on, the town, with a population of probably no more than 100 people. The road through town was wide, with a central reservation making a dual carriageway, yet we were the only vehicle moving in town. A small group of men were putting up a set of lights representing a Christmas tree in the town square, where a children’s playground also stood. They were the only people we saw on the roads. One multi purpose store was open, selling everything from fresh vegetables, drinks, and all manner of dried and tinned goods, toiletries and household products, to body piercing jewellery, playing cards, toys and trinkets. Three dogs played under the counter, their noses and toes just visible as they peered out.
By now it was gone 7.00 pm and we had no more than an hour of daylight left to drive by. There had not been many opportunities to leave the road to wild camp before we had entered the town so we headed out from Tolar Grande towards the Salar de Arizaro, and followed the road that ran 40 kilometres in a dead straight line west across the Salar. The lowering sun brought out the colours of the mountains to our left and right, while the Andean mountain range in front of us, running betweenChileandArgentina, appeared as different shades of grey in the distance.
When the road turned south again alongside shore of the Salar, we found a flat piece of land where we could camp, tucked in behind some stony hills. As night fell we watched the setting sun turning the undersides of the dark clouds vivid orange, making several look like film images of spaceships underlit with neon lights. As the clouds faded away for the night the stars came out and lit the otherwise dark sky. And the desert winds blew. Hard!