It’s late morning and the desert sun is already high overhead. The dirt crunches under our tires and swirls up behind the van as we head out of town to the East, leaving the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama behind. We stop on the outskirts of town to surrender our importation paperwork to the Customs office; it’s 165 kilometers to the Argentine border, but nobody’s out there. This is the last sign of civilization for a very long time.
Once on the highway, I start to feel anxious. We’re already a smidge under 8,000 feet, but the pavement unfolds before us in an arrow-straight line up a mountain and out of sight. The lack of switchbacks means the road is steep. We’re in the middle of nowhere, in the driest desert on Earth, driving into no-man’s land. There is virtually no traffic. The combination makes me feel a little uneasy, but I don’t know why. We’re driving a 28 year old hippie bus with almost 300,000 miles under its wheels. Why worry?
To our left, Bolivia rises into the sky in a fantastic display of snow-capped volcanoes. It’s as if someone has placed the Andes on top of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. The volcanoes ring the northern edge of the Atacama desert, and beyond them is altiplano – the high plains from which the Andes grow – all the way to Colombia. As we climb eastward on the highway, it appears as though our trajectory will intersect the rim of volcanoes. Our GPS shows that we’re within a few kilometers of Bolivia.
It’s desolate, barren, stark land. Tufts of low grass start to show through the crushed pumice at the roadside; we’re back in the altiplano, and Nacho is feeling the elevation. As we plod slowly upward, our speed plunges slowly downward. Every mile robs our engine of precious oxygen, and soon we’re traveling at a walking pace in first gear. I glance at the GPS: we’re over 15,000 feet.
We catch a semi truck carrying a load of cars to Argentina. The elevation turns this into a slow motion race – the truck is driving as fast as an elderly person shuffling with a walker. We’re moving along somewhat faster; whereas he may be traveling at four miles per hour, we’re doing at least six. In slow motion, we pull out beside him for the long, slow pass.
A minute later, we’ve become level with his window when all of a sudden Nacho dies. We’ve found the elevation at which our engine can no longer pull enough oxygen from the intake air to cause gasoline to combust. The truck driver shoots us a confused look, but all we can do is wave and shrug our shoulders as he slowly pulls away from us. We sit in the oncoming lane with the flashers on until, a lifetime later, the truck finally passes us. We coast backward and off the side of the road.
Over the next few miles we develop a process for driving in the death zone: when Nacho dies, we pull over and let the engine rest for 10 minutes or so. Then we fire it up and ease back onto the road while slipping the clutch to get up to speed – about 5 miles per hour. We do this process repeatedly for the next several miles until we top out at 15,748 feet. After that the road drops down and levels out around 14,500 and we’re back in business.
Once on the altiplano, things get surreal. We pass orange sand dunes and salty, deep blue lagoons. Llamas monitor our slow but steady progress from nearby hillsides. We pass between dunes and our eyes come to rest on stone megaliths jutting out of the hard earth and into the sky. We find a dirt track heading toward the megaliths, so we take it. We’re driving in a bizarre, psychedelic Beatles song.
Just before reaching the first of the stone towers, we stop. We have a problem. The stone towers, as it turns out, are on the other side of a fairly vast wash, which sits at the bottom of a fairly vast hill. To get to the megaliths for the compulsory Nacho-in-action photos, we’ll have to descend the vast hill, cross the vast wash, and climb the other side – a vast embankment. Given our luck at climbing the mild paved hill earlier in the day, we’re not convinced that we’ll ever make it out alive if we drive down the hill.
I get out of Nacho and set out on foot toward another vehicle, far out on the horizon. They’ll be able to tell me what to do. Sheena hangs back to read her coming of age princess novel.
Fifteen minutes of walking brings me down the vast hill, across the vast wash, up the vast embankment, and then across a vast plain to where a 4×4 van sits. I find its driver fiddling with his radio. His t-shirt has a picture of a handgun, with the English words “point blank” emblazoned across the chest.
I introduce myself to the man and ask him, que tal? He wastes no time in telling me that I’ll never get out of this place if I go down the vast hill. I ask him if he thinks I can drive along the vast wash until it crosses the main road, and he wastes no time telling me that I’d be a fool to believe that that’s a good idea. I thank him and set out across the plain, down the vast embankment, across the vast wash, and back up the vast hill to where Sheena is still reading her coming of age princess novel.
“We’re good, I think. You know, I think we’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I think we’ll make it. It’s supposed to be an adventure, isn’t it?” Sheena’s face is the word unamused, personified. She makes it clear that this is a stupid idea, and that she totally disagrees with this decision.
I pop it in gear and drive down the vast hill. We cross the vast wash, and then I gun it. We barely make it up the vast embankment.
For the next hour we explore the stone monuments, taking numerous Nacho-in-action shots. The rocks are amazing; some force of nature has caused the skin of the rocks to have formed into elevated scales. While we snap photos and eat a picnic lunch, the 4×4 van leaves, making quick work of the vast hill, and leaving with our hopes of a courtesy tow.
It’s time. We buckle up and Nacho roars to life with the ferociousness of a lethargic houseplant. As we approach the vast hill I feel sickly. The beginning of the hill is uneven and rutted, so we can’t carry much speed into it. I realize, only now, that this was a stupid idea. As we start to climb, Sheena unconsciously starts quietly squealing under her breath. She sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film.
We start out looking good, but halfway up the vast hill it becomes clear that we won’t make it. Five miles per hour…four…three…two…almost stalling now…
“TURN LEFT!” Sheena shrieks.
“OKAY!” I yank on the steering wheel without thinking, leaving the track behind. Cutting across the sandy hill, tilted at 30 degrees, we start to pick up speed. Three miles per hour…four…five…
“TURN RIGHT!” Sheena squeals. I yank the steering wheel to the right, carving out a switchback in the rocks. It’s working! To an experienced offroad driver the sight of our hippie bus slowly slinking through the rocks up this mild hill might be enough to evoke a belly laugh. A couple more cranks on the wheel and we’re slowly putting away from the vast hill, safe. I look at the hill in the rearview mirror and think to myself, boo ya, biatch!
I only think it, because to say such things out loud would reveal how childish and pop-culturally outdated my train of thought can be.
For the next hour we glide past more lagoons studded with pink flamingoes and hills dotted with llamas. The whole thing is all very surreal. And then out of nowhere, we see it: a sign declaring “Limite Internacional Chile / Argentina“.
We made it! Arizona to Argentina! At the time we don’t consider the fact that the end of the continent is still as far away as the distance from Arizona to Nova Scotia.
On the Argentine side of the border we continue to be stricken dumb by the landscape. We pass more lagoons, flamingoes, and llamas. We drop into a valley and immediately the landscape turns pancake flat and white. Beyond us to either side there is nothing but salt for as far as the eye can see. We can hardly contain Nacho; he bolts off of the road and onto the salt plain for some roadless exploration.
By day’s end the landscape has shifted again. We descend from the altiplano and into a desert reminiscent of Tucson, Arizona. How strange it is to find this landscape, so similar to our home state, in Argentina.
We coast into the town of Purmamarca for the evening. Tourists stroll the streets of what seems like an old Western town in the shadow of colored sandstone hills. We could just as easily be in Sedona as in northern Argentina. From the driest place on Earth, to one of the highest passes in South America; salt flats, flamingoes, towering rocks, and desert. Today the sky was as blue as any sky I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect road tripping day. It was a truly epic day.