Nevertheless, I recall hitchhiking once from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama in weather that turned from cloudy to near whiteout on the high plateau between the two localities. Still, it surprised me Thursday morning when, as I loaded the car for the long drive south toward Santiago, a solid cloud cover stopped any sunlight from filtering onto the desert floor.
It wasn’t totally surprising, as the high peaks along the Bolivian border (pictured above) almost always sport some snow, and the area surrounding San Pedro had a wet summer that damaged backcountry roads. For the entire month of February, that kept the village’s travel agencies from offering excursions like the geysers at El Tatio. While it didn’t rain much in San Pedro proper, the runoff from the high country ate away at riverside roads near town, and even briefly isolated the Hotel Alto Atacama (pictured below), where I recently spent a couple nights.
When I first drove from the four or five km from San Pedro to the Alto Atacama, there was one shallow river ford that posed no problems whatsoever. Two days later, though, there were four separate fords and, while I had no problems with my high-clearance vehicle, smaller cars were taking a high-speed head start to ensure getting across the water. While I doubt that was necessary in this instance, it’s not hard to imagine problems with increased runoff – anywhere in any desert, flash floods can cause fatal accidents.
Driving west, toward Chile’s even more arid coastline, I expected the weather to clear, but I was wrong – between San Pedro and Calama, sprinkles wetted the windshield sufficiently that I had to use the wipers. Between Calama and the nitrate ghost town of Oficina Chacabuco (pictured above) , where I stopped to update my photo library, I found fine spray from heavy mining trucks obscuring the view – a virtually unheard of occurrence here. Only when I reached the coastal cordillera of the Sierra Vicuña Mackenna (pictured below) , near the Cerro Paranal observatory, did the skies clear noticeably, but even then there was lingering cloud cover.
As nightfall approached and I arrived at the town of Bahía Inglesa - roughly 740 km (460 miles) from my starting point – the sprinkles started again. They let up, though, and I slept soundly after roughly 12 hours behind the wheel (including sightseeing breaks). When I awoke the next morning, though the sun was out, I found the car spotted with sprinkles and nearly surrounded by standing water that had flowed downhill toward the beach.
Instead of taking the new freeway east and south toward Copiapó, Vallenar and La Serena, I decided to take the coastal road south toward the port of Huasco and then east to Vallenar. It’s mostly a consolidated dirt surface but, given how quickly the desert absorbs or evaporates moisture, I never expected to find miles of standing water – small amounts, admittedly – and mud. There were various crossings of the sandy bed of the Río Copiapó where, however, authorities have placed warning posts for various water levels – green means anyone can cross, yellow is for high-clearance vehicles, and red means nobody should even try.
While I can’t say it was alarming, a bit of slipping and sliding got me to slow my speed and, when I arrived at Huasco for a fresh fish lunch, my 4WD was pretty dirty. I continued south to La Serena and the charming town of Vicuña, home to Chile’s major pisco producers and clear skies that make it home to both several astronomical observatories. It was another long day on the road, covering even a little more distance than I did the day before.
Fittingly for the day, cloudy skies postponed an 8:30 p.m. visit to Mamalluca, where tourists go to see the southern constellations through professional telescopes, but an hour later the skies had cleared. This morning, the mud was still falling off the flaps of my 4WD, a reminder that desert driving has its hazards.