Our hostal lies at a crossroad on the edge of town. Go right and it’s ruta 23, the lagunas, Socaire and, ultimately, Argentina. Go straight on ruta 27 and again it’s the Argentinian border, as well as the Bolivian one. Above everything, though, is volcano Licancabur.
It’s easy to feel a sense of recognition upon seeing the ‘Bur for the first time; after all, that’s precisely how I always drawn a volcano since I was aged 6. Almost a perfect isosceles, all it’s missing are an ominous plume of smoke, a rivulet of lava and an idling stegosaurus. Even the moon seems in awe of its geometric perfection.
South of San Pedro and its bubbling, life-giving stream, is the third largest salt flat in the world. Measuring 3000 square kilometres, 50 times the size of Manhattan, Salar de Atacama is many things: the biggest source of lithium in the world, a sanctuary for wildlife and a hostile environment for men and beasts. But, seen from above on the road leading to Bolivia, it looks like an immense white shroud abandoned on the tan earth, a modesty cover for something very old and, by now, very dead.
It’s almost a blessing that, as soon as you’re past the bubble of civilization that hangs around the few villages, phone signal and radio reception die out, the dum-dum-du-du-dum of the cumbias fizzling out to static; it’s a blessing because it gives me time to play tunes in my mind. And the music surely ain’t from down here: the thing is that the corner of my mind that isn’t paying attention to the driving is convinced that this isn’t Latin America. This is the Teneré and I’m ferrying the entire Imarhan band to the Festival au Désert and, guess what, they’re holding a jam session onboard.
I’m sure that our choice of ride has a major part to play in this daydreaming. A gargantuan chunk of red Japanese engineering, a growling diesel engine, low-range gears and a roll-bar wedged into the cab: all it’s missing is a sticker on the dashboard, above the glovebox compartment, proclaiming that the “Mullah Omar approves of this vehicle”. My inner six-year-old is ecstatic, and my 32-year-old self is also relieved of the laissez-faire attitude of the rental company towards bumps dents and scratches, which are legion.
The Sahara Blues clues become almost impossible to resist every time we take a right turn off the ruta 23: the roads almost immediately turn into gravel and the landscape slowly transitioned from trees to wispy bushes to just salt. The light is golden, the sky deep-sea-blue, we leave a trail of dust in our wake and it’s impossible not to feel a Terakaft-style riff and rhythm filling the cab of our Nissan.
Laguna Cejar is a brusque reminder that, no, we’re not in the Sahara. Three specks of water lie nestled amidst white salt and reeds, one dedicated to bathers who want to feel like Jesus walking on water, and the others to the observation of a wildlife that, evidently, has been scared away by vanloads of screaming Brazilians. It’s only bipeds around here.
Still, it’s hard not be sitting there, with Licancabur mirroring itself almost perfectly in the still water, and not losing track of time. Before you know it the sun is setting and everything looks as if, somehow, you’d slipped on Elton John’s stage sun glasses. There’s only a few bathers left and, the coast now being clear, a flamingo arrives, scampers about for a little while and then flies off again.
I’ve never understood why people like flamingos. Ugly, odd-shaped and seemingly apt only for tip-toeing on a freshly polished floor, I always thought that their environment of choice could only be Don Johnson’s Miami villa. Yet that single bird, elegantly taking off Laguna Cejar at sunset, whetted my appetite.
If only it wasn’t the wrong season for flamingo spotting.