Laguna Chaxa lies at the end of more off-road fun, a few kilometres of track dug into the soft sand and salt of the salar. Here there are no bathing tourists, only pathways scraped in the blinding whiteness of the salt and the perfect smoothness of the water ponds in which the cordilleras mirror with such perfection that it’s hard, at times, to tell which one is the real version and which one the image.
Oh, and flamingos.
There are three species of flamingos in these lands, and all three are known to migrate. They shouldn’t be here this late in the season, with winter upon us; but a few stragglers remain, sifting through the brackish waters of the lagoons to feast on dense clouds of semi-transparent shrimps.
The scene lacks the grandeur of a BBC documentary, but what it lacks in impact it makes in its homeliness. A gaggle of pink-feathered birds is ambling about in the lagoon, much like worshippers on the parvis after Mass; some are feeding, others rest on one leg in an act of sublime geometric perfection.
A lone flamingo takes flight in a display of pure, distilled grace. A short run like a Jesus Lizard and, then, up it is, flapping majestically its wide wings before it soars higher and higher, effortlessly. As it passes above us I murmur a silent apology to the entire genus. No, these birds don’t belong to Don Johnson’s front lawn and neither to Pablo Escobar’s.
There are mountains to our east and, to quote Arcade Fire, mountains beyond those mountains. Past the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Toconao (claim to fame: a synthetic grass football pitch so green that it can be seen from space) ruta 23 climbs in leisurely turns before it reaches Socaire, altitude 3,600 meters. A Lays chips flag flies from a pole planted outside a convenience store with the same sense of pride and authority of a state banner outside a consulate. It’s a scene of such absurdity that only a sign warning that there won’t be any phone signal from now to Argentina causes us to stop giggling.
The road climbs up in splendid isolation. We stop, walk and sit on the central reservation. No traffic is visible from horizon to horizon. A couple of rheas, cousins of the ostrich that have decided to develop a striking resemblance to a juniper tree, idle around. Gold, white, grey and blue are the only colours.
It’s easy to wonder where everyone has gone; even easier to caress the idea of being alone, the only humans in this corner of the globe. But the truth is that we’re not alone; in fact, there’s a lot more people and they’re all on the dirt road leading to Laguna Miscanti y Miñiques.
Belo Horizonte-plated Mitsubishi SUVs, Chilean Hi-Luxes and tiny rental Peugeots (whose drivers will receive some bad news once they check them back in at Hertz in Calama) are all inching forward on a rough trail climbing up the side of a mountain at 4,000 metres. There should be only hikers and vicuñas, here, but instead it’s a maelstrom of whining engines, dust and noise. Once up, the rarefied air of the 4,000s is again perturbed by a motorcade of vehicles advancing bumper to bumper, stopping only to regurgitate a platoon of selfie-takers.
Shocked, we double-back on our initial idea of following the caravan and we ditch the car at the earliest opportunity. The air is thin and we feel like nicotine junkies after 20 years of 2-packs-a-day, but we’re effectively alone on the trails. No one, amongst the drive-through tourists, is venturing more than 30 meters away from their vehicles. Such is their dedication to the get-out-selfie-get-back-in routine that most fail to spot the fiercely wild and vulnerable vicuñas grazing nearby.
Drive-thru tourism, we call it. In town seemingly every other shop organises tours and tours will, inevitably, consist of a van driving as close as possible to every natural attraction. I doubt that these guys’ FitBits will get to the mandatory 10,000 steps on those days. Whilst being caught in the high tide of the drive-thru tourism can be annoying, the times between each arrival are blissfully quiet.
In one such occasion we climb higher and higher on ruta 27, sharing the road with a flock of llamas, two Carabineros on motorbike patrol and a small band of heroic Argentinian and Bolivian truckers. They’d braved the descent and now, laden with cars and pipes and other Chilean goods, up they go again, braving a road that gains more than 2,000 metres in altitude in less than 50 kilometres of hairpins.
The road to Argentina is a triumph of smooth tarmac and views so unreal that it feels as if God has given His toolbox to a bunch of geologists and told them “Alright fellas, do your worst”.
Volcanoes tower above the rocky plateau where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia all pile up in a jumble of borders akin to a bunch of footballers celebrating a goal. Peaks run in chains from left to right and viceversa whilst, closer to us, hills change colours with every turn: red to gold and back to ochre. Ponds rimmed by salt crystals and veined with ice run parallel to the road. There isn’t a single petrol station until some distance past the borders, but there’s half a dozen miradors.
Rock monoliths, Monjes de la Pacana, sprouting out of the sand like relics of long-gone civilisations, stumps of columns or perhaps, simply, rocks. Further down the road more vicuñas patrol the salar, vigilant and silent, keeping a close look on us until, defeated by wind and cold, we return to San Pedro.
Of all the traditions of this land, the one of erecting small monuments – half chapel, half tomb – to those involved in a traffic accident is the one I found the most unnerving. There’s something sobering in realising how many crashes had happened and nowhere this was more so than on the ruta 27 as it tumbled down the Andes and into the San Pedro altiplano. The temples went hand in hand with safety exits, long corridors of soft sand and white poles, making it quite clear that this is not a road to be taken lightly.
Every evening, once we’d finished braving hairpins or fording torrents that had washed away the bridges, we end in San Pedro’s plaza. The sun dips behind the cordillera as we sit at a table outside, with views on Licancabur at the end of the road, trying to make it normal to be drinking fruit juices out of beer glasses – no alcohol is to be drunk without eating something, as per regulation. A stream of backpackers parades in front of us; a Brazilian guy, one of those true wanderers you sometimes meet, offers to read us cards in a singsong Italian. His left leg is wrapped tightly in heavy bandages: he was burnt by lava in Bolivia, he says.
The bar has views on both the church, with its un-planked wood beams and thick adobe walls that reminded me of those of Isfahan, and the dusty ATM booth on whose window somebody wrote, in magic marker, that Carols Abreals’ credit card had been given to the carabineros, a testament of Chilean’s good faith and trust in their institutions. We drink our juice pints, feeling uncomfortably like born-again Christians that swapped beer for ice tea, while something – poetry, music – echoes from a bandstand hidden from view by some thick bushes. The trees above us would rustle in the evening breeze, people would walk by hand in hand, dogs would be scratching their backs and the sun would be going down whilst music and words filled the air. And that, we thought, was good.