Our first decision when we awoke in the south-eastern corner of the Atacama Desert was to determine if we could make it to San Pedro de Atacama with the little amount of fuel we had remaining in our tanks. I decided with “she’ll be right”, whereas Ciaran opted to pay an extortionate price for fuel from the lady who’s backyard we slept in. After jumping on the road north to San Pedro, we opted for a short detour into the salar to visit Laguna Chaxa, home to many flamboyances of flamingos, including the strangely stunning pink flamingo. I can only assume God wanted to see how far he could push the envelope after watching the regiments of flamingos standing in extremely salty water eating tiny krill on top of stilts.
The laguna itself was split into a couple of lakes and was quite pretty – however, as our time in the Atacama progressed, we quickly learned that this was only a taste of what was to come.
After making our way into San Pedro and refilling my parched tank (I got yelled at for skipping the line 🙁 ), we searched for a hostel that we could park our bikes, and didn’t have a crazy “no alcohol” rule. Later that afternoon we remounted our steeds and headed off towards Valle de la Luna in search of a beautiful sunset, and damn we were rewarded. A short hike up a sandy path to the top of the valley presented us with stunning views to the surrounding valleys and plains as the sun slowly set. We stood and watched as the sky transitioned from blue, to yellow, to orange, before finally settling on a deep red before darkness.
The ride back to the hostel proved less than ideal as we made our way back along the pitch black sandy roads into town. But in the end, it was worth it.
Our second day in the desert started off with a short walk into the very dusty town in search of a quick breakfast, before heading out to explore more lagunas. Our destination for the day: Laguna Baltinache. The route here took us along an absolutely terrible dirt and sand road, with 4wds blazing past us far too close and far too fast.
Laguna Baltinache is a collection of 7 individual lagunas ranging in size separated by the rough Martian like landscape of salt. We crunched over the salt winding our way between the laganas under the scorching sun and the blindingly reflective white ground. The first few pools were large shallow ponds coated with a layer of salt.
The other pools were an exquisite mix of blues and greens depending on which way you looked. The clear water let us see the impressive juxtaposition of the smooth salt formation under the water, compared to the rough jagged salt covering the ground above.
We had been informed on the way in that we were allowed to swim in one of the lagunas. A quick test of the water confirmed my suspicions: it was fucking cold. Nevertheless, we slowly disrobed and eventually built up the courage to enter the frigid water. It was a strange experience to me; being in super salty and dense water made floating very easy. However, the freezing cold quickly took over and it wasn’t long before I needed to get out.
The following day we planned to explore the expansive Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) and the surrounding area. We climbed higher and higher on the bikes, quickly passing 2500, 3000, 3500, and eventually and 4000 m where we levelled out. We had noticed the bikes slowly losing more and more power the higher we climbed due to the reducing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It was decided that it would probably be best if we turned around and headed back to our hostel for some much needed carburettor adjustments. Our afternoon was spent becoming intimate with our carbs as we changed the jetting to reduce the amount of fuel entering into the engine, to hopefully increase the performance of both bikes.
That evening we explored some of the many markets. Clothing and various knick-knacks made up most of the merchandise, with llama wool prevalent. While Nathan perused, I found a pretty great beanie that proved useful in the cold month ahead. A few streets off the main avenue, the food was cheap and delicious. For a handful of change we were treated to delectable meat soups and a main dish of chicken and salads. Our hunger satisfied, we ambled towards upbeat music that drifted in the winds. The beating of the drums intensified with the footfalls of the dancers before us, their colourful garments dancing with them. They alternated between a group of women dancing in lines, and two men twirling and stomping with youthful vigour.
With a few adjustments to the pilot screw as we climbed up into the same mountains of the day past, we worked out the kinks and had both motorcycles purring seductively. Atop the plateau we were greeted by swathes of yellow, reminiscent of Autumns past. We parked outside a small building marking the entrance to Yerbas Buenas, a site full of 10000 year old petroglyphs on the surrounding rock formations. They mainly depicted llamas and other wildlife, as well as the occasional person. In the distance we spied a couple of real life llamas, and obviously wandered over to get a better look.
As the landscape opened in front of us, we were greeted by a herd of over 30. With a child’s wonder, we slowly walked with the llamas as they wandered through the valley munching on each bush they passed. I don’t know about Nathan, but I was giddy with glee. As the day stretched on, we begrudgingly turned back and jumped on the bikes.
Arriving in Valle del Arcoiris, it was as if we had gone through a portal to another world. Something alien. And damn was it beautiful. Between the mountains of red, blue and green, we drifted on corrugated roads and splashed through streams. The half-marked tracks had no real destination, simply another perspective of the gorgeous surrounds. I wanted to build a shack and live out my days with a llama amigo.
From Rainbow Valley we continued on, skirting the edges of cliffs on a tight winding road towards Rio Grande. This offered fantastic views over the valley and river below, as well as the colourful mountains we left behind. As dusk rolled in, the clouds above were illuminated into a brilliant inferno, and we returned to San Pedro.
Before departing on our final day, we wandered through a pop-up street market that was packed with practical items, such as clothes, tools and appliances. Locals were out in droves, with nay a tourist in sight. Nathan picked up a missing tool from his kit, and eyed off the handguns for sale on a table next to CDs. With Atacama behind us, we pressed on to the border of Chile and Bolivia, roaring through the last stretch of highway. What began as a sleepy ascent soon turned into excitement sprinkled with anxiety. The icy winds pummelled us from every side, trying to force us off the road as we passed salt flats that reflected the yellow cacti and the reds and blues of the mountains. After 300 km we arrived in Ollague, marked by its rusty railway infrastructure. And with that we bade farewell to Chile, a country full of adventure and new friend.