When I hired the Great White Teapot at Calama I had arranged a permit to take the vehicle into Argentina. I thought it would be a romantic idea to cross the Andes. The northern passes were the best bet, the ones to the south are higher and quite likely to be snowbound at this time of year. So we decided to drive out on the CH27 towards the Paso de Jama and, if things went well, perhaps complete the crossing.
The road from San Pedro de Atacama takes you out past the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama. This was the only place we saw any quantity of free water in the area the whole time we were there. Some kind of burst main or similar had actually flooded the road.
The road approaches a shoulder of the Andes and then crosses it. Seen from our place in Coyo it all looks quite simple. But the scale of the this place is immense. We drive for a long time across the plain before even beginning the ascent. Then we ascend for what seems like forever.
We gradually pass our friend Licancabur on its southern side and the real size of the volcano becomes clear. There is still a goatherd, lonely or otherwise working here. We can see him from the road with his animals. We stop. Look back at the wide, wide vista of the plain and the salt flats. San Pedro and Coyo we can just about make out way off in the distance.
We drive on. And up. Up is the order of the day. You’ve never seen so much up in just one road. We wind from time to time. We pass the Chilean custom post though the border with Argentina is still many miles to the east. There is a sign for Bolivia. First left, keep on through the Andes, you can’t miss it. But always up and up and up.
The road levels, there are patches of snow at the side of the road. The landscape is barren, gravelly. There are high peaks streaked in snow all around us. We drive on in brilliant sunshine. Without it this would be a bleak and desolate place indeed. There are a few other vehicles around. A handful of big lorries. We think they leave their trailers near the top to be picked up by drivers from the other side. But the feeling we have is of isolation. Of being on the edge of the world.
We are near the highest point of the crossing, 15 874 feet. I was slightly worried about breathing at this altitude. Wimpy, I know but there was a lot of talk about altitude sickness in the publicity material. I feel exhilarated though. Maybe the low oxygen, maybe just the sheer elation of the drive. Looking back we can see the very top of Licancabur but viewed from the east side for the first time. The Rock of the peak is volcanic black. It has white lines of snow. It looks forbidding.
We stop at a big and partly frozen area of water and coarse looking grass. At first sight it looks as empty as the rest of the landscape. We get out. There is a walled parking area which is a bit of a surprise. The area is full of sparrow type birds. They are very active picking up something, seeds I suppose, from the gravel.
Then we see the beasts. They are grazing in quite big groups on the grass a couple of hundred yards away. At the time we thought they might be llamas, maybe domestic. Later we showed a photo to Jany who immediately said ‘vicuña’ and assured us they were wild. Then we saw large numbers of ducks and a big black and white goose. Also a gull which actually dived at me a couple of times. At 15 000 feet there is still plenty of life.
We finally decide that the actual Argentina crossing is not on. The border is still miles off and it is getting late in the afternoon. It’s just not practical. There is always the doubt about the weather at the back of your mind too. A fabulous drive in the bright sunshine but if the clouds come down as we know they can…..
We turn back. On the way back we get a view of the Mountains to the north west. Many of them will be in Bolivia. They form a distant snow spattered wall against a pale blue sky. In front of them is a frozen lake. A wildly beautiful scene. We resist the temptation to nip into Bolivia just to say we’ve been there. Back past the customs post. Eventually the huge plain of the Atacama desert opens out in front of us. We make the longest descent I’ve ever made outside of a plane and then we’re on the flat driving back to San Pedro.
We are Not disappointed. When we look out in the quiet of the evening back at Coyo we feel we’ve achieved a lot. We’ve seen the other side of our favourite volcano and seen what the world is like on top of the shoulder. Something we’ve wondered about since we arrived here. Tonight we know this wild, strange place a little better.