After a long day of hiking and driving, we pull up to brown–on–brown stone huts that don't look like much from the outside, but again are a different story inside. Explora has set them up again with private baths, toasty sleeping quarters, and a kitchen combining stocked dry ingredients and what has come along in the support vehicle. Once again, we eat very well and sip some Chilean Carmenere.
Colorful Life in the Desert
As if to prove the desert is not lifeless, the next day we come to Turquiri Lagoon, a place teeming with birds. It's surrounded by strange rock formations, those green moss blobs, and a marshy area that the llamas love on the other side. After hiking all the way around, we cover our plates with a colorful array of food waiting on a table: tomato and basil salad, potatoes, sausages, rolls, and hard–boiled eggs. It comes with a view of the lagoon and hoodoos, birds flitting from rock to rock around us.
The rest of the day is a parade of pink flamingos in two other salty lagoons, their heads bobbing up and down as they find brine shrimp in the shallow waters. Framed by mountains and a clear blue sky, it's a postcard–perfect scene — and one hard to believe exists two miles above sea level. The brisk wind reminds us though, so it's comforting to find our accommodations shielded from it at Cañapa, where our shipping container homes for the night are situated.
We set out on our own hikes around the area, drawn by the stunning views that top anything I ever imagined existed in Bolivia, much less out in a place where we can't see another living soul. Yet when we meet up in the container converted to a dining car, we're dining on wild duck in a warm room and wondering what's for dessert.
A Run for the Border
After returning to the "Stinky Lagoon" to catch the flamingos in the morning light, we head south toward Chile, stopping off at several other lakes large and small. A red one with different breeds of flamingos, geese, Andean gulls, and sprinting vicuñas — the smaller brown relative of the llama and alpaca. Then a white lagoon, a green one, and one with a lone camper van parked in a spot ready–made for a camping equipment ad.
We see more vehicles as we get closer to the border with Chile, though calling anything a "road" here seems overly generous. You can spot tracks going across the parched dirt, but they're more of an indication of where a vehicle went than where one should go. Felix has done this trip dozens of times, however, and knows the way without thinking about it.
Occasionally we pull over and see another overland group taking in the overlook view or checking out some particularly strange rock formations. We find a real parking lot when we get to a geothermal plain erupting in steam and boiling mud, seeing more people in one place than the whole rest of the trip added together. Although our vehicles look equally dusty and abused, however, I think we've got them all topped. We've been eating better food, drinking better wine, and enjoying the most precious upscale amenity: having nature to ourselves each night in Explora's own lodgings.
As we roll down a perfectly paved road into Chile and get settled into our nice rooms at Explora Atacama, it's clear we're back in the land of civilization, in a full–blown tourist town where the foreigners outnumber the locals. As we gear up for another few days of adventure in the Atacama Desert while spending three nights here, our group sits together at dinner, looking at each others' photos and reliving the past days' adventures under an open sky, one we seemed to have all to ourselves.
If you go:
Explora runs their Travesia tours in both directions between Explora Atacama hotel and Uyuni, but the northern route loops around to finish at the coast. See the itineraries at the explora.com site and you can book their Atacama adventure lodge with or without the tour. See our full review of Explora Atacama Hotel de Larache.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott.