Imants is writing:
The alarm clock vigorously rings at 5.50 in the morning. As I went to sleep around 2 o’clock at night, it is clear that I still want to sleep. Agnese had determined that we should leave Antofagasta at 6.15AM for the Atacama Desert. As usual, everything does not happen as expected and we are ready to leave at 6.30AM that is not as bad. The city is slowly waking up and the streets are already beginning to congest, but this is not a big issue. We leave the city fairly quickly and after about half an hour we arrive at La Negra, where we need to refuel. As we go to a very sparsely populated desert area, we also need extra fuel reserves, so we buy a 20 liter fuel can, which is also filled with gasoline. Estimates suggest that with full fuel tanks and this can, we should be able to drive 283 km from La Negra to Monturaqui Crater and return to Antofagasta. We have explored the map previously and we know that there are no petrol stations on this road section.
At about 7.20 we are ready to proceed further. The first 140 km to the Minera Escondida mines are easy for us because the road is mostly very good. In the last kilometers the road’s altitude increases sharply, and I watch from time to time the altimeter of my Garmin smartwatch, which shows 2500, 2600… 3000 meters above sea level and then stops at 3050m when we reach Minera Escondida. Next, we need to exit this road and continue on the bypass, because the main road leads to the mines where we are not allowed to enter. For the time being, it seems that we will get to the destination sooner than the estimated 10 hours of the navigation application.
Here, as we continue to ride uphill, the road surface in the beginning is still good, but when we reach the top of the hill, the road becomes bumpy and rugged. Although I drive as the first and the second car gets all the big dust, we are also starting to breathe in dust in our car. Road quality also affects the speed that drops to 50-60 kilometers per hour or sometimes even less. After we’ve enjoyed such a road conditions for 20 minutes, we are surprised by a new obstacle. We have reached the intersection with traffic lights and a barrier and some plaque with text in Spanish. In the traffic light, the red light is on and the barrier is closed and we do not know whether it is possible to continue our trip or not. Nothing happens for a few minutes and Agnese goes to the nearby booth to find out what’s happening. She returns with the message that we have to wait because the barrier will open in two minutes. It seems to me, however, that we are waiting a little longer, but the traffic light finally switches to green and we can continue. Next nearly 17 km we drive along the same bad road and after half an hour or more we reach the railway station Imilac. It seems that his place has been abandoned by civilization. Maybe the mine train still goes by this place, but some of the buildings here are abandoned and they don’t have windows nor doors anymore.
According to the instructions of the navigation application, we still have to drive more than 40 kilometers and then we will reach the hardest part of the road that leads into the mountains. So far, we have no idea whether it is possible to get where we want.
Further the road leads us around two salt lakes and after that we reach the intersection with the road sign pointed to the Monturaqui. This is a bit misleading, because we need to go is in the opposite direction as this is not the Monturaqui we want to visit today. We continue to rock while driving for some kilometres as the road is still rugged and at 10.30AM we finally arrive at the place where the power line crosses the road. Around one and a half kilometers away in the valley, we also see a power substation. We start driving along a road that runs parallel to the power line, but after a few hundred meters we find that we will not be able to proceed further, because in some places there are deep ditches washed out by spring streams. We turn back to the the big road and, surprisingly, find a relatively better driveway, which leads us to the power substation. In order to be sure that we are heading in the right direction, we stop to have a conversation with the workers on the roadside. I must say that communication when part speaks mainly English, but other part speaks only in Spanish, is not easy. Workers are trying to convince us that there is no road in the mountains and that we have to go back to Monturaqui. It takes some time to impress that we are looking for a crater with such a name, not a populated place.
Following the navigation app we are going over all the valley and again along the power line. After that the road winds a bit and brings us into hills where it gets barely visible. We need to rely on the direction showed by the navigation device and try to find the flattest surface in the valley which resembles a dried riverbed. The driving is slow, but not too hard. The main thing is to avoid big stones and holes.
We stop for the first time when we have gone about 17km from the official road. Here we take pictures of the mountain on horizon and the scarce but colourful plants. For the second tie we stop in another 7km when we have reached the highest point of this road. Here we take a group photo and prepare to leave when the 2nd car messages that their Brilliance has got the check-engine notification lit on the panel. While inspecting the car visually we do not find any mechanical problems. We discuss together what to do next – turn back, go forward by both cars or divide in two groups and go forward by one car since there are still about 18km till the crater.
After the discussion we decide that one group continues going to Monturaqui crater by the first car Suzuki while the 2nd group walks along the same route. When the first group will have gt closer to the crater, the car will return and get the second group to the crater.
I take the first group further to the crater and we spend about 1 hour on the way. Twice the passengers have to get out as deep riverbeds need to be crossed perpendicularly. Here it shows clearly that our second car Brilliance even without any technical issues would not have been able to get the job done. Also with Suzuki these places can be only safely negotiate in 4×4 mode.
When there are about 2.7km left to the crater, one can see a footpath to it in the map. However, it is clearly visible that cars have been driven here, so we follow the tracks, and thus arrive at the very edge of the crater. We have reached the crater at 13:30. This helps to make a tactical decision that the car will not go back to the second group right away, but will return with the first group aboard. And in the meeting point they will switch places.
After viewing the crater we go back to meet the second group. Not far from the crater we spot a nandu who flees into the mountains after noticing the car. Soon after that we notice a vicuna on the roadside and a bit further away on a mountain ridge stands also a guanaco.
The second team has walked about 6km and we meet them at the place where the last and the worst 12 km of road starts. I take them to the crater, where this time we meet another car with Japanese tourists, who have come to the crater by a different road. There is also a German tourist in the crater, who asks us if we have seen a red pick-up car, which, apparently, had taken him to the crater. Again and again we try to explain to him that we came by a different road and haven’t met anyone else on our way. When we’re getting back to the spot where we left our Brilliance, we pick up Ilgonis who has fallen behind the other walkers. The others have gotten further and have almost reached the car. After a short while of rest and snacks we start our way back to Antofagasta. Brilliance manages to move unaided, which brings us hope that we’ll get to the end without towing it or looking for any other technical help.
We get from the highland to the power sub-station much faster – in only one hour. Just a little more and we are back on the theoretical main road. Even though we have already driven a lot today and are tired, we have about 265km more to go to get to our housing.
On the way we eat up the remaining sandwiches, nuts and other snacks as we don’t stop anymore to eat. The only stops along the road are during the sunset at the salt lake and later already in the dark at a spot next to the road where it might be possible to find meteorite’s debris.
I drive till Minera Escondida and then around 10km of the further downhill. To keep everyone awake Agnese continues country and capital quiz which I don’t really participate in anymore. Finally I feel tired. We stop and I help Anders to fill up our Suzuki from the petrol canister we took with us and then get into a passengers seat. Soon I fall asleep and thus cannot tell what happens till Antofagasta.