This is Part 2 of 3 in the Chile Overlander Series. To read Part 1, see here.
There’s two words to describe the Pan American adventures we’ve had over the last couple of weeks. Stealth camping. It is always a toss-up on what kinds of adventures we’ll run into next, but the overland camps we’ve situated ourselves in lately have been the most epic we have experienced, and the highlight of this leg of the trip… so far.
No meat-free hippy communes this time around, though we really miss our little dog friend Cheeky. Since we’re in the narrowest country on the Pacific Ocean, one thing has remained consistent. The gorgeous, deserted beach camps that we cannot get enough of. In conjunction with the hidden overland camps we’ve found more inland, our outdoor accommodations seem to get better and better lately.
Stealth camping: “The act of secretly camping in a public or private area (sometimes legally – sometimes illegally) and moving on the next morning without being detected”.
We really don’t have the need to camp illegally since there seems to be open public land just about everywhere we go in Chile. However, we’ve sometimes camped in spots where it’s hard to tell if we’re permitted to camp there or not.
Luckily, we haven’t been accosted over it yet. Here’s the lowdown on what it’s been like traversing the Chilean wilderness with Old Grey!
VINCUÑAS AND ALTITUDE IN SAN PEDRO
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, touristy village in the Andes mountains of northern Chile. Lots of travelers visit here to take tours within the driest (and one of the most beautiful) deserts on the planet – the Atacama Desert. All around this area are activities like sand boarding, star gazing, trekking, hiking, and lots more.
Even in the winter months, we found this pretty little town to be hopping with travelers. People were clustered around tour agencies, the bus station, and the restaurants and bars all over town. We had been eager for some socializing, but oddly enough we’re on the more loner side of travel lately. Especially as we search for overland camps outside of the hostel track.
After spending the night in the back lot of a safe San Pedro hostel after our long drive in, we headed out of the village to explore the desert. Just us, and Old Grey.
As we began our ascent up into the Andes towards the nearby Reserva de Flamencos (the Flamingo Reserve), we began to feel an unexpected fatigue.
An all-too-familiar lightheaded feeling began to sink in, reminding us of how we felt during our first few days in Cusco Peru. We knew what this feeling was almost instantly. We were getting altitude sickness. It was no wonder – we were driving around at 15,000 feet above sea level, and just several miles from the Bolivian border no less!
A strange myth about altitude sickness is that it’s like a cold or a flu, and that it lasts long term. In all actuality, it fades quickly if you handle it right, usually within 24 hours or sooner depending on how long you stay at high altitude. The duration of it (in our own experience at least) depends largely on the amount of water you chug, and how good you are at breathing exercises. In this case, we only felt the brunt of it for a few hours.
In Old Grey’s case, we couldn’t get her past 25 miles per hour the entire the way up. She’s an old truck after all, and doesn’t much care for high altitude either! We pressed on towards the flamingo reserve, and she did alright in the end, despite the large overloaded trucks passing us on their way to Bolivia.
Finally arriving at the reserve, we found that all of the flamingos had gone for the winter. Of course! There surely weren’t any flamingos, but there were tons of other gorgeous creatures braving out the season, including pockets of vincuñas (pronounced “veen-coon-yas”). Vincuñas are South America’s cute, llama-like antelope, and they were grazing the land around every turn.
There were different species of ducks and birds, playing around in the icy streams of snowmelt that were trickling between the hills. Between the towering volcanoes and snow-streaked landscape of the desert, the trip through this dry and almost alien place was worth the struggle, and it was the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Chile.
The next goal: finding our overland camp. We were extremely surprised to find a patch of trees in the San Pedro valley where other overlanders had stayed, according to our iOverlander app anyhow. We weren’t quite sure if we were permitted to camp here though, on account that an angry-looking local woman pulled up next to us as we stopped at the entrance of the road, asking us where we were going.
After some complete bullshit we told her about needing to turn around, we waited for her to drive out of sight, and slipped into the tree patch undetected. We loved this spot, and the fiery orange sunset that came with it. It was the first of some truly amazing overland camps we would find over the next week. In the morning, we quietly made our way out of the trees, leaving no traces whatsoever of having been there.
We then headed towards the city of Antofagasta, where we stayed in an apartment on the sea for few days. Sometimes, a good bed is a necessity after living out of a truck for a month!
THE INFLUX OF EPIC OVERLAND CAMPS
Our grand plan consisted of nothing more than to head south after our stay in Antofagasta. As travel life usually goes, we unexpectedly encountered some jaw-dropping sights, and some adrenaline-pumping adventures. Plus, the overland camps we located during this short few days ended up being completely different from one another, and each of them had their own spectacular qualities.
Somewhere South of the City…
Getting out of the smoggy and muggy city of Antofagasta was an extreme relief when the time came to leave. We were grateful to find a quiet deserted area off the highway, where we’d search for our next camp. At dusk, we drove west towards a bright and beautiful sunset. As we searched for a place to pull over, we noticed something strange in the distance.
Nestled in the valley was what appeared to be the ocean. It was a flat plane of white, reflecting the colors of the sunset, stretching all the way to the horizon. But it couldn’t have been the ocean – we were several miles away from the coast. Drawing closer, we realized this sea of white was also completely motionless. Perhaps it was a salt flat. Chile does have those, similar to the ones in Bolivia.
Letting our curiosity get the best of us, we drove even deeper into the hills for a better look, still not making out what it was. As soon as we came to the crest of a large hill, we realized that the motionless white sea that stretched for miles towards the horizon and out of sight was a massive blanket of clouds. Trapped in the valley, this strange, flat wall of fluffy mist was separated from the rest of the desert air, like oil and water.
It sounds sappy, but the sunset that hung over the cloud barrier was breathtaking, and added a strange glow to the surreal scene. The sky was lit up in an indigo blue and tangerine orange, and in a spectrum of color it faded over the horizon, with a yellow half-moon hanging over it like a picture from a story book. It was such a bizarre and gorgeous scene to witness, even as simple as it was. For a moment, it felt as if we were looking in on another universe.
We set up camp on the desert and slept comfortably. In the morning, we couldn’t help but take an unexpected hike up the rocky hills of the area to get a better view of the cloud wall that was hanging over the valley. We realized that our endurance had been strengthened because of our frequent exposure to high altitude throughout Peru and Bolivia. We climbed some huge rocky cliffs and hustled down the other side, and without getting very winded – but the adrenaline was relentless.
Some mornings, you just feel like adventuring. It was a different sort of hike than others, simply for the fact that we were so far from civilization that it is likely no one had ever hiked the same path, nor laid eyes on this particular cloud wall. One of the greatest things about Overland travel is that you can go places where few others have been, and carve out your own unique memories there.
Cloud barriers like this one, and walls of fog, are very common in Chile. The clouds that form over the ocean apparently have a hard time passing the mountains near the coast, hence why the Atacama Desert gets virtually no moisture. But, it makes for some spectacular views and sunsets.
Camping on the Sugar Beach
Literally meaning Sugar Bread Beach, the Pan de Azucar had been an expected stop for us. We just couldn’t resist exploring the area when we stumbled upon this special spot in iOverlander. We saw that it had tons of amazing descriptions from other travelers. Some even raved that it was one of the best overland camps they’d ever stayed in.
Just outside the tiny little town of Chañaral, we found that miles of powdery white sand beach ran through a national park. It was virtually unvisited, with hardly any traces of people at all. Old Grey didn’t even need to be kicked into 4-wheel drive to make her way across the sand. Unlike the deserted beach we nearly got stuck on in Pisagua, it was as easy as pie to drive right towards the water and set up camp.
We’ve come to realize that camping on beaches is much like a game we both used to play as kids. In this game, the entire ground is lava, and you have to keep your toes off the ground at all costs – climbing couches, placing pillows along the floor, or piggy backing on your older brother who has immunity. If you step on the “lava” ground, you die and are out of the game.
In the adult beach-camp game, if you drop anything in the sand, the “lava”, it dies – because you can never fully rid it of the sand. Your phone, a piece of your dinner, a headlamp, and even clean socks or underpants! You simply can’t get those tiny grains out, especially the white powdery stuff we encountered on Sugar Beach. We’ve gotten very good at not dropping things anymore, lest it be lost to the lava never to be the same again.
Though we’re still swiping sand off of our stuff regularly, this camp was a rare find. It’s not often you come across a beautiful deserted beach, that is also easily accessible. Though we wished we could have stayed longer, it was off to the next adventure in the morning.
A SEA OF LIFE IN THE ARID DESERT
As we made our way south towards a little place called Copiapó, trees and bushes began to scatter the landscape. Driving the Atacama Desert since nearly the day of our arrival in Chile, we had grown accustomed to the arid, lifeless desert. We knew we were getting close to a different region, and we also knew that at this point we are headed into the spring season.
No matter how much there was to be read about this region of Chile, nothing could have prepared us for what we stumbled upon next. As we drove along the highway south from Chañaral, we noticed some sprawling purple patches of color at the foot of the dry desert mountains.
Yet again, it was a strange sea-looking anomaly like the cloud wall, that we couldn’t quite figure out at first glance. When we spotted a small parking area near this strange place, we jumped at the chance to pull over and investigate. Just beyond a fence, in the middle of the dry sand and dust, were billions of tiny purple wildflowers spread out for miles along the ground.
Families with their children and dogs wandered through tiny paths worn through the fields of flowers, taking pictures and enjoying the beauty. It was a strange sight, mostly because it was entirely random. First there had been nothing but desert, and then suddenly in just this small area there was life, with dozens of people enjoying the scene.
After wandering for a couple of hours, we headed south again, only to find several more wildflower patches along the way, this time characterized by an outcropping of white lilies. We later found out that this flower power happening had not been seen on the desert for over 20 years. It is such a rare occurrence that people were going far out of their way to experience it. As the Turismo Chile agency [roughly] put it:
“Seeing the most arid desert in the world full of colored flowers, is such an impressive image, that we should all be grateful to observe this at least once in life…”
This was a moment when we were truly grateful to have Old Grey, and to be driving our way through Chile. Had we been stuck on a bus or a plane, we would have never witnessed such a rare and amazing sight.
The Granddaddy of Overland Camps
As mentioned, the adventure never ceases in travel, and it can happen at any moment. That night, once again unexpectedly, we stumbled upon an overland camp that we were sure few others had seen.
Flower dazed and sleepy from the long drive, we randomly pulled off the highway at dusk, through a gate that had been pried open. From the highway, we could see there were no private property warnings, so we made sure that there was a break in traffic before we secretly made our way down the dirt road.
What we came to find was one of the oddest overland camps we’ve come across. Around a hill and out of sight from the highway, was a small abandoned mining village, with yet another gorgeous sunset hanging above.
There were no buildings left, just the foundations and crumbled walls of about half a dozen houses. A chimney still stood tall in one former common room, and each home’s foundation had its front steps intact. Birds had made the trees their permanent home, and filled the place with their song. Tiny daisies popped up from the concrete, and nature was reclaiming much of what was left.
All along the edges of each abandoned place were scattered items from a time long forgotten – tattered children’s’ shoes, elixir bottles, old bottle caps, and broken kitchenware. All of the artifacts looked like they had come from the 40s or 50s era. We were baffled as to the reason this place had been abandoned.
Though we wondered if spirits had attached themselves to this place as well, we slept peacefully and without disturbance. We weren’t quite sure if we were allowed to camp here, but after watching a gorgeous sunrise in the morning, we were gone without a trace and on the road again.
Camping has always been one of our favorite past times, and a large part of our childhoods. Through our overland camps, however, we’re finding the thrill of being stealth about it very enjoyable. The rush of not knowing what our next Overland adventure “theme” will be is exciting, and it makes for one hell of an Overland adventure.
These past two weeks have brought with them the awe and wonder that we’ve sought since the day we arrived in Chile. Finally, we’re out of the desert and into the green spring season. It’s time we head to the areas of this skinny country that we’ve only read about in books, towards Patagonia and the island of Chiloé. We hope the next leg of the trip will be full of exploration and realization, and we’re sure we’ll not only encounter this, but tons of other unexpected adventures as well!
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