The road from the Peruvian border to Iquique and Antofagasta through the Atacama desert is unsurprisingly imposing, if monotonous. It’s quite relaxing to sit on the bus and gaze out of the window at the dead, stony landscape which, although bare, is certainly not uncolourful. There are delicate hues of red, yellow, olive green and black with many subtle variations on brown: from light cocoa beige on the distant dunes during dawn to dark chestnut on the boulders by the highway. Nor is the Atacama featureless. The bus occasionally traverses a bridge over a canyon that becomes suddenly visible – with the Chaca Canyon the first and most impressive – or the odd national park such as the strange National Reserve of Tamarugal full of Tamarugo trees that thrive in dry saline environments.

Antofagasta is the biggest and most important town between Santiago and Lima, the centre of commerce for the North of Chile. Yet the approach is less dramatic than to other desert  towns like Iquique, Arica or Calama:  there is no descent down to the Pacific, nor any ascent up to the Andes and you don't know you're there until you’ve arrived, if that makes sense. What you find when you leave the bus is a low-rise grid of streets which grow in various directions, with the expensive villas near the sea and the slums up in the mountains.

Because of the distinct lack of landmarks, I decided to visit the rock of La Portada north of the town and a symbol of the Antofagasta region– District II, if you are a map geek. You can only go there by micro bus, which was leaving... NOW! The woman in the ticket office insisted I pay for a return ticket and tell her at what time exactly I’d be returning.

I had no idea.

‘Are you sure ?‘ she persisted. Yes, I was sure that I was unsure, I assured her.

Around an hour later, a micro left me at La Portada stop. I’d expected a cafe, a restaurant, cars, movement. Instead I was dumped in front of a construction site. The municipal government was apparently building a snack bar, realising that many people come over to see La Portada, but I was early by what, six months ? It dawned on me that ‘many tourists’ in the Atacama probably meant one a day – and today it was me. It was 1.30pm, the sun was baking hot and my bottle of water was only half full. I was there, so scoot!

I climbed down to the coast and made my way through beach upon beach, until I came across La Portada herself, a naturally eroded sea-arch set in a cliffscape, not unlike the south-western tip of the Algarve. A dead seal was rotting on the sand of the nearest cove surrounded by seagulls and those condor-like Chilean turkey vultures. I approached the carcass and disturbed their dinner in the process. Hell hath no fury like a vulture vexed. They dive-bombed ferociously around my head, cackling and crowing, until I retreated unconditionally.

But not before I’d spotted the reason the seal had died. There were two bullet wounds in its lower body. The bus had passed an army base on the way. I suppose soldiers don’t get as much live target practice in Atacama than, say, Afghanistan.

Still on the run from the vultures,  I climbed up to the building site and asked a builder how frequently the buses came.

‘When did you arrange to return ?‘ he asked back.

‘I didn't. I didn't know how long I'd spend here ‘.

‘They only make the detour to La Portada if they know they have to pick up someone ,’ he said.  ‘You’ll have to flag a bus on the main highway. It's six kilometres away. There are only four-five buses a day, but you may get a hitch back on a lorry.  ‘

Aha! I now understood why the ticket lady pressed me about my return. I cursed. We are all wiser after the fact.

‘Does any bus come to pick you lot up? ‘

‘Pick us up? We live here, ‘ the builder said and pointed at some portacabins.

Great. Now I had to hitch in the bloody Atacama – in the afternoon! I made my way to the main road. The dirt track I was on was flanked by wire fences and signposts:  “Military area – do not cross.” I thought of the dead seal and made sure I didn’t stray.  For a while I toyed with the idea of taking of my white T-shirt and using it as an impromptu white flag, but before I could make up my mind (death by bullet or sunstroke) I reached the main junction. I started hitching, an activity I well and truly detest.

But I was lucky.

Well, sort of. The good news is that after about twenty minutes a car stopped for me. The bad news was that it was a taxi – a proper one with a meter and all. I ask you, what are the chances of flagging down a taxi in the middle of the bleedin’ Atacama? None! Zilch! Apparently the builders had radioed this taxi for me. I swallowed hard as much as I could muster given the lack of precious saliva in my dry mouth, got in and paid for the 16km back to Antofagasta. It cost as much as my hotel room.

So the moral of the story is: if you are heading into the Atacama make sure you know how you’ll return.




You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here
 have some great options in South America here