San Pedro de Atacama, November 29 - December 1

Crossing over the Andes from Argentina to Chile was an event. It's several hundred beautiful and dramatic kilometers from the last significant town in Argentina to the first one in Chile. Until recently, the road over the pass was partially unpaved, so we were prepared for the worst and pleasantly surprised to find good pavement the whole way. The scenery of the Altiplano was stark and breathtaking; photos 1-4 don't do it justice. In addition to rugged mountains, vast vistas, salt flats, lakes, and dormant volcanoes, we were treated to herds of vicuñas and our first wild flamingos.

Although the camper did surprisingly well with the elevation, the same can't be said of its occupants. The road topped out at close to 16,000 feet, far higher than any point in the Continental USA. The three of us who merely gawked out the camper windows did pretty well. Tim, on the other hand, jumped out frequently during the surprisingly long time we spent over 15,000', scrambling up and down hills looking for rocks and artifacts. He was soon hit with typical altitude symptoms -- headache, fatigue, and nausea -- but when the road abruptly dropped 7,000' over just a few kilometers, he recovered quickly.

Customs and immigration procedures -- checking out of Argentina, then further along the road checking into Chile -- were moderately lengthy and a little confusing. Bringing a vehicle across, particularly a rented one, does seem to complicate matters. But the officials on both sides were very nice, and despite the waits and paperwork, we weren't aware of any significant problems. The biggest excitement was getting rid of the eggs we had in our refrigerator (it turns out no raw plant or animal products are allowed into Chile); the only acceptable means of disposal was to cook them with a Chilean customs official looking on. Nothing like a quick scrambled-egg snack to propel one over the border.

We were looking forward to arriving in the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Our Lonely Planet guidebook calls it a "tourist boomtown ... the gringo gathering point of Northern Chile," while the Rough Guide goes even further to say it's "the tourism centre of [the entire country of] Chile." We're not fans of super-touristy places, but in a remote area like the Atacama Desert, we figured a bit of tourist infrastructure couldn't hurt.

Our first impression couldn't have been further from what we'd imagined. (We often marvel at how different the places we travel turn out to be from how we'd been envisioning them.) Finding a place to park overnight was at least as frustrating and time-consuming as our legendary propane quest in Salta, although on a different physical scale: We navigated the maze of the tiny town's dusty, narrow, one-way streets literally 5-10 times attempting to track down the various places our guidebooks suggested one could camp, ultimately finding little more than walk-in barren dirt patches. At wits end, we finally located a decent vehicle-accessible camping area we could share with a group of 22 gregarious Brits traveling the length of South America in a massive orange four-by-four adventure bus (photo 5).

As usual, the next morning things looked a lot better. The Brits were fun to chat with, and when we explored the town on foot we did indeed appreciate the cafés, wireless internet, and widely-spoken English, all thanks to the tourist boom. Money matters don't seem to have caught up yet, though. Remember how in Argentina we couldn't withdraw more than $100 at a time from an ATM? In Chile -- or at least using San Pedro's one working ATM -- the maximum withdrawal is a whopping $40. We'd gotten used to stomaching the $5 foreign-ATM fee with each $100 withdrawal, but $5 per $40 is simply against our principles. We dipped into our emergency cash and travelers checks, which people here seem eager to exchange.

After crossing the pass, we spent two days in and around San Pedro. In addition to general puttering about and visiting sites and a museum in town, we rode our bikes to some ruins and a short but stunning hike adjacent to the local "Death Valley" (photo 6). We also took a half-day excursion to some steep dunes where we had a lot of fun (and got extremely dirty) learning how to sandboard (photos 7 and 8), and we prepared for what we hope will be our next adventure: a 3½ day tour through southeastern Bolivia.

The parts of Bolivia we'll visit, if all goes well (see below), aren't navigable by the Hot Chile Camper, nor are we allowed to take it into Bolivia even if they were. So we've signed up for a packaged trip in a small convoy of SUVs, with promises of geysers, active volcanoes, flocks of flamingos, and massive salt flats including a night in a hotel made of salt. There's one potential glitch, however: As of November 30 (yesterday) -- truly terrible timing -- entry requirements for US citizens entering Bolivia have been tightened dramatically to the point that we can't possibly meet them, nor would it ever be worthwhile for a short trip. The booking agent is hopeful that during these first few days transitioning to the new requirements, it may be possible to get a waiver if we pay an informal extra fee (wink). So we'll head for the border and hope for the best; worst case we turn back.

Even if we do get into the country, the Bolivia trips from San Pedro are renowned for their unpredictability in terms of comfort and overall enjoyment. Our guidebook states emphatically that for every five tourists who rave about the Bolivia foray as the highlight of their vacation in northern Chile, there's one who says it was a "waking nightmare." Will we manage to take the trip? If so, will we be among the five, the one, or some combination? Verdicts in the next travelog.

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