At the Agua Verde truck stop, deep in the Atacama Desert, I woke early. I had camped in an abandoned shack, while Christian and Maria – the couple that had picked me up the morning before – slept in the cabin of their truck. After a light breakfast, we were off again, driving through some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, while episodes of ‘World’s Toughest Prisons’ played on the dash-mounted smart-phone.
Around mid-morning, we passed a solitary hovel on a patch of nameless desert in the middle of nowhere. Christian told me the story of the hermit who lived there, a renowned doctor from the city of Antofagasta, until a car accident killed his wife and child at that very spot, 20 years ago. Since then he had survived off the charity of passing drivers, building himself a home out of the hard sand and speaking to no-one.
It was the last tidbit of desert lore I was to receive from the lovely couple that had been my guides the past 24 hours. We arrived at the industrial settlement of La Negra, 20 kilometres outside Antofagasta, at 11 o’clock. I was headed east, to San Pedro de Atacama, and they were headed north. After thanking them both profusely for what had been much more than mere transportation, I hopped down from the cabin and headed for the nearby service station.
Refineries dominated the landscape, rising out of the desert like titanic fossilized arachnid. The service station was a hub for both camioneros and hitch-hikers alike. One of these was Miel, a German hoping to get to the border before his visa expired. Within minutes of our introduction, he was picked up and on his way. Heartened by a fellow nomad’s success, I took my time at the gas station, enjoying the atmosphere. Two resting camioneros invited me for empañadas and tea. We stood between the big rigs, chatting about yoga and tai chi until, soon enough, I found another ride.
Silvio jerked the stick, slapped the wheel and changed the radio without ever finishing a song. When we passed camioneros from rival companies he would make offensive gestures and at the toll booths he flirted with the cashiers. I could barely understand a word of his rapid-fire Chilean, but I gathered that his politics were surprisingly nuanced and that he took pride in his indigenous blood.
After smoking and honking his way through the three hours to Camala, he dropped me on the highway outside the city as the day was getting hottest. Just the walk to the San Pedro turn was exhausting and I was running low on water. It was only an hour to my destination. The thought of the bus shimmered like a mirage in my mind. But then, as I arrived at the turn, a couple driving a hatchback stopped for two other hitchhikers. I managed to scramble aboard, squeezing in the back with my pack on my lap, unable to speak or move my head for its bulk.
But it hardly mattered. I had done it: 1200 kilometres through the desert and not a penny spent. And yet, the experience had been infinitely more valuable than a night spent sleeping on a bus.
The next few days in San Pedro felt like just rewards for my efforts. I rented a bicycle and rode through the spectacular Valle de la Luna, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the town in the midst of the celebrations of Chile’s patron saint, La Virgen del Carmen.
When I out again, it was with new confidence in myself. I was picked up by a Belgian couple in a rented jeep and dropped back at Calama. My next destination was Arica, and the border crossing to Peru.
Soon enough, my optimism was tested. The northbound traffic seemed composed mostly of workers heading to the nearby mine and tourist buses cruising tantalizingly past. After two hours of standing in the desert sun, I was ready to head back to town and buy myself a ticket. But then, just as I was approaching the city limit, a truck finally stopped. Climbing aboard, I felt the same serendipity I had felt so many times along my journey. Like the universe was watching out for me and was happy to reward me as long as I could keep my spirits up and my attitude strong.
The side of Michael-Angel’s camion was adorned with paintings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was no A/C, so both windows were all the way down while an eclectic soundtrack featuring The Doors, Eurythmics, and a whole lot of Reggaeton blasted over the wind. He grooved in his seat and bellowed conversation, telling me all the Chilean profanities he could think of and cackling as I repeated them back to him.
He was from the lush south and thought the desert ugly. With him, it did seem more desolate. Plastic bags streamed from the fences as we passed ghost towns and the cemeteries of the salt-miners who had lived in them. All through my journey, I had seen roadside shrines, and as we descended through a perilously winding canyon, he told me of a fellow camionero who had been killed at the spot. We often spotted wrecked cars by the side of the highway. Sometimes there were scavengers, salvaging anything that they could. Chileans had thievery in their conquistador blood, he said.
After cruising through the wasteland of enormous mines and asteroid craters, I was finally dropped at the turn-pike to Iqique, halfway to Arica. It was almost 4 o’clock, and I decided I would try for an hour to catch a ride, before finding somewhere to camp beside the road. I remembered back to La Serena, where I had faced a similar prospect with trepidation. Now, I felt only excitement for a night’s solitude camping in the desert.
My deadline had almost arrived when Francisco and his family pulled up. A soldier stationed at a nearby base, he sat in the back beside me, still in uniform, speaking gently and systematically to make sure I understood. It was not a good spot to wait, he told me, and they would drop me at the town of Huelva, 20 kilometres up the road. His wife, the driver, warned me about the Bolivian and Peruvian immigrants coming through the area. They were not like Chileans, and certainly not like southern Chileans. The south was the heart and soul of the country.
I arrived in Huelva as the sun was beginning to set. Not long after, a bus pulled up, destined for Arica. I got on it. Of course, the conductor was professionally disinterested, but by that time I was grateful merely for the three hours of rest that ensued as the sun turned the red mountains blue. I thought back on all the windows I had looked through that past week of hitching. Not only windows out, onto landscapes, but windows in, into the lives of so many different people I would never have crossed paths with otherwise.
In Arica, I immediately bought a ticket across the border. Having set out at eight that morning, I left Chile at half past nine that evening, crossing the border into Peru.