Two months ago we had landed in the sticky heat of Asuncion, Paraguay. My girlfriend and I had quit our jobs, bought a ticket back to Europe from Cuba 8 months later and launched ourselves into the Latin American continent. We had embarked on the journey of a lifetime. We had never felt more alive!

The day before we had stranded in Copiapo – an unassuming, not particularly inviting mining town in north central Chile. We were not here for the mining – just to be clear. Copiapo is the gateway town to some of Chile’s most spectacular and least visited natural wonders, from the turquoise waters of Bahia Inglesa to the living desert that is Pan de Azucar National Park to the towering volcanic peaks of Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park. This is why we were here. All we had to do was go!

We managed to navigate our way through the dusty town to the Tourism Information Center – this was not going to be a small undertaking. We needed someone to give us some form of guidance. An hour later we re-emerged into the blinding sun on the central plaza. While we had enjoyed the air-conditioning the advice given to us had been less than useful – to put it politely. We decided to wing it and go for it alone! We had come for an adventure – we needed to create it ourselves!

The next morning at the crack of dawn we loaded our supplies (enough water to drown a whale, mostly boring tinned food and a bottle of rum) into our super sturdy ‘camioneta’ or mining truck. After pulling into the filling station, squeezing every last drop of fuel into our 76 litre tank and stocking up on an additional 12 litres of emergency fuel we headed for the barren hills in the distance watching Copiapo disappear into our rearview mirror. Our excitement was contagious!

Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces was until recently, the undiscovered jewel of the Atacama region. Few travellers venture into the park, despite its abundant wildlife, stunning lagoons and towering volcanic peaks.

We set our course for Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces – the undiscovered jewel of the Atacama region. Few travelers venture into the park, despite its abundant wildlife, stunning lagoons and towering volcanic peaks. The park, located 170km from Copiapo, is hardly remote but access is limited to 4×4 vehicles over poor roads and where direction signs are scarcer than water in a desert. This is probably what has kept it one of Chile´s best kept secrets. And now Chile was going to share its secret with us.

The landscape changed as we penetrated further into Atacama Desert – the dusty dull brown became vibrant greens and yellows. Under the dark blue sky the transformation was incredible. We were mesmerised.

Our destination for the day was Laguna Santa Rosa; a flamingo filled lagoon located next to a salt flat 170km from Copiapo. The road gradually deteriorated and soon we slowed to a crawl alternating between first and second gear bouncing up and down. Slowly we ascended a high altitude pass that leveled out at 4200m. Having ascended over 3km in altitude in 4 hours we were starting to feel the altitude. The headaches first, nausea next. We were starting to wonder if it would be worth it!

We needn’t have worried. The view of Laguna Santa Rosa was worth every little bit of discomfort. There must have been over 100 flamingoes feeding in the Laguna. Splashed of pink against the horizon. We had arrived at a special place, there were no other humans within 100km in each compass direction. We were very alone. The silence was deafening.

We spent some time exploring the edge of the Laguna before returning to the refugio (small abandoned mountain hut) to simply watch the day draw to a close. The night that followed could not have been a greater contrast to the perfect day we had experienced. Both of us spent the night twisting and turning, trying to find a position that would ease the headaches and nausea. It was a long uncomfortable night.

The next day emerged beautifully out of the gloom. I left my sleeping bag and ventured into the morning chill to watch it emerge. Once again it was the silence that proved to be the perfect ingredient for the setting. It was glorious.

We set of for the Salar de Maricunga, a vast white expanse under a deep blue sky located at 3700m. Seeing as we had a sturdy 4×4 we were soon happily ploughing through the salt flat being careful to keep our speed up to avoid getting bogged down.

From there we set of for Laguna Verde, a turquoise lagoon located at 4200m. Due to the intense salinity of the laguna there is currently no life found within it. But before we headed to the laguna we had a side-trip to make: Volcan Ojos del Salado, the world´s highest active volcano at 6893m. We figured we had plenty of time to get to the summit and be back down before lunch!

We checked our fuel level…we had budgeted for 1000km – there was no where to get fuel in the park. We decided we had enough for this side trip. We pulled of the road, engaged the 4 wheel drive and followed the bumpy 2 wheel track. It was about 25km to the base camp.

We came around a bend and stumbled upon a fascinating ice field. Shards of ice, taller than us, stood as if sprouting from the earth. Bizarre. They were extremely fragile, collapsing at the merest touch. To us it was a mystery as to how they were formed. We walked (more like staggered) back to our car, the altitude (4800m) was making us feel drunk. We felt privileged to be in such a beautiful place. It’s a memory that has been engraved in our minds.

We continued on following the track until we got to deeper sand and we simply ground to a halt. Our car refused to go further. What the fuc…eh…fudge monkeys. We couldn’t understand, had we hired a shitty 4×4 or were we simply too stupid to use it? Don’t answer that. We managed to reverse, turn…and that’s as far as we got. We were stuck. Jorien took over the driving while I got dirty in the sand trying to dig us out. After several efforts the car suddenly lurched free. Relief! No basecamp for us. We retraced our route to the main road disappointed we didn’t make it to the volcano. Plus, possibly worse, we had wasted about 25km worth of fuel. We continued to Laguna Verde.

Laguna Verde, instead of turquoise, was like its name suggested – green. We followed a track that descended to its shores and located a campsite that was worth a million bucks. In Copiapo they had warned us that temperatures could drop to -18C next to Laguna Verde but instead it was a toasty -5C.

The next morning we spotted steam rising from the edges of the Laguna, pockets of warm water in an otherwise freezing laguna. We followed the steam until we stumbled upon a hotspring, large enough for 2, with the perfect temperature against the chilly morning. The view wasn’t too bad either! We didn’t hesitate, unperturbed by the mild sulphurous odour and the floating algae.

Bath time over, we were keen to head to Laguna Negro Francisco. The car however, was having none of it. It wouldn’t start. This wasn’t a surprise, it had been cold. We had inquired about bringing anti-freeze but apparently it was unnecessary (according to Pedro the mechanic). Eventually it got going, but it didn’t even have the power to complete a 3-point turn without stalling. It was time to ask for some advice – luckily a group of hikers had turned up the night before and Pedro, the Bolivian mountain guide with them generously gave us a quick run-down about how to use these mining cars.

Apparently the engine should be left running 20 minutes prior to use. He also clarified the use of the 4 wheel drive, we had indeed been stupid the day before. We were good to go, so of course against our better judgment and fuel reserves we headed straight for Ojos del Salado base-camp. Soon we were ploughing our way through deep sand and steep gullies keeping our accelerator floored. It was exhilarating! An hour later we drove into base-camp at 5250m. It was high, it took an effort to simply walk around, and it left us gasping for oxygen. The climbers returning from the summit looked in better shape than us. We didn’t linger, it was time to descend, we rattled our way back.

We now started paying closer attention to our fuel situation. We had half a tank left, and this was after adding the 12 emergency litres. Maybe this had been one side-trip too many. We didn’t dwell on it – there was no point. We continued along the terrible road to Laguna Negro Francisco. 60km took us 2 hours, our jaws hurt from the rattling, we needed to find a dentist. We also wasted another 10km worth of fuel after taking several wrong turns. You kind of simply aimed in the direction you thought you should go and that was it. Not 100% reliable by any means!

At 5pm we reached the Laguna at 4200m. Another impressive flamingo filled laguna with Volcan Copiapo as backdrop. It was a fascinating laguna, with an average depth of 45cm. Incredible. We picked a spot and watched the birds till the wind chased us off to look for a place to sleep. We drove along the laguna, shelter seemed scarce until we came upon the CONAF refugio. It was locked, but this was not a problem for Maurice who simply went around the back and tried to force a window before finding the back door unlocked. The refugio was fully equipped with beds, kitchen, toilets and most importantly ping-pong table. We made ourselves comfortable.

Before we went to bed we discussed the fuel situation again. We decided to risk taking a track that left around the back of the refugio. It was short, direct and located on the map as a possible route back to Copiapo. We felt confident it was the way to go but concern did creep in knowing that if we got stuck halfway along, we wouldn’t have enough fuel to take another route. Worse, nobody knew we were even here. We fell into an uneasy sleep dreaming of the uncertain day ahead.

The final morning broke, cold and silent. We went through the car starting routine and followed the track. We were tense and stressed. This had to work. The track wound its way up towards the skyline deteriorating with every km. The doubts started creeping in. Suddenly we came to an abrupt stop. Our worst nightmare a reality; the road ahead, not worthy of its name nor its place on the map, disappeared into a ravine. Completely washed away. It was impossible to pass, 4×4 or not. We sat in silence and stared. Fuck. It was time to switch to ´Plan B´, except we didn’t have one.

We had wasted valuable fuel reserves. The tank read less than a quarter and we were at least 100km from Copiapo. We were in trouble. Besides the hikers we had not seen any other people. Our options were limited. we retraced our route back past the laguna to a turn-off heading into the mountains which eventually dropped down to Copiapo. A dusty sign read 182km. We would never make it.

The road climbed steeply. Suddenly we came upon Mina Maricunga, a Canadian gold mine bordering the national park, and a direct threat to the fragile laguna. We drove to the barrier that marked the entrance to the mine, the road to Copiapo lay beyond it.

Me: ´Can we pass through to Copiapo?´

Mine Worker: ´Sure no problem, but it’s a long way, about 5 hours´

Me: ´Puta Madre! You can’t be serious, we are running low on fuel and this is the quickest way right?´

Mine Worker: ´Yes, but it’s a bad road. How much fuel do you have?´

Me: ´A quarter´

Mine Worker: ´Ah que no! You will never make it.´

No Shit. The mineworker left us standing at the barrier and went to speak to his superior, sat in a pick-up truck close by. A short discussion followed before the mineworker beckoned us over. They would give us fuel. We were overcome with relief. We generously received 40 litres, more than enough to do the job.

Me: ´Thanks you so much. How much can we pay you?´

The supervisor simply shook his head ´Follow me, I´ll show you the road to Copiapo”.