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And so, on ‘day 9 on-the-road’, of a 21 days on the road trip, we effectively started the ‘return home’. We enjoyed a full English breakfast and some sightseeing in San Pedro.

Our goals had included seeing C. tocopillana just south of Tocopilla and C. atacamensis on Morro Moreno, north of Antofagasta. Both involved extensive climbs, Alain was still feeling bad and Benjy’s detailed maps were still in the UK. Plus the weather at the coast, that had driven us north, was still an unknown factor.
Anne and I in particular were keen to have our picture taken at the airport of Maria Elena. A few years ago, a TV programme series called ‘Extremes’ had officially declared this to be the driest place on earth – i.e. the driest place where equipment was kept to measure such things and where official weather records were kept. From memory, the record of 0.04 mm average annual rainfall over a 30 year period was the result of one single brief shower during that period. We drove along Ruta 24 from Chuquicamata to Maria Elena (83 km) and, if we had bothered, could have counted the plants that we saw along the road on the fingers of our combined hands.

At Maria Elena, we found a sign and barrier across the track that allegedly led to the (disused?) airport (S257) and duly took each other’s picture. And because we’ll grow up one day, but not until many years in the future, Alain and I had to mark the spot in a way that proved that, at least at that time, it had not been the driest place on earth.

It was decision time – on to Tocopilla, or turn south to Antofagasta. We voted sensibly and unanimously for Antofagasta. After a long lonely drive through the desert, entering a major town (285,255 inhabitants) can be a little unsettling. We found a petrol station to top up, then headed north – west, to take a look at tomorrow’s challenge: the 1,148 m. high Morro Moreno. To give us a head start, we decided to spend the night in the small hamlet of Juan Lopez, at the foot of the Morro, rather than to drive the c. 30 km back into Antofagasta. Mistake. The single taps in the bath room were an indication that there was running water, that came in one form only – cold. The elderly couple and assistant that ran the place, and seemed omni present, seemed to share 3 teeth between them. There was no electricity, until night fall, when the generators started up all round the village. We were the only guests and the restaurant was not due to open until breakfast time. We found what seemed to be the only other open restaurant and found it crammed full of people, huddled around the television set. The owner was keen to make his foreign visitors welcome, told some of the locals to move and prepared a table and (as usual) excellent food for us, while we shared the disappointment with the other guests, at Chile’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ecuador.

Noises during the night indicated that Alain’s stomach was not responding to the usual medicines. Not a good omen for tomorrow’s planned adventure.

S257: The airport at Maria Elena – the driest place on earth.

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