Across the Andes on Explora’s new off-road adventure

After 37 days trapped underground, Mario Sepúlveda, malnourished and on the brink of madness, believed he had to fight the devil. To do so he descended to level 44 of the San Jose mine, a hotter and muddier depth of the hell in which he and 32 other Chilean miners were trapped. By the time Sepúlveda began fighting his demons, more than 750 metres of rock separated him from the scorched surface of the Atacama Desert above. When he returned to his comrades, victorious — or at least not defeated — he felt renewed, but it would be another month before any of them would breathe free air again.

To the 33 miners of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, the biting wind of the Atacama eventually felt miraculous, but standing in the northern reaches of the same desert, to me it feels intimidating. “We’re here,” says Micaela Díaz as she opens the door of the Landcruiser in the middle of what looks like nowhere. A warm gust immediately tries to push us back inside the vehicle, squeezing the doors on to our shins. When we finally stumble out, our boots crunch on to salt-baked sand. 

Ahead, the land appears to be smoking, loose dust torn into the sky by persistent winds racing towards the Andes. Clouds move so fast they appear nervous to tarry above the immense desert. The only plants within sight are miserable-looking shrubs that wouldn’t make a satisfactory meal for a fire. At times, the Atacama feels too dry even for flames.

Map of Chile and Bolivia

Micaela, or Mika as she prefers to be called, has brought me to the site of an old mine. The history of mining here in northern Chile is like that in much of South America, which is to say a story of exploitation, rapaciousness, and violence. Corporations first came for saltpetre, but now seek more valuable minerals — gold, lithium, and in the case of the survivors of Copiapó, copper. 

“Here it was salt,” says my guide, leading me on a short hike through a strange canyon filled with glistening boulders, blades of sodium, and fan-shaped slices of gypsum. When we pass in front of a salty cliff-face, we stop to listen to it contract and groan as the day’s heat vanishes into the dusky sky. While waiting for the next pop of this mineral glacier, I taste salt in my moustache. When I try to wipe it away, my whole beard feels starched.

James’s flamingos feed and huddle together against the pitiless wind
James’s flamingos huddle together against the wind at Laguna Colorada
The interior of Chituca lodge with views over the desert
The interior of the new Chituca lodge with views over the desert

The hub for visitors to the driest non-polar desert in the world has long been San Pedro de Atacama. Mika is based there and works primarily for Explora, an adventure tourism company whose lodge on the edge of the oasis town has been offering tours of this infamous environment since 1998 (and whose Torres del Paine lodge, which opened five years earlier, pioneered the idea of mixing comfort and adventure in a remote corner of Patagonia).

While they have found a way to explore and even enjoy the Atacama, the Incans, masters of water, looked on this cauterised land as a fruitless, lifeless border, leaving it to hardy llama and cattle farmers to traverse in often deadly caravans from the mountains to the sea. Centuries later, Charles Darwin judged it similarly inhospitable, writing that it was “a barrier far worse than the most turbulent ocean”.

Explora is now casting their eyes east to the mountains, across the Chilean border, and into Bolivia’s vast and equally daunting altiplano. They have called the multi-day crossing the Travesia, a high-altitude, off-road journey from San Pedro to the fabled Bolivian salt flats of Uyuni.

The rocky terrain of Rainbow Valley in the Atacama Desert
Guide Micaela Díaz leading a member of Jamie Lafferty’s group through the Rainbow Valley in the Atacama Desert © Jamie Lafferty
The mighty Licancabur volcano dominates the landscape © Jamie Lafferty

Until now, the route has been largely served by companies catering to hardy and often hard-up travellers. To make the trip less gruelling, and perhaps even more spectacular, Explora has built three new exclusive lodges in extremely remote locations along the route. Each looks like small rows of stilted shipping containers, giving them an industrial appearance that belies the comfortable combination of cosy wool and wooden decor inside. Sleeping just eight, they can either house small individual groups, or larger bookings travelling in convoy. Two guests typically travel per vehicle, giving them their own driver and guide, with the latter joining for the breakfast and dinner served in the incongruous luxury of the lodges.

After three days in the Atacama, Mika and I head to the first of these, Ramaditas. We initially climb out of San Pedro on a surprisingly smooth highway, Explora’s Landcruiser feeling uncommonly feeble as we pass the 4,500m altitude marker towards the mighty Licancabur volcano. When we turn off towards the Chilean border after an hour, it is the last time we will have tarmac under us for six days. 

While the Chileans’ frontera is a familiar-looking road border, as soon as we pass into no man’s land, it’s plain that we’re travelling from one of South America’s wealthiest countries into one of its poorest. A chaotic scene awaits at the little bothy where the Bolivian man with the stamp resides: a grifter patrols the line of tourists outside, trying to hustle backpackers into paying for an express service that does not exist. When his ruse is uncovered and loudly condemned, it’s impossible to tell what’s theatre and what’s genuine anger. A Brazilian woman catches a telling-off for taking a selfie while she’s getting her passport checked. A dozing dog suddenly wakens and darts out the door. A couple of hundred metres away, a dusty Andean fox looks on warily. 

An industrial-looking lodge sits on stilts
The Ramaditas lodge sits on stilts and is designed to be removeable without impacting the landscape

Hiking through the Valley of Mars in Atacama

A woman looks up at a huge rock on the side of a hill
Tour guide Micaela Díaz at Laguna Negra © Jamie Lafferty

After the kerfuffle — Mika exuding a calm mirrored by no one else — we are transferred into a Lexus LX570 owned by Silvio Huaca Ricaldi, a 36-year-old Bolivian who has driven this extraordinary route more times than he can remember. He’s done this for 15 years and claims never to get bored, though he says the border is inarguably the most tedious part. 

When we initially pull away, half a dozen 4x4s form a shambolic convoy. Explora do not have exclusive rights to the route but as soon as possible make a point of distancing themselves from other companies heading in the same direction. That’s of course true at the accommodation, but also for the activities they offer: remote hikes, visits to mountain hamlets, and picnics in stupendously scenic spots in the profound wilderness of the altiplano.

A couple of hours inside Bolivia, we are alone at Laguna Colorada. If the name sounds lazy at all, know that it is at least accurate. Extraordinary combinations of salt, minerals, and evaporation give it the appearance of melted ice cream, strains of black, blue, red, and white interlocking across its weird surface. In its saline water, thousands of James’s flamingos feed and huddle together against the pitiless wind. 

Here at 4,278m above sea level, the birds are coping far better with altitude than I am. Crouching down to take a photograph of a nearby flamingo is easy; standing up again feels like trying to break an Olympic clean and jerk record. For a moment, stars swim in my vision and the lake ahead looks especially hallucinatory. 

Plumes of steam rise from a geyser
The furious geysers at El Tatio in northern Chile
Steam issues from a geyser
The Sol de Mañana mud geysers, almost 5,000m above sea level

While Mika encourages me to move slowly and stay hydrated, the Travesia never has us below 3,000m. Visiting the Sol de Mañana mud geysers takes us to almost 5,000m. Up there the air feels thinner, but the ground — bubbling, rupturing, and stinking of sulphur — does too. The Ramaditas lodge is at a comparatively merciful 4,300m, but that night when I try to sleep, I can feel my heart racing in the dark.

The dawn light reveals the excellence of Explora’s location. The burgundy lodge stands alone at the base of a shale mountain overlooking another flamingo frequented lake. In the light, tight air it appears unobtrusive, even as the sun crests a ridge of volcanoes to spotlight its floating units.

The crossing continues after breakfast, the surface changing beneath the Lexus multiple times through the day. Sometimes we are in pulverised sand, sometimes it’s shale, occasionally we are on salt. Several times we’re traversing rock, the car lurching left and right like a ship in a mad sea. The 4×4 is always earning its expensive upkeep — while we hike, Silvio spends a lot of his time under the car, chipping away caustic salt. 

There’s more consistency with the flora and fauna, which owing to our extreme altitude have evolved to be highly specialised. Beyond the tree line, paja brava grass appears so evenly spaced that it looks planted, while from a distance it can make whole mountainsides appear yellow, which under an insistent blue sky call to mind the Ukrainian flag. 

A rock formation that resembles a tree
A rock formation that resembles a tree, known locally as an ‘arbol de piedra’

A llama
Llamas and alpacas are common at lower altitudes . . .  © Katsuyoshi Tanaka

A herd of llamas
. . . but vicuñas live higher up and endure the toughest weather

With so little to eat and with the water so salty, few animals make a living in this environment. At lower altitudes we’d seen llamas and alpacas, but up here, vicuñas largely have the place to themselves. The smallest of the region’s four camelids have famously soft fur, a characteristic replicated in no other part of their lives. They live at the highest altitudes, survive off the least nutritious food, and endure the most barbaric weather. It would have made more sense if nature had armoured them like rhinos.

As we rumble on, Mika points out white-capped peaks and explains how to tell which are sulphur and which are salt. Once in a while, some are even covered in snow. On the second day, we overnight at Chituca, where hundreds of giant cardon cacti guard the lodge while the altiplano throws up an outrageous sunset. I stay out taking photographs of it for as long as I can tolerate the cold before ducking into the warm restaurant. The food is prepared by Bolivians hired from local communities, part of a deal that allowed Explora to build on otherwise protected land. Before each meal, Mika goes through plans and options for the next day, allowing me to choose which hikes and detours we’ll take on the way to the final lodge.

Prior to heading into the brilliant white world of the salt flats, we visit the village of San Juan, which has a handful of desperate trees eking out a life from an oasis below the desert. Beyond these nevergreens lies a necropolis where pre-Incan people buried their dead in naturally hollowed crypts, or chulpas, made from tufa rock. Many are open sided, the ancient bones within visible and preserved in part by the supreme lack of moisture in the air. In one or two, flowers and coca leaves are laid, though the desiccated dead surely have no living relatives.

A few kilometres to the north the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, hums with radiation. Its terrible brilliance clashes with the sun on the horizon, creating mirages that make floating islands of distant mountains. Below a salt crust up to 11m thick there is a vast briny ocean, thought to contain as much as half of all the world’s lithium reserves. Thankfully the mining happens far from the invisible road we’ll follow to Explora’s final lodge, which stands on a promontory on the far side of this bloodless expanse. Were the property in Antarctica the views from its wide windows would be no whiter than they are here.

Explora’s Uyuni lodge, designed by the Chilean architect Max Núñez
A vast expanse of salt at Salar de Uyuni
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat

From the God’s eye vantage of space, Neil Armstrong is said to have mistaken the Salar for an icefield. The reality is far stranger: 10 billion tonnes of salt spread across an area of about 4,000 square miles, formed between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago when an ancient sea finally dried up. When it rains now (only likely between December and April) it is transformed into the world’s largest mirror. 

Halfway across the bleached void we stop for lunch. Sitting on a little deckchair, the mean mountain wind finally absent, it appears to me that this singular environment is defined more by what it doesn’t have than what it does — a land of absence featuring no colour, no sound, no water. A white and infinite afterlife, perhaps, not quite heavenly, but not hellish, either. 


Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Journey Latin America (, which offers a 13-night trip, including the nine-night Explora “Travesia” from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, with time in Santiago at the beginning and a stay in Lima at the end. It costs from £12,396 per person, including transfers, excursions, accommodation and full-board during the Travesia; flights from London to Chile start from £650



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