To experience the full beauty of Pan de Azúcar National Park, a hiker must deal with desert heat and cold as she’s guided along by a jovial Chilean.
The man who greeted us at the campsite fit the image of a retired pirate perfectly: overweight, wheezing, with a sweat-stained bandana and a salt-encrusted black beard.
“Happy hour is from 9pm until late,” said Miguel jovially with a gap-toothed smile. I half expected him to unscrew his leg or offer us our change in golden doubloons rather than Chilean pesos. He gave us a battered-looking map, and we bought a six-liter bottle of water; even this early in the day the sun was punishing.
We weighted down our tents with rocks under wooden shelters overlooking the sea. My friend Kat hadn’t camped for over a decade, but she made a valiant attempt to disentangle the poles and guy lines before the whole structure collapsed on top of her.
The sweeping white sand beach would have been the envy of a Maldivian resort and was peppered with springy cushions of green moss. A crescent moon appeared over the conical island facing us long before the sun had set. Pasta in tomato sauce prepared on the gas stove tasted like haute cuisine as we squatted on the sand watching the fiery sky fade to black.
Pan de Azúcar National Park lies on the Pacific Coast in the far south of Chile’s vast Atacama Desert. It hadn’t been easy to reach, and the landscape had been unchanging for hours, a seemingly endless wasteland of slag heaps and gritty, gray sand stretching monotonously down from Antofagasta, which gradually brightened to a light gold the further south we travelled. A sign as we had arrived proudly announced that no animal had been killed by a vehicle in the park for 1318 days. The number of roadside graves we’d passed en route suggested that people had been less fortunate than the guanacos.
Kat emerged from her tent the next day looking like a polar explorer. During the night she’d excavated every item of clothing from her backpack and was wearing a multicolored hotchpotch of items that made her appear several sizes bigger than she really was. She had even fashioned mittens from a pair of socks. Nights in the desert are perishingly cold, but as the sun rose and I made us coffee, she shed layers with impressive alacrity.
The path up to the mirador (lookout) slanted gently upward, the sun beating down without mercy. The climate was so unforgiving that even many of the cacti had burnt out, charred exteriors littering the ground around our feet, leaving the brittle, white bones exposed. It seemed as though there were no other living creatures for miles; not a guanaco, a fox, or even an insect of any description. Without even a slight breeze, it felt like the stillest, quietest place I had ever visited.
Two hours later, sweating, grimy, with swollen fingers like fat little chipolatas, we reached the top. Pronged cacti fringed the headland as the cerulean ocean pooled and frothed around the rocks below. We had approximately 30 seconds to digest the view before a minibus lurched up behind us, depositing 12 noisy Chileans.
“Carlos, Carlos, ask the gringas to take a group photo of us!” one of the women screeched in Spanish.
“Where are you from? Do you like it here? Are you American? Oh, you’re English? We went to Miami once.”
“People say the north of Chile is ugly, but it isn’t. Look at this. This is wonderful. It’s the best view I’ve ever seen.”
“Do you have views like this in England? This photo is rubbish. Jorge has his eyes closed. Take another.”
“How do you two know each other? Are you friends? Are you sisters? Your friend doesn’t speak Spanish? Ask her if she likes the north of Chile better or the south. Have you been to Argentina? Which is better, Chile or Argentina?”
“I look fat in this photo, take another. It’s not a good angle for me, I need to stand in the middle, not at the end. Let’s all pull a funny face.”
“You look fat from all angles. You ate five bread rolls for once last night.”
Their enthusiasm was infectious, and we resigned ourselves to sharing the view we’d sweated over and readily accepted their offer of a lift back down to the beach. Little fishing boats left from the jetty out to the funny, conical island opposite our campsite.
Humboldt penguins waddled in pairs flipper to flipper. Heavy-beaked pelicans bobbed in the waves and glided in perfect formation overhead. We smelt the sea lions before we saw them, slimy, bulbous bodies that wrestled each other off the narrow rocks with thick, muscular necks. The ascent for those that had been pushed off was arduous and ungainly.
“Vampire bats live in those caves,” explained our guide, pointing to crevasses in the rock face. “They like to feast on the testicles of sea lions. Sea lion bollocks are very fat and juicy.”
We were the only ones at happy hour that evening, and Miguel and his 10-year-old son kept up a ready supply of rum-based cocktails, further cementing my theory that Miguel was a former pirate. The stars began to join the crescent moon like glittering confetti, the Milky Way gradually illuminating in linear wisps. We took our sleeping bags out of the tent, Kat reapplied her sock-mittens, and we lay on our backs on the cooling sand as the sky danced and twinkled above us.