The Atacama Desert in Chile is a very interesting and unique travel destination for the breathtaking desert landscape. I met two other Germans and Chileans in the hostel and we spontaneously rented a car to road trip around the area. Sometimes, you have a very good time; but here you can read where the place is you should visit and why you should never push your luck to the limit because it can end very badly.
Pre-road trip fun times with new friends
Arriving in the Atacama Desert after an amazing Salar de Uyuni salt flat trip, it was almost time to head to Rio de Janeiro for carnival as this was an event on my around the world trip that I had been looking forward to before it even started.
The night before the road trip, I was supposed to go sandboarding; but since there was a very big storm coming (the electricity was cut off and everyone went outside in the street to celebrate when the first raindrop fell). I decided to join a room party in a 12-bed dorm with Chileans in the hostel. It was good fun and after only ten minutes, I was challenged to try a “Chilly Willy.” Yes, that’s what I thought and after I dared the guy who challenged me to do it; it was my turn to pour the national drink Pisco into the bottle’s lid and inhale it through one hole of my nose. Oh man, let me tell you something: this really burns for a moment and there is a lot of pain behind the eyes, but it’s quite funny – ha ha, a very good experience.
Road trip day 1
I just turned up at the Europcar agency and rented a Mitsubishi 4-wheel drive. One hour later, we started the road trip and we (Paula, Catalina, Linus, Nikolaus and me) were all very excited and happy that we bought an aux in cable to play our music.
The lagunes (Laguna Valle de Chaxas, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques) we visited that day weren’t even worth it after the incredible Salar de Uyuni salt trip. And for most of us, we even had to pay an entrance fee.
On the way to Valle de la Luna, we picked up some hitchhikers who sat down in the back of the van. After dropping them before we got to the sand desert in Valle de la Luna, Nikolaus was driving on the sand and we started sliding – crazy.
We stopped at the amazing desert landscape of Cordillera de la Sal – which made me feel that I wasn’t still on planet earth. Wow, the shape of the salt mountains and ranges was just breathtaking. We then headed to Duna Mayor to watch the sunset. We hiked up the dune, which took about 25-30 minutes, and I actually wandered all the way up barefoot. It was an amazing sunset and sharing this moment with my new friends made it unforgettable. Here, I recommend you definitely bring some warm clothes because once the sun is gone, it gets very cold. You also need a torch. On the way back, when filled up with petrol, I realised how cheap it was (50 cent/liter)
Dinner and the annoying cat
We cooked together at night and while preparing it, the cat came into the kitchen and went through the pack of tomato sauce a couple of times. My reaction was appropriate: I took the cat and threw it into the bin and closed the lid – it really annoyed me. However, the cat meowed and managed to jump high enough to hit the lid off and jump out. What an awesome day and definitely another highlight of my journey. Now it was time to sleep early because we had to get up early.
Road trip day 2
Getting up very early to visit the Geysers del Tatio was not worth it, but we were smart enough to follow the tourist cars as it was still very dark and so foggy that you could hardly see the road – pretty dangerous.
Our next stop after this disappointing waste of time was the lagoon, Cejar Lagoon, where we already imagined a swim in the turquoise water on this very hot and beautiful day. On the way there, we listened to some good music and sang together – all happy and excited when the most unforeseen thing that could ever happen occurred in the Atacama desert, 30km outside of San Pedro de Atacama – a terrible car accident.
The car accident and the experience
The only thing I remember before it happened was Linus saying loudly, “what’s happening here !?”, which caught my attention; but at that time we were already sliding on the road and I saw him turning the wheel to the left and to the right frantically trying to balance out the car – big mistake. You don’t realise what is actually happening because it seems so surreal.
The next big problem was that I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt (stupid) but when it happened, I quickly wedged myself between the frame of the car and the seat for additional support in the impending crash – not sure if it helped much because I was not prepared for the turning of the car. The force of the crash was so strong in this short moment in time that I lost my grip and was thrown around the car – it was horrible and all happened in a few seconds.
While it was happening, my one thought was that I had to survive to not disappoint my family and hoped for the car to stop turning. At this point, I tried to face what was going on, but you don’t really understand because it’s so unreal. Once the car stopped, I quickly got myself up and pulled myself out of the window and jumped down to see if I were still alive. I didn’t feel any pain at first because I was under a big shock. I heard one of the girls screaming, whereas the other was really quiet. Linus panicked, looked around and screamed, “Fuck, fuck, is everybody ok ? I guess he meant alive. I then walked a couple of meters away from the car and turned around and looked at it. I think I will never forget that view, that moment in the hot weather and remembering how happy I was to still be alive. I tried to relax, breathe easy and take control of the situation. Linus and Nikolaus lifted the girls to me out of the car. After that, I had to sit down for a moment because I couldn’t stand anymore because of back pain. I tried to realize what just happened: I saw cars coming from both directions. To show my followers what happened, I took a photo.
Our car totally blocked the street, but a car coming from both ways stopped, called for an ambulance and tried to help us. Linus and Nikolaus luckily didn’t have any injuries because they were wearing seat belts (apart from the girls and me) but they were both really worried. Linus showed feelings of guilt and apologized many times. I said don’t worry, we are alive with a very pleased expression.
More and more cars arrived, which meant more help for every single person, for which we were very grateful and lucky. Since my back hurt so much, people insisted that I lie down and not move my neck to prevent additional damage. I told Linus and Nikolaus to make sure to get my backpack with my valuable belongings and put it next to me.
While I was waiting on the floor for the ambulance, I thought about my family and that I didn’t want to do harm to them – I guess you know what I mean. Then the police and ambulance arrived and they a neck brace on me. I started getting emotional while I looked into the blue sky with sunshine, realizing that I was still alive but was scared that my condition was changing because breathing sometimes seemed difficult. I thought about my family again and thought I needed to relax and be strong. Tears poured from my eyes.
The girls were transferred first in the ambulance to a doctor in San Pedro de Atacama. While I still waited, they covered me with blankets because I was freezing and another guy (probably a firefighter) came to talk to me about how I felt, what I remembered and to check if I had any major brain damage. The guy came back a couple of times, but the first time I couldn’t remember his name; but then I did the second time. It was so difficult because so many people came and tried to take care of me. Another guy gave me his sunglasses because the sun was so strong. I was just lying there, experiencing horrible moments because there was too much time to think. The firefighter came back, stayed with me and asked me what I was thinking. I replied: “You know tonight at 8:00 pm, I’ve got a bus to catch to Santiago and then fly to São Paulo!” He laughed.
The ambulance emergency
Then the ambulance arrived to pick me up, I always made sure I still had my bag with me. I didn’t know where we were going but ended up at a little medical center in San Pedro to receive first aid and check my condition and neck. I didn’t like the neck brace because I couldn’t move my head and it’s kind of painful because it’s so heavy. I had to wait a little until the doctor finished with the girls – it was such a relief when he took off that brace and told me everything around my brain was fine. I was actually worried about being paralyzed all the time. This is why I tried to keep moving my legs. I could stand up and the first thing, the boys and I hugged each other. We were so lucky how little the girls and I were hurt comparing to what could have happened. I went to see the girls to ask them how they were feeling. They were still in shock and seemed scared. I guess, we all were.
To check my ribs, back and right middle finger, the ambulance drove us to Carlos Cisternas Hospital in Calama–the girls in the back with me sitting next to the driver in the front. I must have still been in shock because I didn’t put on my seat belt and the driver turned to me and asked, “Still haven’t learned from the accident ?” – oops.
We had just left the doctor when I turned to the right and saw the two girls (umpalumpas) to whom we had given a lift yesterday, but they didn’t see me. We drove passed a corner and some guys tried to hitchhike, trying to stop us, when I showed them my middle finger — ha ha, the funny part about that later.
We were driving for about 15-20 minutes and I kept thinking about what could have happened. Then the driver made me aware of a graveyard cross next to the road with the remains of a car accident, which happened to the same car we were driving – it looked so much worse than ours. It happened three weeks ago and all five Chilenos in the car died. I was like oh, my gosh, that’s horrible. The driver responded, “You guys are lucky !” You cannot imagine how I felt at this moment, not sure whether to cry or smile. All I know is that I really appreciated sitting in that car at this time, in this place, on our way to the hospital. I was so grateful to be still alive -we must have had angels, so lucky.
While driving, so many different things shot onto my head: what to do next ? I had to be back in San Pedro to catch a bus to Santiago ! Can I go ? Do I want to stay longer to be with the boys and the girls? I thought about my family who didn’t even know yet what happened. More thoughts like I had earlier. Was the accident because I didn’t treat one of the cats in our hostel nicely last night – maybe bad karma ? Well, what happened is that the cats in the hostel always try to eat people’s food. While the boys and I were cooking, the cat bit into the tomato sauce package a few times, so I punished her by throwing her into the black big rubbish bin.
Another thought was about the women at the rental place who had given us a cheeky look yesterday as she told us about the speed limit. We were just looking at each other, cracking up. But in this accident, speeding was not the cause.
When we arrived at the hospital in Calama after about an hour, they checked the girls first and then sent me to x-ray, not just for my finger but my ribs and shoulder blades.
We again had to wait for some time until it was our turn to see the doctor. Luckily, Catalina had nothing except some fractures, Paula had a fractured collarbone and knee and I just a badly fractured rib, shoulder blade and right middle finger. But this is all nothing compared to what could have happened. While we had to go through the whole hospital experience, Nikolaus was at the police station giving his statement. After we were all checked out, some of the police gave us a lift to the highway and stopped a local bus back to San Pedro de Atacama for us – not sure if the police in Germany would have done this. The bill for the hospital came to 120,000 pesos, about $190, which some policeman wanted me to pay and a nurse said I didn’t have to. I guess the policemen intention was to take it for himself – at the end I didn’t pay. Going onto the bus, there were the two girls from earlier when we left the doctor who tried to hitchhike, and I showed them my middle finger – they recognised me and said that it wasn’t nice. Whatever.
Calling my parents to tell them about the accident
Getting back to the hostel at around 5:30pm, I didn’t have much time because I wanted to take a shower, needed to pack, and contact my parents to let them know. I found out from Linus that the police didn’t even contact Europcar to let them know that the car had been in an accident and so nobody organized a towing service. This would have been different in Germany and the site would have been cleaned within 1-2 hours.
When I rang my parents, my mum picked up because it was already really late in Germany. All I told her was, “I had a car accident. I’m all good and I don’t have much time because I have to catch a bus to Calama again and make a long journey to Santiago.” I didn’t tell her how bad the actual accident was because she was already worried enough and told me to come home — sad times. Before heading to the bus station, Linus walked with me to the police station where all the other guys were sorting out things. I still had to hand in my hospital letter and then it was time to head to the terminal.
Before I left Nikolaus told me that about three months before traveling in Colombia he had a dream that he had a car accident in the desert and that came true – woah makes me get goose bumps.
It was another 113km journey back to Calama. But at least I got to sit in the front of the top floor and enjoy a beautiful sunset on the way.
Now, I’m not looking forward to a 21-hour long bus journey to the capital of Chile– Santiago.
I TRAVEL FOREVER’s VIEW & RECOMMENDATION
Guys, this has been the most frightening experience of my life and I felt very close to death – it’s very scary and difficult to explain. The feelings described in this post were written right after the accident while driving from the doctor in San Pedro de Atacama to the hospital in Calama. I’m glad we all made it out alive. VIII • II • MMXVI’ll always remember it, and this in a way has shaped my life from then on. My recommendation is always wear a seat belt wherever you go because you never know what could happen.
My friend Linus sent me some photos on 8th February 2015 showing how the car looked like at night when they returned to search for Paula’s wallet. By the time they got there, all the tires and electricity on the car were gone but she still found her wallet.
Local slang (good to know)
Bacán – cool
Filete – cool
Chilly Willy ha ha