To truly immerse yourself in the landscape of northern Chile, it is essential to have your own vehicle, ideally one with high clearance and four-wheel drive. Driving in Chile does have its challenges–the distances are vast and the roads are often in poor condition. But then the only way to really comprehend the vast emptiness of the northern desert is to spend several hours driving through it, uninterrupted by signs of civilization. I picked up a Suzuki Gran Vitara at the Calama airport and returned it at the end of my trip in Arica, a few kilometers from the Pervuian border.
The first challenge is to ensure you don’t run out of gas, as service stations are few and far between. After leaving Iquique, I fillled up the tank at the entrance to the Panamericana, as I would not pass near another for over 300 kilometers at Arica. San Pedro has only one gas station. Surely they do a brisk business from all the tour groups, I thought, but each morning, when I stopped in to fill up the tank before heading out for the day, the station was closed. On the first day there was a line of cars waiting, and everyone else seemed just as perplexed as I was. Finally, one driver stepped out of his van while the family in the back looked on and demanded to speak to the manager. A few of us followed him in and the manager relented and agreed to sell us gasoline. The whole charade would be repeated each morning over the next few days. I never did figure out why the station was so reluctant to do business; they could name their price and we would have paid it.
In Putre there was no gas station per se, but I’d heard it was possible to buy gas at the corner grocery. I asked for five liters and the shopkeeper retreated to the back room. He returned after what seemed like thirty minutes with a plastic jug and a piece of rubber tubing, which he proceeded to siphon into the gas tank, sucking on the mouth of the jug to get it started. The rental company had insisted the vehicle needed gasoline of grade “95” or higher, but I didn’t bother to ask.