They say it’s the driest desert on our planet.
Stretching from souther Peru down to central Chile, the Atacama is incredible.
Driving the Panamericana through this region is intense. Having your car overheat on the windy, steep mountain roads, and wandering off into the vastness, it’s difficult to describe.
We loaded up with hundreds of pounds of provisions and slowly camped our way down the coastline, exploring the surf potential and living the good simple life of the desert.
I remember drawing maps, like the treasure maps of old, marking the waves we found, the set ups, the potential.
Off roading on surf exploration is awesome. Hundreds of miles of coastline to poke around. Only a handful of fishermen and seaweed collectors scattered along the coast.
Long hours of satisfaction.
Long sessions of hooting and flying down empty waves.
Washing dishes late at night, doing the boulder hop.
Fireside in the Atacama
By Dusty Middleton 2006
The ocean in this part of the Pacific is cold and powerful. Wearing heavy wetsuits is necessary every session, and thick booties are as much for cold as they are for protection. The best surf spots seem always to include shallow slabs of rock covered in erizo and picarocos… sea urchins and vertical tube barnacles. The rip currents can be nasty. And chasing board halves out to sea at the end of the day is an intimidating reality. Fixing broken boards can be an every week experience, and buying quality equipment is almost impossible. Finding any equipment… surf wax or leashes for sale is rare at best.
We had just finished three weeks of heavy surfing around the Peruvian border. There were plenty of big days. A couple crowded days, and a bit too much time spent living in cities. We decided it was a perfect month for the quiet empty desert. Searching for solitude is easy, but it can be tricky to survive for weeks in an area that’s said to be the driest place on earth.
An ex-pat from California, Yasha Hetzel, jumped in on the ride and brought another speargun to the team. Yasha’s a photographer who lives in South America and spends each year finding interesting Chileans to take pictures of. He’s a skilled surfer and spearfisherman, but when the waves are at their best, he enjoys climbing around the shore like a crab lining up good composition for his camera.
A few of Yasha’s Chilean friends drove with us for the first leg of the trip. They were excited to take a break from their normal weeks’ work and they brought women, vino, yerba and good food.
We drove slowly south. There were 20 boards on the roof; all kinds of equipment tied to the tailgate, and every open space inside had been filled with food and jugs of water. Before we left civilization we spent two days in the open markets buying a hundred pounds of dried food and fresh produce. Pisco, whiskey, and rum, and enough ladrillos of vino for weeks.
After five hours, the modern highway veered off east. Our little convoy slowed down and continued south on a rutted dirt track. The mountains were barren. Occasionally we’d see an abandoned mine or the remnants of some forgotten structure. There were no clouds in the sky and no movement to be seen except our two cars kicking up red dust in the bottom of the valley.
Eventually our trail turned west. And as the sun started dropping that way too, we came to the edge of the mountains and looked down from a thousand feet onto a dark, cold sea. There was a good swell running and from our perch miles above the shore we could see that there was great potential for waves.
We dropped it into to 4WD and started down a steep path.
This coastline is as rugged as they come. No soft spots allowed. No comfortable beaches to lounge on. No trees to provide shade. It’s just jagged rocks sticking out of dirt. Boulders rolling around in the shorebreak. Finding a safe channel to paddle out in is pretty much impossible. And finding a flat place for your tent can take hours of work.
We drove until the sun hit the water and then looked for a wave worthy of setting up our tents.
It was good camping. Spending a solid month without a shower, or a porcelain bowl to sit on, is a powerful experience. Fresh water’s only used for drinking and cooking. When our jugs started to look more empty than full we realized that the water you boil pasta or potatoes in can always be used for something… usually cooking tomorrow’s beans or rice.
About a dozen people live here for every hundred miles of coast, mostly seaweed collectors and fishermen. They live quiet, happy lives with plenty of solitude. Generally they have a dog and a radio. A truck will come bouncing along the dirt track every few weeks and trade them water, gas, and food for their dried kelp. It’s a harsh existence but it’s easy to see that these people are happy and proud. Their speech is full of jokes and rhymes, and their eyes are always quick and bright. They love their desert and they love the ocean.
It’s dangerous so far from civilization. A trip to the hospital would mean four-wheel drive roads for about 16 hours.
Washing dishes here is an extreme sport. Carrying a tub full of dirty plates and forks down to the water when the swell is thundering can be frightening. Jumping from boulder to boulder scooping up a tub of ice-cold ocean, and scrambling back up to safety before the next set hits is serious training.
Cleaning fish with numb hands and a wetsuit that’s almost freezing in the night air is intense. Falling asleep in your tent smelling like the fish you cleaned for dinner is part of the fun. Waking up the next day is less enjoyable.
In the early mornings it’s cold. It’s August, but this is the southern hemisphere and it’s the middle of winter. We’re wearing heavy clothes and
hats, and each morning there’s the campfire to get going. Driftwood to collect. Water to boil.
Mate is the drink of choice when it’s freezing and the sun has just come up. La Yerba is perfect for sitting around the fire with your friends
watching the swell pour in. A mate (rhymes with sauté) is a wooden cup (or gourd) which you fill with Yerba, a South American herbal tea. You drink out of a metal straw called la bombilla, and after you suck all the water from la yerba, you carefully refill the mate with hot water, and pass it along to the next person. A good mate on a cold morning, right before you pull on yesterday’s damp wetsuit, is crucial.
The wave at our first campsite was a heavy left point. It was a grinding little barrel that broke about fifteen feet from the boulders and had no safe
sections to sit on. No safe entrance and no safe exit. Any mistake ended you up on the rocks with broken fins and bashed- rails. We called it La Chinchilla, and it was a beautiful little grinder.
Our next camp we called La Paz. It was a wave rich zone (once, long ago part of Bolivia), and the one little fisherman who reigned over the area told us that he’d seen surfers drive by a few times in the last decade, but we were the first to camp and surf his waves. He would come to our fire every night with a bottle of wine and a lantern, and sing and dance cumbia for hours.
We’d spend four or five days at each campsite, surfing heavy waves by ourselves and eating feasts from the sea. We dealt with injuries and damaged boards as they came. And we sat around the campfire every night enjoying the emptiness and the calm of the Atacama.
Exploring became an obsession. For every camping spot there’s an hour walk in each direction to investigate. There’s always another corner to get around, another little bay to check. Hiking along cliffs and scrambling to high points to get a 360 degree view of the desert. Walking off with a roll of
toilet paper and just strolling for a couple hours to see where the trail will take you.
We started drawing our own detailed maps of the coast. We penciled in notes on areas with potential. We penciled in landmarks and mile numbers.
The pages of maps became overwhelming, and studying them became a nightly affair.
La Tuberosa is the wave that still haunts me. The wave we named but never surfed.
On our first day we stopped and watched it for twenty minutes. It was a bowling barreling monster, probably twelve feet. Most likely no one has
ever paddled out. Chances are, no one will for many years. We watched it and decided to move on, to check it again the next day. We surfed something a bit safer, thinking we were being practical and smart.
We never saw the wave break right again. We kicked ourselves for the next three weeks waiting. We camped next to it and studied the dangerous channels and the proximity of the wave to the rocks. We left and camped in other places. And then as soon as the swell would shift we’d zoom back to La Tuberosa. But we never saw the wave do its thing again. Maybe it was better that we never paddled out. Maybe it was too dangerous and too remote. But it looked good. It looked heavy. And I still stare at a photo I snapped of it and wonder.
Maybe in the future Ramon and I will dig up our home-made treasure map and make it back to that little bay. Perhaps camp on it for another month and wait for the right day and the right tide. Have some 7’4s waxed up and ready to go. We’ll jump into the tiny little channel and paddle out to the monster, sit deep and wait for a good heavy set. We’ll catch a few, and laugh that it took us so many years.