Perils of Polly: Pan de Azucar, better known as Sugarloaf, if you prefer

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

Pan de Azucar, or Sugarloaf, is a spectacular national park on Chile's northern coast. Its white sand beaches and plethora of cactus are breathtaking. Here was where we finally were able to set up the tent and dry everything out.


We hiked, watched pelican, and played tag with the icy waves of the Humboldt current. Then we moved on to our next destination: San Pedro de Atacama. The drive into the desert town was unbelievably beautiful.

This is a very popular tourist destination, and as such, its streets were crowded with pedestrians. We squeezed our vehicle up and down the streets looking for a campground. We found one, parked, walked back to book a tour to El Tatio geysers, then collapsed in bed from a long, hard drive. During the night, my sister discovered our campground shut off its water, making the bathrooms a stinking mess. She was quite disgusted.

The bus trip to El Tatio geysers is on every San Pedro de Atacama tourist's itinerary, and I supposed I'm glad I did it, but the geysers are nothing like our own Yellowstone National Park. The biggest one maybe spouts up about three feet. Most of them are just bubbling hot water.

To get there, it's a long, dark, bumpy bus trip beginning at 4 a.m., with one greatly appreciated bathroom break. We met one American on the bus who was living in Antofagasta, visiting here for the weekend. She told us of other trips to take in the area.

We finally stopped. The sun was just beginning to rise above the mountains. We were at an altitude of about 14,000 feet. Our guide told us they bring tourists here at sunrise because the cold -- the temperature was just at freezing -- causes the steam to show up better. I really didn't see why that was necessary. It made picture taking harder.

Then they brought us to a hot springs. I'd brought my swimsuit, but what they failed to tell us was that I needed to wear my swimsuit. There was no place to change. One woman said she'd hold up a towel, but there was no place to even go behind, and with all those who had worn their swimsuits in the water, it didn't look that inviting. I opted out.

Finally we headed back toward San Pedro and in the daylight we were able to see flamingos and vicunas. We stopped at a "typical" Andean village set up for the bus stops. I spent the entire 30 minute break in a line to get sopapillas. I was glad to get off the bus and into our own vehicle.

We secured a spot in a different campground, where they assured us the water would remain on all night long, then went off to explore the desert. My goal was to find the salt lake for swimming that I had seen advertised in the tour shop, and that our American friend had told us about.

I think tour guides like to keep all that information locked up. We could not find a map of the area, and no one could tell us where that lake was. Our campground had a large map on its reception wall, so I studied it, then we headed out.

We headed south. A sign pointed us to Chaxa, a salt lake full of flamingoes. I thought it might also be a swimming area, but it was just a boardwalk around a very shallow salt pond. The sun was beating hard and we didn't stay on the boardwalk long. This truly was the desert. I could imagine being stranded and dehydrated here. It was not an inviting place to stay.

On our way out, we asked a ranger about a salt lake to swim in. She smiled and nodded. "Lago Cejar!" It wasn't on any map, but she pointed to the approximate location, just south of San Pedro. At least we now had a name.

We headed north back to San Pedro, and noticed a gravel road off to the left. On nothing more than a hunch, we turned. It was a large gravel road, and soon a smaller gravel road turned left again, heading back south -- pretty much where the ranger had told us Lago Cejar would be.

We jumped out to look at a tiny wooden sign, and there, at the bottom, were the words, Lago Cejar! We were on the right road. But could we stay there?

The "road" turned into a sand track which braided its way through ruts and previously watered mudholes. I gunned it through those, and fishtailed my way down the road. There were so many different ways to go. Finally we saw someone coming in the opposite direction. We waved them down. "Lago Cejar?" "Si!" We kept going. And going. And going. Surely this was wrong.

The next vehicle we flagged down had some Australians in it, with some locals. They told us we were almost there -- maybe another 10 minutes.

Maybe 10 minutes at 90 miles per hour, which is the way most of the Chileans drove that road. But we crawled along the sand ruts, washboard, and rocks at about 10 miles per hour. More roads turned off here, there ... I sighed and looked at my sister. The sun was dipping low into the sky. Should we press on?

Check back next week for more of Polly's perils.