Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces

By Maurice Schutgens

Located in the east of Chile, Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces was, until recently, the undiscovered jewel of the Atacama region. Few travellers venture into the park, despite its abundant wildlife, stunning lagoons and towering volcanic peaks. The park, located 170km from Copiapo, is hardly remote but access is limited to 4×4 vehicles over poor roads. This is probably what has kept it one of Chile’s best kept secrets. And now Chile was going to share its secret with us.

We picked up our camioneta or pick-up truck early on Saturday morning and headed over to the filling station. There would be no other opportunity to fill our tank once we left Copiapo. The previous evening we had carefully calculated exactly how many kilometres we would be driving over the next 4 days. We didn’t want to get stuck in a place where temperatures fell far below zero and where other cars were scarce. We filled the 76 litre tank and two 6 litre jerry cans for good measure. At 12km to the litre (according to the car hire mechanic) we were good for more or less 1000km. It would have to be enough.

Fuel and 20 litres of water on board we set of for the barren hills in the distance. Our destination for the day was Laguna Santa Rosa; a flamingo filled lagoon located next to a salt flat. The road deteriorated gradually and soon we slowed to a crawl alternating between first and second gear bouncing up and down. Slowly we ascended a pass that levelled out at 4200m. Having ascended over 3km in altitude in 4 hours we were starting to feel the altitude. The headaches first, nausea next. The view of Laguna Santa Rosa however was worth every little bit of discomfort. There must have been 100 flamingoes feeding in the Laguna. We had arrived at a special place, and there were no other humans in 100km in each compass direction. We were very alone. The silence was magnificent.

We spent some time exploring the edge of the Laguna before returning to the refugio to simply watch the day draw to a close. The night that followed could not have been a greater contrast to the perfect day we had experienced. Both of us spent the night twisting and turning, trying to find a position that would ease the headaches and nausea. It was a long uncomfortable night.
The next day emerged beautifully out of the gloom. Maurice left his snug sleeping bag and ventured into the morning chill to watch it emerge. Once again it was the silence that proved to be the perfect ingredient for the setting. It was glorious.

We set of for the Salar de Maricunga, a vast white expanse under a deep blue sky located at 3700m. Seeing as we had a sturdy 4×4 we were soon happily ploughing through the salt flat being careful to keep our speed up to avoid getting bogged down. From there we set of for Laguna Verde, a turquoise lagoon located at 4200m. Due to the intense salinity of the laguna there is currently no life found within it. But before we headed to the laguna we had a side-trip to make: Volcan Ojos del Salado, the world’s highest active volcano at 6893m.

We checked our fuel level… we had enough for this side trip. We pulled of the road, engaged the 4 wheel drive and followed the bumpy 2 wheel track. It was about 25km to the base camp. We came around a bend and stumbled upon a fascinating ice field. Shards of ice, taller than us, stood as if sprouting from the earth. Bizarre. They were extremely fragile, collapsing at the merest touch. To us it was a mystery as to how they were formed. We walked (more like staggered) back to our car, the altitude (4800m) was making us feel drunk. We continued on following the track until we got to deeper sand and we simply ground to a halt. Our car refused to go further. We couldn’t understand. We managed to reverse, turn…and that’s as far as we got. We were stuck. Jorien took over the driving while Maurice got dirty in the sand trying to push the car free. After several efforts the car suddenly lurched free. Relief! No basecamp for us. We retraced our route to the main road disappointed we didn’t make it to the volcano. Plus, possibly worse, we had wasted about 25km worth of fuel.

Laguna Verde, instead of turquoise, was like its name suggested; green. We followed a track that descended to its shores hoping to find a secluded campsite. We found the campsite but we would have to share it with 8 hikers that had arrived before us with a Bolivian mountain guide. We slumped into our tent, once again feeling the effects of the altitude. Another sleepless night followed as a result of headaches.

In Copiapo they had warned us that temperatures could drop to -18C next to Laguna Verde but instead it was a toasty -5C. The next morning we spotted steam rising from the edges of the Laguna, pockets of warm water in an otherwise freezing laguna. We followed the steam until we stumbled upon a hot spring, large enough for 2, with the perfect temperature against the chilly morning. The view wasn’t too bad either! We didn’t hesitate, unperturbed by the mild sulphurous odour and the floating algae. We needed this, it was the first hot water we had seen in 10 days.

Bath time over, we were keen to head to Laguna Negro Francisco. The car however, was having none of it. It wouldn’t start. This wasn’t a surprise, it had been cold. We had inquired about bringing anti-freeze but apparently it was unnecessary. Eventually it got going, but it didn’t even have the power to complete a 3-point turn without stalling. It was time to ask some advice from Pedro, the Bolivian mountain guide. He generously gave us a quick run-down about how to use these cars. Apparently the engine should be left running 20 minutes prior to use (so much for a good explanation from the mechanic). He also clarified the use of the 4 wheel drive. We were good to go, so of course against our better judgement we headed straight for Ojos del Salado base-camp. We had to show that volcano who was boss. Soon we were ploughing our way through deep sand and steep gullies keeping our accelerator floored. It was exhilarating! An hour later we drove into base-camp at 5250m. It was high, it took an effort to simply walk around, and it left us gasping for oxygen. The climbers returning from the summit looked in better shape than us. We didn’t linger, it was time to descend, we rattled our way back.

We now started paying closer attention to our fuel situation. We had half a tank left, and this was after adding the 12 emergency litres. Maybe this had been one side-trip too many. We didn’t dwell on it, and continued along the terrible road to Laguna Negro Francisco. 60km took us 2 hours, our jaws hurt from the rattling. We also wasted another 10km worth of fuel after taking a wrong turn. Direction signs were scarcer than wildlife.

At 5pm we reached the Laguna at 4200m, another impressive flamingo filled laguna with Volcan Copiapo as backdrop. It was a fascinating laguna, with an average depth of 45cm. Incredible. We picked a spot and watched the birds till the wind chased us off to look for a place to sleep. We drove along the laguna, shelter seemed scarce until we came upon the CONAF refugio. It was locked, but this was not a problem for Maurice who simply went around the back and found the back door unlocked. The refugio was fully equipped with beds, kitchen, toilets and most importantly a ping-pong table. We made ourselves comfortable. This beat our tent and sleeping mats any day of the week. We celebrated with a caiperinha and a ping-pong competition. The altitude was the only winner, after 5 minutes we gave up.

Before we went to bed we discussed the fuel situation again. We decided to risk taking a track that left around the back of the refugio. It was short, direct and located on the map as a possible route back to Copiapo. We felt confident it was the way to go but concern did creep in knowing that if we got stuck halfway along, we wouldn’t have enough fuel to take another route. Worse, nobody knew we were even here. We fell into an uneasy sleep dreaming of the uncertain day ahead.

The final morning broke, cold and silent. We went through the car-starting routine and followed the track. We were tense and stressed. This had to work. The track wound its way up towards the skyline deteriorating with every kilometre. The doubts started creeping in. Suddenly we came to an abrupt stop. Our worst nightmare a reality; the road ahead, not worthy of its name nor its place on the map, disappeared into a ravine. Completely washed away. It was impossible to pass, 4×4 or not. We sat in silence and stared. It was time to switch to ‘Plan B’, except we didn’t have one. The worst of it was that we had wasted another 20km worth of fuel. The fuel needle hovered at a quarter tank. We cursed the mechanic; this car had never in its life driven 1:12.

The only other option open to us was retracing our route back past the laguna to a turn-off heading into the mountains and eventually dropping down to Copiapo. It was 182km. We would never make it, it was all too clear. But we had no choice. The road climbed steeply. Suddenly we came upon Mina Maricunga, a Canadian gold mine bordering the national park, and a direct threat to the fragile laguna. We drove to the barrier that marked the entrance to the mine, the road to Copiapo lay beyond.

Maurice: ‘Can we pass through to Copiapo?’

Mine Worker: ‘Sure no problem, but it’s a long way, about 5 hours’

Maurice: ‘You can’t be serious, we are running low on fuel and this is the quickest way, right?’

Mine Worker: ‘Yes, but it’s a bad road. How much fuel do you have?’

Maurice: ‘A quarter’

Mine Worker: ‘Ah que no! You will never make it.’

The mine worker left Maurice standing at the barrier and went to speak to his superior, sat in a pick-up truck close by. A short discussion followed before the mine worker beckoned M
aurice over. They would give us fuel. Relief! We entered the mine and followed the supervisor to the gas pump. We generously received 40 litres, more than enough.

Maurice: ‘Thanks you so much. How much can we pay you?’

The supervisor simply shook his head. ‘Follow me, I’ll take you to the exit.’

To read more details about Maurice & Jorien's adventures in South America, check out their blog:

All photographs copyright of Maurice Schutgens Photography,

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