I pointed my little hire car onto the winding, dirt road. According to the sign, it was 19 kilometres to Cochiguaz. The small town, hidden away in the picturesque Elqui Valley, has become a tourist magnet in recent years thanks to its tranquility, its hippy lifestyle and a disproportionately high number of UFO sightings. It was the last day of my quick trip up north and I was keen to do a bit more exploring before I returned to Santiago and the smog.


The sun was high in the sky and the day was warm. Mountains towered above me on both sides, casting long, ghostlike shadows, and soon the road began snaking up. To my left, the hill kept rising; to my right, there was a sheer drop. There was no fence. It was a rough trail and my shopping trolley car bumped along, its dashboard rattling as it wound its way round the bends. Every five minutes or so, there was a big green sign by the side of the road, warning: ‘Caution: Narrow Road. Drive Carefully’. There was no way I’d be able to drive a rented car along a road like this back in Australia. But things are different in Chile.

Occasionally I would come across a car travelleing in the other direction and one of us would stop to let the other pass. But most of the time I had the road to myself. I cranked up the Crowded House CD and sat back in my seat, enjoying the ride.


After about 45 minutes, I came across a dusty, little town. There was a small row of shops, a tiny observatory and not much else. The largest shop was decoarted with stars and planets and three women were sitting on the step outside. I pulled off to a small area to the side of the road and hopped out.


“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for Cochiguaz.”


“You’re here,” the youngest one said. The other two women, who looked like they were mother and grandmother, nodded in agreement. “Welcome.”


I looked again at the row of the shops. Above the door of a small store further up the hill, was another a sign. ‘Cochiguaz Store’, it said. It like most of the other shops was closed. There didn’t seem to be very much happening in Cochiguaz.


Down the hill, I could hear a stream flowing quietly and I walked towards it. Following an even smaller dirt road around a bend, I came to a high fence with an open gate and a small driveway. Two men were sitting in front of the fence, chatting .


They looked up as I approached and eyed me slowly. “This is a private camping ground,” one of them said. “You have to pay to go in.”


“Is there anywhere near here I can get to the river without paying?” I asked. They both shook their heads.


I turned around and headed back up the hill, hoping to stumble across something interesting but as far as I could tell, there was nothing. I looked up at the sky. It was blue and beautiful but there weren’t any UFOs. I returned to the three women, still sitting on the step.


“Is there anything else interesting around here?” I asked.


“There’s a bit more of the town further up the hill.” It was the older woman who spoke. I thanked them and hopped back into the car. After coming all this way, I thought it was worth having a bit more of a look. I drove further into the valley for another five minutes or so. There were a couple more small shops and a few houses but not much else. The scenery was beautiful but there weren’t many opportunities to stop and take it in along the narrow road, perched on the side of the mountain.


There didn’t seem to be much point in continuing. Finding a driveway, I turned the car around and started driving back to the town of Monte Grande where the dirt track met the main road.


Rounding a bend in the road, I saw a parked up ahead. It could have been closer to the edge of the road but like the car I was driving, it was small. There was nothing coming in the opposite direction so I pulled out to drive around it.


WHACK! As I passed the car there was a loud thud. The thinking part of my brain froze and instinct kicked in. Thankfully, my instinct told me that I should stop. I skidded to a halt and looked up. The side mirror on the passenger side, which would be the driver’s side in Australia, had folded in. It still seemed to be intact. I looked up at the rear view mirror. The driver’s mirror on the other car looked like it had fared worse. The black, plastic cover looked damage and the actual mirror was dangling down from its casing.


Then I saw something else in the rearview mirror. The other driver, still sitting in his car, was beckoning to me. I turned off the stereo, killed the engine and hopped out of the car. My brain was still frozen.


“Is it damaged?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.


The other driver nodded. “I think I’ll have to call the police,” he said.


“The police?” I replied, my brain still frozen. I was searching for an excuse but there weren’t any. I had no idea I was so close to the other car. “I’m sorry,” I continued. “I’m from Australia and I’m not used to driving on that side of the car…”


The other driver rolled his eyes. I wanted to kick myself.


An older man standing nearby stepped in. He obviously knew the driver and as he spoke, he seemed to have a calming effect on both of us.


“It could have happened to anyone,” he said. I wanted to believe him but I didn’t. “Is it a rental car?” he asked. This time I nodded. “Then it’s OK,” he continued, turning to the other driver. “This should all be covered by the insurance. “You will just have to get the details of the rental company and then their insurance will sort it out. Don’t worry about the police”


The older man turned to me. “But first, you’d better move your car,” he said. I stirred from my daydream and realised he had a point. The car was sitting in the middle road, blocking off the traffic in both directions. I walked over to the car and checked the dmaaged mirror. Underneath the thick coat of dust was a small crack and a dark scratch but the unit was still holding together. I jumped in, parked the car and then reached into the glovebox to pull out the papers. Getting back out of the car I returned to the driver and his older companion.


They took down the details. The driver photographed the hire car’s number plate and the older man said everything should be OK. My brain still hadn’t kicked into gear and I didn’t ask for any details.


We said goodbye to each other and I headed back to my car.


“Next time be a bit more careful,” the other driver called out.


I mumbled a vague agreement. “…it’s just that I’m not used to driving on that side of the car,” I blurted out. I wanted to kick myself again.


Back in the driver’s seat I started on my way again. I was glad to leave the scene of the accident behind. This time I was driving more carefully. The scenery was stunning but I wasn’t in the mood to enjoy it. I just wanted to be off this road.


It wasn’t until I reached Monte Grande, 19 kilometres and 45 minutes later, that my brain started functioning properly.

On the road near Cochiguaz, not long before the accident.