“Are you feeling strange?” asks photographer Paul Harmer.
I am. And so is he. Tingling limbs, light-headedness, shortness of breath — Harmer thinks he’s having a panic attack, while I fret absurdly about deep-vein thrombosis. This is not a good place to have either affliction. We may be sitting in comfort aboard an air-conditioned MINI Cooper S Countryman, but we’re also climbing a dirt road deep in the heart of Chile’s Atacama Desert, miles from the nearest doctor. But then it dawns on our travel-blunted brains: this is altitude sickness. We’re closing on a peak topping 13,000 feet, around the altitude at which oxygen masks drop in the cabins of unpressurized aircraft.
We’ve climbed too fast for our less-than-pristine bodies to acclimate. Harmer confirms this by virtually collapsing (in slightly comedic style) while attempting a photograph of our car’s ascent. So what are we doing in a Mini in Chile-and why? Answering the first part of this question is easier than the second. We’re heading north, up the long, narrow strip of land that is Chile, starting in the capital city of Santiago, which lies near the country’s center, and on to Arica, just south of Peru. Our journey will take us through the Atacama Desert and deep into wild, eye-widening scenery on roads that would challenge any car.
Why? Because we want to test this all-wheel-drive Countryman in extreme conditions while exploring the distant echo of one of the more extraordinary chapters in the original Mini’s history. Among the many countries in which the Mini was assembled — Australia, Italy, Spain, and South Africa included — perhaps the most unlikely location was Chile, more specifically Arica. What was unusual about the Chilean Mini was that it was made not from steel but from fiberglass. There were good and ingenious reasons for this, but right now it gives us an excuse, sort of, to drive 1500 miles in the newest Mini on some seriously trying roads. The victim for the mission is a Cooper S Countryman All4, its all-wheel-drive system being just the thing to get us out of sticky situations, if not the onset of panic attacks and deep-vein thrombosis.
Our shiny four-door Mini has 601 kilometers on its odometer when we step into it, ready for the plunge into Santiago traffic, although not before we’ve admired its appealing white and black paint scheme, leather seats, and sizable sunroof. This attractive city is not the glinting metal logjam that so many capitals are, but it’s busy. This is the only time we’ll see traffic like this on our journey.
The warehouses north of Santiago soon give way to hills wrapped in dry, parchment-colored grass and curious half-tree/half-bush vegetation before we eventually turn east toward the beautiful Elqui Valley. The air in the valley is so clear that it has become a center for space observatories staring skyward, but instead of looking up we’re soon looking down, prompted by a garden-sprinkler-like swish-swish-swishing noise. This is the sound of the Mini’s driver’s-side front tire suffering the kind of deflation you feel when your team loses a big game.
Admittedly, we’ve been driving on a Chilean dirt road, but it’s quite busy and not particularly demanding. The good news is that we’re on run-flats. The bad news is that we have no spare. Thoughts of continuing to our hotel are abandoned when we discover that we’ve taken a wrong turn — instead we head for La Serena, famous for its long Pacific beach. It also has a Mini dealer and, we hope, fresh rubber.
So, no stargazing, but we do meet Carlos, the English-speaking head barman who will check us in to our hotel. We’ll wait a couple days while our man in Santiago ships us two new tires — a second tire has a bulge, and the Countryman’s wheels are different from those on other Minis, so we can’t get them from the dealer. Alas, the spare we request won’t be coming. We have some time on our hands, so we attempt to track down an original Chilean fiberglass Mini.
A pretrip Internet search had turned up some survivors, but Chile is a large country and far from littered with these plastic relics. “Mini de fibra” is what you must type to find one in the online Chilean classifieds. Most are sorry specimens — no surprise given their age — but amazingly, there’s one in La Serena, and even though it has an odd vinyl roof whose forward half is suspiciously wavy, it appears to run. Carlos makes the call and attempts to explain why a couple of Brits would want to photograph this ancient used car. Luckily, the Mini’s owner is willing to let us take pictures. Carlos, clearly wondering how we will explain our oddball photographic requirements, generously says he’ll come along.
Fifteen minutes later, we’re hunting down a metallic blue plastic Mini. Antonio Romero’s 1973 Mini was his grandfather’s, in whose garden it languished for years until Antonio resurrected it. An impressive array of engine-rebuild photos are evidence of the effort, as is a dubious modification to the car’s roof. One advantage of fiberglass is that it’s easy to cut, and Antonio has done just that with his Mini’s lid to produce a sliding sunroof. Clever . . . except that he has robbed it of a significant chunk of its strength, as revealed by a prominent windshield shimmy.
The rest of this car is familiar but strangely different. The fiberglass body does without the Mini’s characteristic roof gutters and external flanges; the hood has rounded corners; the wheel arches have more pronounced lips; and the cabin trim differs. But there’s no question that this is a Mini, plastic-shelled or not, and it feels like it on the road.
Back in commission, the Countryman, by contrast, feels grown-up and civilized. We’ve so far found it a capable long-distance device, big enough to play confident high-speed cruiser, small enough to scoot along Chile’s tighter tracks. It’s fast, too, with 181 turbocharged horsepower untensing as the engine revs.
We, however, are feeling slightly tense as we wonder how much rough road we must bump along to reach the Atacama’s dramatic inner reaches. We’ve damaged two tires in one day of driving, and we have a long, long way to go. Today we’ll spear east to the Elqui Valley that we should have reached yesterday before heading north again to Copiapó, the nearest big town to the mine where thirty-three miners were trapped for sixty-nine days last year.
Our derailed schedule prevents us from lingering for a nightfall session at an observatory, but it doesn’t stop us from venturing toward one of several silver domes that adorn the occasional hilllike giant pearls. We dare to climb a dirt track toward one of the domes, edging through a cactus field as the Mini’s four-wheel-drive system audibly engages the rear wheels to dig us out of several deep, dust-filled ruts on tight hairpins. It is eerily quiet at the top, and from this observatory we distantly spy another of these earthbound outposts to infinity.
By the time we’ve headed west to hit the Pan-American Highway, the Pacific is swallowing the sun and we’re struggling to pick off one roaring truck after another. It’s a struggle not because the Mini is short on power — its engine is enjoyably potent — but because the highway has become a two-lane road. We e-mail the hotel to say we’ll arrive around midnight-although my shameful Spanish may have informed them that I’d like to shampoo a llama — but that’s before the road delivers a passing lane for the long climb out of Chañaral and a Renault Clio Renaultsport for entertainment. The amusement stems from the Renault driver’s ambition to pass a keenly piloted Citroën C4 coupe and our irresistible decision to stay on both their tails.
The big white Mini’s brilliant headlights, eager turbo, and stable chassis make for a superb drive on this magnificently swooping ascent, spoiled only by rather nervous steering and the realization that the 100 kilometers of our estimated fuel range exactly matches the distance to the next advertised fuel stop. We’re saved by the ascent turning into a descent and the trip computer’s range estimates reassuringly rising by the minute. We soon strike Copiapó and its surprisingly fashionable casino hotel, where the gaming tables are at full frenzy. But we’re too tired to gamble tonight, and we have a big enough gamble to take tomorrow.
We are planning to drive east into the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park, whose access road the Lonely Planet describes as a suspension smasher. Hotel receptionist Patricio (a keen Sex Pistols fan — “the only truly polemic punk band,” he says) has never been there, and the tourist office is shut. We decide to go anyway, figuring that if it’s too much for the tires, we can always turn back. But even though the road immediately turns to dirt, it’s graded, straight, and empty, and we’re soon heading into rolling, arid scenery so compelling that it’s impossible not to press on.
After two hours the smoothly scraped surface stops. The road continues, but now it’s a rutted gravel and dust track, and we’ve gone too far to turn around. We gingerly edge on, all the time climbing through frozen bubblings of pink rock, tongues of gray shale, and greenish outcrops. Some hills simply ooze copper, making this place seem like a giant mine, most of it undug. It feels otherworldly, and so do our heads as we begin to feel a little strange. Which is where we came in.
The Mini makes the 13,000-foot peak more effectively than our altitude-sickened selves, the turbocharger compensating for the surprising lack of sub-1500-rpm grunt caused by the thin air. And we have four fully inflated tires, too. A mix of relief, euphoria, and foolishness encourages us to cross the border into Argentina-mainly because we can-adding another two hours to a journey that will eventually see us endlessly sinking into a dizzyingly deep and often forbidding valley. The road is traveled only by occasional mining trucks and trains whose tracks we cross repeatedly during our descent. Our puncturelessness lasts a little longer.
The next day we make San Pedro de Atacama, a prime touristspot and site of a volcano, salt flats, the weird Valle de la Luna…and bird life. “Flamingoes?” I ask the hotel receptionist. “They’re about so high,” she says, lifting her hand three demonstrative feet. “They’re pink and have long legs.” Thrown by a sense of humor drier than the Atacama, it takes me a moment to ask her how far away they are, to which the answer is farther than we have time for. We have only a day to make Arica, and before we get there we want to visit Humberstone, one of the planet’s finest ghost towns.
We’re shocked-almost as if we’ve actually seen ghosts-when we hit the pothole that does in the next tire. We strike it at 70 mph with a force sufficient to rip a two-inch flap clean out of the sidewall. At least we bought a jack in La Serena. We now have two flat run-flats and must use our bulged tire to complete the mission. To the Countryman’s great credit, it tracks arrow-straight even though the impact bent the wheel. By now we’ve realized that if it comes down to it, we can put the punctured run-flats on the rear wheels, which could be enough to get us to a Mini dealer. We’re still keeping our eyes wide open for potholes on the way to Humberstone, however.
Now a World Heritage site, this town was once home to more than 200 workers who extracted sodium nitrates for fertilizer in what is known as the driest region on earth. The church, market, and hospital must have provided only limited relief from the hot hell of digging saltpeter for a living, even if the art deco theater was once a big-name draw. Humberstone’s forlorn hospital gives us the jitters, too, as the random clanging of corrugated iron roof panels accompanies our exploration of its labyrinthine layout. This is a fascinating town, but there’s something sad about a classroom full of desks and no kids.
“You have committed a transgression,” says an unsmiling policeman just north of Humberstone. This is actually the third time we’ve been stopped by the law but the only time we’re really worried-the Chilean police are famously straight-because I really have been committing a speeding transgression. “But this time,” he continues, “I forgive you.” Feeling chastened and very fortunate, we make the final run to Arica, just 160 miles away, using rather less of the Countryman’s power. The scenery is staggering as we skirt two of the biggest valleys I’ve ever seen, their walls coated with a smooth crust of lunarlike dust. Leave the road here and your car will toboggan thousands of feet to oblivion.
We reach Arica just as the sun is setting, and it’s a welcome sight, especially as we have four fully inflated tires. Our plan is to hunt for the remains of the Mini factory tomorrow, as we explain to a curious hotel porter. “British Leyland?!” he exclaims. “My father used to work there.” We’re unable to believe our luck-the factory employed just 150 to 200 people some forty years ago-when he tells us that his dad will appear at 10 a.m. tomorrow to show us where it was. You can read Pedro Joquella’s memories in the sidebar at left.
Pedro comes with us on our final, wistful drive in the Countryman, which has proved more than tough enough, despite tires and a suspension occasionally too sporty for some of Chile’s lesser roads. Its looks have grown on us, too, and this handily compact four-by-four delivered lots of grins on the swooping roads that Chile has so many of. It may not be a minimum kind of a Mini, but it’s a Mini at heart.
Chilean Mini Racer
The Mini was a hot car in Chile in the 1960s, helped by multiple giant-killing wins against V-8-powered Fords and Chevrolets. Chile’s most successful Mini racing driver was the charming Juan Armando Band, who almost always won his class and often the race, too. “They hated me,” he says of his competitors. He founded a Mini team-called Aband, inspired by Abarth-and even managed a female team that included his wife. Band says that BMC was surprised at how advanced the Chilean racing cars became, featuring fuel injection and 140 hp well before British competition Minis. “They were more developed because we didn’t have Porsches,” he explains. Most of his wins came in steel-bodied Coopers, but Band raced fiberglass Minis, too.
The Countryman is assembled in Austria, making it the first BMW-designed Mini made outside the U.K., but decades ago completely knocked-down Minis were assembled in factories around the world to beat import tariffs. That included Chile, where steel-bodied Minis, along with many other makes, were built from the early ’60s in Arica’s new industrial zone. Eventually, however, rising local-content requirements looked unattainable, until someone had the ingenious idea of making fiberglass bodies locally. Production began in 1969 but rarely met demand, and Minis were often airfreighted to customers, recalls factory worker Pedro Joquella. His job, besides working on final assembly, was to cut the window apertures for the one-piece shell and fit the glass and doors. “We made twelve cars a week-it was a very popular vehicle.” But the enterprise abruptly ended with President Salvador Allende’s 1973 overthrow by the military, which scrapped the local-content rules-although not before several thousand Minis de fibra were produced.