Red-shirted Italians toss personalized luggage into the back of a van, while mangy-looking dogs scavenge for food on the sidewalk. Restaurateurs, hoteliers and shopkeepers peer out from modest buildings as the tourists fiddle with their cameras. All around there is a feeling of excitement. It's not every day that San Pedro de Atacama plays host to Ferrari.
Enrico Goldoni hands me a radio and ushers me into the blue 599 Fiorano. I insert my butt, dial up more support from the carbon fiber chairs and ogle the fighter pilot's emblem that has become so famous across the world. Even here, in a desolate corner of northern Chile, the name Ferrari has resonance. For the next four days, this car will be my friend and companion as I tack northwest across Chile and into Bolivia. If all goes well, we should reach La Paz by Friday.
"This will be one of the toughest legs of the tour," says Goldoni as he quietly shuts the door. In the real world, Goldoni has the enviable job of organizing Ferrari's test team, but he's taken three months out to lead a brace of 599s across some of the world's most dangerous terrain. The Ferrari Panamerican 20,000 began in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on August 24 and isn't scheduled to finish until the cars reach New York on November 17. "It is," he reckons, "a crazy thing to do."
There's a crackle on the radio and we're away. In a formation that will become familiar over the next few days, Goldoni leads the way in his Fiat. I follow with the second, red, Ferrari behind. To the rear are more support vehicles, seven in total, hosting eighteen staff. There are mechanics from Maranello, a local guide, PR staff and even a surgeon, just in case it all goes wrong. It might sound like overkill, but it's mighty reassuring in a continent that's home to some of the world's most dangerous roads.
Today's stage is relatively short, so we indulge ourselves with a visit to the Valle La Luna. Millennia of flood and wind have created a scene that, as its name suggests, resembles the surface of the moon. It would be surreal enough without the presence of two Ferraris and, if you were a conspiracy theorist, you really could imagine Neil Armstrong taking "one small step for man" in this dusty desert. Eventually, we drag ourselves away and head north to the copper mining town of Calama. The Ferraris have been modified for the trip, but only slightly. Their ground clearances have been raised by 25mm (one inch) and their underbodies wear protective aluminum cladding to cope with the tricky terrain. For this leg of the journey, the cars are also wearing specially developed Pirelli rally-spec tires, which offer increased traction in the sand and dust.
The rest of the 599 is standard, including the 6.0-liter V12. Global warming worriers might balk at its carbon emissions, but cold-hearted enthusiasts will revel in its 620 bhp, 448 lb-ft of torque and erotic soundtrack. There is something bizarre about driving a 205-mph supercar across such desolate terrain. The luxurious ambience inside the leather-lined cabin seems to bear no relation to the view beyond the bonnet. I've been in IMAX cinemas that have felt more real.
We go to bed early in Calama, in anticipation of a long day ahead. We're to drive 244 miles across the Bolivian border to the town of Uyuni and it's not long before the paved highways give place to dirt roads. At speeds of just 30 to 40 mph, we plod on, guzzling the dust of the car in front. We're at an altitude of over 13,000 feet and both the 599 and I are struggling for breath. The surgeon monitors my progress, while the mechanics keep a wary eye on the car. The rolling landscape, interspersed with the occasional lake or salt flat, is remarkable. For two hours we drive without seeing anybody else, and then we arrive at a police checkpoint at Ascotan. At least a hundred miles from any notable civilization, it's occupied by a solitary official, a dog and an old railway carriage.