In this paper, we critically analyse our experiences of initiating participatory research in the challenging context of the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile. We use our experience of organising participatory workshops with Aymara and Quechua women community leaders to reflect on the politics of participation/non-participation, and explore these experiences in light of our multiple and overlapping positionalities as Chilean/British, male/female, white/mestizo. In the light of one workshop being entirely unsuccessful, we discuss the ways in which our empirical and methodological thinking has nevertheless been enriched by this experience. We situate the challenges we faced in relation to negotiating the tensions presented by debates on decolonising research from our positions within the neoliberal academy, exploring the questions raised by indigenous women activists’ research ‘refusal’, and critically reflect upon the emotional responses this situation elicited in each of us. We argue for the importance of embracing such apparent fieldwork ‘failures’ and, recognising the resulting emotional swirl of panic, anxiety and inadequacy that they produce, emphasise these experiences as illustrative of the inherent tensions around decolonising research, as well as an often inevitable element of conducting research with marginalised communities involved in socio-environmental conflicts.