San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
21/07/12 – 25/07/12 – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Again, it’s not without some reservation that we board our Tur Bus semi-cama coach into the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth outside of Antarctica. San Pedro de Atacama is a town in the a basin enclosed by mountains, the famous Andes on one side; but it’s elevation is up around 2500m above sea level or roughly equivalent to cabin pressure on an airline, and neither of us have any idea how we’d handle it. We’d had several conversations about altitude over the past few weeks and it was now that we’d start to hit the countries and locations that would put us high in the sky. San Pedro (2250m), La Paz (3600m), Cusco (3400m), and then there would be tours we’d take that would take us close to 4500m. So we’ve spoken a bit about what we’d do if either or both us got a bout of soroche but we also figured San Pedro would be a great test at 2500m before venturing further. We boarded the bus with bags of snacks and pushed our way past Chilean miners to our seats. Semi-cama is basically your bog standard bus fare. It goes up in comfort from there, but as there was nothing available in ‘comfortable’ we were to endure 17 hours in ‘standard’.. and endure we did. It was an overnight service so after a few movies I managed to nod off to sleep for a few hours and awoke at sunrise, high in the Atacama. I looked across at Rebecca who had an eye-mask and earplugs in but was still unable to get any sleep. Poor lass. I checked my altimeter and sure enough we were up at 2500m. I felt fine, a little tired but fine. Yes!
The scenery though was a little unsettling. A sheer nightmare for the agrophobe, vast distance on undulating sand dunes, sheer drops into dusty valleys, rocky terrain disappearing into the snow-capped volcanoes and mountains of the Andes. A rich blue sky blooming as the morning sun rises. There was little, if any vegetation at all until we blast through the nearby town of Calama and down into the valley where the leafy oasis of San Pedro de Atacama lies. We stumble off the bus and breathe in air at about 3/4 density of ‘back on earth’. It’s not immediately noticeable until we don our packs and walk through the dusty streets in search of our hostel. You just get tired quicker, out of breath, heart beats a bit quicker and harder. So we just slow down a bit, and admired the uniqueness of the town, nay village more like it.
Roads of powdery dust that colour of those desert boots you had to wear in high school. Mudbrick walls of a similar colour, some with dry sticks poking out the top, others with glass bottles stuck into the walls for decoration. There’s the smell of pepper-trees in the air and thatchy scrubs and somewhere there’s the sound of the spring flowing through town. Where possible street-signage is wooden, as are the doors and frames of the mud-brick buildings and houses around the main tourist area. And it becomes pretty obvious pretty soon that San Pedro de Atacama is hugely dependent on tourism. Like nowhere in our travels so far have we seen the tourism infra-structure built up as much as here. Touts hand out brochures along the main stretch or ask if you need tour information. There’s classy restaurants, a North Face shop and organic grocers, not to mention lots of people just like us, carrying back-packs, looking a little frazzled and hair all fluffed up. After asking at information we followed the road out of the central tourist mess and found Mammatierra hostel. A surly old bloke opened the door and stared over his glasses with that ‘straining to see you’ look. We explained we had a reservation in Spanish and he ushered us in and told us to drop our bags in his office. We then motioned us to the breakfast table. I s’pose it was pretty early to be checking in.. and he very insistingly urged us to eat some bread. Why? I thought.. is it poisoned you creepy old man? But it wasn’t, it was fine, I suppose in his own way, his mis-directed enthusiasm is simply a way of being welcoming. Mud-brick here as well, with a stony general area for chilling out. Which we did for a while until our room was ready. Once we dumped our stuff we headed out for a look around.
While there was immediately much on offer here we’d agreed earlier to ‘take it easy in the altitude’ and so had written off the first day to simply exploring the immediate local surroundings. The town, it’s tourist center and local outskirts. All leeringly looked over by the snow-capped mountains and volcanoes of the Andes and surrounded by a desolate, rocky terrain, misleading from within the spring-fed lush oasis of town. Over the next few days, whenever we had a moment of spare time we’d wander just outside of town, cross the dry riverbed and climb a small series of hills out the back of town. From there you could, like a mountain goat, sit in an elevated position over town and take in the back-drop of the Andes as well. In someways, the most astounding thing, outside of the bluest of skies, the beautiful mountain range of the leafy town, was the sheer silence. You could hear a bee ****. So we simply sat on some rock, like two hippies, enjoying conversation and listening to silence, and for the first time in a while, taking in some glorious sunshine, warming our skin from the freezing conditions of the early morning and night.
And freezing it is. One of the draw-cards of the Atacama is it’s incredible position and clarity from which to view the night sky. There’s a number of significant observatories out here not to mention one of the biggest telescope programmes in construction out here, where 66 high precision telescopes will be positioned some 15 kilometers apart at about 5000m above sea level and when combined will view further into the universe than we’ve seen before. The night we took the observation tour, we could see the test routines of the telescopes flashing up on the surrounding mountains. Less, a Canadian astronomer took us through the constellations, the zodiac, and the planets using his nifty green laser pointer and was successful in demonstrating just how small and insignificant our little planet is in a universal context. The night sky is just indescribable, you can clearly see the clusters of millions of stars that form the clouds of the milky way and you can follow it across the sky. We saw perhaps 6 or 7 shooting stars, and the clarity out here is so good you can see stars rise from the horizon. After the initial introduction we’re lead to a field of telescopes of varying power all pointed at significant points in the sky.. Alpha Centauri, Vega, Saturn, a dying star and several other clusters of stars of all degrees of colour. By the time we’d finished it was -8 degrees so we were invited in for a question session and a hot chocolate.
The next day we’d signed up to visit the Atacama salt flats and two high plateau lakes. It was a full day tour booked through our hostel with a local tour company. We’d come prepared with sunscreen and jackets because even though it can be blistering cold at our intended elevation (4300m).. it also puts you a bit closer to the sun. We powered through the desert basin in our little blue bus and shortly arrived at the Atacama salt flats, the 3rd biggest in the world after the Salt Lake in the USA and Uyuni, just over the border in Bolivia. Here we wandered out on marked paths through the salt flats to the lakes and their resident flamingos. Though the landscape was vastly flat, the salt and other minerals had crystalised and formed these unusual small termite mound type formations across it’s 3000-odd square kilometers. The lakes around the middle reflected the undulating mountain skyline and varies species of flamingos sashayed around munching on carotin-rich algae.
We continued up the mountains to the small town of Socaire at around 3200m. They get us out of the van here, go in and order lunch for u
s and tell us to walk up the road to the local church, not a bad idea as the altitude is starting now to show it’s effects. Tingly hands, pressure on the chest, wanting to walk much slower. But by the time we’d walked down the road, taken in the local church and marveled at locals hauling masses of harvest on their shoulders and running up hills, everything had settled down and we were about right to jump on the bus again. Things started to get greener as we climbed. Suddenly rocky terrain turned into green fields looking down to the dusty desert basin and looking up to the volcanic peaks of the surrounding snow-covered mountains. We’d soon climbed to 4300m and parked at the top of hill leading down to the deep blue of Lake Minique. It was simply breath-taking in both the literal and non-literal sense. The green of the surrounding fields, the deep-blue of the lake, the white of the surrounding snow and the mineral earthy colors of the surrounding mountains. It was so much to take in, and looked more like an alien landscape from some kind of science fiction movie. I almost expected to be welcomed and beckoned by some guy in a glass helmet. We took it slow and walked down the hill and along the marked path of the lake. The lakes are fed by the volcanic springs of the surrounding volcanoes. Firstly into Lake Minique which runs into neighboring Lake Miscanti. We were feeling good, it was hard to walk and talk, and it kind of felt like you were breathing through a straw but we were otherwise okay and feeling better about our future travel plans to the Andean countries. We jumped back into the little blue bus and took off back down to Socaire for lunch. We shared a table with an Austrian cellist Maggie, living in Santiago and her mother Helen who had come over to visit. She happened to be an English teacher and as a result both hers and her daughters English was exceptional, we felt indulged actually and again reminded how starved of other languages we Australians are.
Rebecca was fortunate enough to have her birthday whilst in the Atacama, last time we did a trip like this, it was trying to sleep on the washy deck of a Croatian ferry as it made it’s way across the water to Bari in Italy. This time we took the luxury of sleeping in, spending some time on our favorite out of town hill, and then took in a late morning cortado and lemon meringue in the central square. Followed by a glass of local vino tinto. By some divine task we were serenaded by some local musicians, a guitarist, a percussionist and a melodician (?) .. hardly a professional group, more like a band of homeless youths, one who looked like he shat his bright green trackies. They wandered around for change after their performance. I had nothing but large bills so did that slap-the-pocket-and-look-wistful thing before apologising and explaining. We had just enough time to grab some empanadas con queso from a favorite local shop before jumping on the ‘Valley of the Moon’ tour at 3pm
By some chance we got the same bus and were surprised to see Maggie and Helen again, who immediately invited us out for dinner; evidently Maggie, being a talented musician had sussed out a local performance at a restaurant in town. We were glad to accept the invitation. The tour took in the amazing Valle of The Moon, true to it’s name, a lunar landscape shaped by wind and water, despite not having received a single drop of rain in hundred of years. Sheer cliffs plunge down into sweeping dunes while in the background there’s molehill shapes clustered together reaching back to the mountains on the horizon. At the end of the trip our bus trudged up to the top of the plateau where we took in the sunset across the valley and the surrounding mountains. Helen and Maggie surprised Rebecca with a Happy Birthday serenade high on the plateau. We bumbled back into town, freshened up and wandered into town to the ‘Adobe’ restaurant, accompanied shortly after by Maggie and Helen.
Probably the nicest restaurant in town, Adobe has an open air thatch roof, and a court-yard in the center of which is a fire-pit, effective in warming the entire restaurant. We sipped pisco sours with green peppers whilst Maggie told us of life in a small village in Austria, Maggie told us of the music and theater in Santiago where she lives and we enjoyed a meal together, sharing a common affinity for travel. A local sextet played. Plenty of panpipes, drumming and guitar it was completely enchanting and we were again surprised when Helen blessed a Happy Birthday on Rebecca and handed over a CD of the local bands recordings. We were completely surprised and overwhelmed at the generosity of people who some 48 hours before were complete strangers. Saying goodbye was like saying goodbye to old friends and we’ve encouraged both of them to visit Australia in the near future.
The final day in San Pedro de Atacama was bitter sweet, we’re sad to be leaving such an enchanting, magical place but keen to get into the highlands of Bolivia. We’re en route to La Paz, via Arica in Chiles north, and we have a 10 hour bus trip overnight tonight to get there.