Published: August 7th 2012August 4th 2012
Riding from Iquique to Calama was a pretty nice ride since I, by luck, chose a seat on the left side of the bus which looked out on the beach rather than dirt hills for about 2/3 of the journey. The final 1/3 was back to barren desert: brown earth, blue sky… and white clouds? What!? So supposedly San Pedro very rarely has clouds. And by bad luck this time, it was cloudy on the one night I would have the opportunity to go on an astronomy tour – the thing I was looking forward to most in San Pedro. The rest of the week, the moon would be too bright to view the stars very well. The strange thing was that the clouds came and went all throughout the week. I guess if that never happens we were lucky then, right? At the very least, it made for some spectacular sunsets.
I met up with Cody shortly after I arrived at Hostal Sonchek. Kelsey, another volunteer would join us later. The hostal was constructed in the adobe style as is the rest of San Pedro – short and orangey-red. It was open air with lots of lovely
patio space and a small kitchen where we made all of our meals together and also met a nice variety of people – a young German woman who’s been all over the world, some French, some Japanese… Americans are not the most common tourists around San Pedro so we found out.
There was a museum in town that Cody and I went to see on our first day there. I didn’t really think much of it. We also ran some errands, buying fruits and vegetables from a fruit truck that comes to this parking lot everyday selling items from Arica and Iquique. Our German friend Sabrina tipped us off on that one. In the afternoon we ventured by bicycle to the nearby ruins of Pukará de Quitor. The view and the WIND from the mirador on top were impressive. I couldn’t approach the edge for fear of blowing off! It was spectacular up there though: great open blue skies and deep crevices of the cordillera de la sal, and again, we were the only ones there. Once Kelsey arrived to San Pedro we planned the rest of the week and cooked some veggie pasta for dinner.
Monday’s agenda included a tour of the Altiplanic lakes: Miscanti and miñiques. We started early, about 6 am – early enough to see quite a few stars which made me happy. The bus then picked us up and we met our guide, Max. He was kind of a jerk, making fun of our Spanish and quite cocky about his English, but at least he was entertaining. He says he never really studied English. He learned from music and tv. Plus, it’s likely he has a bit of a gift. The rest of the group was a good time. There were a handful of American girl / Chilean boy couples which I found cute.
The first stop was the lakes themselves – bright blue gems below snow covered volcanoes. The cold wind though took a bit away from the experience. I was not prepared for such cold. Apparently it gets so cold at night that the larger of the two freezes completely over sometimes. The smaller manages to stay liquid because of its higher salt content. When we went, it was full of birds playing in the freezing water. Looking up, you could see rows of
On the way back towards San Pedro, we stopped in a couple small villages characterized by sparse populations, little churches, gardens of quinoa, and cactus. In Toconao, the church has a gorgeous spiral staircase made out of the cactus wood.
Next stop which turned out to be my favorite, was the Salar de Atacama – another stunning blue lake with a host of flamingos feeding. Here, finally we encountered still water that made for a stunning view of the mountains and flamingos reflected in crystal waters. Outside the water was a lumpy soil, a large percent of it salt. We learned that such a formation occurs because in the past, this area was an ocean. Over time as the water evaporates, it leaves behind the salt.
We made lentils for dinner that night that ended up lasting us 3 meals. Best $3 I could have spent!
Tuesday was our most intense day. We rented bikes for the day and started by heading to Valle de la Muerte or “Valley of Death.” The valley is just beyond the cordillera de la sal and is characterized by great
sand dunes. Climbing one small dune and running down was fun, but just once was enough work. The ride was pleasurable when we were actually riding, but there was quite a bit of sand that we had to just drag our bikes through… uphill.
While dragging bikes, we encountered a vehicle stuck in the sand. We spoke to the driver in Spanish, and he responded in perfect English. Turns out he’s Chilean though and in fact, he’s been to 48 of the United States – more than any of us. He and his family were visiting the north on vacation. They’re from Patagonia. Of course, being stranded is not fun for anyone, so we set to work helping him dig out sand from underneath the vehicle. Then we pushed the car backwards (we were on an incline). This process repeated several times until we made it to shallow sand. Considering how few people were out there, I think we were there at the right place at the right time…
After all that, it was definitely time for lunch. I don’t think I could have dragged my bike one step further than we did up
to that sacred shady spot overlooking the spectacular valley. When we finally made it to where there was no longer sand on the road, we hopped on our bikes again. While the work was easier, the trail was harder – very rocky – and we had to be careful not to get going too fast.
We finally reached the freeway that we sought and opted with some degree of certainty to go left. Left took us down through the cordillera de la sal on a long steep slope that Kelsey and I both worried in our heads, “there is no way we climbed enough to be going down this steep incline.” But as we reached the bottom, I began to recognize landmarks and sure enough, this hill proved we made a pretty intense climb up! The ride down at such high speed, racing past pillars of earth, was worth it! The guy at the bike shop said that he’s clocked himself at around 65 kph there. Yeah, it’s that steep.
We passed by town to grab some more water before powering through to the Valle de la Luna. We were growing quite weary by
that point. Thankfully, it started as a long flat ride. There were patches of ultra-bumpy gravel, but it was manageable. Too bad it didn’t stay like that… we walked our bikes up another steep hill. No sand this time though. We made it to the top in time to drop our bikes, climb a sand dune, and watch the sun set over the Valley. The sunset itself was not all that great initially. The best part was turning around: facing away from the sun you could see a full moon and shades of pink start to light the mountains and clouds. As we rode our bikes back we enjoyed a full 360 event. That is the magic of Atacama sunsets. Once the sun reaches a certain point, the colors start to form on that side of the horizon too: oranges, blues, and purples. At one point, you could see every color of the rainbow on one part of the horizon or another. The full moon lit our path and we gawked at the sky and the stars that began to come out. Needless to say, we slept very well that night.
The next day was the much
anticipated trip to the Salar de Tara. We went on the tour with a middle aged Chilean couple and a young German woman – a nice ensemble. It turns out the couple was from Concepción, quite close to where the three of us were living before! The tour took us to the east, toward the Andes and toward the Chile/Argentina/Bolivia border. We made a slight detour up to see project alma – a Chilean radio telescope project. The satellite-like mechanisms were not all that spectacular to see, but the journey up up up, leaving the road to dodge patches of snow was certainly exciting albeit a little bit scary at times. The cold wind up there was the worst yet. We exited the area a different way, by a gate that we had to open and close in order to pass. It said “Do Not Enter,” so apparently we weren’t even supposed to be there.
We stopped to eat breakfast a little further down the road and again the wind was wicked cold. It kept up through our next stop at some fantastic rocks – “abuelos de Tara.” These great rocks appear to be stuck out in
the middle of nowhere and nothing. Some stand tall and skinny. Others look like animals. In the distance, a blue/green salt lake, aguas calientes, glittered.
Finally, we made it to the salar itself. Much of it was somewhat brown from the wind and waves stirring up sediment, but a stiller section of water shone bluer and a few flamingos were gathered there eating. Luckily there was a little shack/hut on the lakeside where we were able to find some shelter from the wind in order to have lunch.
On the way back, we didn’t make any stops except to take a snap shot of a lake that was in Bolivia – laguna blanca, I believe it was. We kept our eyes on the driver though as he was getting rather drowsy which made us all a bit nervous…
The rest of the afternoon and evening were free to lounge, cook our dinner, play ping pong, etc. Our little private 3 person room we shared was a real mess. Despite the truth to the statement “Save water, shower together,” we took turns showering in the one best shower. The water was all
solar heated, and for some reason, one shower put out hotter water (almost too hot at times) than the others. That hot water was really important too because once the sun sets, it gets pretty cold out there.
Our last full day together we awoke on our own pretty early – well, we did get a little help from a cat meowing loudly outside. There are a handful of them that apparently live in the open air courtyard and walkways at the hostel. Cody, Kelsey and I took a walk towards Pukará de Quitor before lunch, venturing past the ruins where Cody and I had already visited and up into the valley. Much of the hike was along the clay colored San Pedro River on a path that occasionally pelted us with sand with a gust of wind. We spotted a sheep and 2 little lambs drinking from the river at one point. We also passed a vehicle with beach boys playing loudly from within. 2 Chileans poked their heads out and asked where we were from. “You like beer?” they shouted, inviting us to join their fiesta, but we passed thinking more about lunch.
The last shebang was an afternoon at the Laguna Cejar – a lake 7 times more salty than the ocean and so salty that the human body will float effortlessly in it. Of course, pictures of the lake show a bright blue lake on a sunny day with people happily swimming and floating around it, but Cody and my experience was somewhat different. As we arrived, the sun was obscured by clouds and high winds sent waves across the lake making it appear gray and a bit foreboding. Among the hordes of tourists there, there was only one in the water. Not a good sign I thought. Stripping down to our swimsuits we were already pretty cold, but that was nothing. We put our toes in the water of the lake, and there we felt ice cold. However, having heard that warmer water could be found in deeper water and also only having this one opportunity of a lifetime, we plowed through it.
Getting from half-in to submerging the top half was a hard step. Immediately upon jumping forward into the water, I gasped for air because the coldness of the water took my breath away.
The gasping was uncontrollable until I finally got used to it after about a minute or so. Cody and I worked our way into deeper water. I was flailing so much with the shock of the cold that I barely noticed I was floating, but when I stopped to be still, my feet lifted out from underneath me and rose up to the surface of the water – pretty cool! Cody was the first to discover that there in deeper water, if you extend your toes as deep down as possible, there was very hot water. I cannot express how excited the both of us were at this discovery. It sat pretty far down though because were I to lift my foot by bending my knee, my foot was again in cold water. But that bit of warm at our feet (and the rest of our bodies going numb) made the water tolerable for at least a little while. I was proud to be one of the crazy American tourists who was strong enough to get in and experience it.
As we got out of the water, the cold wind now felt warm and cozy and thankfully,
the sun began to peek out from behind the clouds as well granting us a little warmth and giving the lakes a clearer, bluer, more pleasant appearance. The wind whisked the moisture off of us and left behind a thin salt residue that was visible on my face, in my hair, on my clothes and on my sunglasses. My back felt as though it had a residue on it that cracked with every movement – not exactly the most comfortable feeling – as I bundled back up.
Back at the van, we had a snack and a pisco sour while waiting for the sunset. I needed to escape the wind for at least a little bit, so Cody and I went back inside the van. The guide came in to visit with us. We found out that American visitors are not too common around the Atacama and that Chilean visitors were the guide’s least favorite. “They don’t experience anything!” he said. “Look at these two! They came and have been sitting around the whole time. They didn’t walk around and explore. They didn’t get in. They came, sat down, smoked their cigarettes and played with their cellphones…”
I’m glad my own host family does not fit this stereotype.
I expressed to him my amazement at how many clouds I had seen in the supposedly “never cloudy” San Pedro. His response was that it’s not the only thing unusual. Temperatures at night are not as cold as normal either. The effects of climate change are evident. This was not the first time I had heard this. Even down in Constitución, people were saying how unusually long the summer lasted and how odd it was that there was not more rain (which I have to say I was pleased to have less rain). Someone really needs to tell them that burning Coke bottles in their bonfires (like they did in Chanco) is not helping the fact…
The sun began to sink down toward the horizon, so Cody and I got out of the van, ready to enjoy (and snap a million photos) of the sunset. Silly other tourists were cold and got inside the van. Boy did they miss out. The sunset was one of the most incredible of my life. Clouds make for poor stargazing, but unbelievable sunsets. Again, it was a
full out 360 degree experience. At first, you witness shades of pink on the opposite horizon from the sun. From our location, the opposite horizon was a line of volcanos with dense clouds above. They glowed pink. Dropping lower, the sun then illuminated the clouds closest to it and the lakes below it. In every direction there were different colors and formations of clouds, and as every minute passed, they changed – pink, purple, blue, orange, neon red, white, and finally deep purple and blue. Pictures cannot do justice.
We returned to the hostel content where Kelsey had put on our lentils for the third and last time. We had a cabbage salad too and joked about how it was a good thing we were good friends by now because of the likely result of the meal. After a shower to remove the salt residue from my body, we shared a Chilean beer while we packed. We only made it to about 10:30 though before we crashed in our little room together for the last time.
The next day began the long journey home. Thankfully everything came together just perfectly. I took a shuttle from San Pedro to Calama and a taxi within town to the airport. There, my flight was delayed slightly, but nothing major. By amazing coincidence, the man who had his car stuck in the sand was on my same flight along with 3 of his sons and his wife. Initially I waved at him, but I don’t think he really noticed me. It appeared that his sons did, and they looked at me questioningly. I was quite sure it was him though so I went up to him and asked, “You’re the guy from the sand dunes right?” and he responded, “Yes!” and proceeded to introduce me to his family. “This is one of the good Samaritans that helped me get the car unstuck.” We killed a little time talking – all of them speaking flawless fluent English – until we walked out with the rest of the crowd at the small airport onto the tarmac to climb the stairs and board the plane.
I made it to Santiago in good enough to time to go to Tía Raquel’s apartment for a shower, dinner, and to reorganize my bags before returning to the airport for my flight home at 1am. All smooth sailing from there. Santiago to Panama I slept (a miracle). Three hours in Panama City on the internet. 4 hours to Houston writing my blog. 3 hours there: half spent in customs and reentering through security, and half spent wandering and writing. There I experienced the strongest culture shock (albeit not that severe) (and heat shock!). I went from being a blonde sore thumb, to invisible in the great American melting pot. People of every color, shape, size, and origin stood around me waiting and talking – some more impatiently than others. I missed hearing Spanish a little bit. In fact, in several situations, I had to stop myself from responding in Spanish. The error though made me proud of where I’ve come with my own Spanish competency. It became natural to me!
Flying into Austin I was astonished by the greenness of the landscape. Praise the Lord there has been more rain this summer! From the gate, I walked towards the exit to find Mom and Dad waiting for me. Hugs! Dad drove us home, and I gave Louis and Saisha lots of love too. Dinner of stuffed red peppers, salad, and chocolate coca cola cake with vanilla bean ice cream never had tasted so good before. Oh it is so so good to be home. Pero nos vemos Chile!
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