Published: September 27th 2009September 27th 2009
Atacama Can Be Beautiful
They say this makes Death Valley look lush and green!
Chile's tremendous length covers a hugely diverse array of landscapes, from the desolate moonscape of Chile's Atacama Desert, to the fertile vineyards of the Central Valley, to the lush rainforests of the Lake District, down to the magnificent glaciers and peaks of Patagonia -- not to mention more than 4,830km (3,000 miles) of coastline and Easter Island. It's truly mind-boggling to think of how many different experiences a traveler can have in just 2 or 3 weeks in this South American country.
The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile is one of the most spectacular and unique areas on the planet. Despite having almost no annual rainfall, its landscape features crystal clear blue lagoons, bubbling geysers, hot springs and rivers, and geographically it is a bizarre combination of lava flows, salt basins, rock formations and canyons. The region is so desolate, it is often described as moon-like. The plateau extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains and in the middle of this desert, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, lies the Spanish colonial village of San Pedro de Atacama, surrounded by a green oasis. Because of the high altitude and nature of the geysers, the Atacama is
Not the biggest of geysers, but the highest altitude geysers in the world.
not a destination recommended for young children, pregnant women or anyone with a heart condition. How about us?
We were so worried about what to pack for this trip. The cold in Patagonia requires hiking boots, big warm jackets, and gloves. The desert, sunscreen, tank tops, bermuda shorts, and tennies. Maybe I will just ditch the warm clothing after leaving Patagonia, just to lighten my load. But it is a cold here as anywhere in Chile except for Patagonia.
Copiapo is the main city in Atacama, located 805 km north of Santiago. It is an agricultural oasis, along with mining. Silver was discovered here in 1832 by miner Juan Godoy. The Copiapo River flows nearby the city. It is possible to view a florid desert, depending on the seasonal rainfall. We decided to fly here from Santiago to Calama.
To make a comparison, it is fifty times drier than Death Valley in California. The desert is 20 million years old and consists primarily of sand, lava flows, and salt basins. It just seems so strange to have this desert between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. A coastal inversion layer created
Love The Sand
The glass makers will love this place. We climbed to the highest point in the Atacama. Windy, dry, and cold.
by the Humboldt Current and the anticyclone of the Pacific keeps the climate dry. There is evidence of NO rain between 1570 to 1971. The Andes in this region are completely free of glaciers. Some areas get a layer of fog that provides enough moisture for algae, lichens, and some cacti.
Another freaky fact is that perchlorates are found here, as well as by the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008 on the surface of Mars. This, of course, leads to speculation that life on Mars is not compatible with perchlorates. Testament to that are the numerous (170) abandoned nitrate mining towns here. But the desert still has rich deposits of copper and other minerals. And the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate. Can you believe the Pan American Highway runs through here?
We flew yesterday from Santiago to Calama, on our way to San Pedro de Atacama, where stargazing and sand boarding are the two most popular activities. Sanboarding is similar to snowboarding, except with no bindings, making it much more dangerous. But without a mechanized lift to the top, boarders must walk or ride a dune buggy to the top of every dune.
Sandboarding looks like fun, but is much more dangerous than snow boarding. If we get a chance to see it up close, we may try it. Who knows? The world sand board speed record is only 51 mph, held by American Erik Johnson. And the longest back flip is 44 feet, 10 inches by Josh Tenge. Personally, I think both records are safe.
I found a hostel type motel for about $60 USD, breakfast included. It is about a few levels below Motel 6, but very clean and quiet. We also had an electric blanket on our bed, a single bed I might add. But we had hot water for a shower this morning, so all is good.
We headed out to the Valley of the Moon for some driving on gravel roads, and a hike up to the ¨moon crater¨. So, one small step(s) for Mike and Gerry, one giant leap for heading south to Patagonia. Interestingly huge sand dunes and rock formations here. But over 4000 meters in elevation, very windy, and not a plant in miles.
We then decided to get really crazy and went over to the Explora Lodge, where a minimum four stay is about $2500 per person, meals and tours included. We finally had our Kuntsmann Beer and lots of ¨free pistachios and almonds. It is an oasis here in this dumpy but quaint little town. The main street is a mud and gravel affair, no cars allowed, even though we drove down it by mistake this morning.
We also have a car with a balky starter. So, here we are in the middle of the desert, and the car will not start. Fortunately, we were at the top of a little incline. So, I told Mike to get in, and I pushed with every ounce of muscle, and luckily, the car started. Good thing it is a stick shift. We did not see any cars in the national park while we were there, as it is off eason. And my phone did not work either. It could have been ugly.
Another day here, as we will take a trip to the world famous Tatio Geysers tomorrow. Most tours leave at 4am for a sunrise geyser tour, We pray that it will start again. So the bus is looking good right now.
Now I know why they call the desert wind MARIAH. It blows the sand and covers every bodily orifice. It also covers things put away in cases, like expensive wines and jewelry. My shoes will ever be the same, nor will my nose.
So, a big steak and a glass of Carmenere, a Chilean red. Salads here are not very appetizing, and they have Mike´s favorite in it, string beans. I spent about $10 for what I thought was a big salad. It was mostly shredded carrots, string beans, cucumbers, and horrible tomatoes.
We are the main street internet cafe right now. We are trying to decide if it is worthwhile to get up at 4:30am tomorrow to see the geysers on a bus. Right now, I say NO. But the geysers are one of the big attractions here. We tried to rent a car and driver, but it was over $300 USD. The bus tour is 8 hours and cost only $40 USD.
I have a new temporary pal, a dog around the corner from the hostel. I tried an empanada, but it had too much curry in it. So, I now have a friend for life. But now I cannot find him. I guess he knows that Buddy is the only dog for me.
With nothing else to do this morning at 4am, we woke up at 3:30am for our bus to El Tatio Geysers, about 80 miles northeast of San Pedro. The bus turned out to be a very crowded mini van, with mostly people from Brazil and Argentina.
So, we headed out in the dark, picked up a few more people along the way, and headed out. The roads in town are not paved, so we were rather pleased to see a paved road about a mile outside of town. Our hopes were quickly diminished when the gravel, dirt, and pothole routine began anew. But this is Chile.
I tried to sleep, as did everyone else but the driver. I did see a few things once early sunrise began. We were headed to the high desert, well over a mile high, dry, and not much green or trees. As the driver slowed to make turns, I could not figure how he knew where to turn. No signs, and certainly no intersection. But after a few hundred feet, a dirt and gravel road appeared beneath us.
We had some interesting moments however, especially when crossing streams and rivers. As some of you know from your travels, the water goes OVER the road, not under. We would probably have made it with our little Toyota Yaris, but why take the chance. I doubt Triple A will show up to tow us out.
Once there, we got the routine potty break and paid our park fees, before heading to the first geyser area. Now, we have great geysers in both California and in the United States. So the $40 we spent did not seem like too much of a rip off when we saw how small they are. But these are the highest elevation of geysers in the world.
After this, we had the tour provided breakfast of instant coffee, dry bread, and a slice of cheese and ham. No wonder I had to have a sandwich when we got back into town. And we did get back! The only thing worth seeing were the two young Brazilian girls in their dental floss and postage stamp bikinis.
A few more geyser stops, and then the obligatory stop in an ¨authentic¨ village. I pretty much slept in the van, while the others dutifully bought brochettes of llama or some kind of red meat.
But the highlight of the entire trip was seeing the birds and animals. We saw the high altitude vicuna on a very high plateau. The lots of llama and emu I think. Then lots of geese, gulls, and even pink flamingoes. Pink flamingoes in the desert!