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Published: January 6th 2007
The Atacama Desert
the driest desert in the world
On November 2 we left for a trip to the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert is one of the deserts along the Tropic of Capricorn (along with Australia’s and Africa’s deserts), but it is the driest desert in the world. It only gets 1-2 inches per year.
After our trip to La Serena, we decided no more overnight buses. The bus ride from Vina del Mar to the Atacama is over 20 hours!! Not wanting to subject ourselves to that, we decided to fly from Santiago to Calama where we would rent a car and drive to San Pedro de Atacama, the main town in the Atacama Desert.
We arrived in Calama in the late afternoon. This is a happening town, people are out and about strolling, but there isn’t much here for tourists. We found a great park with a rocket slide and had a good time.
This town is near the mining town of Chuquicamata - the largest copper mine in the world (well, until about a year ago). An American company developed the mine and the town of Chuquicamata. After experiencing a bunch of environmental problems and after the Chileans took over the mining operations,
it was decided to move the workers to Calama, a safer distance from the mine. So now Calama has become the happenin’ spot and very expensive.
After the night at a sleazy, noisy, expensive hotel, we picked up our rental car and left for the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The landscape on the way to San Pedro was bleak, not even many plants inhabit this place. It is just dirt for as far as your eye can see, broken up by the occasional oasis of green trees where there is a little village. Around the desert, of course, are the ever-present Andes with several active volcanoes (these didn’t do anything while we were there).
San Pedro de Atacama reminded us a lot of New Mexico - adobe structures, flat roofs, dirt everywhere. Even many of the plants people used in their landscaping were similar to those we use in Albuquerque. Theresa liked San Pedro almost immediately, even with all the tourists. (It’s a pretty touristy town with tour agencies at every corner).
After we checked into our hostel and Steve had discovered the bakery next door, we set off to explore the Salar de Atacama
Altiplano lakes -- Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques
At about 14,000 feet experienced a bit of high altitude
- the salt flats. Apparently the water table under the desert is very shallow in places and this phenomenon has created these giant salt flats (third largest in the world). It is hot out and bright too. We checked out the thick salt crystals (1 foot or more thick in places), the brine shrimp (sea monkeys to the boys) and finally found the flamingoes enjoying the ponds in the salt flats. It’s amazing to find life in this dry, dry place.
We continued on the road through the Atacama, through some little villages with more New Mexico-style architecture (our travel book noted that the cactus wood ceilings were so unique to see). We were making such good time that we decided we would check out the altiplano (high planes) lakes - Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques. Our guidebook said these were shimmery high altitude lakes watched over by snow-touched volcanoes. It didn’t say that the road was particularly rough and twisty. So, after what seemed like a very long drive, we arrived at these lakes. And at over 13,000 feet above sea level, we started experiencing some signs of the high altitude - headache, vertigo, dizzyness. And it was
cold at this elevation!! We didn’t stay long - just long enough to get a few pictures and yell a hello to the few flamingoes in the lakes. But the book was right - they were beautiful!
The next day started bright and early at 4:00 in the morning with a trip to the El Tatio Geysers (about 13,500 feet above sea level). These geysers consist mainly fumaroles, which tend to be best seen at sunrise when the surrounding air temperatures are very cold. It isn’t like national parks in the states, there are no marked paths through the geyser field - you have to watch where you step so you don’t fall into a bubbling pot. At one time, the Chileans attempted a geothermal project there and the remains of the failed operation were left to rust. Adjacent to the geyser field was a hot spring where you could swim if you wanted. We weren’t as brave as some, we just had a little wade.
Benjamin was complaining that he didn’t feel well and given that we’d gotten up so early and it was so cold, we just assumed it would pass. But as we descended down
toward San Pedro, he was feeling worse and worse, complaining that his chest hurt. Finally we stopped at a tiny village, consisting of 6 families, an oxygen tank, and not too much else. By now we were thinking he had high altitude sickness. After getting oxygen, he did feel much better but he still threw up several times and slept all the rest of the day back at our hostel.
The next day, all rested up and Ben all recovered, we headed over to Pukara de Quitor, a fortress from before the Incas. The Atacamenos built it, used it when they were taken over by the Taewonaku, then the Incas, and finally the Spanish. It consists of a great series of walls up a hill with great views of the valley. We then followed the river up the valley into Devil’s Gorge. The rock formations there are really wild and other-worldly.
In the real heat of the afternoon, we visited the Le Paige museum - a real first rate museum with great artifacts and information about the region and its people, complete with a mummy or two.
That night, under the full moon, we headed to the
Valley of the Moon, to watch the sunset. The rock formations in this valley are very unusual and are covered with a layer of sand, salt and other minerals giving it really strange colorations. There is a huge sand dune there that the boys really loved too. With the sunset and the light of the moon, you really get some unusual colors. It was fantastic!
Finally, the last day of our trip, we headed back to Calama and went on a tour of Chuquicamata - the big copper mine. The town of Chuquicamata was strange - sort of a modern-day ghost town, with a company town feel. The tour consisted of a lecture, a drive through the town and then a half hour at the rim of the copper pit to see it all in action. The pit is absolutely huge - a big scar, but impressive nonetheless.
We flew out of Calama back to Vina on November 6. The traveling consisted of a taxi to the Calama airport, a plane to Santiago, a bus to main bus station in Santiago, another bus to Vina and then a taxi to our apartment. Lots of transfers -- it was
world's largest copper mine
nice to get home.
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