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Published: March 21st 2008
Chile´s Atacama desert (the world´s driest desert) is a 24 hour bus journey north from Santiago but worth every minute of travel. Initially we were only going to stay in San Pedro de Atacama (the main village in the desert) for a few days but ended up staying over a week. This is the kind of place that Barry and I love - a nice town with good places to eat and facilities but a mere few kilometres from amazing sights. We took our first days in San Pedro relatively easy as we wanted to acclimatise to its 2,400 metres altitude before going any higher (this place really can leave you short of breath just from walking along the main street too quickly!).
Valle de la Muerte & Valle de la Luna
These two valleys near to San Pedro are home to fantastic rock formations. We cycled to the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) and were continually stopping to take photos and stare in awe at the folded rocks (described in one guidebook as being "like an accordion"). It was particularly special as there were very few other people around and with the bikes we were able
to explore more than the cars which had to turn back due to a pile-up of sand on the road.
To visit the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the moon) we took a tour from San Pedro, mainly because it is a fair distance away and we would be returning after dark. We saw some stunning rock formations and enjoyed watching a perfect sunset over the rocks, sand dunes and volcanoes in the distance.
Pukara de Quitor & The Devil´s Gorge
Deciding to stay vaguely healthy we hired bikes for a second day. We first visited the Pukara de Quitor (fortress) a few kilometres outside of San Pedro. This is in a fantastic location, obviously built with strategy in mind, and with an all-encompassing view of the surrounding landscape. It was especially worthwhile to hike up the hill next to the Pukara with views over the Valle de la Muerte.
From the Pukara we cycled on a dirt track to the Devil´s Gorge. This involved crossing a number of small streams and eventually what could be termed a small river. We took our shoes off and waded through whilst carrying the bikes on our shoulders
- lots of fun although the river current was surprisingly strong! We cycled and then walked through the Devil´s Gorge which has more wonderful rock formations, especially impressive in the late afternoon sun.
Lagunas altiplanicas & Salar de Atacama
As part of our "high altitude" training we decided to take a tour from San Pedro to two lagunas in the altiplano region near San Pedro. This involved a drive up to a pass at 4,200 metres altitude. This was the highest point that Barry and I had ever reached (despite all of our previous trekking) and it is bizarre to think that we got there in a minibus! The two lagunas - Miscanti and Miniques - were amazing, with calm waters, volcanoes in the background and blue skies above. We got a little short of breath when walking around the lakes but generally felt ok - a good sign for our altitude adjustment.
This trip also included a stop at the Salar de Atacama. This giant salt flat covers some 8,000 square kilometres and is home to lots of flamingoes as well, of course, as plenty of salt. The salt is apparently very deep in places but
at the surface it is clumpy and interspersed by shallow lakes. The whole place was incredibly bright (similar to standing on a snow field) and I was glad I had my sunglasses with me!
Cerro Toco (5,640m)
Since arriving in San Pedro we had been hoping to tackle a mountain peak. Plenty of tour agencies were offering ascents at rather extortionate prices but being cheap we decided to go by ourselves. We hired a pick-up truck, got all the information we could from the internet (and the tour agencies!) and drove up to the Jama Pass, which leaves San Pedro to the east, passing between Volcan Lincancabur and Cerro Toco. We turned off the road, drove around the base of Cerro Toco and up to an abandoned sulphur mine at 5,000 metres above sea level. When we got out of the car we could tell that the air was significantly thinner and even taking off my trainers to put on my hiking boots left me breathless. Still, seeing as we had come this far we decided to keep going and set off along a path climbing up Cerro Toco (an extinct volcano). Despite having to stop every few
minutes to take in some deep breaths, we made it to the summit of Toco at 5,640 metres altitude in good time (2 hours 20 minutes). We both felt that our lungs were going to explode but it was worth it from the views from the top - simply gorgous sights in all directions, from lagunas to volcanoes to salt flats to coloured mountains and San Pedro in the distance below.
High altitude salt flats
We had the car for a second day (our last day in San Pedro) and so decided to do some more exploring. We drove the Jama Pass again, but this time continued along the road past lots of llamas and lovely views to eventually reach a very impressive salt flat ("Aguas Calientes") and the natural stone "moai" standing in the desert nearby. The location was amazing and the best thing was that there was no-one else there apart from us. Also, I loved the off-road driving and clearly I need to buy myself a pick-up truck when I go home!
We also used the car to drive out to the Cordillera del Sal near San Pedro in the evening, to watch a
perfect sunset accompanying a moon-rise.
San Pedro is certainly spectacularly situated and it was difficult to make ourselves move on.
Leaving San Pedro (and a quick stop in Argentina)
Indeed, we wished we hadn´t made ourselves move on as the next day (a sunday) we had a nightmarish journey across the border to Argentina when our bus broke down. A full 4 hours was spent just sitting outside the immigration office waiting for the replacement bus. Not fun! This also meant that we arrived in Argentina at ridiculous o´clock in the morning. We had to take the bus all the way to Salta (a large city) as we knew we would not be too stranded by going there. We arrived at 3:30am and decided it was too late to go wandering the streets looking for somewhere to stay. So, we stayed in the bus station for 5 hours whiling away the time chatting to other travellers! At 9am we finally went looking for a hostel and checked in. Obviously we took the rest of the day easy. This was fine with me though as in the afternoon we went to an Irish pub with an English/French couple
and watched the final matches of the 6 Nations rugby. Hugely exciting (well, at least for me!) was a Welsh victory which meant we won the grand slam - great way to end a shocking day.
After that we also spent 2 days at Humahuaca a few hours north of Salta where we relaxed, ate llama stew, did lots of planning and hiked near the town. From here, we finally move onto a new country. Bolivia here we come...
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