Operation Desert Storm

Published: April 26th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

The view from the front of the hostelThe view from the front of the hostelThe view from the front of the hostel

Yep... that is another Chilean volcanoe
After leaving Argentina, we spent the next 8 hours on a pretty cramped bus to the northern Chilean border to head to a city called San Pedro de Atacama. For some reason this bus seemed really long and the passport control for Argentina was at some ridiculous height like 4,000 meters, which made us all a little altitude sick. From now on we will be in really high places again, similar to Tibet so we are hoping the altitude will not effect us as much as it did the last time around. We arrived to the Chilean passport control and the outskirts of San Pedro around 4pm and after they manual checked all of our luggage we were allowed in the country and told to walk about 15 minutes to the city center. Luckily a hotel owner approached us and said he would drive us into town if we stayed at his hostel. We already knew a Kiwi couple, Clint and Shannon that were staying at this hostel and I was not in the mood to shop around for a place so we agreed.

San Pedro de Atacama is a Chilean town overlooking the Licancabur volcano. The town lies at an average altitude of approximately 2,400m (7,900 ft) and we did not feel the altitude here, but we are only going to get higher. San Pedro de Atacama sits in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert is a virtually rainless plateau in South America, covering a 966 km (600 mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast of South America, west of the Andes mountains. The Atacama is, according to NASA, National Geographic and many other publications, the driest desert in the world.[and is 50 times drier than California's Death Valley. So this was quite a change for us and our first desert of the trip. The whole town is dirty and dusty and there are old buildings everywhere. It is finally feeling like South American to us. You can see the people are starting to have darker faces and there is more simplicity to life than in the big cities of Chile and Argentina.

The first night we arrived, we decided to do a night sky observation. We left San Pedro about 11pm and drove about 20 minutes into the middle of the desert. The company was run by a couple who were great! Alain is an engineer in astronomy and originally from France. He also worked briefly at Palomar in San Diego! Alain visited San Pedro in 2000 and was amazed by the beauty of the sky and the Earth there. He was a great guide! When we arrived there were about 8 huge telescopes set up. Alain's wife took us to each one and showed us what was in it. We saw star clusters with thousands of stars, different galaxies, the Milky Way galaxy, nebulas and best of all... Saturn. We saw Saturn, its rings and everything. Alain even helped each one of us take a photo of Saturn through the telescope. It didn't look real! It was absolutely amazing, especially for me, the girl who wanted to be an astronomer when she was in the 3rd grade! Then they took us inside and Alain explained to us a little about his background and some general information about astronomy. Then we went back outside and with a huge laser pointer he pointed out all these different constellations and different stars. He told us how to begin studying the night sky at home and how to do things in the northern hemisphere. He was also quite comical which made things entertaining. He just had a great way of putting things into perspective for us, who were not astronomers. They even gave us some hot chocolate since the desert is absolutely freezing at night. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone coming here, not like any of you are... but just in case. It was right up my alley.

The next afternoon, we visited the Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley in English. Valley of the Moon is an interesting place with stone and sand formations which have been created through the centuries by floods and wind, which has also given it an extraordinary color and texture, looking similar to the surface of the moon. A prototype for a Mars rover was tested here by scientists because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrain. The formations in the valley were amazing. It actually reminded me a lot of Anza Borrego. There were huge rock and mountain formations all with this red color. There were also huge rocks that have been carved down to nothing because of the years of erosion. We spent a couple hours exploring the Valle de la Luna and the nearby Death Valley, which has its name because legend says over 100 animals wondered into the valley and were killed by winds and sand. Valle de la Luna also had salt formation on the ground. At first I thought it was snow in the desert, but not it was salt formation on the ground. I expected to be able to go and pick up the white and it would be powdered salt, but it was hard and white. Our guide chipped off a block for each of us and we tasted it and yep... it tasted like salt. Dirty salt, but salty nonetheless. After seeing the valleys for a few hours, we hiked up the side of a large sand dune for sunset. We hiked to the top so we could see the valley from two different directions. As the sunset the colors of the rocks dramatically changed and were gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of sunset at Uluru when I was in Australia in 2003. The rocks changed colors, the same as the sky. Immediately after the sun set, the desert began getting cold. I went to be sweaty in a t-shirt and shorts to putting on a sweater and sweatshirt and still feeling the chill. It was amazing how quickly the weather changed. After sunset, it was an early night because we had a few busy days ahead of us.

The next morning the trio and the Kiwi couple got up to do sand boarding! Sand boarding is similar to snowboarding, but not! The sand makes it pretty hard to carve, at least that's what I thought, and you have to lean really far back to keep your balance, something I did not master. We met our guide and drove about 1 5 minutes out of town to Death Valley. The same Death Valley we were in the day before. He gave us a little explanation, but not much considering he got home from the bars two hours before he met up with us! I expected to just get on and rock the sand board, but I was wrong! Within the first five seconds I went tumbling down the hill. Jeff and Chris had a little trouble starting as well, but after one run they totally got the hang of it. When I realized you had to lean really far back (more than snowboarding) I actually started doing ok and being able to go down the hill without too many tumbles. Unfortunately, I did not have much control of the board and really had a hard time carving. The second I would try to carve I would fall forward, but by the end of the day I could at least take a solid run down the hill! My neck did have a bit of a kink in it, I think from one to many superwomans face first down the hill, but I survived. My least favorite part was the fact that after your run you had to hike back up the sand dune. By the time you got back up you were exhausted and needed a break before you attempted it again. At the end of three hours of up and down we were exhausted and took our last run on our booties. That was probably the best run of the day! I wish I had discovered riding on my butt earlier!

The rest of the day we took it easy and let our sore muscles relax. We had to wake up the next morning to head to the El Tatio geysers. El Tatio Geyser Field is located within the Andes Mountains of northern Chile at 4,200 meters above mean sea level, which is high! With over 80 active geysers, El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest field in the world, after Yellowstone, USA, and Dolina Giezerov (partially destroyed June 2007), Russia. Since the elevation was so high- it was cold. We left for the geysers at 4am and arrived at 6am before the sunrise, which meant freezing temps. Someone said it was -10 degrees Celsius, which is below freezing and really cold. My nose was red again from the cold! I was jumping around to keep warm, but I still do not think I was as cold as I was in Patagonia. Whining about the cold has just become a way of life on this trip. Luckily I had bought an Alpaca scarf and gloves in town which helped keep me warm!

Although there are tons of geysers in the valley none erupt very high. The highest eruption observed has been around six meters in height. The average geyser eruption height at El Tatio is about 75 centimeters. The reason we had to get there so early is because the best time to see them is at sunrise when each geyser is surmounted by a column of steam that condenses in the bitterly cold morning air. The steam plumes disappear as the air warms up. The whole valley was filled with what looked like steaming kettles. You could walk through all the geysers and be completely covered in steam. Too bad it did not keep me warm. It was still an amazing sight and really cool to see. I am glad we sucked it up and decided to go despite the 4am wake up time.
After having a small breakfast at the geysers, we drove down to a hot spring pool where we could go swimming. It was still only an hour after sunrise and the desert was still freezing which made getting into our bathing suits and jumping in very cold! The second you hit the water though you were fine, well... until you realized the hot springs were not that hot! It was still warmer than outside so it felt fine, but it was like bath water, not a hot spring. We did manage to find a hot part where the water was being fed into the pool. Jeff and I and the Kiwi couple bogarted it so no one else could get the hot water! Once we were there we were loving life. The only bad part was that we still had to get out and put warm clothes back on when we were wet. I was shivering so hard that my legs were chattering. I managed to dry off though and force warm clothes on. It was a really cool experience because it was not like the commercial hot springs we were in before, but just a random pool in the middle of all the geysers. It was pretty surreal.

After getting warm again, we stopped at a couple of lookout points on the way back to San Pedro. We saw lots of llamas and these other funny looking animals whose name I forgot. They are also part of the llama family and only live about 4,000 meters, but I cannot remember their name to save my life. Oh well... I have a picture so maybe someone can tell me. After the different lookout points we stopped in a small village. The village has 50 inhabitants in the summer and only 10 in the winter. It was such a small town and all the houses were tiny. Jeff looked like a giant as he walked past all these small houses. All these tiny houses had small hand made crosses on top of them and there was a really tiny church for the town. The best part of the town was that they sell food to the tourists. Cheese empanadas and llama kebabs. Since we had not eaten llama yet, we were in. Let me tell you... it was yummy! It tasted like beef and was definitely better than its other high altitude partner we tried in Tibet... yak. So I guess food wise I should live in South America and not Tibet cause I prefer llama to yak. There was a local man on the BBQ with all these skewers and was probably making a killing selling them to all the tourists.
Chris did not come on this day because he was feeling sick and we needed him to get better for our trip into Bolivia. So we hung out relaxed and went to bed early and got everything sorted for our 3 day adventure through the salt flats of
Snow in the desert?Snow in the desert?Snow in the desert?

Nope... it is salt! In the Valle De La Luna
Bolivia. We spent a lot of our last day in San Pedro buying warm clothes for the trip and getting lots of water for the altitude to come.

We really liked San Pedro and all it had to offer. It was dusty and dirty and all my clothes are covered in it, but it was charming and small and had plenty of character. We did some really amazing things here that I loved. It was the first time in a long time we felt rejuvenated and really enjoyed a place. I hope there is more of this to come.

Additional photos below
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28th April 2009

You Rock!
Hey ya Krista! Love the blog notes, its almost like we are there with you. . . .great following you around the world. Hope all is well, talk with perhaps see you soon!
29th April 2009

Second thought
KL - You'd make an amazing journalist . . . and this blog would serve as a great portfolio!

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