Published: February 20th 2006
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Iconic Incan Outcrop - TurtleheadIconic Incan Outcrop - TurtleheadIconic Incan Outcrop - Turtlehead

Dedicated to the god of constipation?
Strange spending so much time so high, altitudinaly that is, when the highest real estate in Oz, Mt. Kosiusko, is only 2,200 metres or so (I think) and here in San Pedro de Atacama it’s already 2,440 and everywhere else around here is higher. Breathing is always a little laboured but with a mouthful of coca it gets easier!

Did a few look-arounds of San Pedro, they really draw a long bow with some of the “famous” features, crikey, but the general scenery is soo fantastic that you can overlook the overblown toury spots general shortcomings. Valley of the Dead, Dry Lake, Green Lake…and, in the Valley of the Moon, the Turtle’s Head that iconic, Incan outcrop, dedicated to the god of constipation. While we’re there, much as the Valley of the Moon was modestly awesome, I’ve never seen a picture of the moon that looks even vaguely like this terrain? (yes, I know, picky picky!)

And of course the geysers!..4am start…(for some reason they only geys until the sun comes up)…I remembered the 4am bit at midnight the night before, omg, after 2 premature early nights and subsequent cancellations, I’d decided to party on…so I staggered back to
Our StreetOur StreetOur Street

San Pedro de Atacama
the donga, tried to set the alarm on the watch, forgot how, tried a 1 min test, fell asleep, woke 15 mins later, still sitting on the edge of the bed, tried again, woke to the alarm 2 mins later, re-set the alarm, woke at 3.30am, 20 mins before the alarm!..waited in the freezing morning for the bus…5 others went past…now are you sure they are picking us up here?…finally, 4.45am they come…so we get to meet some more very nice traveller people altho’ everyone sleeps most of the way. Get there about 7.30, frosty piccaninny dawn, first rays of the sun just tipping the 6,000 m volcans around us, we’re at 4,000 or so, 4 degrees below zero…luckily I have the bike boots and stand in one of the geysers so the boiling water heats the feets. Walk around a few dozen bubbling, quietly roaring, chug-a-lugging spurtlets, the steam rises very high…ooh, wow!…and there’s one famous boiling pool where 4 people have been killed, not a very pleasant way to go!..a sort of pool has been built, fed by a geyser and some folk get togged up and go in…it’s only 25 degrees, muddy and it’s still only zero
Old Power Plant at GeysersOld Power Plant at GeysersOld Power Plant at Geysers

San Pedro de Atacama
out so I bail on that one! But they had a couple of boxes of choc milk and some eggs in one of the geysers for brekky and that was fun…hot choc and boiled egg!! Amazing how easily pleased one can be, it’s all relative I guess?

Beautiful on the way back, snowy coneheads all around, the odd vicunya or 2, and this rare vegetation, only grows at 4,000 metres, nearly extincted as its component feature is petro-like and was used up as a fuel supply, now one bit re-discovered, only grows at 2cm per year so the gardening bill is way cheap!! Also spotted a spotted cousin of the wild but giant Patagonic rabbit, scary!…

In town it’s always hard to get change but I know where it is, all the buskers and wait staff get it in tips and then never give it up. There’s several groups of pan pipe and guitar crooners who come into the restaurant, play 2 songs, pass the hat and then piss off! There’s a fat dutch guy at the next table, he’s furiously stabbing at his plate of salad, wishing he had a reaper/binder to get a decent mouthful together

San Pedro de Atacama
of the elusive salad bits sliding around his plate.

So, after being stranded in the ‘driest’ desert in the world by torrential rains…Ha, aren’t all deserts dry? I mean that’s the general idea isn’t it? No rain and you’ve got a desert. Anyway, we headed to Bolivia by the more northern route as the pass in the south, where all the interesting stuff is, was still snowed under, but the road north (we are told!) is open.

A nice start, handy as I was still a little altitudinaly stranded after a couple of serious nights, the latter with a couple of new Pommy friends (Hi Lou and Lou) from the hotel, a bottle of the elusive Carbinere, pisco sours, beers etc. So here I am on the road again and and no coca to help me thru’. Out across the desert, still can’t get used to a desert at this elevation, so cold even in the sun and with snow on all the ranges around. It is so very dry tho’ even after all the rain and major dust, it’s like bloody talcum powder, gets in everywhere, I’m battling to get the visor up to sneeze, nothing worse

San Pedro de Atacama
than the inside spattered in sneeze juice then dust!..even the sunnies are getting dusted up.

Calama, what a memorably forgettable experience of a town, an industrial windswept wasteland with kilometres of garbage lining the road coming in, dusty but sort of modern little city with no character and a servo with 20 cars queuing for over priced gas. It mainly serves the hugest copper mine in the world, just out of town, didn’t bother with a visit. I had been noticing the green tint in the mountains and remembered this is copper city, and copper country, the back-bone of Chile’s strong economy (best in SA)

A bit of asphalto and then the ripio, out across the endless high country desert, broken occasionally by a range of these fantastic angular ridges, thrown up and eroded down, lines of colour and texture, mostly conglomerate, very flaky looking rock. Salt lakes dot the area, sometimes we go across them, sometimes around, lots of mud off to the sides and track marks of the previous days when it was all thick mud. And more vicunyas, looking pretty healthy and living on what? There is absolutely no vegetation I can see, I can

San Pedro de Atacama
imagine how fat they’d be in good pasture! This is nearly all gravely, sandy soil with only the oddest clump of sad, spindly spinifexy stuff.

We come to the frontera altho’ I calculate we’re still 70 kms shy. But there’s the barrier, couple of military type buildings, nothing else, and a bell, which when rung, brings out a military kid who just lets us hru’ and tells us it’s another 70 kms to the frontera…wha…?

And this ripio had cunning little sand traps secreted along the way. You just start getting on top of the washboard, avoiding the now dry gutter tracks, rolling along on the marbles and bang goes the front end, bars jarring back and forth, front wheel digging in…luckily most of them come up so fast I’m thru’ before I have time to panic, and, in fact, it’s getting better all the time. Again tho’, this fcuking dust, even with a howling gale it still hangs in the air, the views out across the great expanses are fantastically blurred and hazy from it all. I suspect much of it back nearer Calama was from the mines too.

Eventually to Ollegue, the frontera town, a
Baby Eagle at GeysersBaby Eagle at GeysersBaby Eagle at Geysers

San Pedro de Atacama
ghost town, almost deserted, once Bolivian now Chilean, but don’t go there! The little mud brick and adobe town is dominated by the railway yard, (mostly not functioning and more like a railway museum) and this huge smouldering volcan. There are a couple more 6,000 metre mothers around the horizon.

In the dusty dog littered main street one sign to a restaurant/hostel, we take it. It’s a sad little place, like the town, but I spend a few hours walking around the deserted streets. A customs guy from the frontera hails me and we have a chat, he’s waiting for the one little (unsigned) store to open as he wants an orange to bake a cake. Eventually a little old lady makes her way up the street and unlocks a tiny store chockablock with all sorts of useless stuff…and no ornges. My friend takes a box of orange juice instead.

Huge thunderheads are building and dumping rain all down the valley, the direction we will be going, the old lady says there will be a train tomorrow to Uyuni, I’m interested.
In the morning it’s clear and beautiful but everyone is saying how bad the road is, mad

San Pedro de Atacama
ripio, mud, sand, more rain coming etc etc I decide to take the train. Then I find out there is no train anyway..Ha!

After the usual border formalities we head off and the road is almost perfect, just ordinary ripio and apart from a couple of patches of really rough, stony, scrabbling, scratching, tyre-tearing stuff it was all OK. The last 150 km stretch was under threat of rain, off to the left a giant swollen- bellied cloud was releasing shrouds of grey water like huge curtains, off to the left white billowing thunderheads starting to dump great sheets of rain, I could see it falling, closer I was racing, trying to escape it, a quick glance straight overhead, more of the boiling rolling dark clouds, lining me up for an enormous dump..aarrgghh…the road was smoother with adrier clay so we upped the ante, side by side at 100 kph, twin dust clouds, whipped off by the wind, now blowing a sideways gale, a few tears smatter the visor, too late to stop for the wet weather gear now…a town in the distance, what the?..its still another 60 kms to Uyuni…but then we are there, it is Uyuni and

San Pedro de Atacama
it is 60 kms short of whre everyone said…what a relief…fantastico, we’re amazed, overjoyed, in Bolivia, home safe in Uyuni, and a striffic hotel for only $10.
Off to the tours again for a few days so don't expect nothing (you´ll never be disappointed) and then to Oduro for the famous devil's festival next Saturday...
If I get thru all that........hasta luego

Additional photos below
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Main StreetMain Street
Main Street

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama
Vicunya on the rocasVicunya on the rocas
Vicunya on the rocas

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Volcan and riverVolcan and river
Volcan and river

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Road to GeysersRoad to Geysers
Road to Geysers

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Road to Geysers2Road to Geysers2
Road to Geysers2

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