K - After an 8 hour journey up the Chilean coast we enter the Atacama Desert and arrive in the pretty town of La Serena
and check into our great little hostel, El Punto. We spent a few days here and spent time exploring the streets and eating out in cafes. On one day we decided to walk to the beach via a Japanese garden, which was very pretty but not at all tranquil thanks to its location next to a very busy dual carriage way. However, the trip to the beach nearly killed us – it was a good hour from town and then we walked along it for what felt like miles looking for somewhere to have lunch. The weather on the coast is exactly the same everyday – cloudy until about 2pm, then the sun comes out and you fry! Eventually we found somewhere and shared a massive pizza before summoning the energy to walk all the way back – I swear we walked at least 10 miles that day!
On our last night we booked ourselves onto a tour to visit an observatory out in the Elqui valley, about an hour and a half from La Serena.
The valley has an exceptional clear night’s sky so there are a few observatories dotted on the hillsides. We had a fantastic night tour and the stars just looked incredible – you could see the milky way so clearly. We got to use the telescopes and it was so cool to see Jupiter for the first time – complete with its stripe and four of its moons. We had picked a good time of year to go because Jupiter and Venus were really close to each other and you could see them as soon as the sun went down, maybe even before.
T – We’d both been looking forward to this for a long time as Chile has some of the best views of the night sky in the world, and we got to use a multi-million dollar telescope to go poking about at Jupiter! It was the size of a two pence coin, pretty impressive considering it’s 390,682,810 plus miles away. The moons were the sizes of peas and looked spherical (well of course but so many pictures make objects look flat in the sky). The fact that we could see moons at all was astounding! We turned
other telescopes on to M42 - not a motorway, but a Nebula on Orion’s sword. To the naked eye it looks like one star, but through a telescope it’s got to be way over a hundred!
K - After killing our final day in La Serena by having a great 3 course lunch and sitting in coffee shops we boarded the 6.30pm night bus deeper into the Atacama desert to San Pedro de Atacama
. I had booked us 2 cama (bed) seats which were unfortunately at the very front on the top deck. This meant that our seats were not beds and we had to rest our legs on the windscreen. As we dozed off I was very aware that we were in quite a vulnerable position as lorries zoomed past us – fortunately Chilean bus drivers are very safe. The buses here are truly excellent – they even have a digital speedometers which sets off an alarm if the driver goes over 60mph – if only they had these in SE Asia!
We woke up the next morning on the bus as it was still ploughing its way through the desert – an incredible sight – nothing
around except for sand and the odd road sign. You could see the snow-capped Andes in the background as we pulled into very hot and dusty San Pedro de Atacama. Our hostel was on the outskirts of town and was run by the lovely Mathide and her husband, Jose. They didn’t speak a word of English but seemed to understand our mumblings (everything we say seems to start with ‘es possible’!) We quickly figured out that we only have to learn the ‘I’ and ‘We’ forms of the verbs – bonus!
San Pedro is only at 2500m above sea level but it was enough to wipe us out – we had banging headaches and were quickly breathless walking around the town. After a quick lunch and booking ourselves onto a lunar valley tour for the next afternoon, we took the guidebooks advice – rest, no alcohol or red meat and called it a day. The next day we were feeling a bit better so explored the dusty streets, – we needed to book our Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian salt flats tour). There were so many companies offering pretty much the same deal we just picked one (Pamela’s tours –
a decision we would later regret!) We really liked San Pedro with its sweet little adobe houses and brilliant shops and restaurants.
That afternoon we headed off in a minibus for our tour – our guide Claudio was a young French guy and very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We did some trekking in the death valley (Valle del Muerte) which looked like a Martian landscape followed by a scramble through the lunar valley to watch the sunset. A really good tour and I had never seen a landscape like it before.
T – Sunsets in the desert are beautiful, especially in the ragged rocky expanse of the land that exists outside of San Pedro. The sun goes down, but the changes in the colours of the mountains and ridges behind your viewpoint turn a series of mauves and reds before fading into a bluey mist and disappearing altogether – great!
We just kept driving higher! About four immigration queues later our Salt Flat tour crosses the border into Bolivia at 9am, which sits at near 5000m above sea level. Time for breakfast and a switch to the 4x4 that will cart us off-road about
this altiplano for the next four days. Here we meet our 19yr old guide who has been tasked with organising our accommodation and food for the duration. His driving was very careful, but everything else fell pretty low of already low expectations. The scenery, however, definitely did not disappoint!
The views were amazing and continued the Martian theme as you realised that you were passing through a landscape that no human lives in, an area too remote and surrounded by scattered mountains and waves of sand, eventually giving way to a series of peculiar lagoons dominated by four types of Flamingo. Occasionally we would drive past a lonely Alpaca or Vicuña and you couldn’t help wonder how it got there – where are its friends?
We drove from stunning lagoon to stunning mountain to stunning lagoon. After a somewhat dismal lunch spent looking at other people’s and wondering why we weren’t eating the same, we went for a quick dip in some hot springs – boiling! Couldn’t stay in it for long, but good fun. Then eight guys started flapping about our car and ripping parts out of it. No explanation given but they eventually decided that the
flux capacitor wasn’t working and tore apart some form of mechanical squid from the centre of the car and away we went 1 hour later.
By this time, we were starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness – massive headaches – and the sun beat down upon us in the car. We stopped to check out some bubbling geysers and headed off to our first night’s accommodation. Couldn’t figure out why dinner was served quite so late, told to get up early, did so (was sick – that’s two for two Bolivia!), but no signs of life for two hours… Doh! At breakfast we all worked out that yes, there is an hour’s difference between Chile and Bolivia, but Bolivia is an hour behind
!!! Oh well… we adjusted our watches sheepishly.
Next up were the Dali Rocks, so called because if Dali spent a great deal of time in this National Park with a chisel, he might just have made this odd collection of weathered rock formations. We saw more excellent Lagunas on our way to Uyuni
and a cursory stop off at a train graveyard. Another terrible dinner at an old woman’s house somewhere in town
felt like we were being kidnapped, but we kept reminding ourselves we were here for the scenery!
Up early again, and our driver performs a two hour no-show before trying to serve us all crackers for breakfast? Anyway, Uyuni is not a pretty town, but it is the jumping off point for the famous Salt Flats, naturally occurring and white to the horizon. Fantastic for silly photos with forced perspective and interesting to see, but not as beautiful as the mountains and lagoons of the National Park.
We returned to Uyuni at 11am, a whole four hours before time and spend the day bargaining with a selection of people to get our transfer back to Chile. Our driver said that he couldn’t take us as planned because he had no petrol… err… yeah...? By six that night we’d found a replacement driver and we all bundled gratefully into his car, the radio came on and Madonna’s La Isla Bonita wafted past our ears. We looked at each other – too true Madonna – ‘Last night I dreamt of San Pedro, it all seemed like yesterday, not far away…’
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