Starry, Starry Night


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Published: June 7th 2012
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To spend 24 hours on a bus and not lose it completely is a painstakingly acquired skill, nurtured over time. Lots of time. We have acquired it. Slowly. Gradually, with every ride longer than the next. Passing time is a skill. Switching off. Waiting for as long as you can before picking up that book just to put it down after a couple of pages as the road is just too bumpy. And now you feel nauseous. Then what? Day dreaming. A cat nap. I find that copious snacking alleviates boredom greatly, but that’s a slippery slope...



For the final 10 of the 24 hour long stretch there was little to see out of the window other than black desert and barren cliffs. The stars were huge, and I wondered whether it was because we were a little closer now, being at altitude. Day broke and the temperature onboard our “super uncomfortable semi-cama” bus altered quickly. “Semi-Cama” means the seats only tilt back half way, and there are four seats to the aisle rather than a luxurious, roomy three which recline 180 degrees. We listened to other travellers complain about the long ride up to San Pedro de Atacama from the capital, and how dreadfully uncomfortable it was going to be riding semi-cama, God forbid. We couldn’t believe it as these buses seem like ultimate luxury to us after others we have taken in the likes of Indonesia!



San Pedro is an oasis town in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. We pulled up to the bus station, identified as such only by the fact that the bus stopped there, and I thought “don’t let this be it!” Hardly the lush, green oasis I had imagined, here on the outskirts of town. We carted ourselves and our backpacks to our chosen accommodation in the suburbs, “Backpackers San Pedro”. Here we found a comfortable dorm which we would have to ourselves for the duration, a reasonable kitchen and quiet location with more residential cats than guests. Many of the hostels in San Pedro have bad to appalling reviews; Backpackers was, in our opinion, fine. It did the job and was clean and comfortable. However, the “hot water” was not as hot as advertised, and the lukewarm water was short lived, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a pan and a stove; after all, what can you reasonably expect in the desert?



The centre of town itself was prettier than the outskirts. It was even somewhat touristy, but that was fine. It was also a little on the expensive side, and travellers be warned, the exchange rate is terrible. Most of the time we spent in town was to eat delicious empanadas in the quaint piazza. “Empanadas” are basically the food we have been dreaming of ever since we left home; deep filled pastry, or as we call it at home in England’s North West a “pastie.” At home they are usually filled with meat and potato, or cheese, whereas the ones we tucked into in San Pedro outdid our Brit-fare, with mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, green olives and sweet basil. Num!



We wasted little time before booking activities to make the most of our stay. We had been looking forward to San Pedro for a while as moving from city to city, though pleasant, leaves little room for adventure. Our “things to do” list included visiting hot springs, geysers, sand boarding, horse riding... and much more. What we hadn’t planned on, but absolutely loved, was the astronomy tour we took on our first night.



Thirty minutes drive out into the desert we were greeted by a French native; a scientist and astronomer who took us on an hour long tour of the sky as we stood under it, necks craned and eyes strained. He began by talking about the basic nature of the night sky, how it “moves” throughout the night and how it is different depending on season and location. With his laser he introduced us to the brightest star “Sirius”, the closest star “ Alpha Centuri” (or pair of stars, we later found on closer inspection through one of his many telescopes), and that which is not a star at all but a planet, Saturn. We talked distances and put that into relation to more “knowable” things. Then we looked at the constellations, starting with the Southern Cross, the group unique to this hemisphere, and we attempted to remember other formations from there; the fly, the triangle, the altar, Scorpio... With wit and intelligence the Frenchman made us laugh in his anecdotes of various other constellations commenting on the likelihood of Virgo “the Virgin” being chaste in actuality “with legs set apart like that”.



After an hour or so we were treated to viewing the sky through powerful telescopes. Most amazing was to see Saturn enlarged with its many rings. The moon was also impressive, and we were able to take a picture through the telescope. At the end of the night, after our cup of much needed hot chocolate (may I remind you that it’s cold in the desert at night), heading back to town Chris and I talked about how it was one of the best and most unique experiences on our travels to date. A little geeky, of course; a bit niche and not to everyone’s liking, perhaps; unadventurous and boring; absolutely not. We would say that the S.P.A.C.E sky tour is an absolute must for those visiting San Pedro! (We even wanted to go again the next night.)



Following a night of stargazing we were up at 3.30am the next morning to make the two hour drive to the Tatio geysers at 4274ms altitude (making it the world’s highest). Tatio is a collection of steam geysers of all sizes and impressive force. The guide was quick to warn us of the natural danger presented by the boiling water being forced upward from the ground; in 2003 a French tourist was badly burned and later died of infection.



Arriving pre-dawn we were freezing despite wearing warm clothes and being wrapped in blankets. For me, this was the first time at such altitude and I could feel the effect on my breathing. We admired the smaller geysers before a breakfast of eggs boiled in the geysers themselves. As the sun rose the larger geysers became more active, so that is where we headed next. The huge steam spouts were impressive in size, scale and frightening in power whilst at the same time beautiful in the dawn light and with the creation of colourful pools made from the mineral deposits. Beside the larger geysers was a natural swimming pool heated by the underground lava. Earlier, when asked, I had said “absolutely not”. It was freezing cold. When we reached the pool Chris and I took one look at each other, a long sigh, and stripped down to our swimwear. Why not?! Well, I’ll tell you why not; the water really wasn’t that hot and our moment of spontaneity soon turned to regret as we sat soaking, teeth chattering, and fighting each other for the warmest patch in the pool.



On the way back to San Pedro we had little option but to stop at some crappy touristy things, because we were on one of those touristy tours. (The only other option was to bike it. No thanks.) It wasn’t all crap, really. Some of it was interesting; we saw vicunas for the first time and they were cute, and we learned that San Pedro is a bastardisation of “place of the black ducks”, which we also saw, but at the end of the day a duck is just a duck... But then you get dragged to a “local village” (I never have been to a village devoid of all people unless I’m on one of these crap tours) where we could buy tat or use the loo for a pound, and then we had to stop in a random valley to look at cactus which Chris made me stand next to for a photo using emotional blackmail to the effect of “go on, you’re Dad will like it”, but I didn’t want to stand next to a bloody cactus. Firstly because I was cold, secondly because I was tired and mostly because we used to have a cactus at home, I bought it as a present for Chris from Ikea and called him Yannick. It was dead in two weeks. He wasn’t that interested in bloody cactus back then, was he?!



But I only jest, and the tour was well worth it. As to the rest of the items on our to do list, we decided to do the horse riding later in Bolivia, in the land of Butch and Sundance, and sand boarding demanded more energy than we could muster after that early morning. So all that was left for us to do in San Pedro was get out of there... on a three day drive to Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni!


Additional photos below
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7th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Wow!
What a great photo :-)
12th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Thanks Jo, we were pretty giddy we we saw how it had come out... couldn´t wait to get our blog up and share it!
8th June 2012

Amazing photos
Just seen you guys at the top of the featured blogs, you should definitely be up there for top photos, the place looks amazing
12th June 2012

Hi Michelle and Jon!
Thanks so much! By chance, were you in La Paz last week? We feel like we sat next to you in a pizza place; we had just read your message and felt like it was too much of a coincidence so didn´t say anything... but then we looked at your picture...?!
8th June 2012

Love your blog
Hi from a random Canadian and fellow travel junkie! You are currently on my favourite continent---I have been to SA three times and am planning my fourth trip. Love your words and your pictures!! I hope to read about your travels around Lake Titicaca soon? An amazing experience for me!!
8th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Spectacular!
Glad that you were able to capture this beautiful image as seen through the telescope with your camera. That 24 hour bus journey seems worth the effort in order to gaze upon something as glorious as this.
12th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Hi Shane!
We´d travel twice as far for something as amazing as that! Hope you´re well!
8th June 2012

Star gazing
I was watching Brian Cox on Wonders of the Solar system last night on the TV before bed . He was looking at the Milky Way in South Americas clear night sky's .It was very interesting , but give me Amy and Chris's blog any time .They've been to more places in the world and smile more than Brian . Lots of love Dad xxx
12th June 2012

Smiling more than Brian?!
That´s an achievement :) Thanks for your message dad, it had us smiling all the more...
8th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Wow!
That is an amazing photo! :)
12th June 2012
Beautiful view of our Moon

Thanks Mell
We were amazed to be able to capture it. Wish we could do it all over again!
8th June 2012

Amazing photos!
Your photos are amazing! I am very envious. San Pedro and the Atacama desert is somewhere I've wanted to go for ages. Looks like you had an amazing experience.
12th June 2012

Hi Rachael!
Thank you!! We hope you get to visit sometime soon, sure you´ll love it as much as we did. Make sure to go star gazing!!
8th June 2012

amazing Chile
I recommend Chile. Lovely people and lovely place. Graciela from Argentina.
10th June 2012

ATACAMA
Planned our 4WD drive through the Atacama Desert many times only to divert to Africa or elsewhere...still at the top of our "To Do" list. I saw the Southern Cross in the Northern Hemisphere when having an early morning leak on the Niger River in Mali...a great surprise. Went to a field at 4am near Coonabarabran in New South Wales to view Halleys Comet one year...blew me away when a heap of tourist buses pulled up to join us. I've even seen a reported UFO...and a meteorite crash just near our home. But to go to exotic locales and lie on my back and watch the starry sky...always special...makes one realise we are just microscopic specks in time & space. Guess I'll make sure I do it when we finally get to Atacama. Keep safe Chris & Amy...what a trip!
12th June 2012

Hi there Dave!
You´ve got quite a few interesting star stories of your own eh?! ha ha! We´re getting achey necks, can´t stop looking up at them! You´ll love the Atacama when you get there! Thanks for the message, take care!!

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