A Lunar Sunset & A Frozen Sunrise

Published: August 21st 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Iquique to San Pedro

Day 311 Friday 17th August

Up at 7 to pack our bags and preparing ourselves to move on. Breakfast at the hotel didn’t start till 8, which was the time we were walking out the door, so we didn’t bother with it. Iquique has a central bus terminal as well as a multitude of private ones around town. We are travelling with Turbus, which has two terminals in town within a ten minute walk of each other. Thankfully when we got our tickets the woman explained to us which terminal otherwise you could see how you could easily miss your bus. Got a taxi down to the right bus terminal and had to wait ten minutes so we picked up an Empanada for breakfast and it was so nice we almost picked up a few more for the trip. Most empanadas we have got in South America are sold cold to at best luke warm, but these ones were actually hot…yooohhooo.

Today we are off to San Pedro de Atacama, which sits inland near the Bolivian border, which for narrow Chile only means about two hours from the coast. Started off at 8.30 driving south down the coast for
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Hot water stream
about 5 hours, before turning inland. The road skirted along the Pacific Ocean just above the waves with huge desert mountains towering over us. Towns along the route seemed more like fishing shanty towns. Once we turned inland we had to climb up a steep road till we were powering through a desert terrain, and when I say desert I mean absolute, dead, nothing, lifeless, nada desert. The few towns we pass through seem to cling precariously to small slow moving streams, that barely move and any greenery doesn’t grow any further than a metre from the water. We have been travelling through this barren terrain since the top of Peru and here it is by far the most severe. It is an amazing landscape which although fairly featureless was far better viewing than watching the onboard television where they were screening “Final Destination 5”. We have copped so many violent splatter films on buses in South America but this movie took the cake, and why they chose this film when the bus was full of kids of all ages is beyond any sense or reason.

Got to the town of Calama at 2.30 in the afternoon where we
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Main Street
had to get off and pick up another bus to San Pedro. Hadn’t pre booked this second bus and thankfully we got almost the last two seats on the 3.05 so we were in luck today. Second bus arrived a bit late but it was only a short journey to San Pedro where we arrived at 4.45. We had pre booked our accommodation in town but unfortunately we didn’t have a map to show where it was, and all we knew was that it was about a ten minute walk from town. San Pedro is a very small tourist town and no taxis are allowed in and around the centre so we were forced to walk in search of it. As we walked along we asked locals if they could direct us and we started to get contrary information till a guy at a tour office gave us a map and showed us exactly where we had to head.

It took us nearly twenty five minutes from the bus station to the hotel with our packs on, so we were fairly relieved to finally get there. Considering we are now back up in the mountains at an elevation of
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Our Street
2300 metres we didn’t do too bad…we just must be so used to it now. Our room is small, but spotless and tidy, and the people running the Hotel Solor are super friendly so it is fairly good place to stay, although it is over priced. Unfortunately we discovered that the whole town is over priced and there are a whole group of hotels here that charge up to a $1000 a night. When you see the town it is way beyond laughable that anyone would pay that sort of money to stay here, but they must because there is more than one hotel that charges that.

We dropped our stuff off and headed back into town to check the place out. Traffic is heavily restricted in the centre of town so it is a fairly pedestrian friendly place. The streets are narrow and all the buildings are single storey adobe structures that mainly contain tour agencies and restaurants. We needed to book some tours and organise an onward ticket but after the bus journey today all we really wanted to do was get a beer and a feed, so after wandering around in a daze for a bit
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Iglesia San Pedro
we settled into a restaurant for the night. On our arrival in town, the sun was up and despite a cool breeze the temperature was warm, but once the sun disappeared so did any warmth. We know from here till Brazil we are in for cold, cold and bloody cold. Luckily our room has a heater and we had hot water on our return so we could at least wash off the dust and thaw out.

Day 312 Saturday 18th August

The breakfast at the Hotel Solor is simple but nice and is dished out by a lovely lady that makes you feel like you are staying with family. Before heading out for the day we were given another map and a better set of directions from town so we could reach the centre of town in 12 minutes. San Pedro has a great laid back feel and the area around where we are staying seems to be undergoing an urban renewal with what looks like a large community centre and playing fields. Sort of get the feeling that a lot of the tourist dollars that flow into this town, stays in this town. Prices for
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Approach to the Death Valley
most things are a bit over the top, which you might say because it is isolated, but it really isn’t that far from the coast and other large towns, it is just that it feels that way. The town isn’t exactly pretty, but has heaps of character, but what is the wow factor here is the setting, which is incredible. Straight out the door of our hotel this morning and the view to the East is a chain of snow capped volcanoes that are absolutely stunning, and that combined with the other incredible sites around here is why so many people are flooding in.

First job today was to book tours and the first was a jeep onto Uyuni in Bolivia on Tuesday. Lots and lots and lots of horror stories about this trip most of which involve drunk drivers so we opted to only see one agency about this trip. Our research showed that Cordellirea traveller had the best (although not completely unblemished) track record so we only spoke to them and booked it. The cost is expensive and I am positive others would do it for half their fee but not willing to take the chance on
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such an incredible journey. After that we looked at booking some day tours and after getting a ridiculously high price from one agency we opted for a cheaper one that still had a good name. Ended up booking a sunset trip for this afternoon and a sunrise one for tomorrow through Desert Adventures. Got a discount for booking two tours and paying in cash so it worked out okay. In the midst of walking around talking to the agencies we stopped to get a coffee, and discovered that although a lot of cafes in town offer cappuccinos not too many will and can make them. Had a laugh at one of them that had a menu filled with two dozen varieties of coffee but in the end could only give us a Nescafe with milk…pass.

Went to get my mop of hair cut but the hairdresser was shut so we headed back to our hotel for a spell and get ready for the afternoon trip. Thought it would be freezing for the sunset so we dragged out our gloves and beanies and every bit of warm clothing we had but in the end didn’t use any of it and
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Salt Valley
watched the sunset in our t-shirts. Our day trip left from town at 3 so we wandered back early and picked up yet another great empanada for lunch before meeting at the tour agency. The bus that picked us up had to first tour around the town picking people up from the distant hotels so we didn’t get to board till 3.30. Our guide today was “Ossie” an over the top Brazilian who was funny and fairly knowledgeable but perhaps not our best guide we have ever had. To give him his credit it is a very difficult job having to explain everything twice, once in Spanish and then in English. To add to his difficulties was that there were 24 people in our group and a lot of them just kept wandering off. We of course had several sites to see before the sunset and so we were on a tight schedule you can imagine his stress but he kept it together and by the end of the night hadn’t murdered anyone so in that respect he was a better person than me.

First stop of the afternoon was at a lookout over the “death valley”, which in
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Tres Marias - The Three Marias
fact was called “Martian valley”, but due to a mix up in Spanish, Portuguese and English is now called “Death Valley”, but as Ossie said “it’s better for the tourist industry”. The valley is a jumble of multi coloured jagged, folded earth that is as dramatic as it is picturesque.

From here we headed to the main draw card of the day “the valley of the moon”. We had to stop and pay a 2,000 peso ($4) entry fee, before pushing into the valley and to our second site, the small “salt valley”. Probably a good reason so much of this terrain is so lifeless is that the entire area is salt, a leftover from a huge lake that dried up thousands of years ago. The crusty white salt covers everything, wherever you look and it takes on the appearance of a light dusting of snow. What we discovered at this stop was that what looks like plain rocky mountains are in fact loaded with solid crystallised salt. In the late afternoon light when everyone went quiet you can actually hear the knocking and cracking sound of the salt as it cools, and it is a really weird sound.
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Salt formation
When you take a close look at the red coloured rocks you can see that it is in fact layered and filled with clear, bluey coloured salt. Due to this weird composition the salt valley is really unstable and large chunks of rocks litter the site from where they have fallen from the cliff above. The end of the valley was cordoned off with tape stating it was off limits and too dangerous to pass but that didn’t stop Ossie who led us past the danger point and then into a cave. It was probably really reckless of him particularly when he had us clambering up a steep rocky outcrop but we loved every minute of it and was glad he showed us.

From the Salt Valley we took a short drive to see a strange rock outcrop called the 3 Marias although we are unsure why they are called this before moving onto our final destination. The main reason for this tour is to watch the sunset over the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), but unfortunately we arrived a bit late. From the carpark it was a ten minute walk up a large rocky hill
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Three Marias
from where you could watch the sunset and although we did see the sun dip behind the adjoining mountains we didn’t get to see the sun in the valley, which was in shadow on our arrival. From experience day trips are good because you get to see additional things you hadn’t expected (like the Salt Valley) but you always fail to fully see the thing you paid to see (like the sunset over the Valley of the Moon). Despite not getting to see the sun set in the valley, the view was still extraordinary and something unfortunately photos can never quite capture. The landscape in this corner of the world is mind blowing and has been well worth the effort to get here. We clung to the top of the rocky out crop with about a hundred or more people for about 40 minutes till the light started disappearing from the sky and we made our way back to the bus, being nearly the last to leave.

We got dropped in the centre of town and took a chance on one of the many restaurants in town and came up with a winner with a great feed. The restaurant
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Salty ground
was a bit pricey but was well worth it, and would have loved to have stayed all night but we had a very, very early start in the morning so we headed back to the room at 9.30.

Day 313 Sunday 19th August

I think Shelley’s first words to me when the alarm went off at 3.20, was “this is your fault”, and I think I heard that at least 485 more times over the next 9 hours. When planning this trip and I pencilled in the “sunrise at the Taito Geysers” it was probably good that I didn’t think too much about it. Likewise when we booked it yesterday that we didn’t think about it too much otherwise we may not have done it. Getting up so early was only the start of our pain and in hindsight was the easiest part of the day. We got ourselves ready and packed all our warm clothing and were waiting out the front of our hotel in the dark at 3.55am. Within 5 minutes of waiting in the freezing night air all that warm clothing that we had packed like gloves, beanies and scarves was on
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us, so by the time that it actually started to “get cold” we really had run out of ideas.

Lucky for us we were the very first pick up and we had the same bus and guide (Ossie) from yesterday afternoon. Today’s group numbered 20 and it wasn’t till 4.30 that we had everyone and were leaving the town. Ossie gave everyone a rundown on what to expect today especially on how cold it would be and then we all settled down for a snooze in the warm bus for the hour long trip to our destination. First inkling on how cold it was to be when ice started forming on the outside and inside of the windows but when we had to jump out to but the entry tickets it was a real slap in the face. The thermometer outside the ticket office read -12.1 degrees, but Ossie was there to reassure us that it would drop at least 3 more degrees to around -15 before sunrise. Had always told Shelley how I wanted to feel “real cold” weather like this, so you guessed it, it was “my fault”. Lucky for us this isn’t winter where it hits -30, and Ossie said it isn’t much fun, although at -15 I didn’t hear too many chuckles.

After we got our tickets we were herded into a timber refuge building where Ossie made hot chocolate and scrambled eggs on rolls while we waited for the sun to rise. Being stuck in a windowless room we missed the start of the sunrise but quite frankly didn’t care, and may have been happy to sit there all day drinking hot chocolate than go out in the cold again, but eventually we had to move outside to see why we had come here.

The Taito Geyser fields are the world’s highest, sitting at 4320 metres above sea level and are also one of the most extensive. There are 64 Geysers and hundreds of Fumaroles scattered throughout the park and they all bubble and spit boiling hot water. None of the geysers are huge or as powerful as the classic “old faithful in Yellowstone national park and most only spit water up to about a metre but the sight at dawn of the steam pouring across the valley is incredible. Because of the altitude, water here boils at 92 degrees rather than
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Sunset - note the white is salt not snow
100 degrees and best seen in the early morning extreme cold when they bubble even more.

From the refuge we were driven down into the valley where we were given a guided walk amongst the steam and boiling water. There is a reasonable level of danger visiting here as the surface is unstable, geysers are constantly changing position and the steam is so thick at times that it would be easy to walk into one of the holes. Apparently tourists are scalded here all the time and after walking it and I can believe it. Also it is so numbingly cold that somehow that lovely hot water looks so inviting, you have to keep reminding yourself that slipping your hand into it is like pouring water from a boiling kettle on yourself. Being stuck in a valley the sun didn’t hit us till about an hour into the walk by which time we were frozen solid. We would have to take our gloves off to take photos and after a while we lost all feelings in our fingers to the point I couldn’t push the button on the camera. After the numbness came the pain at which point I
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Waiting for the sun
think if Shelley had a gun and she could have somehow squeezed the trigger, I would have been a dead man.

Luckily with the sun came some warmth and so the remainder of our walk was near bearable. We then jumped back into the bus and were driven onto the hot springs for a swim if we wanted, ha, ha, ha, ha. Plenty of people did jump in for a swim, which would have been nice except for the stripping down to your swimmers and then of course hoping out wet in what was by then -5 degrees. While others swam we walked around in the sun checking out some more geysers before returning to the bus for our run home. On the way back we stopped at a small village that had a quaint old church and where we also picked up yet another great empanada, (they are so good around here that I think we are getting addicted). The views in the daylight of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes were as you would expect, spectacular. One volcano was in fact letting out small puffs of smoke.

We got back to town at midday and were dropped
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Dormant geyser
off at our hotel where we took a short nap. In the evening we were disappointed the nice restaurant we found yesterday was closed so the search started. I think we checked out every restaurant in town and walked out, we finally ended up back at the restaurant from the first night and it was packed. The meals here are cheaper and pretty good, the only problem was when the bill came it was $6.00 more that it should have been but the waitress sorted it out. We are not sure if they just hope tourists will not check the bill or maybe are confused with the money but it happens about 1 in 10 restaurants, which because we have been travelling for so long would add up.

Day 314 Monday 20th August

Today is an easy day walking around town which does not take long but we looked in all the shops. The first shop we came across was a hairdressers and because Scott was about 5 weeks beyond a haircut it was a priority so we came to a stop. It was so funny sitting in the hairdressers looking at photos around the wall
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The Geysers
showing all the cuts I could get, it looked like a catalogue of the world’s worst cuts from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Scott came close to getting his hair dyed and getting a “Take That” cut but decided on just a straight buzz…the barber looked shattered that he couldn’t perform a masterpiece on his mop.

We then ventured further into town where most of the items in the shops are the same we have seen all through South America, but there were a few shops with different jewellery and clothing but the prices were higher. We are hoping to buy things cheaper in Bolivia as everyone we meet keep telling us that is where to buy. We visited Iglesia San Pedro which was built in the 17th Century but has had changes over the years including the bell tower being added in 1890. The walls are thick adobe and the ceiling is made from Cardon which is cactus wood which truly makes you feel you are in a desert town.

We also had some chores to get done today which include supplies for the trip to Bolivia, you know like toilet paper, water and snacks. The other main
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Sunrise over the mountains
thing was to change money to get some Bolivianos for the Bolivian leg of the journey. The travel agent offered us a rate of 90 and the official rate is 68 the best rate we got in town was 82, so we did not want to exchange too much money just enough to cover us till we got to Uyuni.

I hope we have enough warm clothes for this trip as the temperature will drop to about minus 12 degrees overnight and after the other morning at the geysers I am not looking forward to that, I think I will have every piece of clothing that I own on. For dinner we headed into town hoping our favourite restaurant would be open, and yes it was but it was booked solid. Stepped outside to work out where we would eat and opted for the restaurant next door. A chance pick had us getting one of the best feeds we have had in South America. Chose the house specialities of a Parilla, which is a plate of BBQ meat and it was sensational, (sorry once again to our veggie friends). Once again we discovered the best restaurant in town on our last night. We got home about 9.30 and then started packing for tomorrow, making sure all our warm clothing was available to grab.

Additional photos below
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El Tatio Geysers

Shelley frozen solid

21st August 2012
Valle de la Luna

Yep...confirms why Atacama is on the top of my wish list...can't wait to see the rest
24th August 2012

The geysers and landscapes look amazing, the photo\'s and the detail of what you saw and felt was great! I cant imagine feeling that cold though, must have been real awful that part of it. What a beautiful place to visit, looked so interesting, just incrediable. Glad to hear your still alive scotty and not wearing a hidieous hair do!!! stick with the buzz! Stay warm xx

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