San Pedro de Atacama - the driest place on Earth!

Published: April 18th 2013
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Back in Chile again

14-17th April ’13 San Pedro de Atacama

14th April ’13 continued…..

So we finally found the Mamatierra Hostel and were met by a really lovely young lass who appeared to be running the place. She was rather concerned about the state I was in and quickly took us to our room and advised us to drink at least 3 litres of water each a day and told me to start drinking coca tea which they had at the hostel and to rest. As coca tea is supposed to help with altitude sickness I started drinking it straight away and it was actually a nice drink which was good.

I couldn’t face walking back into town for dinner that night, in fact I didn’t really want to eat (another symptom of the altitude and totally unlike me!) but there was a kind of sandwich and pizza place next door so we just went there and watched Pawn Stars dubbed in Spanish on the tele with the locals while we waited for our food.

The hostel is built around a central courtyard with all the rooms opening onto it and as a result everyone can’t help but socialize which was really nice. We met some lovely people at this hostel, a couple of guys from London who we had a really good laugh with and long discussions about festivals, another couple from the UK who had done the Chile coast route and gave us lots of advice and were good company and I chatted with another English couple about altitude (she had been really ill on the bus over the Andes) and blogging (making yourself keep up with it when there’s so many other distractions!). It was really funny on the first morning as the only people getting breakfast at the latest time possible were the English!

San Pedro de Atacama is known as the driest place on earth and it certainly is! The sun pounds down and there is no moisture in the air but plenty of dust. As a result we were both sneezing, had dry throats and constantly needed to sip water. We didn’t do an awful lot here and what we did was at snail’s pace but we did go into town and have a look around. It was about a 10 minute walk into the centre – well the shops and the lovely little square and we completed revised our first impression of the place. All the buildings are low level, made of adobe and line the dusty, rough streets. It is a real tourist trap of a place, every other shop is a travel agent offering tours of the area and into Bolivia and most of the others are souvenir shops, but for all that the place definitely has charm.

We did find the travel agent Howard had been in touch with and booked places on the 3 day 2 night trip into Bolivia, it would mean going over a mountain pass at 16,500 feet and sleeping at 14,000 feet but I was determined to try it. Following the operators advice we drank even more coca tea, cut out alcohol, pop, red meat and salt (yes we stopped using salt!) in preparation for the altitude. Unfortunately though my breathing didn’t improve that much, I was still getting the drilling headaches, I did manage a bit of sleep the first night in between needing to drink water as my mouth was so dry and gasping for air but I didn’t sleep at all the next night and by morning we decided enough was enough and we wouldn’t be able to go to Bolivia after all.

We were both gutted but had to be realistic about it, neither of us had fully adjusted to the altitude we were at but it was me who had the real problems with it. It was so odd, after being in altitude in the Himalayas and in Peru before without major problems for any length of time, that it should be so different here but it is, maybe as it’s so dry and dusty that is compounding things?. Luckily we managed to get most of our money back on the trip we booked as they can resell them very easily and we then booked tickets on the bus for the coast of Chile.

Determined to do something here before we left we booked to go on a trip to the Valley of the Moon. There were only about 12 of us on the trip and it only took about 15 minutes to get there, out in the desert. We had stops to get an over view of the place, with all its dramatic rock formations and traces of salt.

A few minutes later and we stopped again for Death Valley, we were told as the road was closed to buses we would have to walk, so we scrambled up a slope onto the rough road and walked for ages – with us straggling along way behind the other young, fit things and then had to move aside for a bus to get past, I was furious! Turns out everyone else’s buses can get up it so I have no idea why ours couldn’t! By the time we got to the view over the edge the guide had finished her talk and I was gasping for air, but we did get a great view and took lots of pictures. We set off back well before the others and for once I was first back at the bus ha ha.

Once we entered the National Park properly we were driving through the formations and mountains we had seen from above and then visited a salt cave. This involved a bit of scrambling around to get under the overhands and you could see the salt glistening everywhere. We had been given little head torches and were told to shine them directly against the rock and the whole thing lit up and glowed – magical.

All was going well until we got to the totally enclosed, narrow section and the guide said right lets wait here for everyone to catch up, well that was it….the Chu Chi’s started so I just had to get myself out into the light again. Grrrrrr I never used to feel like that in caves, it’s all really started from the Chu Chi tunnels experience, bugger!

Once I could see daylight again I was fine and carried on scrambling under and round rock formations until the cave finished and we literally climbed up and out over the mountains and back down the other side.

Time was ticking along and the idea was we would all get to and climb up the Great Dune to see the sunset, however we hadn’t seen the 3 Marys yet (no idea at this point what they were) so we hurtled off towards them passing all the other buses and jeeps going back in the opposite direction to start the dune climb.

When we got to the 3 Marys they were just 3 unidentifiable rock formations that you couldn’t actually walk up to. Apparently after a university visit to study them one of the formations got knocked over so they are now known as the 2 ½ Marys! What a waste of time and more importantly it would now have to be a fast walk up to be in time for the sunset.

Everyone else sped past us and we trudged along through the sand (it’s like walking in slippery tar) and after ages reached the path going up. I got to the top but there was no way I could get up the rocky spine to go higher, breathing and the heebie geebies got me. We managed to see the last rays of the sunset but the best bit was in the opposite direction. The whole of the Andes range was changing colour as the sunset, it was really beautiful and made the climb well worth while.

We were dropped off in the town on the way back, which clearly didn’t suit some people but suited us just fine and despite being rather dusty found a small restaurant (Atcentio) which welcomed us in and we had the most delicious meal of our trip. It was a set menu for £7 and included starter, main and pud so for Chile it was a bargin. We had roast pork loin in teriyaki sauce with sautéed potatoes and it was divine and the strawberry mousse with popcorn was pretty good too!

So a good day to finish our visit with and despite having the usual night time problems at least I knew oxygen was in sight!

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