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Published: December 16th 2015
Looking out over the Valle de la Luna.
And so began the longest bus journey I have ever taken. My previous best was an 18-hour one in Sweden three years ago
but this was about to be surpassed. We were lucky to able to have a shower at the hostel before such an undertaking – we were going to need it.
The first twelve hours (!) or so were actually pretty comfortable. We left at 11pm in the evening and I managed to get to sleep fairly quickly, waking up again around 10am feeling nice and refreshed as we pulled in to Copiapo. It wasn’t great sleep though so I slept quite a bit for the next 3-4 hours after as well.
By about 5pm I had passed the duration of my longest previous bus ride – and I still had six hours to go! By now however, things were getting uncomfortable. Again, the semi-camas weren’t the best that I have had, and the dust off the road had now got right into the bus and everyone was choking. It was also hot – something made worse by the fact that I had chosen seats right down the back above the engine. It was so hot in fact, that you could’ve
brewed tea from the water in my bottle and Teo’s six-pack of Snickers became one giant slab. Oh yeah, and our seats were right next to the toilet too.
In terms of the passing scenery, we were passing through some proper desert and some unbelievably dry towns. You could almost immediately feel how dry it was – on your skin and in your breath. The air was thin too – so combined with the dryness, it became difficult to breathe. The altitude causing the thin air also made me feel a little dizzy and my nose started to run.
The bus dropped us off about an hour late which meant the staff from the hostel had to wait an hour for us. Cimas del Sol felt like it was in the middle of nowhere – San Pedro de Atacama is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – but it had a cool vibe. It immediately reminded me of some of the hostels I stayed at in South Africa, most notably the Coffee Shack
Once there however, it was great to be reunited with the Mendoza crew
of Nicola, Sybe and Fleur.
Teo of course, was already with me and had
One of two salt lakes near San Pedro de Atacama.
now been with me for about ten days now. There is a blunt, Northern European, child-like, spontaneous quality about Teo that we all adore – he’s like the little brother of our travelling family. He’s also stolen a couple of titles from me – usually I am the last one to get up, and the one to hoover up all of the leftover food at meal time. Well, I think I have now met my match and will have to pass on the baton.
In case you were wondering why we had come to a town in the middle of the Chilean desert, there is a number of natural phenomena to see here – a nice change, as apart from Iguazu Falls
, I have only really been in cities on my trip so far.
The first of these natural phenomena that we went to see were two lagoons – the Laguna Cejar and the Laguna Piedra. The Laguna Cejar is a crystalline salt lake that has enough salt in it to allow you to float in it a la the Dead Sea. I have to say that I much preferred this particular experience to the one I had in the
Mapuchoactual Dead Sea
Church in the village cum tourist trap of Mapucho.
– the water here is clearer and ‘cleaner’ and you’re in much more picturesque surroundings with the desert and the mountains in the background. After the lagoons, we then visited a couple of freshwater sinkholes which were a bit disappointing, but the water-filled salt flats we visited at the end had a stunning vista.
In hostels in the middle of nowhere, away from any sort of nightlife, you have to make your own evening entertainment. Cimas del Sol certainly do that – with a hostel asado
and copious amounts of red wine. The conversation flowed as readily as the wine did with our fellow hostellers on what was again a fun night of laughs and hilarious stories. Eddie the Brit certainly contributed with this dry wit and his 80s-stockbroker costume. Yeah, we’re still wondering why as well.
As for the town of San Pedro itself, it is a lovely adobe pueblo
which is pleasant to walk around and charms you with its Mexican-desert-village vibe. As for the population, it is almost exclusively tourists, where the main activity they undertake is to get the best deal on desert excursions and trips to the Uyuni Salt Flats – which
Valle de la Luna
Cool amphitheatre-like rock formation in the Valle de la Luna.
is exactly what we were doing in town too. We went with a company called World White Travel, based almost exclusively on a positive testimonial from one of Nicola’s friends. The lady selling us the tour spoke excellent English however and was extremely friendly and non-pushy – she charmed us enough for us to go with her. Time will tell if we have made the right decision!
The second natural phenomena we visited was the Valle de la Luna
. Once in the valley, the Valle de la Muerte and a tour of some nearby caves were a bit average considering the caves I have visited in the past
, while the “Three Marys” rock formation also failed to raise excitement levels. Clambering over the rocks near the caves was quite fun though, even if the crumbly rocks were a bit loose due to their age – over twenty million years old apparently.
The “amphitheatre” was an amazing sand dune rising majestically above the skyline but the shadow it cast over us ruined any chance of a decent photo of it.
The best was saved for last however as we got a sunset view over the rocks and the desert. It was stunning and evoked memories of
At the Geiseres del Tatio.
the views atop Mount Sinai
. Overall, the scenery resembles the moon or Mars, but I would say that Cappadoccia
is more spectacular/weird and the Drakensberg
The third phenomena we visited required a ridiculous 3am start. This is because the geysers we were visiting are best seen first thing in the morning. The geysers are located at an altitude of 4300m – and first thing in the morning, the temperature up here can get as low as -20⁰C! Extremely cold weather is not exactly something I had prepared for when packing my backpack – I did bring a couple of thermals however and those along with two pairs of socks (including my long football socks), both of my jackets plus a windbreaker, and a newly bought Bolivian-style ski hat, just about got me through the cold temperatures. When the sun comes up however, all these layers work against you in boiling hot fashion.
But perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about this visit was the height, and the altitude hit me hard. On top of the sleep deprivation, breathing became much more difficult, my heart started to beat harder, my stomach started rumbling and I started feeling a little nauseous. I
Tourists & Geysers
Tourists take pictures at the Geiseres del Tatio.
had to make sure I didn’t walk to fast or work too hard, but I eventually got used to it after a couple of hours.
Were the geysers worth all the effort? Maybe not – they were disappointing in comparison to the ones I saw in Iceland
which were much bigger and picturesque, although the surrounding scenery here is on a par. We also visited some hot pools – but again, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon
is much more scenic.
We did a wildlife stop on the way back to San Pedro which was cool – local geese, rabbits, flamingos and llamas were spotted, and we tried the barbecued meat of the latter at the local tourist-trap village of Mapucho. The llama was actually delicious although I think it may have had more to do with the marinade rather than the rather chewy meat. By the end of it all I was so tired – almost to the point where I really couldn’t give a shit about anything we were seeing or doing.
There was one last thing that I wanted to do before leaving San Pedro – sandboarding! I am a fairly accomplished snowboarder so I didn’t anticipate it being particularly difficult,
Sybe, Fleur & Nicola
Floating in the Laguna Piedra.
and I was curious about comparing riding snow and sand. I had a bit of a dilemma however – I was down to my last 15,000 Chilean pesos before leaving the country, all three ATMs in town seemed to be out of action, and I still needed to buy some food and supplies. There are a plethora of tour agencies offering the activities and I tried my darnedest to barter a deal for a few pesos less, but no dice. Exhausted from the geyser tour it was probably a good thing I had to give it a miss – I might get another opportunity to sandboard in Huacachina, Peru.
As we were leaving for our salt flat tour bright and early the next day – which involved another altitude climb – we were effectively nil-by-mouth for our last night in San Pedro. Which was gutting because there was another BBQ that night and it sounded like an awesome party as we tried to get to sleep. But the salt flats are usually one of the highlights of anyone’s tour of South America so I am sure that the sacrifice of a party will be worth it. You’ll find out
if it was in my next blog entry.
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