Alien Landscapes in the Endless Desert of Nowhere

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August 24th 2010
Published: September 1st 2010
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After another epic bus journey, this time through the sterile rainless plateau that is the Atacama Desert, I arrive at San Pedro de Atacama and feel like I am in an undefinable nowhere that the rest of the world has forgotten... Fortunetley, San Pedro soon reveals its hidden charms... A small town with a network of narrow streets lined with sun-dried brick bulidings, clustered around a surprisingly green plaza and a pretty white church, the unassuming town actually has a number of guesthouses, restaurants, Internet cafés and tour agencies to cater for the number of tourists who flock to see the otherworldly landscapes that surround the area...

The nearby Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, has areas that have not received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years and the luna terrian is considered so otherworldy that NASA have even used this valley as a testing ground for prototype rovers before blasting them off into space...

Surveying the barren, moon like surface in the late afternoon and then scrambling up a sandy ridge for a view of the sunset, the fading light manages to achieve an extraordinary transformation as the whole valley becomes illuminated in red and without moving I am transported from the surface of the moon to Mars! Very surreal.

Somewhat harder to reach, and requiring a brutally early alarm call, a visit to El Taito only reinforces the areas reputation as an Alien Nation... A huge field, with over 80 active gysers and located within the Northern Andes at 4,200 meters above sea level, all excursions run very early in the morning in order to catch the giant columns of steam that condense in the bitter morning air...

The reality of the early morning temperatures at this altitude had only really been reluctantly accepted by me the night before I was due to go so I was forced to rent a hardcore Winter coat that, whilst retaining enough heat to keep me perfectly toasty as I wandered through the bone-chillingly cold fields, also seemed to have once belonged to a Llama such was the smell...

Not even owning a single pair of gloves, given that my pack still only carries items appropriate for a sorely missed South East Asian climate, I am lucky enough to be handed two boiled eggs at breakfast, both of which act as handy (no pun intended) heat source sufficient enough to ensure the minus ten temperatures don't freeze my fingers! The result is of course that I am now wearing a winter coat smelling of Llama and I am walking around with my hands in my pockets, gripping two hard boiled eggs dangerously tightly and hoping to god that I don't add egg to the equation by crushing them mercilessly in my cold hands, and inflicting some kind of eggy madness to my already sufficiently funky winter attire... Still, despite my usual woeful preparation for the elements, the gysers really are very impressive and should not be missed!

On my final day I take the opportunity to see the Altiplano Lakes and also the Andean Flamingos living on a small lake that still exists on the Salt Flats, brilliant crystal waters reflecting the world above in a beautiful display of perfect symmetry that is so clear you could have been standing on your head and you would not have known the difference!

An impressive part of our third rock from the sun, no doubt. So much so you really do sometimes feel you are on another planet!

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