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Published: April 4th 2016
It turned out that we were the only English speaking people on the tour bus. Our guide put us to shame, repeating his dialogue in fluent English just for us. He was a Chilean law school dropout who had done quite a bit of travelling himself (including staying in a London backpackers' hostel which came complete with rats - how embarrassing!) before coming to San Pedro in the footsteps of his girlfriend. They had just received a work visa for a year in New Zealand and they were due to leave in October. Until then, he was loving his time as a tour guide in the desert. He told us that Chile is a mineral rich country, particularly lithium, so any lithium batteries we use probably have a bit of Chile in them! Also, if you know anyone suffering from bipolar depression ......
After 120 kms, passing through the towns of Toconao and Socaire and watching smoke coming from the top of a rumbling volcano from a distance, our first stop was at two high altitude altiplanic lagoons. Our guide asked how high we had previously been and, on hearing that we had once been as high as 4321 masl
he declared that we would be ok then, because on this occasion we were only going 4120 masl. No matter that we had done this ten years previously when we were more robust and resilient. As the bus engine struggled to combust in the thin air I just hoped our hearts and lungs would continue to cope too and had memories of John Peel meeting his untimely death at similar altitude. Ghoulish ...
It seemed as though we were the only vehicle for miles around and we gazed out at the scenery. The Andes were more apparent against the desert sands. It was hard to train the eye to look high enough. My eyes certainly looked to 'normal' hill height and I had to keep reminding myself to look up to mountain height and then some. The Andes seemed to float at cloud level, up and ever up, just keep going higher. They were, quite literally, awesome. When we arrived at the site of the two lagoons, the Miscanti and the Miniques, we were treated to a simple breakfast of bread, ham and cheese on the mountain side before we took a walk down to the lakes. A young
Chilean boy, Vincent, practised his English with me and we played the 'capital cities' game but that was a bit restrictive because he mainly knew all the South and Latin America capitals and I mainly knew all the European and other western ones. We had great fun, the two of us, trying outwit each other and I had to have my concentration hat on to keep up with a ten year old! Bit difficult when sleep-deprived and with a pounding headache.
After a lovely time up at the lakes we set off back towards San Pedro, passing through a couple of small towns on the way and then stopping at the Chaxa Salt Flats. This was the only occasion our guide forgot about the two English people on the bus so we didn't get the 'wait here until our guide arrives to tell us all about the salt flats' bit and we wandered off on our own. The salt flats are home to pink flamingos, several different varieties (species??), and we had been brought back into the fold for the (somewhat boring) lifecycle of the tiny shrimp-like thing that the flamingos eat. Little Vincent and I decided it wasn't
for us so we played truant from that bit and went and did our own thing instead - as a result I now know the capital city of Ecuador!
We were dropped back at Hostal Solar at 2.30 pm and I waved sadly to Vincent who was still on the bus. I'll never see him again but it was good while it lasted! Thankfully, the water was back on again so, after a quick freshen-up, I flopped onto the bed and promptly fell asleep. What was I saying about my body clock?! We woke in time to wander into San Pedro town for tea. During our trip today we had been very close to the Bolivian and Argentinian borders so I don't know why I had been surprised that the traditional dress of the older local ladies in San Pedro reminded me very much of the Bolivian style, including the bowler hat. I had as much of a conversation as I could with an old lady in traditional dress at a bus-stop and she very kindly agreed to have her picture taken with me. She was thrilled to bits to see herself on the tiny screen and we exchanged
happy smiles (and a small amount of money!). This time we found a cheap and cheerful eating venue and had a hearty two course meal for about a quarter of the price we had paid in the restaurant the previous night. Ok, it wasn't silver service but the ambience was much better! We only left when a screechy female singer arrived to 'favour' us with her songs. We later saw her singing in the gutter, literally, so I think she must have emptied out the cafe pretty quickly and been shown the door. I dropped some money in her guitar case anyway. We wandered around the market stalls and sat in the lovely town square where the locals gathered with their families, and just soaked up the atmosphere in the evening gloaming. Steve was adopted by one of the stray dogs while I was browsing the market stalls but he was clearly a one man dog because he sulked off when I returned. The dogs were all glossy coated and looked in good health, even the strays (those that were pets all had a collar or a bandana to indicate they belonged to someone but they still roamed the streets
with the strays). Feeling not just tired, but absolutely exhausted on single-digit-hours-of-sleep in God knows how many days, we felt sure tonight would be the night and we returned to our room looking forward to blissful zzzzzs but it just didn't happen. Oh well.
We forced ourselves to stay in bed until 9.00 am, knowing we had a long day ahead. Javier phoned to book our return transport for the following day and he gave us a bottle of Chilean wine as a farewell gift. We were collected for our evening trip to the Moon Valley at 4 pm and found ourselves on a mixed nationality bus, with some Germans, some French, some Brits and some Chileans. I had been surprised at the number of young, single travellers, particularly young, single women, and this trip had two of those, one German and one British. I think it is very brave for them to travel the world on their own. Our first stop was to a mountain ridge in the middle of the desert. The Atacama is apparently the driest desert in the world (so we were told). So we should have been surprised, but we weren't, when a grey
cloud passed over and dumped huge, painful hailstones on us! Thankfully, I had my cagoule but Steve got very wet. It made the sand a quagmire and the shale very slippy but for some reason I still can't fathom, we still climbed to the top of the ridge where, at times, I was literally clinging on with my fingernails with no handrails or safety features in sight! Mad. We eventually slipped and slithered our way back down and continued on to see the Three Marias (3 clumps of stones piled in such a way as to represent three women called Mary presumably, but it was a bit of a stretch for me) and from there we drove to the viewing point for what was described as one of the most amazing sunsets on the planet. Well, it was pretty enough but as the single British woman said 'I've seen better sunsets in Penzance!' and I think she was right. Maybe on a different day .... She had given up her job in the music industry to travel and was moving on to Brazil next. I told her it was full of thieves and scoundrels, telling her of our escapade when
we had been Robbed in Rio and then she said she had a lot of relatives there. Awkward .... !
We asked to be dropped back in the centre of town so we could have a meal and enjoy the atmosphere in the town square one last time. We finally returned to our room, tired and ready for bed but, on this occasion, terrified of falling into a deep sleep because we had to leave early in the morning! You just can't win!
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