April 6 - and we embarked on a 10 hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I take back all the comments I made earlier about Argentinian buses - the long distance ones are fabulous: incredibly comfortable and we got fed THREE times. There were lots of empty seats so we were able to sprawl out. 2 scheduled buses travel this route, leaving Salta at either 1am or 7am and we were really glad we had chosen the 7am - although the first part of the route was a repeat of our earlier journey to Salinas Grandes, being on the top deck gave a different perspective of the switchback road to the summit before the salt flats. And we would have missed the spectacular scenery if we had travelled this route in the dark.
The seven hours to the border crossing at Jama passed quickly. The border process seemed fairly straightforward - line up to get passports stamped to leave Argentina, move to the next window to get passports stamped to enter Chile, walk outside. But then we were told that we had to take everything off the bus and have it searched by Chilean customs. That was
somewhat tedious. We noticed a few people were suffering from the altitude as we were now at 4200m. I was glad we were acclimatized from our time in the Quebrada de Humahuaca.
There were another three hours of travel, which included crossing the highest pass on this highway at 4810 m. The highway passed fairly close to the altiplanic lagoons with their blue or green water surrounded by white salt crystals. Yellow hills formed the background and next there was the symmetrical cone of Licanabur rising 1500m above the surrounding land and dominating the landscape. And finally we arrived in San Pedro. After getting rid of our last Argentinian money at the money changer (conveniently located at the bus station) we headed off to Hospedes de Turipete, our home for the next three nights. And once again we seem to be on the wrong side of town as we walk along dusty, rocky roads. Turns out we are in the “newer” part of town with sidewalks and cobbled streets but between us and the town proper are dusty, rough streets.
This town is based on tourism - the streets around the square were lined with tourist agencies, restaurants
and little tourist shops. It did not take long to realize that every agency sold the same tours for similar prices - they just varied in the size of the group. The tours departed early morning, mid afternoon or evening, depending on the destination so it was possible to do two (or three) tours in a day. Nothing was cheap though and we were to find out later that even taxis cost the same as a tour so there was no advantage there. Of course, if you had your own transport, you could get yourself to the same place, but without the explanations.
On the plus side of being in tourist land - this town knows how to serve great food. We had some of the best salads ever- usually with hearts of palm (my new favourite vegetable). Beef and chicken pil pil mixto is cooked with garlic, chilli and oil. Lomo carne is a piece of beef tenderloin. When we had no idea what the waiter was saying, he brought us a card that described the degrees of cooking - from rare to well done. It came with fries, onions and fried eggs. How healthy is that!!!! And
the BBQ lunch comprised of pork ribs and a couple of sausages. I prefer not to think about what the black sausage might have been made of - but it was delicious. Add to that, the great breakfasts at our hotel and we were certainly well fed. The only downside was that we were having to by bottled water again for drinking.
This area of Chile is situated on a high plateau within the Andes and includes some pretty dry, inhospitable areas, as well as geothermal areas and just wonderful scenery in general. Our first tour was to the El Tatio Geysers - these steam vents are best appreciated as the early sun hits them and there is a significant temperature difference between the air and the steam. So this was an early morning tour, being picked up at the hotel around 5:15am for the 1.5 hour drive to the geothermal field which is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere at 30 square kilometres. It sits at the western edge of the Central Volcanic Zone which is home to more that 1100 volcanic centres - 9 of which are in the relative vicinity of San Pedro de Atacama. To
be perfectly honest, these steam vents (fumaroles) were somewhat anticlimactic after having visited places like Rotorua. This early in the morning it was very cold (we figured minus 5 - and the altitude of 4300m did not help) and although we had gone prepared for a dip in the hot springs, we decided being wet and even colder after was not worth it. One of the more entertaining sights was a couple of tourists stepping off the marked paths onto the active geothermal surface so they could get a better selfie. Their guide was furious and after they ignored his calls to get back on the path, he grabbed their camera so no dangerous selfie was taken. Idiots. After a breakfast of scrambled egg sandwiches and coffee we headed back to town with a few stops along the way - There were Andean Geese and Giant Coot in the wetlands, Flamingos on the far side of a lagoon and a Viscacha - which is essentially a huge rabbit with a squirrel like tail. There were also herds of ? Vicuña vs Guanaco - I am really getting confused as to the difference between them.
Getting back into town shortly
after noon, we had heaps of time to wander around the shops and just generally relax as our next tour (astronomy) was not until 9:30pm. Being in the middle of nowhere in the high desert of the southern hemisphere, the views of the Milky Way are phenomenal. Our little group met in town and was driven to an area in the desert where there was a large telescope set up on a viewing platform. Warm blankets, hot chocolate, cookies and we settled in for an entertaining night. The idiot move of the evening was one of the group turning on her phone flashlight which ruined all our night vision. Some people just don’t listen. Our guide started out with some basic astronomy explanations and then went onto to pointing out planets, clusters of stars and various constellations. He had an awesome green laser pointer that seemed to shoot into the heavens so it was easy to see whatever he was talking about. And we all took turns looking through the telescope. A very worthwhile evening.
The next day we had booked a tour to the Valle de la Luna which was scheduled for the afternoon so had a lot
of time to kill. We thought about visiting some of the hot springs, but this is when we found out how expensive taxis were and the entrance fees were exorbitant. A large luxury hotel had recently purchased the access route to the springs and virtually made it unaffordable unless you were wealthy enough to be staying at their hotel - which we were not.
The Valle de la Luna (or valley of the moon) is a short drive west of town and being one of the driest places on earth (some areas have not received any rain for hundreds of years) was incredibly inhospitable. Giant sand dunes, stone and sand formations that have been eroded by wind and water, flat plains and tall cliffs. A prototype of the Mars rover was even tested here in the simulated Martian environment. The valley is located in the Reserva National Los Flamencos and we actually got a seniors discount on the entry fee!!!!! After clambering through dark caves and narrow passageways with our group, our tour guide was most impressed with the ability and fitness of us seniors !!!!. A bit of a slog took us to the top of the Grand
Duna - an enormous sand dune - where there were great panoramas of the surrounding desolation. Then it was out of the park and a short drive to Mirador de Kari for the sunset - along with every other tourist in the area. However, it was possible to escape the hordes and appreciate the rock canyons changing colour (grey to pink to purple) with the sunset.
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