We’re on our way to San Pedro de Atacama; a tiny desert oasis filled with every tourist shop, tourist, and money exchange imaginable, mud brick houses and a lot of dust!
Leaving Salta ridiculously early (we were later going to find out that ridiculous o’clock is earlier than 5am) we were greeted with a late departing bus because of a tour group, heading to San Pedro de Atacama. When we’d booked our bus we were excited to see that we were being provided breakfast, lunch, drinks and snacks. Our bus trips have been about as hit and miss as our cloud viewing at the major touristy sightseeing places. When we bring snacks we get fed more than we could possibly eat, and when we don’t bring snacks because food is being “provided”, we’re not equipped with what have become part of our staple diet, ‘Club Social’ crackers (these are surprisingly not beer or barbecue flavoured but ‘Integral’, which is whole-grain). In this instance the bus breakfast was at the reasonable time of 5:30am and consisted of black flavoured sugar that might have been disguised as coffee, some form of sweet cake dulce de leche stuff, and possibly a piece of fruit. It really didn’t reach the standards that our hostels had been giving us. Neither of us would consider ourselves coffee snobs, if nothing else we will both drink instant and suck it up, but when there is the equivalent of five tablespoons plus of sugar in our coffee there is a small issue; especially when neither of us add sugar to our coffees.
San Pedro is at the north of Chile, which meant that we needed to cross the country border from Argentina. As we headed out, we starting seeing larger and larger mountains, some with unusual rock colours, and a lot of windy switchbacks going up the side, and the occasional llama/alpaca/vicuña. The border crossing at 4800m was freezing cold due to the wind, a little more wind, coldness, and the fact that it was 4800m above sea level. We needed to line up once for an Argentinean exit stamp, with the line starting outside in the cold; then line up again for Chilean entry, starting outside again and finally line up a third time for the Chilean Quarantine, out in the cold. Dee through around some fairly choice words about the weather at this point, sorry Sr. Betty and Pa, but slowly managed to defrost herself upon return to the bus an hour later.
We were eventually allowed over the boarder, this was around the same time the bus realised they had forgotten to give us the 11am snacks, so we got those at the same time as our 3:00pm lunch when we were starving. Severely dehydrated and suffering a little altitude sickness we arrived late in the afternoon into San Pedro and desperately needed to find a money exchange to sort out our hostel and dinner. Needless to say we were buggered and were definitely ready for an early night, so we went to the pub. As we were having a beer, we noticed lots of people going out to look down the road, so Dee decided to be a sticky-beak and find out what was going on. There was an amazingly bright red sunset due to the dust in the air - the first photo was taken in “sunset” mode so it wasn’t quite that red in real life, but still very bright! We headed around to one of the local restaurants who, with the wristbands from our hostel, gave us a free pisco sour and provided us with some pretty awesome tasting ceviche and our first chicken wings since being in South America!
Sunday morning we decided to hit up the Internet for a bit of research about optional tours and stuff to do in San Pedro. The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of things to do; however the surrounding areas are filled with natural formations and pretty spectacular views of nature. There are a million and one tour companies hassling you as you walk down the street with an overwhelming amount of options. We’d met an Danielle and Paul (from New Zealand) while we were deciding what we were doing and coincidentally they were leaving to go across the Atacama the same day as us, along with Dennis from Sweden. We ended up getting our day sorted out pretty quickly: we were going to Valle de La Luna in the afternoon, El Tatio Geysers the following morning and then doing a stargazing tour Tuesday night, and then crossing the Atacama to Uyuni Wednesday morning. Co-ordinating with the hostel reception we managed to get most things booked, then we headed into the Cordillera office (one of the best companies) to book our Salt flat crossing. Armed with five of us and some “hardcore bargaining skills” we got a discount and only paid 118000 pesos rather than 128000 (about $250 AUD) since there were five of us travelling. Hooray for free monies!
The first of the tours we booked was an afternoon trip to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), where some sections have probably not had rain in over 300 years. The first of our stops was the lookout area on top of the rock cliffs. We were only thirteen kilometres out of town and the scenery was completely different to the dirt and mountain views of San Pedro. The view was of a desolate valley, containing nothing but sand and rock formations have been carved by wind and water over time, with the bottom of the formations covered with dried salt lakes. After the obligatory “sitting on the edge” and group photos, we headed on to the next area.
Back in the warmth of the mini van we were driven to a salt cave, which in some places was had to get on our hands and knees to get through. While it wasn’t completely made of salt, there was a fair bit of it around. We then headed to the “Three Marys” which are now only two and a half Marys due to a tourist breaking one a few years ago. Finally we headed up on top of a ridge to look at the sunset, but unfortunately (continuing our problems with picturesque high places) it was cloudy so we couldn’t see the sunset. As we went to leave, we turned around and realised that all the clouds provided amazing colours in the sky if we looked the other way.
On the way back to the Hostel, James realised that we were in the Atacama Desert - so the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA radio-telescopes) would be near by, and there might be tours. Once back into WiFi range at the hostel, we found out there were, in fact, free tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. These were genuinely free, not the kind that you turn up then have to give an obligatory tip, James was getting excited! Realising at that point it was Sunday evening, and not having done too much in the morning except book a few bits and pieces the disappointment set in, we were not going to ALMA. There went James’ chance to make the other physics and astronomy people envious! To counteract our lack of organisation and disappointment, we dropped into the hostel bar for a couple of happy hour “Pisco Sours”, or better described as lime flavoured sugar syrup in a pre-mix bottle, then cruised on in for a bit of rest, a tad later than we probably should have.
And here comes ridiculous o’clock! Startled at 3:30am, we were woken to the sound of both phones going off at full volume, and close to maybe four hours of sleep. Not being sure if we were quite ready to embrace the darkness at that hour of the morning, we got our things together for the 4:00-4:30am pickup to go to the El Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world, with our newly found Swedish friend, Dennis. As usual the company we booked through were running on South American time, and did not pick us up until 5:20. We arrived just before sunrise, so the coldest part of the day, and at 4320m above sea level it was a freezing -10 degrees Celsius. Needless to say the breakfast that came with the tour did little to warm us up but was a pleasant surprise to the otherwise miserably cold conditions. Dee spent most of breakfast leaning against the headlights of the bus to try and warm up, and trying to deal with the beginning of a high-altitude hangover with coffee - it actually worked!
We waited around for the spectacular sunrise, but as with the sunset at Valle de la Luna the night before, it was cloudy. The geysers themselves were pretty interesting, definitely worth the trip if you haven’t seen them before. Geysers are apparently a pretty rare phenomenon, they sites are located near active volcano areas and are caused by magma. Water on the surface dribbles down fairly deep into the ground (around 2000m) and then comes into contact with hot rocks, resulting in boiling water and steam shooting up out of cracks and mounds on the surface. The particular field we were at has around eighty geysers and is the largest in the southern hemisphere. Wandering around for an hour or so, watching the steam and bubbling water explosions we came across a thermal spring, with a few crazies swimming in it - we were both still in multiple layers trying to stop our fingers from freezing off, the swim was definitely not an option.
Leaving the geyser field we were transported to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by desert and winding roads. We were invited to try another of the culinary masterpieces on our trip, freshly cooked llama kebabs straight off the grill. These were surprisingly pretty good! They kind of tasted a little like lamb but slightly gamier, and much more tender. We then tried the Chilean version of cheese empanadas, the cheese here is slightly strange… it’s kind of like haloumi but when cooked enough melts like mozzarella. Most of the women over here make their own cheese and then trade it for other foods with their neighbours. After the quick food stop we moved onto a lagoon for a few quick photos and for a look at a few birds, which weren’t particularly interesting. Spotting a few Vicunas on our way home and catching a little shuteye on the bus we were taken back to our hostel for some well-deserved rest in the afternoon.
Back at the hostel we met Holly, another Australian who also wanted to cross the Atacama and the salt flats on the same day as us. She had talked to Danielle and Paul, so went down to the office of the tour company to ask if she could be the sixth and last person in our 4WD. We had a fairly quiet afternoon, but organised to have “family dinner” with a few people at the hostel, since cooking was much, much cheaper than going out for dinner and we had a large selection of leftover bits and pieces from everyone. Dee cooked up pasta and salad, and we all sat and bonded over a few beers and our adventures from the day.
Enjoying a nice sleep in, we went into town for breakfast on Tuesday morning and had more of a look around. While in town we bought supplies for the Atacama crossing - plenty of snacks, 6 litres of water each and some more toilet paper. You can not go anywhere in South America without toilet paper, and a handful of coins to pay to use them. If you are lucky enough, there might be a toilet seat and running water but this is a rarity! Spending the afternoon getting our things together for the following day and making sure we were well plied with food we chilled out back at the hostel and played a few games of cards. It was decided to have another shared family dinner for the evening to cut back on costs a little. The dinner the night before appeared to be successful enough as this evening we had twelve people altogether. Another meal with pastas and salad, plus a couple of more beers, we were able to escape the expense of food in town for a whole $3.80 Australian each. We had enough leftovers for another four people.
That night we were booked onto a stargazing tour; although there a few groups who do it, we were with the best (and most expensive) because they have the best telescope to person ratio and the guide is an astronomer. In all of 2015 the tour was only cancelled 12 night of the year due to clouds, but unfortunately ours was the 6th night in a row to be cancelled - the curse of clouds continues. Although the call to cancel was made at 8pm (for the 10pm tour), by 9:30 it had cleared up so a group of about 20 headed out 500m away from the town to look up at the stars, and have James make use of things he learnt in his physics degree. They were pretty good, although not as great as they would have been a few kilometres away with telescope.
Packing up the last of our things for the early start Wednesday morning was all that there was left to do before crossing the border and heading into the Atacama Desert.