05.08 – 07.08.10 – San Pedro de Atacama and around

Before I continue, I must write about San Pedro de Atacama. It is the only town in this region that has the conspicously Spanish name of “San Pedro” (“Atacama” itself is a mangled version of a word in the indigenous language) whereas the rest of the towns surrounding the Atacama desert retained their indigenous names. The legacy of Catholicism’s influence on the town.

Although not in the Atacama desert proper, San Pedro de Atacama (I’ll call it San Pedro in this blog so as not to tire out my thumbs while typing on a tiny keypad) is linked by highways from Calama and Antofagasta that run through the famous desert, the driest in the region, and probably in the world. The desert is also the selected site for the ALMA project, the world’s largest telescope. Not to sound like a geek, but this was one of the few things that I knew about South America before coming over here! (Pat on the back)

Still, the telescope is not the highlight of this traveller’s trip. For one, it is not completed yet. Secondly, the telescope is not meant for tourist astronomy.

San Pedro is famous because of the natural wonders nearby, such as its salt flats, salt mountains, geysers, sand dunes, volcanos, lagoons and wildlife. Some travellers I met in Uyuni were thinking of skipping San Pedro as they thought it is likely to be similar to the Bolivian circuit (San Pedro itself is only 1 hour away from the Chile-Bolivia border, separated by the Licancabur volcano). Or maybe the real reason is that travelling in Bolivia is just so tiring that it makes you feel like cutting short your trip.

But I’m very glad I made my way here.

For one, the town itself is laidback, relaxed and charming with its adobe houses and unpaved road (yes, you are always walking on sand, pebbles or stone). It rarely rains so most homes adopt an open-air concept. The scenery here is also different that it is impossible to compare with the Uyuni circuit. Also, the quality of the tours are very different (taking a tour is the least costly and easiest way to see the sights). I stumbled across the most expensive tour agency in San Pedro and randomly decided to sign up simply because the guide is bilingual (later I’m told this is one of the few agencies recommended by Lonely Planet). But even though things on the Chilean side is more expensive than on the Bolivian side, the quality and standard (for one, a responsible driver is very appreciated by this traveller) is so much better that it makes the trip all the more enjoyable. In fact, monetary-wise it isn’t even that much more expensive. I will talk more about the value of money in travelling in a later blog. For now, more on San Pedro and the surrounding area.

One famous sight is Valle de la Luna, or valley of the moon. The names of these sights are hardly important in my opinion, since most of the time they are kind of haphazardly bestowed on the sights. But it was very interesting to hear the salt mountains – the salt inconspicuously covered with clay until you look closer and take a lick for verification – crackling as it expands in the afternoon heat. Scars from the geological transformation of the landscape following the movement of the earth’s teutonic plates are also dramatically evident on the walls of these valleys. Then, there are the beautiful gigantic sand dunes, with not a single footprint in sight because tourists are now forbidden to walk or roll down on it, so that others can enjoy the same beautiful unspoilt view. And then there is Valle de Muerte, which means valley of the dead, but it could very possibly have been a mangled pronunciation or misspeliing of Valle de Marte, which means valley of Mars. Doesn’t look eery at all, just strangely reddish and uninhabited. Then, there is the sunset at Piedra Coyote. Why is a sunset here so different from anywhere else you might wonder? The wonderful hues of the sky change with every minute, from shades of pink to lilac, red and purple, reflecting off the rocky uneven terrain. And that odd patch of cloud in the sky adds on to this serene and yet vivid landscape. Felt so blessed to be able to have seen this.

At night, after snacking on a baked empanada for dinner, I joined an astronomy tour. The sky – one of the clearest in Chile – is always there, but the person whose home we visited is very engaging and funny as a guide. He has telescopes permanently set up in the compound for viewing, plus explanations of the sky map. A tour in the dark and cold, so warm clothes are essential.

The next morning, woke up for a 6am tour of the Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa. The salt flat here is totally different from that in Uyuni. For one, it is not flat but jagged and crusty, looking almost like dead corals. Further up, at Laguna Chaxa, a few species of flamingos feed on the artemia shrimps in clear mirror-like waters swathed with light from the rising sun. It is difficult for me to describe the scenery and even my photos won’t do it justice. All the tourists naturally quieten their voices at the sight of these gangly pink creatures, without being promped by any signboards or a guide. The decorum of the human visitors are just as unbelievable.

Thereafter, visited two more icey lagoons, Miscanti and Minisque at about 4200m above sea level, perfectly positioned in front of volcanos and arid valleys. Unlike the ones in Bolivia, one can’t just wade into the lagoon (if you dare, in such low temperatures). Rather, one can only stick to walking along a clearly-marked path to admire the lagoons from the side.

Saw some giant pin-cushion-like cacti, which is nicknamed “mother-in-law’s cushion”. Also visited Socaire and Toconao, two small towns that I had originally wanted to go on my own, but transport is so infrequent that I abandoned the idea. So glad to be able to see them while on this tour.

The third day was yet another day of amazing sights and experiences. This time, we had to get up at 4am to catch the El Tatio geysers at its best time: sunrise and when the temperature is still cold enough for amazing spurting heights. Generally roads in Chile are good, but the route to the geysers are unpaved, hence it takes a longer time to travel. The bumpy ride kept me awake enough at dawn to witness the moonlight bouncing off icey reflective lagoons and streams, a sight to be remembered for a long time.

The geysers themselves are situated at the third highest (4320m) geothermal fields in the world. The highlight at this site was soaking in the hot spring with thermal waters from the nearby geysers. Bliss! Plus felt very proud that I was one of the few people on the bus who dared to strip in the -10 degree C cold to soak in the hot spring. Peeling off the multilayers took a while so that meant more time spent standing in the cold than in the hot water. But believe me, the effort is worth it.

Thereafter, we journeyed through some valleys and passed the semi-frozen Rio Putana, with the fuming Volcan Putana in the background. Another perfect photo moment. Also went to Macucha, a small village of 35 people. Although touristy, there I tried cachomama (sic) herbal tea and tasted one of the best vege empanadas I have had on this trip. The last stop was at Cactus Valley. Liked some of the plants (e.g. foxtail) I saw during the short trek to the valley.

Thereafter, I celebrated my last day in San Pedro with a superb lunch and drinks (see earlier posts).

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