Adventures in the desert
10.11.2008 35 °C
San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis town smack bang in the middle of the Atacama desert, a vast dry expanse of land west of the Andes and north of Chile.The town is the only settlement of any note in the area, in a desert that`s noted for the being the 2nd driest in the world, after the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.This place is HOT and this place is DRY;50 times drier than California´s Death Valley.There are areas in this expanse of dry rock and dusty sand that have experienced NO rainfall since records began.It`s THAT kind of place.Its also high, at an altitude of around 2,500 masl (metres above sea level), and was to be our first foray east into the Andean mountain range that would eventually lead us into Bolivia and then further north into Peru.We had come to this desert oasis like so many others to see the highlights of the Salar de Uyuni, a vast dry salt lake just across the border in Bolivia that was supposed to be like no other place on earth; dry white desert as far as the eye could see; lakes of red, green blue and white, all beneath a perfect blue azure sky and a burning relentless sun; rock formations of such surrealistic quality that they`re collectively known as the Dali desert;boiling hot geysers fields bursting out of the yellow scorched earth; and the sparse flora and sparser fauna that somehow manage to survive in one of the driest places on earth.All this and more was ahead of us, and the town of San Pedro was to be our gateway.
We arrived after a mind numbing 24 hour bus ride.I won`t go into detail; but it was LONG.We very nearly managed to miss our bus at one of the meal stops when we decided to order some hot sandwiches and our driver decided to leave.Most of it was along the coast which was nice for scenery purposes but around Antofagasta we headed inland and started to drive east.We passed a semi interesting town on the way, Chuquicamata, the site of the country`s largest copper mine, which measures about 4.5km long, 3.5km wide and nearly a km deep.Apparently at one stage this mine was responsible for making Chile the world`s largest exporter of copper.One girl who visited it told us that the quantity of molybdenum that they mine in consequence to the copper is so valuable on the world`s ore markets that it pays for the running of the mine itself and the copper ore extracted itself is all profit.Nice!
But we didn`t stop ourselves to look around.We headed on and eventually arrived at about 7pm, an hour after sundown.We literally fell off the bus into the hands of a waiting Bolivian who took us to her hostel nearby.Seeing as we hadn`t booked anything before we`d arrived we were only happy to oblige.She led us to a small neat hostel that was built of adobe (mud brick) and had a thatched roof with a courtyard lined with hammocks that hung beneath the clear night sky.Our beds were constructed out of rough timber but had comfortable pillows and lots of blankets, which is essential at an altitude of 2,500 masl where it gets quite cold at night.In fact, we`d already noticed that we were a little dizzy and after our mammoth journey we decided a good nite`s sleep was the only solution.
Altitude sickness is a potentially fatal illness that can develop in some one who ascends rapidly to heights of 2500m or more.It can strike anyone and being fit offers no protection.The higher one goes the more serious the symptoms,which include; headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, insomnia and loss of appetite.Severe cases may result in pulmonary or cerebral edema, which is fatal.The only cure is to descend to a lower altitude.But since we were at the cutoff point so to speak we weren`t too worried, although we did intend on taking it easy the first few days just in case.Janelle suffered from some insomnia and the static electricity from my rough blankets caused some sparks the first night (a strange sight, let me tell you), but apart from that we were okay,at least at first.
We awoke to a bright hot and clear day.The sun here is ever present and it gets HOT in the daytime.I`m talking temperatures in the high 30`s where even the locals are smart enough to don sunhats.There was no clouds at all.None.And we realised quickly that this was the norm.Just clear blue skies and scorching hot sun.This was the desert after all.
We checked out the town after breakfast and visited most of the main sights the first day; the white washed adobe church off the main plaza (Iglesia San Pedro) where the main front door is hewn from cardon cactus; the main plaza itself, a pretty little tree lined square where the locals and tourists alike come to cool off in the shade and watch the world go by; and the two main thoroughfares, which are just streets of dried mud with some excuse of sidewalk.In fact, there`s no paved road anywhere in town.Just dusty, dry, sun baked red clay.It gives the town a real frontier feel to it, like it`s the Wild West of America.Well, apart from the hordes of adventure agencies offering tours of the salt flats and the tourists that they cater for, which here are in serious abundance, probably outnumbering the locals two to one at my reckoning.
But apart from that, a real nice little town.We decided to book a tour that day to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an area outside of town that consists of, well, rocks and sand that look like the surface of the moon.We joined a group and headed out to the nearest mirador (lookout) just ten mins away that overlooks an amazing expanse of dry desert and jagged mountains known as the Valle de Marte.The lookout was up on a high cliff of crumbling rocks and the view was absolutely astounding;reds,browns and greys all combining to from an impression that was closer to the surface of Mars than the moon.After taking the requisite number of photos we left for Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), another otherworldly area about 15mins drive away.Jumping out of the van we set off on a short hike over endless grey fields of rocks, craters and dust.This was more like it!Unfortunately the sheer heat of the sun and the lack of ANY half decent shelter meant we were all parched mere minutes into the hike, but oh well!We reached the actual valley not too long after; a long smooth sand dune descended down into it from its rocky edge and all around the sheer red/brown cliffs frowning down upon the valley floor.And in the distance, the looming face of the resident volcano, Lascar;a steep climb at 5,600m.We all took off our boots and shoes and plunged into the warm sand on our guides advice and half ran/fell down the dune.Very cool!Just off in the distance ahead of us were a group of sandboarders trying their luck on the driest slopes in the world.It looked like fun but we were told its hard work due to the burning heat and lack of ski lifts.Maybe another time!
We hit the valley floor, booted up and followed the rocky path through the towering cliffs on either side.This whole expanse of desert is so dry that combined with the high altitude it makes for no air humidity whatsoever.This itself makes for some very interesting natural phenomena, chief among them the natural salt crystal formations that occur over eons of time.The very cliffs we were walking by were made entirely out of rock salt, covered with a thin layer of brown clay.You could break off chunks of it and actually taste the salt.Very strange.We left the valley soon after and headed toward another quirky rock formation known as the Tres Marias though these weren`t quite as impressive.
The highlight of the tour, though, was watching the sun set atop a vast rolling sand dune at the Valle de la Luna.We joined scores of other tourists and clambered up the sandy slopes to await the dimming of the strong sun, which cast colours of ethereal quality over the valley and neighbouring volcano peaks as it set.A truly beautiful and awe inspiring moment which made for some great photos.
Anyway.The next night we booked a tour we`d heard was another `must do`- the local astronomy tour.Due to the high altitude and unique position of San Pedro the local astronomy scene was booming and night time was made for some of the clearest stargazing around.We arrived at a shack not too far outside the town where a Frenchman named Alain had been studying the night sky for years.He took us inside and by candlelight explained to us the history of stargazing from the earliest astronomers through to the seafaring empires of Europe and finally to modern astronomy and the Hubble telescope.When our eyes had acquired their natural night vision he then took us outside to gaze upon the crowded night sky, explaining the stars and their constellations in detail with the aid of his funky green laser pointer.He turned out to be an entertaining and quite witty speaker, and had the entire group`s rapt attention.When he had finished he let us try out his telescopes in the courtyard, seven in total which included Chile`s largest in a private collection.He showed us stars, the moon, the Milky Way and various other aspects of the cosmos.We all got to snap a photo of the moon in close up through one of his telescopes, a shot that looks just amazing.We finished the tour with a brief summation and some hot chocolate which was just the thing after a night in the open gazing at stars.A truly unique experience and one I`d highly recommend.
There were many more such tours to do in San Pedro, but the sheer heat of the place combined with the fatiguing effects of the altitude meant we very quickly adopted the local attitude.Which was; take it easy and take it slow, and definitely take in a daily siesta after lunch.One of the main attractions nearby the town was the El Tatio geyserfields, at 4,300 masl the highest in the world, but to get there you had to wake at 4am and drive 2 hours away through the freezing morning air.We`d heard stories of people`s water bottles freezing solid in the bus!We figured we`d see plenty of geysers once we left on the Salar de Uyuni tour so we gave it a miss as we`d booked a 3 day tour that day.Now, there are countless tour agencies in San Pedro, all offering pretty much the same thing; a 3 day trek through the desert flats in a 4 WD, taking in all the main sights, with food, guide and accomodation included.Problem is, none of them had 100% reputations, and seeing as we`d heard horrendous stories of guides driving drunk, jeeps breaking down, food and accomodation being below par etc, we were pretty cautious.Just a few months ago a jeep had overturned on the desolate salt flat and killed 3 tourists and the driver.We heard from other guides that the driver had fallen asleep!In fact, since the start of the year no less than EIGHTEEN people had died out in the desert, mainly through driver incompetence.This being South America, the whole industry is pretty much unregulated and you take your life in your hands choosing an operator.So, yeah, we were careful!
After some careful checking we decided on the one that had the least complaints, Estrella del Sur (the South Star), a company that had a reputation for being safe and providing good food and guides.Problem is though, the guides/drivers are all Bolivian and the groups meet them at the border along with the jeeps, so you`ve really no idea who or what you`re getting until you leave Chile.
Anyway, we were due to leave the next day, and we`d picked up all the supplies we`d need and packed them all away.Unfortunately though, Janelle, who was suffering more than I with the altitude, slept very badly, a fact not helped by some locals who`d decided to party until 4am.By the time light dawned she was exhausted, and feeling quite poorly.The last thing you want to do with some one suffering from altitude sickness is bring them higher, and thats exactly what we would´ve done had we left òn the tour.So we made the decision to cancel, in the hope another day or two would help Janelle acclimatise better.But when we visited the offices of our agency later that day we were told it would be another three days before we could leave on another tour, which was a bit of a blow.We were on a relatively tight schedule and had already spent three days in San Pedro which was more than enough.But, with nothing to be done, we set about making the most our extended stay.I decided to rent a mountain bike for a few days and explore some of the nearby ruins while Janelle rested up.
The nearest was called Pukara de Quitor, a 12th century collection of crumbling adobe walls built on the slopes of the Cordillera de la Sal, about 3kms from town.It overlooks the San Pedro river, which in this climate isn`t much.Built by the native Atacameno who were mainly agriculturists, the site was a natural choice beside the river in a otherwise arid desert.I locked up my bike and clambered up the slopes to explore, which in this heat and altitude wasn`t easy.But the views of the river valley and of San Pedro itself were quite worth it.I followed another path up to the top of the site, leading up to a purpose built lookout whose summit was adorned by a large concrete crucifix, and surrounded by a courtyard with Inca type heads built into the walls.The view from here was even better; the faraway San Pedro river twinkling in the valley behind me while before me lay the vast dry desert in all its arid glory.The town looked like a genuine oasis surrounded on all sides by miles of rock and sand while towering above it was the local volcano of Lascar, all under an unbroken blue sky.It was quite something.
Another day I biked out to Catarpe, some Inca ruins about 12kms from town.This took only an hour but in the exhausting heat of the desert it was far enough.I had to cross a river to get there and was a bit disappointed by the quality of the site, which was just more crumbling stone walls.Being Inca I expected more, somehow.I only spent a short time there so on my return back i took a bit of a detour through Quebrada del Diablo (Devil`s Gorge), a well known biking track through a deep gorge.The guidebook recommends it as a mountain bikers`dream, and I was keen on trying some actual mountain biking.I had been given a rough map of the area by the rental agency but had somehow lost it at the ruins.But from what I could remember the track wasn`t too long.It started off well enough, though I didn`t pass a single other biker or tourist out this far from town, which was slightly worrying.I biked for an hour or so, on the hard gravel of the gorge`s floor, which at times gave way to frustratingly difficult sand.By this time my water was running a bit low and while there was plenty of shelter from the overhanging cliffs I was getting a little worried.I hadn`t anticipated it being this long but I figured it would come though the other side soon enough so I continued on.By this time the sides of the gorge had lowered considerably and I found myself on a wide flat plain covered in deep sand.Getting even more frustrated I dismounted and walked my bike through, encouraged by the ghosts of tracks made by earlier bikes.They must lead somewhere I reckoned.So I continued on up a steep hill, which when I crested led to more hills.I ran up a nearby slope leaving my bike in the dust to get a better view.By this time I had been in direct sun for over two hours, my lips were cracked and my mouth was dry.I started to get seriously worried.No one knew I was here.Janelle knew I was at some ruins but that was it.The detour had been a last minute decision.I was on my own, lost in the desert with little food and less water.There was nothing around me, no rivers, no lakes no waterfalls.Just sand and rock as far as I could see.And it was getting late, maybe 3 or 4 in the afternoon.I decided to climb the next hill and if I couldn`t see the end of the trail I would go back the way I came.So I climbed it and saw more of the same.Decision made, I walked back to the bike, drank a little water and started back.Once I`d cleared the impossible sandy section I mounted the bike and began pedalling.Funnily enough it was way easier than coming through as the gorge`s floor was sloped downhill somewhat and i managed to pick up speed and negotiate my way though the turns much faster.I made back to the start in less than an hour.Thank God!I pedalled back the ten or so km back to town and fell into the hostel, convinced I had heatstroke.Which I well might have.I rehydrated myself and covered myself in aftersun, swearing I`d never take unnecessary risks again.I read an article in a backpacker paper later that described an almost identical experience by some bikers who`d been told the gorge wasn`t too long and made the same mistake I did, except they continued on and made it back to the highway, although by this time it was well after dark.Little did I know that I`d soon be biking an even riskier track in Bolivia, but for the time being I`d had enough!
And so, after a few days of this we said goodbye to San Pedro.We`d stayed longer than expected or even needed to and were keen to move on.Janelle had properly acclimitised by this stage and we got picked up the next morning by the tour bus that would drive us to the Bolivian border and on to the strange wonders of the salt flats.We`d been in Chile not much more than a week but had enjoyed our stay here.Bolivia was our next stop and it promised to be very interesting.Here was one of the poorest countries in a continent of second world countries.A country of civil unrest, protests, continuous strikes and sometimes even violence.A country of high desert landscapes and low lying rainforest.A country where 95% of the roads are unpaved and driving by car is an actual health hazard.This promised to be the REAL South America and we were stoked.But first, we had deal with some of the highest landscapes we`d ever been to.And with Janelle`s recent brush with altitude sickness we were more than a little worried...