I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.Mary Anne Radmacher
Dec 22-29 2016
We headed north from Santiago to the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert. Quite the change from the coastal rainforest of Brazil a couple of weeks earlier, we were in for a week full of adventure.
Our plane touched down in Calama where we caught a shuttle and drove about an hour to San Pedro de Atacama, where we would be based for the next week including over the Christmas holiday. A small out post for travelers and centrally located to most of the deserts sites, San Pedro was like nothing we’d experienced before, houses made of adobe on narrow streets with restaurants and tour companies filling the small downtown. That night we partied with our AirBnb host and some of her friends and family, playing drinking Jenga and taking way too many shot of tequila.
We spent our first full day recovering and getting acclimated to the altitude (8,000 feet), I got the lay of the town while Maggie got some work done. We also set up some of the tours for the next week. First, we decided to rent a truck for the first couple of days to do some touring on our own.
The first destination was south of San Pedro, where we drove to the Salar de Atacama, a huge salt flat that dominated the landscape. Within the salt flat there was Laguna Chaxa, full of flamingos munching on brine shrimp. We’d seen flamingos before, but never in the wild and never in flight. It was pretty funny seeing the awkward birds soaring about. Afterwards, it was time to head to higher altitudes and visit the lagunas Altiplánicas. Here we were met with the deep blue waters of Laguna Miscanti and Miniques, beside the mountains bearing the same names. We then continued further down the road to the isolated Piedras Rojas, another salt flat, but devoid of much life. We decided to turn around and head back towards San Pedro as we weren’t sure how much gas exactly we needed had we continued, there are no gas stations for hundreds of miles at this point.
We decided to make a couple of stops on the way back. First was to Valle de Jere, a surprisingly lush place where a lot of the local food is grown. We did a small hike and found pictographs and caves carved into the valley walls. Next we drove a little further to Laguna Cejan and Ojo del Salar. Ojo del Salar was two perfect circles with deep natural spring water. Laguna Cejan was a beautiful smooth white salt flat where we watched the colors change as the sun set. It was Christmas Eve and so back in town we had a nice dinner and listened as a live band performed. It didn’t really feel like Christmas being in a desert, but it was still an experience I wouldn’t trade anything for.
After a long day of driving we decided to take it easier Christmas Day, and took a short trip north from San Pedro to the Termas Banos de Puritama, a set of 8 pools of thermal water that we could relax in. This was after our attempt to go horse back riding in the morning. About an hour into the ride my horse started bucking, I amazingly held on but decided it was best to cut the trip short and head back. It left me with quite the bruise on my leg, and thought if it happened again I could end up flying off the horse and into a canyon, not good. It made us appreciate the horse riding experience we had in Argentina that much more. After the thermal pools we drove through the scenic Catarpe Valley and pushed the truck over some pretty crazy terrain. We ended up at a long tunnel, blocked by a boulder, where we decided to turn around and head back into town. Glad the truck axles held together we definitely got our monies worth.
The next morning we returned our rental truck, then rested before the start of our first organized tour beginning in the evening. The first stop was a quick visit to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), where we stopped for a breathtaking view out across the jagged and lifeless landscape. Next we headed into the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), which was a pretty amazing place and lived up to it’s name. Supposedly it is the closest resemblance to the lunar landscape on earth, and where NASA and the European Space Agency test a lot of their equipment. The valley was full of unique rock formations, layers of crust shaped by the movement of the tectonic plates, and a huge sand dune. We went for a hike to the top of one of the hills to watch as the sunset over the desert.
The following day we were picked up in the morning for our next organized tour, to the high desert and Salar de Tara. We headed east from San Pedro, passing some of the many volcanoes in the area and less than a mile from Bolivia at certain points. We kept rising to an altitude of 16,000 feet before we left the paved road and headed straight out across the desert. After about an hour off road we arrived to the middle of the second largest caldera on earth (after Yellowstone), and witnessed an abundance of life thriving in a colorful lagoon, including flamingos, vicunas, and llamas. We had a great lunch and some wine prepared by the tour guide while taking it all in. We then slowly worked our way back, stopping at various points to look at some amazing rock formations and the wildlife in the area. It’s pretty neat that miles above sea level in a place so harsh to humans that nature was alive and well.
We saved the best for our last day, a night astronomy tours in some of the clearest skies on earth (due to the altitude and non existent humidity of the desert; the Atacama is home to the ALMA Observatory). I had never seen the Milky Way so vibrant to the naked eye before, and the millions of other stars set before me. Our guide, Jorge Corante (Atacama Desert Stargazing), was so passionate about sharing the night sky with us, started by giving us an hour and a half educational lecture on what we were observing, the difference between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies, and a history of astronomy. Following the lecture we had some snacks and hot drinks to warm up (the desert gets pretty cold at night) and then began taking turns looking through telescopes pointed at numerous objects in the sky (the two brightest stars visible from earth besides the sun, Sirius and Canopus; the Orion Nebula; the Magellanic Clouds; and more) with the highlight being Jupiter and seeing it’s colors so vividly, along with 4 of it’s 6 moons. It was something I’ll never forget even if my camera couldn’t capture it.
We got up the next day after a brief nap (the astronomy tour ended at about 5 in the morning), and headed back to Calama to catch our flight to Santiago and then a bus onward to Valparaiso where would be spending our last week in Chile.