In the Atacama Desert

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Monday, April 3, 2006

We leave Iquique on the 0830 bus (tickets for 5,000 Pesos or GBP5.00) to Calama. The Tur-Bus terminal is in a large airy restored building with a reconditioned Ford Model-T on display.

The bus heads southbound on Highway 1 which runs on the raised beach sandwiched between a never-ending brown escarpment and the Pacific. Our seats at the front of the bus allow us to enjoy the view of one of the most stunning roads I´ve ever travelled. On the right I see giant waves rearing up and crashing down on a rocky shore. On the left the steep cliffs are so tall that they make the road traffic look like insignificant insects crawling along the desert floor.

We pass small seaside shanty towns where there are tiny corrugated iron cabins on the dusty arid raised beach. I can´t imagine how people eke out a living here on this desolate coastline.

We reach a dirty town of Tocopilla where the road turns inward and upwards as we head into the Atacama Desert towards Calama. We arrive in Calama in the early afternoon and I go to the railway station to see if I can buy train tickets for Uyuni, Bolivia for the once weekly train that leaves on Wednesdays. Its Sunday, and the train station is closed and there is nowhere else to buy the tickets. Knowing its a 24hr journey leaving at 11pm at night I decide we will abandon our plans and find an alternative way to Bolivia.

Late in the afternoon we board another bus to San Pedro de Atacama (1,300 Pesos or about GBP1.30 each). This small town has become a focal point for touring the the driest place on earth - the Atacama Desert. We´ve also heard its location in the mountains is a relaxing place with an appealing slow pace of life.

We arrive at dusk on the outskirts of the town, and as usual we haven't a clue where we are. Mama Tierra Hostel is recommended a little booklet we picked up in Chile called 'Hostels for Backpackers in Chile' (it seems that lonely Planet is a lost cause as far as helping the traveller find good accomodation in Chile) and we ask a local man where it is. He kneels down in the dusty road and sketches a map and so helps us head off in the right direction. Five minutes later he drives past in his pickup and offers us a lift. Its a nice start in a new town when the locals are so friendly and helpful.

Mama Tierra hostel is a cluster of new adobe buildings around a cozy little courtyard strung with hammocks and lit by Moroccan lamps. Claudia shows us a double room for 10,000 Pesos (about GBP10.00) per person per night and a dorm room for 5,000 Pesos (about GBP5.00). We take the dorm room as we have the room to ourselves and its just as nice as the double room (and yes... we're also on a budget).

We find that the water in San Pedro is not ideal for drinking since it contains high levels of salts and arsenic. Fortunately 5 litres of mineral water only costs 800 pesos (about GBP0.80) from the shop next door. The hostel has a handy little kitchen and Rachel cooks up a tasty little dinner for us both.

Next day we carry out some research on possible trips leaving from San Pedro and winding up in Uyuni, Bolivia. We find the local tourist information, where there is book of tourist comments about the different tour operators providing tours through the area. The man in the tourist information summarises as follows: one company lots of good comments; second company mixed very bad (e.g. drunk drivers) and good comments; third company a few bad comments; and fourth company no comments. We book up with the low risk option, the first company, ´Estrella del Sur´ to leave in two days time. The price for the three days including all transportation and food is 45,000 Pesos (about GBP45.00) each. You'll have to read the next entry to see how we get on!

The town of San Pedro de Atacama, despite having lots of tourists is still very beautiful and peaceful. The central Plaza de Armas is surrounded by crumbling whitewashed adobe houses. There are some shady trees and lots of places to sit down out of the burning sun. Even in the heat of the day it doesn´t feel too hot once I sit in the shade. The local stray dogs are friendly and come over one after the other to say hello. Iglisia san Pedro has the usual adobe walls and a timber roof coated in brown mud. It looks as though it would leak like a sieve were it ever to rain.

The streets are very dusty because it never rains here in the Atacama - unless you want to call 25mm per year significant. In some parts of the Atacama it never rains at all.
In the mornings, the streets of San Pedro de Atacama are wetted by a water truck to prevent the dust becoming too much of a problem during the day.

In the past people managed to get their water from the underground rivers, originating in the high Andean peaks, that emerge as springs into the large empty salar (salt lake) just to the south of the town. There are trees and signs of green here in an otherwise completely stark landscape. The vast salar has no outflow of water and hence the salts from the evaporated water are concentrated in the ground making it extremely infertile. The crystallised salt in the Salar also lacks the element iodine and so although it tastes 'salty' its composition is not as healthy as sea salt. In times past this lack of iodine in the salt caused peoples teeth to fall out in middle age.

In the afternoon we take a 5,000 Peso (about GBP5.00) tour with a Dutch owned company to see Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an expanse of folded and uplifted ancient sea-bed to the north of the town. The effects of water and wind erosion have left a series of strange rock formations and a desolate landscape that give rise to its name.

We join a big group of about twenty at the office and jump on to a new minibus that drives the short distance out of town to a rocky prominatory where we have a great view over the land. We can see the shimmering salar de Atacama stretching out on to the horizon, the high volcanoes of the Andes to our left, and everywhere else the twisted and warped brown landscape that is Valle de la Luna. Our guide Marcella, well built with pouting thick lips (perhaps from talking too much), gives us a pretty good overview of the geology of the area in English. As we are standing there, Rachel is convinced that a single drop of rain falls on her from a passing cloud.

The bus drops us off at 'death valley', so named because of the absence of flora and fauna. We walk down a sandy path gazing at the rocks. There are transparent crystals of gypsum (hydrated calcium sulphate) sticking out of ground everywhere, yellow rocks that smell of sulphur, and smooth olive green volcanic rocks. Its very dry here, the humidity is less than 15%RH, which brings on a thirst rapidly when walking.

I'm glad the walk is downhill. The bus picks us up and takes us into the National Park area (1,500 pesos or GBP1.50), and we walk down along another path through an area known as the 'Caves of Salt'. Brown rocks are topped with crystals of salt that look like a light sprinkling of white snow. Looking closely at the brown rocks I can see that most of it is composed of gypsum. I rub spittal on to a small area of rock and create a transparent window that allows me to peer inside the stone.

We drive up to a large sand dune where we walk up a sandy path, across the top of the dune, and up a rocky hill to watch the sunset. From the vista we watch the sun set unspectacularly at twenty past six. Then, as we're walking back down we suddenly realise the real spectacle has begun. As the sky takes on a crimson afterglow, the rocks themselves seem to light up with an internal amber luminescence. The glow becomes more pronounced as the colour in the sky fades and it seems like the rocks are on fire. As a quartermoon becomes bright in the sky, I realise this is why this place is called Valley of the Moon.

Back at the hostel Rachel cooks up another great pasta dinner, and we meet some French travellers. Julien is a cook and spends half his time time travelling and the other half working as a chef. We also meet two English couples who have just returned from Bolivia on the same tour as we have booked. They tell us wonderful reports of the trip which makes us feel happy.

The next day we visit the museum in town which has a huge collection of pre-columbian artifacts. The museum was founded by a Belgian Jesuit priest, Gustavo Le Paige, who carried out archeological work in the area starting in the 1950's. There are three dessicated mummies that I spend a long time looking at. One is folded inside an earthenware urn. One is crouched and wrapped in a woollen garment. Apparently the other one is called 'Miss Chile'. The corpses speak of a harsh existence in a barren land.

There are a large number of ornate ceramic vessels that are used for imbibing and smoking hallucogenic substances. It seems that this formed an important aspect of society. It makes me want to experience their ancient rituals that we know nothing of now.

Although there are more complex explanations I work out in my head that there are four main periods in the history of the people in the Atacama area. The early period started 11,000 years ago (the date for evidence of human existance) and was a period of hunting-gathering where the people followed the migrating camelids (eg llamas and viscunas) which were their main source of food. The second period was when the people domesticated llamas and learned to grow basic crops. This period allowed a partially sedentary existance and a hierarchy of power in society developed. The third period was when the Inka empire from modern day Peru exerted its influence and religion over the region. The Inka empire collapsed only briefly before the Spanish arrived - the fourth period. As you read this you'll probably realise that its good that I am an engineer and not a historian.

After all that history, and an overdose of stone flintwork, we enjoy a big lunch in Todo Natural. I negotiate with the tout on the door to throw in two Pisco Sours with the 4,000 Peso (about GBP4.00) menu de dia. Rachel is full after eating the brocolli soup starter. The salmon main course is tasty, and the desert of cream cake is yummy. After all that food, there's only one thing that we can think of - hammocks in the shady hostel courtyard. Afterall we have to take it easy before heading off on the big Bolivian expedition.
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