The Chilean Desert: A Few Days in San Pedro de Atacama
Days 311-316 (June 4-9, 2017):
We said goodbye to Chile’s beautiful, bustling capital and headed north to get back to nature. We were headed for the Atacama Desert. We had head amazing things about the diverse landscapes there and were excited to get the chance to see another side of this awesome country. To get there, however, is quite a journey. We took an almost 24-hour bus ride out to the city of Calama on the edge of the desert. We had arranged to rent a car there and drive the rest of the way to the small town of San Pedro de Atacama in the heart of the desert. After some initial research, we decided a car was the best move since if we wanted to see the sites in the desert we would either have to drive to them or visit them as part of an organized tour. The car would not only save us a little money (in theory…..more to follow) and allow us the freedom to see exactly what we wanted, when we wanted. So, weary from the long drive we got in our rental car and took off for our next adventure.
Our first day, we decided not to do much aside from check into our Airbnb and get our bearings. We met our host, who was very personable and eager to help us plan our time in Atacama. He gave us a map, showed us popular routes, and even made some good suggestions for things to do when our original plans fell through. For example, while we had intended to go hiking on one of the volcanoes (this area in infamous for its volcanoes) and see a couple of alpine lakes, he explained how the time of year would likely make it impossible given the high elevation. It was a good thing, too, because we likely would have tried to reach those places and found the roads impassable. So, he told us about the salt flats there, which were previously unknown to us, and we penciled them into our itinerary. That night we also visited several grocery stores – I say several because after we went to the one he pointed out as the “large” one, we weren’t sure we were in the correct place – and got accustomed to the town.
The next day we were well-rested and ready to explore. And our day was jam-packed. We started with a drive out to the Salar de Atacama. It is the main salt flats in the area and is included as part of Los Flamencos National Reserve. We got there early, before any tours had arrived and took our time in solitude to enjoy the sight of the flamingos in their natural habitat. There were very few visible from the lookout points given that we were told many had migrated by this time, but we got a good view of a couple feasting on the small pink plankton in the lagoons. We spent a bit more time there, wandering the paths carved through the salt landscape. Adam even posed for his first country music album shot there before we continued on. Next we journeyed to the Lagunas Baltinache, known as the hidden lagoons. They are a series of seven pools filled with salt and other minerals. We walked past all of them, admiring their crazy colors, crystal clear waters, and unique surroundings. When we got to the last and biggest pool, we stripped down to our bathing suits for a swim. You are allowed to swim in the first and the last lagoon here. The water has an EXTREMELY high salt content similar to the Dead Sea. It is so high, in fact, that when you get in it, you float around like a cork. It is even impossible for you go submerge yourself because the water pushes you back to the surface before your head goes under. This was an experience we did not want to miss despite the fact that the air temperature was hovering just below sixty degrees and the water temperature was even lower. Braving the frigid waters, we bobbed around in the back before moving to the pool in the front to complete our swims. Adam, as we had previously learned on this trip, is absolutely not a fan of cold water (especially when it threatens to breech his “nipple line”) and opted to sit it out this time. Once we exited the pools, we tried to clean off a bit as the salt left visible white marks on your skin making it feel tight and sticky. Once clean(ish), made for our final destination, the Valle de la Muerte, or the Valley of Death. It is an area of the desert said to resemble the surface of Mars, with jagged red rock canyons and large sand dunes. We drove into the valley, stopping to play around on the untouched sand, making sand angels and climbing up the surrounding rock face. We took the car in about as far as we could go and then hoofed it the rest of the way up a sandy path where we climbed up to the ridgeline. From the top we had a spectacular view of the whole valley, and we stood in awe of the jagged rock formations and patterns in the landscape. We stayed there for a long while before hiking down and heading back to the Airbnb. We feasted on chicken patty sandwiches and zucchini for dinner before crawling into bed for the night.
The next day, we had planned to go to the Geyser del Tatio and the Puritama Hot Springs. However, we were thwarted by a freak storm. The Atacama Desert rarely sees any rain or other precipitation, with some places getting rain once every 15 years and an average of zero inches of rain for June and July. So, let me tell you it came as a big surprise to everyone. At first, we tried not to be deterred by such weather, and set out in the car as planned. However, within 20 minutes, we were force3d to turn back due to heavy snows causing road closures. Yes, I said snows. We returned to town to find it in an equally chaotic state. The locals did not seem to know how to react to the weather, shutting down their shops and restaurants as the rain caused the dirt roads to turn to a thick, slippery mud. Needless to say, we found ourselve3s trapped in our Airbnb that day without much to do. So, we had a few drinks, did some more travel research, and binge-watched Netflix. What else are you to do when stuck in such a situation?
The storm passed and we tried to resume our activities the next day. The roads to the geysers and hot springs remained impassible, so we instead decided to try and stay a little closer to town. Our first stop was the Pukara de Quitor, the archeological site of a 12th century pre-Columbian fortress built into the side of a large hill. We explored the ruins and then hiked to the top of the neighboring hill. At the top we enjoyed sweeping views of the desert and the surrounding volcanoes that made up Chile’s northern border. We stayed at the top a while, taking pictures and imitating the faces of the monument before hiking down and continuing on to our next site. Well, this is where things once again got a bit dicey. I was driving and we were on our way to another lagoon nearby (I would tell you which one but I honestly cannot remember at this point) when we had an accident. The road to the lagoon was in extremely poor shape as a result of the recent rain, making it very difficult to navigate in a two-wheel drive Hyundai Tucson. Well, a couple of miles down the road, I lost control of the vehicle and had the world’s slowest motion wreck into a salt rock wall bordering the road. We slid up over the 18-inch wall and got lodged on top of it. In the thick mud, we attempted to free ourselves (although Adam remained remarkably clean during this endeavor somehow), but to no avail. Eventually, we wrangled a group of seven cyclists to help us lift the car off the wall and get it back onto the road. From there, we carefully drove back down the road the way we came, abandoning our plan to see the lagoon. We returned to our Airbnb and the boys spent some time cleaning and fixing up the car (which now had a bent frame). Plans of visiting the Valle de la Luna now in ruins, we settled for finding a place near town to watch the sunset. While we found it to be a bit of a letdown, I saw the most spectacular moon-rise of my life that night. We watched an absolutely enormous full moon rise over the northern volcanoes and light up the sky. It was so bright, in fact, that when we ventured out later for some star-gazing, we were unable to see a thing. Despite driving for over 20 minutes into the desert, away from any civilization or electricity, the light from the moon was so strong we were casting shadows onto the desert floor. We had to laugh, for our luck seemed right in line with this strange place.
Later that night, we decided to celebrate a bit. Like it or not, our trip was nearing its final stages as we inched closer to the United States. Our friend Smo was joining us for the next month of our travels and this would be the last night the Temporary Nomads spent alone together as a quartet. So, we decided to get a couple bottles of cheap local booze and play our favorite game – euchre. We faced off one last time and reminisced about the amazing things we had done thus far together. Adam and I packed up early the next morning and got back on the bus bound for Santiago. We were the welcoming committee for Smo in Santiago and would give her first taste of South America. So, we spent the next 24 hours watching movies and sleeping on the long, bumpy journey back.