Altiplano and The Valley of the Moon (San Pedro 2)

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Wednesday, 7/5/2006

After a fitful night's sleep (it was damned cold), I awoke at 6 a.m. for an all-day tour. I awoke coughing, my chest and lungs stinging, despite the fact that I'd gone to bed in long underwear, a sweater and a warm hat. I'd packed up the things I hadn't moved the night before and stepped outside to wait in the grey-blue morning for my ride. The bus, once again, came on time.

I was the first to be picked up, and took a front row seat. A family of four from Nevada that I had toured with the day before hopped in the van, and we greeted one another as best you can so early in the morning. At another hostel, the van picked up two Brazilians, who greeted everyone on the van with a quiet "bom dia."

In a sense, this trip is a story about my guides. In a way, by profiling them, you get a picture of what type of trip each was like. This morning, it was Eduardo, a man built to be a miner-small in stature but broad-shouldered. His hair was short-cropped and he wore aviator sunglasses. Eduardo said he was a native of Salvador, a mining town three or four hours south of Calama-home to a series of large copper mines, if not one gigantic one. His job was like his duty, and he did it well without overdoing it. He spoke in Spanish, and the information was detailed and complete-the Nevadan's younger daughter, who'd been teaching English in Santiago, translated for them, only asking me about vocabulary every so often.

The man at the tour office-a sleazy-looking Chilean who claimed to have lived in Chicago, with a long pony tail and Italian (bug-eyed) sunglasses-told me the tour would only be to a few lagoons up in the altiplano, but it turned out to be much more inclusive than I'd planned, and basically stopped at every major monument in the National Flamingo Reserve.

The first move was to strike out around the salt lake before cutting across toward a few large puddles of water surrounded by fifty square miles of sharp mounds of salt. The sun climbed up over the volcanoes of the northern Chilean Andes-Licancabur and Lascar the most notable; the ash from the latter's most recent eruption white like snow at the crest-but it was still freezing.

San Pedro sits in a closed basin, surrounded on all sides buy unbroken, linking mountain ranges. Every stream from the high country flows into it (mostly under the ground) and, thousands of years ago, there was a huge lake in the valley. But the water was heavy in minerals, which it scraped out of the mountainsides and carried downstream. As the climate changed, the lake slowly evaporated, leaving what you see today: a dusty, dry wasteland of salt, ringed by snow-capped volcanoes.

Walking toward the lakes, I struck up a conversation with the Brazilians, a literature professor and a housewife from São Paulo-and soon learned how out of practice my Portuguese was. After five or ten minutes, though, my Portuguese picked up and they were complimenting me. For most of the tour, I wasn't sure what language to speak in, though, and I probably looked like that pretentious show-off who thinks he can speak to everyone. Either way, I got my Portuguese practice for the last six months.

The biggest puddle is called Chaxa Lagoon, named for what ... I don't remember. It's probably a Kunza word that most tour guides would translate into a full sentence. But here, large groups of Chilean and Andean Flamingos (don't ask me the difference; I think one's pinker) grazed through the salty water for microorganisms, and took flight, loping through the sky, carrying a deep bow in their long necks. We walked around took some pictures, and did what tourists do: squint at the distant hills, remarking about the beauty and about the heat.

On the way up the hills toward the lakes, we stopped in a hamlet named Socaire, a town of approximately 0 residents, but as always, with a captivatingly interesting church. What made this one special and different from all the rest? The mud-brick bell tower was separated from the sanctuary: "a separation of the masculine and feminine" as our guide so vaguely, and perhaps tactfully, described it.

Chugging for oxygen, the van made its way up over 14,000 feet, to lagoons Miscanti and Miniques, the purpose of the trip. Coming over a ridge, the van stopped, and the larger of the two lakes, Miscanti, sat placidly before the peaks, reflecting their treeless, snow-streaked faces.

It's here that my new cold began to get to me, mixing the lack of air with my phlegmatic lungs. Huffing and puffing-and rubbing my stinging chest-I walked down to the lake and up the shoreline, over a ridge and to Miniques, intermittently stopping to take pictures, to breathe deeply and to admire the view. It's Funny, though, how even sickness hasn't kept me from appreciating the beauty of places like these, locked high in the lonely Andes.

Miscanti sat at between two inactive volcanoes, one rocky and snow-patched and the other shaded red, its iron soils oxidizing in the thin air. Miniques sat on the other side of that rusty hill (which was over 16,000 feet-tall), and small Andean gooses swam in the rippled water, lapping the shores as the wind picked up, and a smaller variety of grey bird hopped along the shore. The lakes' water emerged from underwater springs, and drained back into the Earth, out of sight. The shoreline was a soft white crust of salt that crunched underfoot.

After a lunch of bread, sausage, cheese and avocado, we headed downhill, napping as the driver made his way down the rugged trails and across the barren desert to Toconao. A funny little town with, yes, another church, the guidebooks raved about it as a way to see how the local Atacameño people lived: in quiet solitude, basking in the shade inside of their homes, built up of white volcanic rock, work of expert masonry.

What the guide book didn't say was that Toconao isn't interesting for more than 20 minutes, and just as I was getting bored, sitting on a park bench, chugging bottled water, the guide herded us into the van and headed back toward San Pedro.

Before leaving, we visited a steep-walled canyon, where the Spanish had planed apricot, peach and pear trees, much like they did in Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Rez in Arizona. A quiet, shady area, it was a good place to take a little rest before the hour drive back to town. Translated, it would be the Jere Gulch, and was the source of a white volcanic rock that the townspeople assembled into the walls of their homes, cool in the day, warm at night. My guidebook said that was the attraction of the trip-to see the locals' fine stonework. In the end, though, there's only so much masonry one can appreciate.

In town, the first stop was a pharmacy, where I bought some chewable tablets the guy inside said would ease the pain and would loosen up the phlegm in my chest. One every four hours. Funny thing, though, they're basically chewable codeine

At night, I met up with my friends, who'd become attached to the tour guide they'd traveled with that afternoon. A Canadian on the road for the last 20 years, Tomás (as he called himself, though he's really just a Tom) was working in San Pedro to save up a little cash. He showed us a cheap Bolivian restaurant, and we talked politics. As one would expect from an ex-pat of two decades, his opinions had become somewhat radicalized, but the conversation was lively enough. And the restaurant was a real find. On Caracoles, San Pedro's main street, you can't get a meal for under $9, lunch or dinner. For the price of one meal down there, we fed almost everyone on traditional food: not terribly inventive, but certainly filling.

My friends raved about the tour, and about Tomás as a guide. Afterward, another friend from Santiago arrived, after 25 hours in a bus. Haggard, hungry and a little claustrophobic, we pointed Fitz toward a restaurant. Fitz was the poor soul Ben, Josh and I lugged up the coast of Chiloé almost four months earlier. Ever since, he's been all over the country on busses.

After some hot chocolate, we all settled back into the hotel for sleep. The room was warmer, with six bodies and thicker walls. Someone suggested I sleep in my sleeping bag, because it would be warmer than the hostel beds-brilliant.

Thursday, 7/6/2006

Savoring my first good night's sleep in a few days, I stayed in bed until about 9 a.m., took a shower and headed into town. The cold in my chest had begun to break up, and I wandered the streets, looking for breakfast and contemplating the day's possibilities. Originally, I'd planned to rent a bike and a "sand board" and to head out to some local sand dunes. Relaxing seemed a better idea, and after an omelets and some Coca tea, I arranged a tour for the afternoon to the Valley of the Moon, the area's most popular tourist site. In a sense, my day began at 3 p.m., with that tour.

Having come a day before my friends, it took us a while to get on the same page, as Sarah and Katie went up to the lagoons I'd visited the day before. Mark's sister was having some issues with the altitude-she was visiting him from sea-level Washington DC, so the effects of San Pedro's height were really no surprise, since she'd had only two plane flights-worth of time to acclimate.

Interestingly enough, my guide to Moon Valley was Tomás, whom we'd dined with the night before. He was a tall, lanky fellow, with a strange right arm, which he kept continually in his pocket. The story behind the disability was a pink elephant we never pointed out, though we'd extracted his stories about traveling Iraq and Israel in the late 80s on a motorbike, and tips like "In Peru, always put your phone number in your wallet, because thieves like to return them for large tips-because they know how hard it is for you to replace all those identity cards."

Tom and I exchanged some friendly words, and I boarded the van. Eighty percent of the passengers were Brazilian, and I considered striking up conversation, but my shyness stopped me-speaking Portuguese to two people the day before was overwhelming enough, and 12 was going to be a stretch. So, I sat down as the van struck across the desert to make its first stops, staring out the window at the scenery and eavesdropping on my neighbors' conversations.

Five seconds outside of town, the van darted off road and began climbing a rocky hillside, to a scenic overlook marked with a huge cross, dedicated to the late J.P. II. Tomás gave a short explanation in broken Spanish to the Brazilians, who refused to try and speak Spanish when asking him questions. Brazilians and "hispanohablantes," it seems, love to travel to one another's countries, and to speak to one another in highly idiomatic language, supposing all the while that they are perfectly understood.

Tom grouped the four or five English speakers together and gave a detailed, interesting explanation of the geology of the area-speaking about wind, sand and water erosion, the lifting of the local sedimentary rocks, etc-a lecture that far outdid its Spanish translation. The view was of the "dinosaur backs," named as such for their supposed resemblance to, perhaps, a stegosaurus.

Boarding the van again, we went to another overlook, this time of the salt lake. If I've called it a "Salt Flat" before, I was wrong. Salt flats, apparently, are naturally occurring deposits of salt, not the result of an evaporated lake. San Pedro's is the second largest "salt lake" in the world, trailing the "great" one in Utah. Tour buses converged on the spot, and large groups of tourists grouped together for photos on juts of rock that, unbeknownst to them, were rather precarious points.

No one fell though, and we moved on to el Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), the next stop in this tour of scenic overlooks, where the group looked out on a barren stretch of hilly, highly eroded land. A road led down the left side of the valley to a steep, tall sand dune that I would come to know better the next day, on a sandboard, with a sleazy Uruguayan named Emilio. Overlooking the valley, sitting high up on the edge of the plains, was Lincancabur the giant, hazy-grey, conical volcano that watches over the entire basin.

When the photo-op was over, we moved on to the place everyone had paid to see, El Valle de la Luna, 20 km west of town, down paved highway and dirt road. Stopping the tour once more, perhaps to justify the cost, our guide led us into some salt caves a few miles short of Moon Valley, named for its assume resemblance to the surface of Earth's largest satellite. One of the Brazilians claimed to have problems with the dark, and our guide had only two flashlights to divide up between the twenty tourists. By my estimation, it was simply a diversion, in which those who had never experienced a cave could do "Spelunking" wandering around in partial darkness with sure footing for approximately five minutes. I was near the end of the group, and I heard the two Germans behind me begin to make out when the lights dimmed. Giggles. I looked ahead, as ready to get out of the cave as that afraid-of-the-dark Brazilian.

The most interesting part of the caves was the entrance, a tiny canyon of soft sedimentary rock. Approximately six months earlier, heavy rains hit San Pedro, dumping the equivalent of a high-year's total rainfall (just an inch and a half) in a day. In such a fragile climate, though, that bit of rain had extensive consequences, and in the rock, little rutted streaks broke up the once smooth rock, leaving a trace of each individual raindrop's path. And that rain leached salt out of the rock and brought it to the surface, crusting the brown and red sediments with white crystals.

After pulling a few overweight Brazilians up and out of the cave and lugging them back to the van, we drove, once and for all, to the Moon Valley (one of the ladies was more concerned with getting pictures of herself scrambling up the rocks than with actually making it out alive).

We were running behind and, once there, I trudged up the side of a large sand dune, almost symmetrical in shape, with a few footprints down the sides ($80 fine for the offenders, because the wind is very slow to cover them). Once there, Tomás directed me toward the best overlook, where I would get a clear view of the setting of the sun in front and of the changing colors of the Andes' at my back. I crossed the top of the sand dune, and Tomás led everyone else out onto a rocky point (the easier of the two hikes, he said). Winded after jogging across sand at high altitude to make it in time for the sunset, I sat down on the ridge, lined with other tourists who'd made it there first. As the darkness came, and the cold with it, you could hear the soft crackling of the contracting stone hills.

I began snapping pictures like it was my job, though half of them had to be deleted later to make space on my memory card for later trips (they were all of the same thing, anyhow, and most of them didn't come out as planned). The bright whites and oranges of the rocks ahead reflected the dusk's intense sunlight, while the Andes' volcanic ash, ten or twenty miles behind me, melted into blues, purples and reds. Everyone atop the ridge stayed quiet, absorbing it. I overstayed the half hour Tomás had given me, and returned last to the van, after plodding down the sand dune, following a few Aussies and Kiwis who jokingly bashed one another's homes, as far away from them as they were. The dusk was still blending into darkness.

Dinner. Conversations. Bed.
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