Out into the Atacama Desert

Trip Start Feb 09, 2010
Trip End Jan 22, 2011

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Hostel Cabour

Flag of Chile  ,
Saturday, April 3, 2010

San Pedro de Atacama is a lovely little town in northern Chile which people visit for the variety of different activities such as sandboarding, star gazing and to depart on a trip across the Atacama Desert and into the famous Salt Flats of Bolivia.

The journey from Salta took about 10 hours and was most definitely the most scenic we've been on so far. Obviously as we've been travelling through the Andes up to now that's a pretty big statement but the landscape was simply fantastic - one minute huge mountains and the next green forests. It definitely was a trip for looking out the window...so of course when they put on a movie I didn't think I'd bother watching it. Until, that is, the film in question turned out to be Invictus - a film about rugby which I'd seen the weekend before leaving. I hadn't enjoyed it that much the first time but I couldn't NOT watch a film about rugby! I actually felt quite sad by the end of the film as it made me realise just how much I miss playing, watching and being part of rugby. I miss everyone at Quins lots and that together-feeling you get being part of such a tight-knit group. Never mind though - give me 10 months and I'll be back with a bang, complaining about how I'm not in South America anymore!

We arrived at the Argentinian border which was at a much higher altitude than anywhere else we'd been. David and I didn't feel the effects too much but Scott got quite dizzy, rushed to the front of the immigration queue and given a dose of oxygen - needless to say he felt much better after that! Whilst the Argentinians seem quite efficient at borders, the Chileans are much more thorough and so it takes a lot longer to get through, having your bags checked etc. The 'border' into Chile is on the edge of San Pedro which felt quite strange as we were officially stamped out of Argentina about two hours before we officially were stamped into Chile - so where had we been in the meantime?! Who knows! Anyway, after getting our bags scanned and filling in forms, instead of getting back on the bus as usual we were told to take our bags and walk into the town.....right. We had no idea where we were going so just followed the other backpackers til we got to the town centre and eventually found our way to the hostel we'd booked, after asking lots of people about where this road or that road was! The view from the road the hostel was on was amazing and looked like a fake backdrop instead of actually real - looking out over the red, sandy, dry mountains and extinct volcanoes. The hostel itself was incredibly relaxed and made all of stone - so a bit different to the places we had stayed at before. The owner, Philippe, was incredibly relaxed and when it turned out that the 8-bed dorm room we'd booked for $6000CH a night (7.36) was full, we were shown into a reception area with one big bed and two bunks in and stayed there instead! It was quite strange but nice - and definitely a bargain as accomodation in Chile is notoriously expensive. To be honest, we probably could have got away without paying as in the end we had to remind Philippe we hadn't paid and settled up....but we're not like that!

San Pedro itself is a sandy little town which doesn't really have too much going on apart from the tourist draw - with most people going there for the Salt Flats tours as I mentioned earlier. That was our main reason for going and orginally we planned on staying for two nights but we actually ended up staying for three. We thought there would be very little to do in the dusty town which takes all of 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other but actually we found ourselves quite happily entertained for two full days.

The first day we spent looking around at different Salt Flats tours - trying to find the best 3 days for the best price. It's quite difficult when shopping around because, to be honest, all of the tours sound exactly the same and go to the same places so it's just the little things which make the difference - those being the food and accomodation. Maybe not so 'little' after all. We had a talk from one company called Atacama Mystica which was very salesy (asking us questions, getting us involved, building the value...I know all the tricks of the trade!) and we were going to sign up with them but thought it would be a good idea to have a look around. When we were in one of the tour offices, three guys came in who were also looking so we listened to their spiel together before having a quick chat and going our seperate ways to look for the best deal. As we were walking off, we decided that it'd probably be better shopping around in a group, plus the three guys seemed really nice and we'd already discussed how having a good group of people was a MUST for the trip though, of course, not something you can always control! This would be a good way of ensuring we had nice people and got a good price so we walked back to where we'd said goodbye and the three guys (who we later learned were called Tony, Simon and Stephen - an American, Brit and Dutch guy all travelling independently) were now in the same shop we'd had the sales presentation in before. They came out to find us waiting for them and had in the meantime met a Dutch couple so we were soon a group of 8 hunting the best deal! Tony had heard that Colque tours were good as he had a friend who had enjoyed his tour with them so we went to their offices and managed to barter down the price to $50,000CH, which is about 61 so not too bad for three days and two nights! We arranged to leave on the Monday so that gave us another extra day in San Pedro.

That evening we went sandboarding which was arranged through the hostel. Well 'arranged' might be stretching it somewhat, more the hostel owner got his mate to take us out to the sand dunes with a sandboard each. Being in the middle of the desert at night was a great experience - because there was hardly any light the rocky landscape was really eery and seemed to be only black and white so it made it feel like we were on the moon, especially as there was no one else around! The guy who took us out parked the car, handed us our sandboards and then started marching up a not-particularly-high sand dune. BOY was that hard work! It must have been to do with the altitude, or else I've got incredibly unfit over the past 8 weeks but I was huffing and puffing like anything when I finally reached the top - never been so out of breath! After about 5 minutes recovering and looking at the FANTASTIC night sky (more on this later), our 'instructor' lit up a spliff, put on his sandboard, told us to lean back when going down then shot down the dune himself....well, sort of fell his way down. Very reassuring. So we were stood at the top without even being shown how to put the boards on properly! We figured it out and were pretty daunted at the prospect of boarding down into the pitch black darkness, knowing that there were big boulders at the bottom we could go crashing into! I didn't need to worry about the boarding bit as it turned out I was completely crap and both times I went down I basically stacked it all the way down and was useless to say the least. Oh well - it was fun to give it a go! On the way back the guy took us to a place called Moon Valley which is apparently stunning during the day - we couldn't see much at night but, again, it was really strange to see fantastic landscape by moonlight....especially as it was called Moon Valley and looked exactly as I'd imagine the Moon would!

The other activity we did whilst in San Pedro was the star gazing tour. Originally when we thought we would only be staying two nights we weren't able to book ourselves onto the trip as it's so popular but when we decided to stay one more night we made sure our names were first on the list. It was quite an expensive thing to do but most definitely worth it because all of us really enjoyed the evening and learnt a lot about the night sky - like how you can tell where the South Pole is using the Southern Cross and just HOW far away all those stars we see at night are. The answer to the latter: pretty damn far away! We got to look through some strong telescopes at different objects in the sky, one of which was Saturn and you could actually see the rings which was pretty fantastic! We looked at other things but I can't remember what exactly they were now - actually, one was a cluster of stars called the Jewel Box which shimmered different colours. It was crazy looking so closely because it looked alive with light. Another thing we all noticed when looking through the telescopes was just HOW many stars there are up there - around the object each telescope was focussed on were just more stars than you could ever imagine! It was mind-boggling! After looking at the sky, we were taken inside and given hot chocolate and treated to a Q&A session. One of the inevitable questions was 'is there life out there?' to which the guide replied that he thinks so but as yet there is no evidence. A question about life on Mars followed as marks in the landscape which look like flowing water have been found up there but the guide said, again, no hard evidence has been found to confirm life in the red planet. One thing he did say though is that if you dropped a probe similar to the ones on Mars in the middle of the Atacama desert then it would report back to it's superiors that Earth is not capable of life because it is so dry and arid....now there's something to think about!
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Mum xxx on

We've had Prof Brian Cox telling us all about the wonders of the solar system on tv for the past few weeks. Pleased to hear you've had your own version! Great post, Zo. Been missing your calls xxx

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