It's on America's tortured brow ...
Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
48Trip End Jun 01, 2012
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Now the workers have stuck for fame,
cause Lennon's on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
So the end of the Saga holiday – Libby, John, Mary and I were on a flight at 5.25am from Punta Arenas to Santiago. Libby was getting very stressed at check-in because we hadn’t arrived 16 hours before the flight. Were we going to make it? This was a very tiny airport with only 3 gates (it was harldly Heathrow)– of course we were. I came very close to punching her lights out (never actually punched anyone, let alone managing the lights out bit), but Mary managed to restrain me
I was off to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. The reason I was heading here was because it was the last place on my list that I hadn’t been to yet in Chile and Argentina that my friend Tracy had emailed me a few months before – places she and Paul had been on their honeymoon - so who was I to argue. My original plan was to fly to Salta in northern Argentina and then do a mini-trip to San Pedro (it’s not far across the border), but as it turns out my last minute change of plan worked far better
So I finally boarded my flight to Calama, which is the nearest town to San Pedro that you can fly to from Santiago. At this stage I got a bit scared and very homesick. I had to say goodbye to Mary who was off back to the UK (turns out she finally gave Libby the slip in the toilets in Madrid airport). I was heading off into the unknown and this was when it was going to get a bit more real. Now I know I have been travelling for 3 months now, but this was the first time I was really going to be by myself for a while (until I was meeting up with Jim in Rio in the middle of February). The rest of the trip I had either been with a group or with Helen, except for a few days in Quito, Sao Paulo and Iguasu. And here I was about to board a flight to take me to the middle of the Atacama desert, I still barely spoke any Spanish (I have now progressed from ordering wine, beer, and water onto coffees as well). This was the real deal now. This was what it was all about – me travelling alone and finding myself and on the way finding myself a bit I hoped. Part of me just wanted to turn around and get the Iberia flight to Madrid (I was that desperate I was even willing to fly for 13 hours on that hell hole of an airline). But I took a deep breath and headed off onto the flight
As we came into land it all became even more real – yes I was actually in the middle of the desert, and I wasn’t too sure how i was going to get to San Pedro de Atacama where I needed to be. Seriously Liz what were you thinking – plonking yourself in the middle of the driest desert in the world by yourself. However, when I arrived I found a desk selling transfers and I got myself a ticket. Then I had a nervous few minutes waiting for my bag at the reclaim (is it just me who gets really nervous at this point – will my bag appear? I get really nervous when it’s been checked through on a connection. Mine was one of the last bags through – I was so excited to see the big red fella – it’s now 24.2 kilos).
So got myself into another minibus (as if I hadn’t spent enough time in one over the last 24 hours !), well it wasn’t just any minibus – that would be just silly, it was the one that would transfer me to San Pedro de Atacama. Anyway put the ipod on and the Spice Girls, 'Say You’ll Be There’ (Yes I know – but after my experience with Pink Floyd I have well and truly returned to my usual cheesy dross – sometimes in this life you just got to stick with what you know and what is safe). Anyway the point – the landscape around me was just like the video to the song (take a look on youtube – just like that).
So after an hour we arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama – or actually it’s more of a village. It’s very different to anywhere I have been before. The Lonely Planet describes it as an adobe precordillera (had no idea on that one either – apparently it’s is a Spanish geographical term for hills and mountains lying before a greater range
So I arrived at the Iquisa hostel, which is 10mins walk from the centre. It’s run by a lovely native (their description) family. No idea what the mother is saying but the son Roberto speaks a bit of English. Had to try to get over the fact that this hostel is probably the worst I’ve ever stayed in (no actually that one in Zakopane in Poland wins hands down). Am in a room with a big fat Brazilian guy, a lovely German guy and a German girl who only pops into sleep (no idea where her stuff is).
My first task on arrival was to organise leaving (but you’ve only just arrived!). It was Saturday and the plan was to leave on Thursday. I thought that I would be super organised and book my bus ticket to Salta, across the border in Argentina, for a few days time. The first bus company pretty much laughed at me and informed me the first bus with a free seat was for a week on Monday (6th Feb)
So I awoke early, due to the Brazilian guy I was sharing with taking part in this desert run called the Mountain Do. You can either run a 5k, a 23k or a 42k – in the desert in 30 degrees heat. It started at 7 am. I think it’s mostly Brazilians running. I was pretty surprised he was runnning – he doesn’t look like he could run for a bus, let alone do 23k in the very hot desert, he was hardly James Cracknell (James did the Marathon des Sables). Anyway he snored most of the night and kept me and the lovely German guy awake (think his name was Mattheus)– we did have a chat in the hope we would be so loud it would wake him but so such joy.
So onto the next day and suffering a bit from the lack of sleep and it was now exactly 3 months since I flew out and it was all starting to hit
I was also feeling a bit jaded – it took me a few hours to work out why but then I suddenly remembed that San Pedro de Atacama was at an altitude of 2400m.I used the day to have a look around some of the shops and book myself onto some tours
The El Tatio geysers are only 94km away (close to the Bolivian border) but they are at an altitude of 4300m, The road is appalling, with countless turns and a washboard surface guaranteed to rearrange your internal organs. We arrived just before dawn and it was freezing cold. So with over 80 active geysers, El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest field in the world. Some websites say it’s the highese geyser field in the world but apparently there are others that are higher. Surrounding the field are volcanoes – the most famous being El Tatio.
So we arrive at the edge of the geothermic field, a breathtaking Dante's Inferno of more than 100 puffing, steaming and spewing geysers. Underneath the field is a subterranen river which provides the water. This water is heated by magma a few hundred meters below the surface. The water here boils at only 85°C because we are altitude.We carefully make our way over the mineral-encrusted earth for a closer look. The geysers erupt from holes as small as a bathroom sink drain, to yawning cavities as large as a manhole in a city street
On my return to the hostel (now 12.30pm) found that all of my new Dutch hostel-mates had just got up !! So I got onto the internet and found a lovely eco-lodge with jacuzzi’s and probably no stupid Dutch teenagers. I was very close to clicking the button to make a reservation (I could hear Helen screaming do it !! Just book it) but I couldn’t bring myself to spend £100 for one night. Surely tonight I would get some sleep. A couple of hours later a couple of Australian girls (girls? They are 32) arrived, having had a nightmare journey from Bolivia, they were tired and hungry and just wanted a shower
So actually me not booking that eco-lodge worked out for the best, because if I had booked in there I wouldn't have met Bree and Elissa. This is the one thing that I really love about travelling. It's the camaraderie that exists between travellers. First of all the willingless to help each other out, because we all know that all we have is each other i this big scary travelling world, and yes we have only just met, but we are all in it together so of course we will help. Then it's the way that friendships develop so quickly, there is not the usual pussy footing around for a few weeks, you just seem to get on really quickly. When we all went out for a meal, we had known each for 5 minutes but it seemed like I'd known them for months.
But, it was now Tuesday and yes, I was finally going to get out of the ‘not so lovely hostel’
It was like being in some alternate universe (not found Rose Tyler though). I’d had had a total of 6 hours sleep in the last 3 night. I was thinking all was fine as I was in my lovely new hostel. Transpires all was not ok. So I went for some food, and was planning an early night. Except from 8pm for four hours I was subjected to a marching band practicing. A marching band for heavens sake !! – I don’t even get how there is enough people who live in San Pedro de Atacama to be in a marching band. I popped out to find a shop with some water and there they were playing big blue french horns and tubas (like the one out of How I Met Your Mother – Yes Kathryn I have watched the first season).
Had I been shot and ended up in some form of purgatory for people who played the cornet really badly when they were 14 (a little known fact about me is that I used to play the cornet – I was very bad at it – Bill used to liken me to Sonia in Eastenders and her trumpet playing– I only got to grade 2 ). Surely I could have just gone go back to 1973 like Sam or 1981 like Alex (I know all the music and I’m sure I can pull of the shoulder pads and leg warmers look). And there was no sign of Gene Hunt or the quattro anywhere. Seriously I was thinking - I should have gone to Santiago with the Aussies ...they have a starbucks there.
So the following day I wake up early and contemplated a bit of a lie in (due to my lack of sleep – again !!) But oh no – the ‘we’ve got blue trumpets and trombones’ marching band kicked off their practice at 6am
But no !! I’m still in the marching band purgatory. So I thought just forget it – I’ll just take the hell option. Remember I pushed Ian off the narrow boat when when we were little – yep that was me – and I stole the coke (did pay for it later) that nearly cost Richard his job and life in the Galapagos – so come on please put me out of my misery and send me down to the big, red, pretty dammed hot place below. It was 2am and they are still practicing (no improvement as yet). I was by now actually contemplating heading out to find them and asking to join in – I’m sure they could do with someone on the triangle.
So it’s the next day and now suffering quite majorly from a lack of sleep, I head off on my final tour. I’m off across the altiplano to see the salt plains and some flamingoes. There are only three of us on the trip – myself and two Brazilian guys called Pablo and Rodrigo (very attractive and obviously very gay). Our guide and driver is a bloke called Williams who speaks very little English. My Spanish is still very slowly progressing, so this could be fun !
The final part of the tip is a visit Laguna Cejar de Tebinquinche, which is alagoon in the middle of the Atacama salt flat. Apparently it has more salt than in the dead sea. It has a truly levitating experience in making you float. Everytime we tried to swim we just failed miserably. When you get out you have to be doused in water to try to remove the salt but I was caked in until I got back for a shower. Great way to lose weight though. If you stay in for while, water starts leaving your body (osmosis – takes me back to biology at school). Then back to San Pedro and some food. Actually found what all the practice by the band was for - there was a festival in town that night – and it had late-night fireworks !
So following on from the San Pedo sleep deprivation experience I was leaving Chile for the last time and it was heading back again into Argentina. So I was a little bit nervous at the bus stop as I had to get this bus. I started talking to a Swiss woman, who was also waiting for the bus. We both did that thing of thinking the bus must exist as someone was waiting for it. Obviously it didn't mean anything, but we felt much better. It finally arrived and so we were off !! Well for about 2 minutes anyway. We all piled off as this was the Chilean border control. The actual border was about 160km away on the Paso de Jama. So we had to queue for about 1 ½ hours to get through. Had a very bizarre chat with the Swiss woman, an Argentine bloke and a student from Chile. We ended up discussing Pippa Middleton (not a discussion I initiated). So across the Andes on an amazing road journey through altiplano and volcanoes. Just over the top of the pass (4400m) is the Argentine border control. Now I was pretty hopeful that this wouldn’t take long as in my past experience it’s pretty quick crossing into Argentina (had already done it 4 times). Not this time. The problem is this is a border that is close to Peru and Boliva and it’s the major drugs traficking route. So we had to wait an hour for another bus to get through.
So we finally made it into Salta at 11pm at night - 14 hours after we had left