The Driest Place on Earth

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
Trip End May 01, 2007

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Atacama desert is the driest place on earth - there are places where rain hasn't fallen for over 100 years and in the town of San Pedro, where we were staying they received an astonishing 0.4mm this year in their rainy season in Jan and Feb! I'm not exactly sure of the meteorological reasons that cause such little rain to fall - it's something to do with its location between the Andes and coastal mountain ranges, but whatever the reason, you really do know you're in a desert because of the amount of bloody dust that's around!

There are three other interesting facts about the area around the Atacama. It's the most volcanically active place in the world, with around 10% of the world's active volcano's in the region - it has the highest geyser field in the world, at 4,300 metres and following on from that, it's the highest desert in the world. Additionally, because of it's height, lack of pollution and virtually guaranteed clear skies, it's the world centre for astrology with numerous large observatories dotted around the place.

But it's not a totally arid place. Because of the mountain ranges, some rivers have emerged to create some very fertile valleys - archaeologists have discovered evidence of civilisations going back some 7,000 years. On one trip we were taken down into one of these oasis towns and it was slightly odd being in the middle of an incredibly lush fruit orchard in the middle of the desert!

Anyway, back to the desert - San Pedro is pretty much a tourist town catering for the streams of travellers coming in from all over the place. Ever morning and afternoon you see minibuses scooting off to various destinations around the desert, for day tours. Initially I feared that it would be rather like Cusco in Peru, where you're constantly feeling like you're being bounced from one tour to the next, with no way of escape. But in San Pedro, it's a lot more relaxed. There doesn't seem to be a cartel of agencies forcing you into tours, rather you can shop around and figure out what tours suit you and your timescales. Another slightly odd (and whisper it quietly, but good) thing was the lack of American tourists. Everywhere I've been in South America has been inundated with Americans. Rather like the Japanese in the rest of the world they tend to move in large amorphous groups with a guarantee of large noise following - apologies to any Americans reading this, but it's true!! Bu in San Pedro Europeans seem to be the order of the day with especially large numbers of French and German tourists. I'm not sure of the reason but the relative weakness of the US dollar might have something to do with it, along with the perceived expense of Chile. But, to be honest, other than the shops in Santiago, Chile hasn't struck me as being that expensive compared to Peru.

But anyway, back to the tours - San Pedro is all about the sights and geographic wonders. The Valley of the Moon at sunset is stunning with beautiful rock formations and mountains changing colour as the sun sets. The sky at night from  the dedicated tourist observatory is really good fun. Aside from the obvious stargazing, the first sight of Saturn and its rings through a telescope is quite weird. It almost looks like someone's actually drawn a picture on the other side, but I'm assured this was the real thing. The stunning lagoons nestled at the bottom of the volcano's was perfect tranquillity and the geysers field at 6.30 in the morning was a spectacle. Unfortunately, to reach there for this time you had to get up at 4am for a 2 hour drive over pretty shitty roads. Although the fields blow all day, the advantage at seeing them at dawn is the sub-zero temperatures make the steam clouds even more impressive. And when I day sub-zero, I mean it. When we reached there it was minus 8, which was a bit of a shock to the system! A little later in the day we went for a swim in one of the hot pools and although the water temp was between 20 and 40 deg, depending on where you were, the outside temperature was still pretty nippy. Still, worth doing!!

On another, much sadder subject, I found out a couple of days ago, that my Godfather has just passed away. Howard was incredibly supportive of my decision to come on this trip and always wanted to know the latest on my trip, even when he was very ill. So, to Howard, wherever you may be, you were right - this is the best thing I could have done. To the rest of you - get out there and see this world of ours - it's not that big and it's worth the effort.

And now, down to Patagonia, Cape Horn and the end of the world!
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