High and dry

Trip Start Sep 19, 2005
Trip End Mar 19, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, November 28, 2005

After a fairly unexciting night bus (which, thankfully, I didn't miss this time), I arrived in the fairly unexciting town of Calama, and spent a night there before coming to San Pedro de Atacama on Wednesday. As there wasn't much to do in Calama, I ended up going to the cinema, which was such a treat - the Legend of Zorro in English!! And lovely air conditioning and popcorn too!!!

San Pedro is a tiny, touristy village in the middle of the desert. The Atacama is apparently the driest desert in the world and in some parts, rain has never been recorded - ever!

Its definitely very dry and sandy, but the town itself is surprisingly green with trees and everything! Its at something like 2,600 metres above sea level, and the highest I have been so far - I could certainly tell when my shampoo exploded all over me in the shower!

On Thursday I got up at the ungodly hour of 3am to go to see the Geysers at El Tatio, about 100 kilometers away from here. Its the highest geothermal field in the world and was really spectacular. (I think from now on, going into Bolivia etc, there will be a lot of 'highest in the world' happening, so bear with me!)

Anyway, you have to get up so early to be able to see the plumes of steam coming from the geysers as come sunrise, the earth apparently relaxes and the geysers stop spouting! As it is so high (about 3,200 metres above sea level), it is absolutely freezing, definitley below zero - I was wearing 5 layers plus hat and gloves, and I was still cold! Despite having to lug it around, I have to say I am glad that I didn't get rid of all the warm stuff I got in Patagonia!

The geyser field was really spooky in the early morning light, almost like a film set. It was almost as if the hero of a film would any second come dramatically through the steam, having rescued a small child or something!

And once you got over the sulphorous smell of rotten eggs coming from the steam, it was really quite beautiful. The underground water is heated by the lava from 3 nearby volcanoes, and bubbles up throught the earth, producing plumes of steam. Some of the geysers have water shooting up a little bit, and the whole area sounds like it is full of boiling kettles. Even though it looks like it is boiling, the water is about 85 degrees, I think because of the altitude. Last year 5 hapless tourists died by managing to fall into the water and basically being boiled, which doesn't sound like the nicest way to go.

After a quick nap, I continued my tourist trail and headed off to the Valle de la Luna on another tour in the afternoon. It was quite different to the Valle de la Luna in Argentina (the one near San Juan), but very beautiful too. Will attach photos asap. We walked for a couple of hours along a ridge, down a sand dune and through gorges and caves formed but the water and wind, and watched the sun set over the valley where the rocks are formed into odd shapes.

Friday was a day of relaxing after all that rushing about. Met some nice people in the hostel and had lunch, a tootle round the museum to see all the tools, pottery and mummies (whole mummies buried in big jars!) preserved in the dry and heat here.

Another tour on Saturday to the altiplano lakes and salt flats. Another early start too, unfortunately! But well worth it - we saw flamingoes in the shallow saline lakes on the salt flats, which are the third largest in the world. The largest are in Bolivia, and I should see them in the next couple of weeks, then Utah, then the Salar de Atacama here in Chile. After the wierd shapes and crusty surface of the Salar, we drove up to 4,500 metres (I think about 14,500 feet!) to see another couple of lakes surrounded by volcanoes. By this point I was definitely feeling the altitude, and the whole group was walking really slowly.

And then it started to snow! It was so odd - there was a rumbling of thunder all of a sudden and the clouds which had been hanging behind the tops of the volcanoes were visibly advancing towards us. Then tiny flakes of snow started falling and it got really cold. So strange to be in the desert and see snow - but I think it was all due to the altitude as when we got back down to San Pedro, it was boiling hot and sunny! One lady in our group lives in Venezuela and it was the first time she had ever seen snow falling!

After an exceedingly dull 12 hour bus ride with tedious border crossings yesterday, now I am back Argentina, in Salta, and will hang around here for a few days, definitely not doing any tours as I am all toured out!

More soon and photos too,

Sarah xx
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