Driving, Hiking, and Climbing in the Desert-PART I

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

My original intent was to take a bus to the desert of Atacama, but after some local research, I was steered away from pursuing the 1,100 miles via national roads. I was warned of buses that arenīt as agile in the desert and often get stranded. Since getting stranded in the desert did not sound appealing, I decided to hop a local, low budget airline and was in the desert 2 short hours later. Flying nationally in Chile was an interesting experience and a throwback to the 80s. My passport was checked at the ticket counter, but not at the security gate (gasp!) I was even allowed to carry on 2 water bottles and to top it off, was served a hot breakfast on this very short flight!

I caught my first glimpse of the desert from an airplane window and I was blown away by how much the landscape had changed in such a short time. My precious Andes were still there, but boy did they look different and dry! As I looked out it was brown everywhere, my initial thought was that it looked like I had landed in the Middle East. I fully expected camels to greet our flight and boy did I feel thirsty all of a sudden! It was almost amazing to think we were still in the same country.

The plane landed in Calama, which is about 90 minutes from where I was staying in San Pedro de Atacama. The drive there was stunning. It was my first taste of how varied the desert landscape can be, not just brown, but also hues of pink and the bluest skies you've ever seen. Volcanoes, craters, and beautiful red rock also form part of the local scenery. It was also my first introduction to zero humidity. The extreme lack of humidity has its pros and cons. The biggest pro was I had excellent hair days the whole time I was there, the biggest con was dry skin. I seriously went through my entire 2-week supply of body lotion in 3 days! When we arrived in  San Pedro, my jaw dropped. I had never seen anything like that. Adobe houses made to cool inside the desert, unpaved roads, which needed to be navigated by 4x4s, like the one that brought me to San Pedro. After a short drive around the town, we arrived at my hotel. I really donīt know how I got so lucky, this place was gorgeous. I definitely want to come back. I will let the pictures speak for themselves. I really felt a part of San Pedro. I also did miss the people in my life, because I was upgraded to a family suite (not sure why!), but it would have been nice to share, as it was more space than 1 person would really need.

After settling in and getting a quick lunch, I joined a hiking tour of the area. Our first stop was Death Valley. The contrasting colors, clear sky, and beautiful rock just cannot be described. Itīs called the Valley of Death, because itīs extremely narrow and winding and if a driver goes at a high speed, they can go right off the cliff. Itīs a very dangerous drive, we were told by Richard, our guide, but we would be hiking it, which was completely safe. Ummmm, okay. What I didnīt realize when I signed up for this hike, was how challenging it would be. It was rarely flat ground and involved climbing rocks and ravines that I initially felt I just couldnīt do. Since not doing it was NOT an option, as I had to proceed with the group, there was no turning back. The first little mountain was the hardest, not because it was the steepest, but because I had to overcome mind over matter and trust in myself that I could do it. And guess what? I COULD do it and it felt great!! The feeling of accomplishment after a challenging section of the course was hard to describe. It propelled me further as I tried more challenging and more difficult climbs.

This experience in addition to fulfilling, was also fun, because I buddied up with Denisa, a Chilean-born, Venezuelan actress, that was in Calama shooting a TV show and decided to head up to San Pedro for the day. She was traveling alone and we linked up for the whole, you take my picture and Iīll take yours thing. She was also going through some similar times in her life and, like me, had just moved back home. We were also joined by Richard, the French tour guide. Heīd been living in Chile for 9 years, originally  moved here for love, he confessed, but ended up staying even after he was no longer with that woman. He was fascinated by the fact that I was Dominican and knowing how much the French hate Americans, I have to admit in shame, that I never clarified that I donīt actually still live in DR!! I needed Richard on my side, so I consciously decided not to clarify. This decision, did pay off later.

We hiked the Valley of Death and Salt Mountain, which actually produces real salt. After a few hours in those two places, I was feeling quite proud of myself, but I had not idea what lay ahead. All of the "strenous" hiking and climbing I thought I did barely scratched the surface compared to "Valle de la Luna."

Valle de la Luna, gets its name from scientists that have been able to confirm that the surface in parts of this area is much like the surface on the moon. In order to appreciate a beautiful sunset, one must climb a sand dune. Yeah, thatīs right a SAND DUNE! I donīt know if you can appreciate how hard it is to climb uphill in sand! It is much tougher than it looks, especially when you are already dealing with high altitudes your body is not used to! Excuses, excuses, I know, but it was by far, the hardest thing I ever had to do physically. Richard was a critical component of my success. He stayed with me the whole time even when I lagged behind and doubted whether I could complete the climb at all. Once complete, I felt on top of the world (which I literally was!) The sunset was beyond words. Iīd show it to you, but my digital camera's battery gave out at this point. I do have it on video for later viewing.
I have to leave in a few minutes, but there is sooooo much more to tell. The 3 days I spent in the desert were chock-full of adventure, pushing myself to the limit, more self-discovery, and even getting chased by a pack of wild dogs!! I even crossed the border into Bolivia, which was an experience unto itself. More to come on that later!!

Hereīs a hint, see if you can guess:  BRUCE CHATWIN
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