From the rooftop and down again
Trip Start Jan 08, 2003
15Trip End Mar 26, 2003
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Our group which had come together quite randomly by mutual choice of the same agency, consisted of six. Myself, two very charming Dutch girls, a whining Irish lady, her suffering and shy English boyfriend and an English accountant who started out by being annoying everyone then considerately got sick so slept for the rest of the trip
Our bags and cooking equipment piled high on the roof racks of the landcruiser we headed west into the blinding white salt flats which we were to drive across for the rest of that day. The salt flats we were to cross to get to Chile are the largest in the world, and they lay in a depression between two parallel ranges of the Andes. To the west is the Cordillera Oriental and to the east Cordillera Real. Our trip was to essentially cross the Andes at its widest and most complex point and descend the Alluvial debris into Chile a mile below. The jeep tracks across the salt and dust were all we had to guide us on our road sustaining heights of around 4000 meters (12000 ft) for the next 3 days.
We drove across the blinding white, crenellated salt flats, speeds distorted by the surreal flashing of the surface below. The jeeps from each tour agency informally raced each other in a ragged caravan. In places pools of water lay across the salt, remains from recent rains, opposing jeeps would appear as mirages across the shimmering flats, rooster tales marking their progress across the horizon.
We initially visited some random salt piles, mining of the minerals we were told though we could not illicit
a reason for the mining or a final market for the salt
salt, structure, furniture and fittings. It had been closed down due to the pollution caused by the human waste created. There are no sewers in the middle of nowhere.
By lunch, we had reached Isla Del Pescados, a volcanic rock island, sprouting from the depths of the minerals below, it was studded with ancient and tall cactus plants, 12 meters high, 1200 yrs old they say according to its growth rate of 1cm a year. We continued on a southerly heading for the afternoon, taking us from the flats within a few more hours and started us into the high plateau with its numerous Laguna's, some as large as 60 square kilometers, mineral rich, colors changing through the day, some to a rich red, others a luminous jade. Chilean, James and Andean flamingos dwelled here, their plumage becoming redder with the minerals they ingested through the algae which they harvested from straining the water through their beaks, an awkward gait, one leg crooked, one leg straight, heads upside down as they strained the waters, almost standing on their heads.
We found our first nights accommodation basic as is appropriate for such isolated places.
With nothing to do we wandered the boundaries of the buildings and watched the lamas come in for the evening, males prominently watching the herd and confronting the odd curious hound
The sun set spectacularly, the high altitude desert air clearly displaying the fire red ribbons emblazed
across the horizon, silhouetting the conical volcanoes some miles away.
I had snored through the night I was told as we set off for more Laguna's and volcanoes the following morning. The landscape became more intense, Daliesque protrusions of volcanic pumice formations, sculptured by the airborne desert sand, littering the obscure path our driver somehow followed. We stopped intermittently or as our shutter happy fingers requested, though the driver, clearly wanting to get to the next nights stop would impatiently honk his horn as we were half way up the nearest hill trying to view the mystical landscape from a better mirador.
Our final morning had us rise before dawn and we drove through the dark starlit sky, akin to taking the
watch before sunrise when the world is truly quiet. As the light came we arrived at some geysers, breaches
in the earth revealing the true activity below in burbling mud pits and rich sulphur clouds rising in
clouds of steam from vents in the porous rock
obliquely through the fog, it was like walking upon another planet.
By lunchtime we had reached Laguna Verde and it was time to leave the altiplano . Half our group was unceremoniously dumped at a concrete café where there was nothing else, a convenient seat to the final vista of volcano reflecting in the placid lake with Flamingos wading the shallows.
San Pedro de Atacama wakes uneasily, like much of South America. For here the best of the day is really
in the night. Harsh desert light creeps into the few tight streets, blindingly reflecting off the mud brown adobe walls, some old, some merely appearing so. Thick structures keeping all alternately cool and warm.
The town and its accompanying oasis are several streets and only a few thousand inhabitants. It lies at the
bottom of an alluvial fan, debris from 300 million years of mountain building which slowly climbs almost a mile upwards above us to the plateau we arrived from the previous day, its highest edge lined with conical red volcanoes that stretch as far as the eye can see in both directions like sentinels daring approach
It was a filling moon, almost full and there was a subtle increase in police presence in the town; it
is in these well lit nights that opportunities arise for drug mules to carry their loads across the mined
desert on well worn smugglers paths. Pinochet armed these grounds in paranoia of a Bolivian incursion.
It is a hip, new age town. Isolation is freedom might read the logo. The artisans are largely inspired by
the petrogliphs, ancient cave paintings that are found in the Atacama Desert along with debris of
civilizations past. Stone and crystal arrowheads are displayed commonly, finely worked tips left by the
hunters of yore. I was glad to be here and finally felt that I was resting.
I escaped for 5 days, but the final track south to my impatiently waiting flight was bearing pressure.
I felt my feet begin to drag on the way to the bus station. As I had known, time was about to compress in a manner that Einstein might have scratched his head at and so I simply did all I could to make it feel longer. I slept fitfully on the 16hr bus ride south through the night and the Atacama Desert. I woke sometimes but only to see the fringes of sand illuminated by the lights of the bus, occasionally punctuated by a cement factory and its symbiotic trucks waiting for loads, drivers leaning heavily against the snack trucks stationed outside the gates in the arc lights and the moon.
A change of bus in La Serena and a change of direction from South to East, heading into the mountains along the Elqui Valley and to the town of Vicuña. The valley is a highly productive grape and fruit growing
region, the dry hills studded with cactus and scrubby bushes missing only olive groves to fully complement the southern Mediterranean climate. The grapes for the Chilean national drink of Pisco, are grown here. In fact an act of congress states that only grapes grown in this region and its surrounding districts can be used for the much venerated drink.
The town of Vicuña, the largest in the valley is 5000 people small and all were keen to chat. It seemed
impossible to enjoy an introspective moment in the town's shady plaza.
In the hills around the town are several observatories, the area being famous for its clear night skies. Not too far away is the world's largest optical telescope, called appropriately the VLT or Very Large Telescope. This facility and many others are open to the public, but only at the Mamalluca Observatory can the telescope actually be viewed through. It is staffed by keen amateurs who give late night tours of both the Greek and Incan skies above. The nearer planets are quite visible through the 20 inch mirror as is the spectacular nebula of parts of Orion's belt, though on this full moon, the planets were blank pure white spheres escorted by their moons.
I spent several days exploring the valley, staying in a different village each night, boarding buses for the sake of it, barely unpacking, the essentials always laying at the top of my pack; Wandering like a vagrant, fearful that roots may set and I may never break free of them, as I lingered in the final glow of these travels.
I arrived back in Santiago, regretting that I had not spent a few extra days in the quiet of the country side as all I had to do here was to kill time before my flight North. I spent the days losing myself in the subways and bohemian districts of the city. I found myself sitting at the same computer that I had some three months previously and suspected that it was the same pair of lovers entwined on the bench below.
I packed and discarded, readied my self for re entry and as I looked back from a luxuriously retrospective hilltop I undesrstood how fortunate I had been to encounter the places I had not anticipated, Paraguay, Bolivia and the north of Chile, all welcome discoveries and places to revisit with a fresher mind and eye but I really understood that this trip had been appropriately dominated by Patagonia. This place for which I had held so much curiosity and passion remains undiminished to my current relief for my expectations had been high as is common in such long anticipated moments. It is this part which remains most vivid.
I once read somewhere that 'the glow of yesterday is overwhelmed by the brilliance of the new day'. Perhaps; declare victory and move on. And move on to where you may wonder, well, lets just say, I have a few ideas.