Flew into Antofagasta over endless brown lifeless desert – nothing living down there. The town was nothing special, but I stayed two nights, as I got an offer from an Aussie miner I met through a friend of V and T’s to take me to San Pedro de Atacama and the next morning when he was sober his wife talked him out of it! Met a nice Pom in the hostel though and we had dinner and a good chinwag.
San Pedro was just beautiful – what a place, a beautiful oasis out in the middle of the driest desert in the world on the edge of a huge salt sea. The view across the desert was spectacular as the bus headed over a hill and down towards the alluvial plain. The town is really small, all old adobe buildings, though you can see tourism is starting to take off, lots of people from all round the world there. A wonderful atmosphere and a feeling of being hundreds of miles from anywhere.
The second day was a 20 hour day – up at 3.30am to drive with a tour group of about 10 to the El Tatio geysers. What an amazingly beautiful part of the world. It’s the highest geyser field in the world, at 4300 metres above sea level. Our highest point on the drive was 4500 metres. No altitude health problems to my relief. When we got there it was just after dawn (it’s 100km north of San Pedro, very near the Bolivian border) and the valley was shrouded in mist, scattered shapes of people wandering over this plain pocked with bubbling pools and piles of coloured and weirdly shaped minerals shooting boiling water. Each made a distinctive sound and had their own ‘personality’. Otherwordly. Surrounded by snow covered extinct volcanoes. We soaked in a hot spring pool as the sun came out and the day cleared; it was perfect. Wide open spaces of desert, hills and mountains out in the middle of nowhere.
There was a sad story of a Frenchman who broke through the crust at the edge of a geyser and fell in – he died a year later of his burns. You realise you’re a long way from what you think of as civilisation.
The desert is just mind blowing (and can be limb blowing, thanks to 70s mine laying by the Chileans after the military coup). On the geyser tour I met a great Dutch girl who I spent the rest of the day with; after lunch we mountain biked 4kms out of town to the ruins of an Atacama indian fortress on a hill for a fantastic view of the oasis and the desert, volcanoes framing the vista. What a day! Good restaurants – adobe courtyards around firepits and very good food. I stayed in a hostel sharing a room with three others (and the inevitable snorer) for about US$8 dollars a night. The shower was pretty grim though – always reminds me of the film Midnight Express these places; you can’t afford to be squeamish!
Yesterday in the afternoon I took a tour to the Valle de la Luna. On the way we stopped at the Valley of Death (there’s always one in a desert isn’t there?) – astounding views over completely barren desert folded into spectacular shapes and huge sand dunes. Our guide was very cool and we stopped to sand surf down a huge dune – I went first, nearly killed myself climbing the thing (we were at about 2500 metres above sea level), managed to get a pretty good run, enough for a loud and long whoooop!!! anyway, then wiped out, in the process getting sand into every possible crevice. What a blast.
We visited a huge plain of salt, I kid you not, the surface choppy and in places crystal-like. The ruins of a small cabin, walls of solid salt, bits of material hardened to the stiffness of cardboard embedded in its walls, showed where miners would shelter against the wind. Then to the the Valley of the Moon, an enormous natural ampitheatre closed by a mammoth sand dune on one side, mountain sized slabs of rock pushed up like the prow of a ship.
Quite a few tourists there – the sunset here is the thing to see in town – but the five of us avoided the tourist sheep, going to the other side of the dune and along to the lip of the canyon, where we lay on our stomachs on the dark sand with our heads over the lip of the cliff as the sun went down. Our toes dug into the warm black sand. The desert lay out before us. I can’t describe it, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
The wind blew hard as the temperature changed in the desert, the clouds were etched in pink and the whole wide sea of stone turned purply-pink as though it was drenched in the light of an alien sun. We lay there and soaked it in. Finally, as the dark closed in, two other guys and me, shoes off, sprinted full pelt down the duneside, whooping our heads off!
Surprised how easy it is to meet people (these day tours definitely help). Interaction with the locals is a bit limited due to my fledgling Spanish – I’m talking in nouns basically but trying to learn more as I go, and everyone says it’s easier to understand people in Peru and Bolivia. I can make myself understood but then they go and reply and spoil everything! Also they really slur and shorten words and drop the s; eg buenos dias becomes something like buendia!
I stopped in the nowhere town of Calama, in the middle of the desert between the border and the Pacific coast, where I killed eight hours before my 9 hour bus trip north to Arica left at 10pm. Watched Charlie’s Angels in a crappy little cinema with two Canadians I met in the park. Finally it was time for the bus to leave, but beforehand I washed my extremely smelly feet as best as I could in a grotty bus station bathroom lit by a flickering flourescent light. On the bus I managed to get some sleep as it rolled through the desert.
About 7am I arrived in Arica, the last Chilean town before the Peruvian border. I hoisted my pack and walked into town to find myself a place to stay. The next two days I strolled around town, visited the beaches, sunburned my legs really badly, and climbed the dusty headland called El Morro, scene of some battle between Chile and Argentina. From there the view stretched out below, over a flat expanse of littered and crumbling rooftops surrounded by brown desert, and a harbour dotted by tankers. Arica seems incredibly isolated, clinging to the coast and surrounded by desolation.
Time to visit a new country … next stop, Bolivia.