91 – San Pedro de Atacama (Chapter 1)

April 14 – 21

Overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama. The driest desert on Earth.

The Atacama plateau is a huge triangle closed off by three mountain ranges, which block most of the rain clouds on the Bolivian side and prevent any river from leaving the plateau. Meaning all water circulation is owed exclusively to evaporation and occasional rainfall. This means loads of salt lagoons, rocks eroded into fairytale shapes, moon-like landscapes. The area is also extremely rich in minerals such as sulphur, copper and lithium (all of which Chile extracts and sells abroad as raw materials, they don’t have any processing industry).

Laguna Miscanti

I get off the bus in San Pedro at 8 am, completely shattered because I spent the night listening to pretty much every playlist I saved on Spotify, so I feel like after a trans-Atlantic flight. Too early to check into the hostel, I head directly to the station cafe to have breakfast and a dose of caffeine, preferably directly into my veins. So do some other passengers, among which Pete, very nice and funny English guy from Sheffield. Seriously, where were all the nice English people hiding when I was living in London? Between Brits I used to hang out with and those who only became friendly after I left the country, I would not need two hands to count them.

Licancabur volcano

Anyway, we meet for dinner, where I turn up with all the tour information from my hostel (I managed to get organized for once, which I suspect Pete is grateful for) and we agree we would do all the tours together. Pete is great fun, likes to walk and drinks more than me, but not in the obnoxious british friday afternoon way. It’s nice not to be the chief pisshead for a change and it’s also nice to have company (for the tours, not for assuming alcoholic substances). All the tours go into around 4000 m (San Pedro is in over 2000), so altitude sickness might be an issue. They say people feel light-headed in the thin air, may get headaches, occasionally through up, in short, feel like hungover. I cannot frankly say, because I believe I was a bit rough on most mornings, so no clue how much of it was altitude. I mean, we all know what happens when someone arrives from sea level to high altitude: to cope with thinner air, the body starts producing more red blood cells to get more surface for dealing with the scarce oxygen, meaning it needs iron for creating new hemoglobin. Now, vegetables rich in iron, such as spinach or broccoli are not exactly common in the desert, the red meat is not very appealing (overcooked till practically dry steaks, no thank you, I had enough british sunday roasts for the lifetime), therefore, where does Kacenka get her iron? (No double entendre.) Red wine, of course. There is surely some iron in the red wine.

Valle de la Luna

Day 1: Pukara de Quintor

A pre-spanish settlement just 3 km off San Pedro. Most people cycle there, we decided that 3 km is not worth taking bikes for, so we walk it. The fortress itself is unimpressive (mostly because the trail through it is closed), but the 1 hour hike to the nearby viewpoint is beautiful and offers first views over the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley).

Day 2: All the lagoons I will ever care for

Morning tour: Laguna Chaxa, a large salt flat with loads of wildlife, and the first flamingos. From there up to 4000m to see the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques (jointly Lagunas Altiplanicas), and on our way we see heaps of wild vicuñas and a group of suris (Darwin’s Rhea, the Andean ostrich). Afternoon tour: Laguna Cejar, where we can swim (float, rather, as the water contains more than 30 % dissolved salt). My advice: head for the small lagoon instead of going to the big one where everyone goes and which is about 50 cm deep at best, the smaller one is several meters deep and normally empty. Not that the depth of the water makes any difference, you cannot drown even if you tried, but at least you will not scratch your butt on the sharp crystals. Next stop Ojos del Salar, two circle lagoon with almost sweet water (sort of), you can swim in one of them, but here you actually need to know how to swim. Final stop Laguna Tebenquiche for the sunset and pisco sour. Sweet as.

Day 3: To the moon and back

Cycling trip to Valle de la Luna, and possibly the most rewarding of the tours in San Pedro. It’s about 34 km round tour from San Pedro, you can go in the van with any of the tour agencies, but being autonomous with your own transport gives you more time to explore the side treks and it makes for a nice day-trip at a leisure pace. It’s not a difficult cycle, the only problem is the temperature (carry at least 4 litres of water pp), you can always push the bike up the two hills on the way. I suspect Pete has not been on the bike since he was a kid, but he is brave. We set off around 11 am, after a nice breakfast in one of the tourist cafes. It may seem too late, but it does not actually matter what time you leave, you will not escape the midday heat in any case, and the afternoon light is nicer for taking photos. As we cycle deeper into the Moon Valley, we stop several times for the side attractions: a salt mine where all the rocks sparkle with salt crystals, a giant dune, a viewpoint over rock formations (the Amphitheatre), finally making it to the Thee Maries (Las Tres Marias, although they look more phallic than biblical to me, but then we all know what my religion really is). As we enter the valley a young dog starts following us. I name her Priscilla (Queen of the Desert), and we share our water with her (Pete uses his hat as a bowl). The stupid creature runs with us for most of the trip disappearing at some point after other people, who hopefully have some food to share with her (I only have a Snickers bar).

So to sum up the sojourn in San Pedro so far: I made a walker ride a bike and I converted a beer drinker on red wine. That’s enough achievement for the time being. Stay tuned for more desert adventures.

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