Sunday, December 16, 2007

San Pedro de Atacama: Chile

After leaving Salta, we took a bus across the boarder into Chile to a small town in the driest desert in the world: San Pedro de Atacama. We had planned to spend only a couple of days here and then take a jeep across the desert to Uyuni, Bolivia. But as usual, we got distracted and landed up in San Pedro for a week.

On arrival we noticed a big volcano overlooking the town. It looked down upon us like Eye of Sauron from Mount Doom. Jez looked up on it in the same way that Columbus gazed upon the sea, Burke and Wills peered across the desert and Edmond Hilary surveyed Everest. Jez then looked at me and announced that in order to climb The Bastard we would need to spend more time acclimatising at altitude. So prostrated already by the altitude at a mere 2000 meters above sea level I readily agreed.

We made our way to the Tourist Information Centre. We asked what there was to do around San Pedro and were told that there were many tours and we should visit the tour operators. So was the sole purpose of this "Information Centre" to direct us to other tour operators? Yes. Could he recommend any in particular? No. Could he be any less useful? Yes he could have if he hadn´t directed us to "The Book". Tour operators are NOT created equally. Some are dodgy and others are still dodgier. We flicked through "The Book" which was a compilation of reviews of tours and agencies. It wasn´t hard to separate the dung from the manure.

We were interested in the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) tour. The man behind the desk apologised and said they were fully booked today but not to worry he would ring around to other reputable companies and see if they had anything. They didn´t. The tour involved a bus ride out to a valley with many strange stone and sand formations which have been created through the centuries by floods and wind. The extraordinary colour and texture makes it look similar to the surface of the moon. It was here we would watch the sun set. As we left we wondered, just how wrong could such a tour go? We walked into an unreputable tour agency and booked out trip.

We stopped at Death Valley on the way. Here I am demonstrating how to be dead. Jez thought it a worthwhile exhibition should anyone question the veracity of the claim that nothing can survive here.

We left the Valley of Death alive and well and were taken to a lookout to hear some legends about the volcanoes. According to legend The Bastard really was a bit of a bastard. It had been involved with a married lady volcano who was subsequently banished when Big Daddy Volcan Licancabur found out. However, they do secretly meet when the weather permits Lascar´s shadow to extend far enough to reach her. Jez´s resolve to climb Lascar grew stronger...

It was important for Jez to test his strength to prepare for his ascent. Later he would find out that a successful climb had less to do with strength and more to do with what you had consumed the night before...

These sensational rock formations were christened the Three Marys. Someone stood on the right protrusion and broke some of it off, now it looks more like an eagle. You need to use a little imagination...

The sun was starting to set so we made our way to the Valle de Luna but first a few cautionary words.

It could be said that this is one of the most romantic places to watch the sun set...

...but when hundreds of other people have the same idea it can feel like a bit of a meat market. However, as you can see, it´s hard for anything to detract for the sheer beauty of the landscape.

It was time to knuckle down and get acclimatised. The following day we would see what roughly 4000 Meters Above Sea Level was like. We´d ascend up into the altoplano by bus and explore some colourful lagoons and towering cacti. Nothing strenuous, nothing we needed our first aid kit for.

Here are the first real flamigos we´d ever seen - we´d had some experience with the fake kind you see on people´s lawns but this did not prepare us for the live kind. We learnt that flamigos owe their pink colour to the micro-organisms they eat. Later Eric the Oracle (who will be introduced all in good time) would tell us that flamingos were the only animals on earth which use their upper jaw to chew instead of their lower.

It was up here, at these high altitude lagoons where fate would decide who would climb The Bastard and who wouldn´t; who would live to tell their children that they had climbed an active, still smouldering volcanic beast and who would lie on their death beds lamenting the day that fate decided you were too weak a mortal to ascend it. It was here that Jez was chosen and I was deemed unworthy. I dragged my sorry arse around the lagoons, faking smiles for the camera, whinging that I couldn´t breath, that I couldn´t walk anymore and that I wanted to die. Did I want to try coca leaves? No thank you, I don´t believe in witchcraft. Later I would change my mind...

Elated that he had been the chosen one, Jez and the cactus raised their arms in unison and thanked the powers that be.

alt=But all was not lost for me. I had another chance to see if my luck would change. It involved waking up at 3:30am and bussing up to the Geysers del Tatios. At a chilly -9 degrees outside, we arrived at a rather surreal scene. The ground was covered in smoke. Boiling water spurted out of odd holes as if the earth had eaten some bad Chinese the night before and was uncontrollably throwing up. Click on the photo to see a video of an erupting geyser.

Here Jez demonstrates that he too can be an old geyser.

alt=And yet...he wasn´t so much of an old geyser that he wouldn´t strip off and go jump in a (cold!) thermal spa. Where was I? I filmed it, someone had to! Click on the photo to see Jez in action.

And that was the final test...Jez had successfully acclimatised and bravely, yet gingerly, immersed himself in a chilly volcanic spring. So in 2 days, I would stay in San Pedro and man the fort and Jez would battle it out with The Bastard.

1 comment:

kelly said...

Hey guys

We are complete strangers attempting a similar tour from San Pedro to Uyuni...and we loved reading your blog, thank you! But we want to know... would you reccommend your tour guide? And if so, who was he?

Please send us an email if you have a sec!

Kelly and Deb