I think I managed to sleep for 10 of the 11 hours of the bus to San Pedro de Atacama – probably a new record. Atacama is maybe the #1 tourist destination in Chile – the area has similar desert landscapes to east of Copiapo, but with a hundred times more visitors (we hardly saw a soul when we were out in the Nevado de Tres Cruces with Ovideo). San Pedro itself is quite a cute town – it has no reason for being other than tourism, but all buildings are low and blend in quite well with the desert. The driest desert on earth actually – some parts haven’t seen a single drop in the 400 years that we have bothered to keep a record. We took a rest day first (a bit more sleep couldn’t hurt) then got a tour to Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte for the next evening – both very lunar or martian looking landscapes and completely dead. We did some barefoot sand-dune running, a walk through a salt-canyon and then sat down to watch the desert turn red at sundown with views towards the Licancabur volcano.
The next night we went on a tour to a private space observatory run by an eccentric Frenchman – the skies here are some of the clearest on the planet and there are big international observatories competing with each other all along northern Chile, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) recently outdone by the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL) which on top of being bigger also has a more clever acronym! The Frenchman had a collection of different-sized telescopes where we got to look at Jupiter, distant galaxies (one 8 million light years away!), nebulas and other tiny shining dots that become incredibly impressive once you know what you’re looking at. The tour was quite informative, with a cool green laser-pen to point out various constellations, and a funny commentary focusing mostly on how to use astronomy to pick up girls!
Next day we went to see another collection of salt flats and high-altitude lakes. Salar de Atacama is the worlds 3rd biggest salt lake, but it isn’t as dazzlingly white as the bigger Salar de Uyuni across the border in Bolivia – we saw lots and lots of flamingos though. The high-altitude lakes were Miscanti and Miñiques – strangely cobalt-blue in a landscape of soft reddish pastel-coloured hills. On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at another unexpected dash of colour – a lush green oasis, figs and flowering trees and a small stream of fresh water in the middle of the desert. In the Toconao village next to the oasis a small parade happened to be going on at the same time we were there – brass-band and bored looking school-kids in costumes…and someone at the very end in a thick fur-costume who must have been sweating litres in the desert heat.
Very early start the next day – pickup at 4am to take us to the Tatio geysers. It was very cold to wait around in the desert night for the bus, which then took 2-3 hours to climb up the thermal area at 4300 meters altitude where it was even colder. Until the sun finally rose some half-hour later it was actually very tempting to dip the hands into the 80 degree water the geysers spit out… The geysers actually keep going the whole day, but all the tour operators time it to be here at sunrise since when the air is cool the hot steam from the thermal features is the most spectacular. And spectacular it was – particularly with the early morning sun catching rainbows in some of the bigger geysers. Each geyser runs on a separate schedule – some going 10min then sleeping 40min, some going an hour then sleeping one – the highest was sending water and spray some 30 meters up in the air. Tatio is more active than other thermal areas we’ve been to in other countries, and you can walk around freely with no fences which is nice (this will probably change once one or two more tourists has to take that one extra step too far to get the perfect photo though…fortunately Edel was there to keep an eye on me ).
On the way back we visited another hotspring with a bit more comfortable temperature to soak in. I would probably have killed for a dip back when we were waiting around in the cold before sunrise, but now the desert heat had already set in and you would start to get dizzy after a couple minutes. Spotted lots of Vizcacha nearby – it’s a cute fluffy animal that looks like a rabbit-squirrel. One final stop on the way back in another oasis, this one full of giant cactus hundreds of years old along a ravine with a river and several waterfalls running through it. With the air many degrees cooler than in the desert outside, and with a bit of humidity and some oxygen from the plants it was as refreshing as, well, an oasis!
Next we hopped on another monster-bus, 17 hours south, to La Serena – for the next post.