San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama was our first destination in Chile, being right across the border from Bolivia where we had just visited the Uyuni Salt Flats via a 4-day Jeep tour. From one side of the border to the other, we were immediatly struck by the difference in development between both countries. Chile: tar roads, road signs and safety, clean streets, dogs and people, price tags in supermarkets, eggs sold in cartons, potable water and edible street food, general hygiene, etc. Bolivia: lack thereof!

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As an added bonus, the weather was sunny and hot, which we hadn’t been able to enjoy in a long time! After shopping for food and browsing around town to get info on car rentals and tours, we spent the afternoon lounging around in the hostel hammacks. The weather started to turn just as we set off to grab a drink at the pub. We were enjoying our ‘chop’ of beer and the good music, when the power cut, and the soft rain turned into a full-on hail storm and flash flood, which lasted late into the night. Even the locals couldn’t believe it, as San Pedro is supposed to be the driest place on Earth (once there had been no rainfall in 50 years)! Back at the hostel, most of the ground room floors were flooded and the staff had to spend all night sweeping out the water, digging trenches and installing hoses, buckets and drums in the courtyard, to collect and drain it.

The following day was bright and sunny again, and all the water and mud dried up fast. We spent another day waiting for a rental car, which was never to be. According to our research, it is more cost-effective for 2 people to rent a car for 2 days to visit the local attractions, than to pay for each individual tour, and we were looking forward to the added freedom. We also worked on our blog and met up with Marisel and Cote, 2 Chilean friends who we shared the Jeep ride with from Uyuni, and chatted with the whole way! We took in some colourful traditional festivities on the square, then returned to yesterday’s pub, chatting all night, true to form!

The next day Renaud was feeling very ill, for reasons still unknown, and this would keep him bed-ridden for the next 2 days. We had booked an afternnoon tour to visit the famous Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), and he just about made it to that. It’s a good job we didn’t book a tough volcano climb instead!

The visit started off with a short walk up a huge sand dune to a look-out over the Valley and Amphitheatre. We could see all the way round across orange desert speckled with snow-white salt and snow-capped volcanoes in the distance. A truly impressive and undescribable vista.

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We continued further inside the Valley to walk a little through it, and visit the closed salt mines, listening to the walls ‘crack’ as the salt expanded in the afternoon heat. The abandoned shelters and machines gave the impression of a ghost town.

The tour ended-off with a sunset on the edge of a vast canyon just outside the National Park.

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The next day I (Steph) went on my own on the 2nd tour we had booked, to visit the Lagunas Altiplanicas, 100 km South of San Pedro. The landscapes and colours were reminiscent of those on the Uyuni tour, although each was unique, and the weather was so much better: not a cloud in the sky! I chatted with an American and some Germans on the bus and as we shared a tasty and filling breakfast and lunch of local dishes. The first attraction on the tour was a vast pearly green salt lake surrounded by salt pans, perfectly conical volcanoes and brick-red boulders. The smooth, regular pools carved out of these rocks over time added to the surreal landscape.

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The next stops were deep blue, oval lakes ringed with white shores and fields of bright yellow grass. The contrast with the cloudless, bright blue sky made for amazing photos! We saw heards of grazing vicunas (types of alpacas), families of vilcacha (type of wild rabbit) hidden in the rocks, and flamingoes feeding in the distant lake.

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The tour concluded with the Atacama Salar, closer to San Pedro. Unlike its counterpart in Uyuni, this salt pan has a brown and rugged surface. This is due to the absence of rain on this side of the border, which means that it is never covered in a smooth, flat, layer of water. Surprisingly, a few plants and organisms survive in this hostile environment and scarce salt water, which is enough to attract many forms of migratory birds, including flamingoes. The type we saw here had deep pink feathers on top, white underneath and black tips.

On returning to San Pedro, I watched a band of young Aymara musicians on the square, accompanied by all sorts of instruments, performances, and a dog. By the end of it, everyone was dancing to the rythm of the drums, especially the children!

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Renaud wasn’t feeling much better unfortunately, so we stayed at the hostel that evening, where I met Astrid from Holland and her boyfriend Ellis from the US (who was coincidently also bed-ridden). We chatted a lot about travel, studies, and life in general, and complained about our boyfriends and their fragile constitutions!

We left the artsy, sunny, layed-back town of San Pedro the next day, on a 16-hour bus to Salta, Argentina.

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