Drying out in San Pedro de Atacama

15 Jan

What we thought might be a relaxing overnight trip to San Pedro, turned into a 3am wake-up to put our bags through a Chilean scanner. Drowsy, given we’d surprisingly managed to fall asleep in our barely reclining semi-cama bus seats (not to mention the extra vino consumed over dinner), and perplexed as we weren’t crossing any international borders, we trooped off the bus and gathered our bags – no paperwork, just a scanner. With my bag full of carrots, half a garlic, chilli, nuts and a squashed banana (thou shall not waste food) not raising a Chilean eye (clearly catching the 40 winks I was missing), I am still non the wiser about their motivations.

With the bus driver also not allowing me to go to the bathroom without the bus moving (again, too tired to argue the ridiculousness of it all and too silly to simply wait until we took off again), I trudged off into the wilderness for this bano I’d been pointed towards. Taking my lead from ‘The Womble’ – what MC has nicknamed the very short and stout Chilean women whose appearance reminds him of these childhood TV characters (before my time, of course) – I found my bano (would have been cleaner finding a bush) and proceeded to get locked in. Who knows what I would have done if The Womble had not kicked it in for me, smacking me a sixer in the face, upon which I was then chased down the street by the bano attendant demanding his 200 pesos for the luxury of this affair.

Here´s hopìng the bed bugs forgot to reboard our coach…

Changing buses in Calama, described accurately by the lonely planet as a ‘shithole’, and enabling me to again be reacquainted with the dirtiest bathroom on earth, we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, desert town. Finding our hostel to be the usual miles away, we trudged our way there in the searing sun. A trip into town (and a top up of the caffeine levels) saw us booked on a tour that arvo to Valle de la Lunar – Valley of the Moon. A lunchtime stop for a menu del dia, we suddenly noticed the lack of alcoholic spirits behind the bar – our first sign of the harsh drinking laws in San Pedro – however, Roy Thompson, I am quite sure you would be perfectly content drinking in these parts.

Crème de menthe. Top shelf liquor. Strangely untouched.

Our afternoon tour took us to some divine views…

Pelting down steep sand dunes…

Walking through a canyon and its cave, learning about the salt deposits, and geographical nature of the desert. MC is intrigued, I’m just busting out my most attractive moves in sheer, lunatic tiredness (is it a full moon?)…

Before settling in to watch the sun go down over the valley…

As stunning as it was, as a born-and-bred sandgroper, I must quietly note… it didn’t quite beat the magic of a Perth sunset. In any case it was a beautiful way to spend our first afternoon.

Day 2 and exercise much needed, we hired mountain bikes. Pelting through rivers, over sandy bogs and sharp rocks, with me still not falling off – surely, this means I must be getting better? – we soon realised that my excellent map-reading skills had taken us away from our desired destination, the Quebrada Chulacao.

Hmm. Map didn’t look that complicated…

In the scorching sun and its UV index of 21 (to compare, Oz gets to a max of about 14!), my enthusiasm for this adventure soon died after about 2 hours, I dropped the bottom lip and we turned around. Although the temperature was about 26C, this is the temp is taken in the shade. In the sun, it is apparently closer to 50C – and it bloody felt like it.

Our planned trip to star gaze at the observatory that evening fell through due to unexpected cloud cover, so the following day we’d left free for sleeping ended up being filled with coffee (dos mas, por favor), market shopping and stocking up on food supplies.

The produce here, while expensive, is by far the best we have seen in the trip. Surprising, given it’s the furthest away this food has been to its origin. Yet here we are, hot spiced roast chickens, juicy summer fruits and veg, an assortment of tasty olives and fresh goats cheese. Washed down with a cold cerveza in the sun… Ah bliss.

With the heat of the sun aggravating our skin and with us now both covered in bed bug bites and scratching at ourselves more ferociously than the street dogs, we are terribly fearful we have brought the bug beasts with us. Googling that heat, therefore the sun, is their cryptonite, we proceeded to discard all our belongings out into the hostel’s garden for the day (here’s hoping the hostal’s dog wouldn’t make its mark).

I must note at this point I had soon learned that with the one and only time MC had ridden his sister’s horse, the horse tripped and he fell off, horses forever becoming known to him as ‘stupid animals’. I, of course, thanks to many adventures horse riding as a kid, with my cousin Kate teaching me all the basics, mischievously decided that this would be a perfect choice of tour for that afternoon.

No sooner had MC got on his “lame” little pony, the horse bolted into the middle of a hay stack and pranced around with MC pulling on the reins, White Lightning ignoring and doing its best to unsettle its rider (picture not shown – sorry, I tried, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hold the camera straight).

We set off for a walk through the dunes, not exactly a thrilling adventure and we got a little bored, aside from the never fading bemused and exasperated look on MC due to his horse’s consistently theatrical nature (read tripping and randomly bolting away from sticks)…

Funnily, Clarice decided it was perfectly fine for any horse, except Matt’s, to pass her and would charge ahead should White Lightning decide to take her on the outside. Good ol’ Clarice.

A 7am pick up the next morning, tour operator Cosmo Andino took us first to Salar de Atacama, the largest nearby salt flat. It is home to 3 of the 5 species of Flamingos in the world – Chilean flamingo (pink with a black bum), Andean flamingo (all pink) and the James flamingo (not shown as it isn’t found there this time of year).

The Chilean flamingo, when searching for food, busts out its own little birdy dance…

We went to lakes at 3,900 metres high, stopping for a tasty bite to eat, before heading back into town, stopping off at a few sights – beautiful lakes surrounded by volcanoes – to break up the trip back. (Note, the most attractive hat I could find in San Pedro when the desert sun beat my pride in a knock-out match)…

Our last day in San Pedro and we arose at 4am for the infamous trip to the geysers at sunrise, where the temperature was -8C so I was of course thrilled to be able to put on my 4 pairs of pants, 7 shirts, 2 scarfs and woolly hat, since they had been getting little attention since Antarctica. In addition, going straight to over 4 000 feet in about an hour, you could see the achy altitude-sickness headaches knocking off our fellow tourists. At breakfast, our tour guide passed around coca leaves (no thanks, we brought our own), mostly a no-no in South America except its altiplanic areas. So, when in Rome…

You can put the leaves in hot water first to soften them… quite tasty at this point…

Then you pop them in your mouth with a nibble on a bicarbonate rock called a lahiya, and chew…

And chew…

Then, if you’re like me, you stop pretending this is an enjoyable experience and spit the stuff out!

The geysers were very beautiful so early in the morning…

Though arising so early seems to have brought out our artistic side (I think we were supposed to be looking at the colourful auras around our head).

A teapot or a camel? You be the judge.

Snatching an afternoon siesta, that evening brought us into the company of and the esoteric humour of astronomer, Alain Maury. Gazing at the stars, learning a few new constellations (the star I’d always had pegged as mine is, in fact, a star and not a planet – Sirius, what a gentleman), and a close-up peek of Jupiter, was the perfect way to spend our final night in such a magical place.

As for the bed bugs? Luck seems to have joined us again (or perhaps it was the smell of Matt’s socks), and they decided to stay in Iquique.

x kel

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2 Responses to “Drying out in San Pedro de Atacama”

  1. wendy January 27, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Hi Kel

    Just sat with a coffee and read your blog – I enjoy this so much I get in the car drive up to 9seeds buy myself a long mac and settle down for a good read! You or Matt never disappoint with your interesting antidotes and descriptions of where you are and what your are doing. I feel like I’m there with you (minus the bed bugs – urg expereinced them in Crete last year and not good so you have my sympathies there!).
    I actually laughed out loud at your face Kelly chewing the cocoa leaves and your hehe Dick Dastardly face (from wacky races – hope you can remember him I remember the Wombles well!!) with Matt in the back ground on his ligtening horse!!
    Loved the video of the flamingo dancing reminded me of Pete when he gets going!!
    The geysers look amazing. Take care and stay safe love Wendy

    • wordsfromtheview February 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

      am so glad you’re enjoying the blog wendy. the cafe cortados here are our version of a macchiato and have fast become a staple, daily occurence of the trip!
      bed bugs were horrible, but since all is well now, we can cross it off simply as a funny story.
      coca leaves – im sure we weren’t doing it right – think i’d much rather just leave them in my tea!
      tomorrow we head to an estancia (a cattle ranch), for a true Uruguayan experience. likely to be lots of horse riding, im really hoping karma doesnt bite because of my dick dastardly face! watch this space!
      lots of love to you and the HP’s
      x k

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