San Pedro de Atacama: a favourite desert

Day 1: July 8, 2010
We enjoyed the views on the way to the small Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. I can’t describe it. It was beautiful. We had an aerial view of the rocky, pinky desert punctuated with unspeakable rock shapes. If you squint at it you would see vast open spaces colored in pink and white and covered in mist.
Our first stop was Chilean immigration (again!). Fill in the immigration form, fill in the customs form, have you passport stamped, get your bags out and scanned. Same thing, different day. The bus dropped us off in the middle of town after giving us some useful information. Very nice of them.
I tout for a hostel advertised a good price for what looked like a nice, new hostel and I agreed to give it a try. As we walked I realized it was rather far away from the center and I kinda regretted my choice. But later when I thought about it I decided it was kinda cool, being in a slum outside of town.
I got registered, got all the information I needed, and headed for the shower. I hadn’t bathed in a couple of days, I was dusty and cold and I was looking forward to a refreshing hot shower. Not today. The water was cold. I was so frustrated, to the point of tears. ‘Tears?’ you would say. Yes, tears. Just before I left for Bolivia I got a cold from our bikes and wines day. My nose was either blocked or runny and I had to deal with the extremely dry climate of the desert. Breathing was tricky. Then I had also got my period on the first day of the trip, having to fight cramps and the lack of decent bathroom facilities. And finally I hadn’t been able to sleep due to that headache. It has piled up as you can see and that cold shower was the final drop.
Still, I quickly washed up and went out in search of some lunch, money, and maps of the area. Mario had suggested I bike the desert, this being one of the best ways to explore it. I had also got some extra info from others and I had a general idea what and how I wanted to do it. Still I wanted to see what else was there, get a better idea of what exactly I wanted to visit, and then figure out the best way to do it.
I have decided to bike the closer attractions tomorrow, and then book a tour to a distant lagoon and a few other spots. See how tomorrow goes; I might decide to bike to the lagoon as well since it is only 24km away. That way have all the time in the world to float in the salty waters.
I walked to the center, got some cash out (not too much since this is my last visit to Chile), found a nice place to eat lunch and had a carrot/pumpkin soup, followed by steak in mushroom/pepper sauce and grilled potatoes, and even desert (that I took to go, since I couldn’t swallow another bite). All that accompanied by a huge freshly squeezed orange juice.
I then walked around town and enjoyed the pretty main street. It has no pavement, meaning it gets muddy when it rains but today wasn’t one of those days which only added to the general charm of the place. There is the muddy street, lined with low, adobe houses, painted white. Most of them were restaurants or hand crafts shops, which added color to the earthy tones of the houses and the street. All the signs were kept in the same manner (carved wood planks or chalk boards for the menus) which suggests some building planning. There were also very pretty, old-looking street lights – rustic, wood poles, with ancient lanternas hanging from them. All in all, very pleasant and lovely. That of course is just the main street. The rest of it is unpleasant dusty street and ‘buildings’ that really shouldn’t be called that because they are not more than a few brick or wooden planks thrown together with a tin sheet for a roof.
I paid attention to all the tour agency, and especially the photos of their trips, trying to decide what looked pretty and was therefore worth visiting. Once I knew What there was to see and had made my selection I researched the bike rental prices and checked with the tourist office for a map of the area. It looks like I will be able to bike it all. Nice. I better get a hat though. My face is rather red as it is. I also checked ticket prices and departure days to Salta, Argentina where I am meeting Mario again before coming back to Bolivia.
I was done with work and it was time to relax. I sat on a sunny bench in the lovely main plaza and read a National Geographic magazine I had picked up way back in Ushuaia, Argentina just before we had left sailing. I was told to stock up with books and I did. I barely touched them. Once I picked up ‘War and Peace’ there was no time for anything else.
I have been wanting to read an article about the Mexican Tarahumara people living in Barranca del Cobre which I had visited in the very beginning of my trip. It was late afternoon yet the sun was still shining strong. It got pretty hot at some point and I felt I was burning when I decided to move to a shadier bench. That was too cold though and I got up for another walk in town before I headed back to the hostel. I didn’t really feel like doing much and thought I would just read a bit more and have a relaxed evening before I got approached by the girl working here asking whether I wanted to go out later tonight with her and a Brazilian guy who was also staying at the hostel. I agreed, we arranged a time and I just sat catching up on writing while I was waiting. It is almost that time though so I better get going. I am just going to have a light dinner and a drink before I crash (we went to a lovely bar situated in a backyard under the stars with a looming fire in the middle of the patio; it turned out that we had a lot more in common than I thought and we ended up having a great evening with lots of stories and laughter). I need my rest before I go cycling all day tomorrow.

Day 2: July 9, 2010
I got up and had a breakfast of leftover goat cheese sandwich (from previous night’s dinner at the bar) and a leftover peach desert from the previous day’s set lunch. I then walked into town and rented a bike for the day. The owner also gave me a map and let me know the possible day routes. I decided to cycle through the Moon and Death Valleys. I left town and headed up the paved road and deep into the valley. I stopped at the entrance, paid my fees, got a map and a few pointers and was back on my way through the rocky valley. It was beautiful. My first stop was a small canyon and a bunch of caves. I did the caves first although I didn’t have a light. I reached the dark part, made a couple of steps into it and decided I wasn’t going a step further. It was too dark and too quiet. I nearly turned back when I saw a path above the dark section. I climbed up the rocks and walked the dark section on top of the rocks before I reached the light parts again and continued my walk until I reached the end. By looking at the map I thought the canyon should start where the caves ended, at least it looked like it on the little map I carried. I walked around, looking for clues, signs, paths but there were simply too many of them going in hundreds of different directions. At some point I decided I couldn’t find it and went back. That’s when I bumped into something that looked like a sign and decided to follow it. Soon enough there was a second one and I was then convinced I was on the right path. I walked down the rocks, waving ‘Hi’ to a couple that was also exploring the area (nice to see another living soul, comforting) and eventually made it to the very beginning of the walk which was also the beginning of the canyon. I walked through there too, marveling at the rocky shapes. Fun and pretty. I left the canyon behind, walked back to my bike and continued my trip but not before I made use of the bathroom. I was fascinated by it. It was one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen, and what made it so more special was its location – middle of nowhere, dusty, dry, rocky desert – and yet there was this small, fully tiled, clean bathroom, with ceramic seat and a sink, running water, toilet paper, soap and even air freshener! Amazing. Such a pleasure after an exhausting bike ride.

Back on the road, my next stop was a massive dune overlooking a colorful (red) rock formation called the Amphitheater. I saw one side of the dune, and followed the indicated path to what turned out to be the top of the dune. It was marvelous. The best view in the valley. In front of me there was the ridge of the dune, spreading a few hundred meters ahead of me. To my right there was the reddish Amphitheater, and to my left there were more mountains, more rocks in white, pink, beige, brown, red and any other color imaginable.
An added bonus to my visit to the top of the dune (like the views wasn’t enough!) was a Chilean team of photographers and Brazilian models working on a photo shoot for a local magazine. The theme was 20’s-2010 fashion and the doll like model was seated in the sand sporting a lovely 50’s black satin dress and a pearl necklace. There was also a matching black ribbon holding her pony tail high up, thus revealing her fragile, porcelain colored neckline. Her face was the first thing I saw when I reached the top of the dune and I was blown away. She was probably the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Absolutely stunning.
The shoot was soon over and the model and two members of the team made their way down the hill towards the fancy black caravan. The photographer and his assistant stayed behind and we got chatting. We spent the next 30-40mins chatting about the modeling industry in Chile, travelling, and extreme sports. It turned out that there weren’t that many pretty models in Chile and they had to import them from other countries, in this case Brazil. The pretty Chilean model, who was once a Miss Something would appear on every cover thus tiring the audience with her looks. In order to mix things up they had to resort to foreign girls. This time they had contracted two Brazilian girls at the age of 19-20. One was frail and delicate, while the other had a lot more of everything, thus exuding a sexy, animalistic vibe. They both had their roles to play. The two guys also told me the models were almost at the end of their career at the age of 20. The average age for a model apparently is 13-14.
– 13-14? – I exclaimed. But there is nothing to them – I said. Their bodies are not even developed yet.
– Their bodies are not developed, they are still girls. They are flat back and front but they have the height and they can walk. When they go on the catwalk they look like queens – the photographer said. ‘Interesting’ I thought.
– So what do they do when their career is over at such a young age? – I asked.
– Most of them study – they guys responded. We often have two models and one of them will be reading while we are working with the other one- they added. Furthermore, they get paid very well and they put money aside – the photographer added.
I guess I don’t have to worry about them. I asked the photographer to take a photo of me on top of the dune with my modest, barely functioning pocket Sony camera. He did and then he took his super-duper camera and took some more photos of me. I told them I got nervous in front of such big camera stuck so closely into your face. They comforted me though saying the imperfections of the face didn’t matter and that nobody could take away my happiness. I sure have a lot of that!
After a while it was time for me to leave and we took our goodbyes. We hugged and kissed, wished each other all the best and I walked down the path again munching on a delicious baked empanada I had bought for lunch in the morning.
I continued my bike journey until I reached a Place called ‘Las Tres Marias’ – three rock formation perched on a natural rock platform resembling women in prayer. I also visited a salt cave. It was very small, but its walls were covered in salt crystals. I even licked it to make sure. It was salt.
I was almost at the end of the valley but not before I went down a very steep hill just before the exit. Once I reached that I had to make my way onto the main road and look out for the road to the Death Valley. It was late afternoon but I still had some time left.
Back on the main road I cycled for a few kilometers when I saw a winding dirt road to my left and decided it was the one to take. There were no signs but it looked more or less right on the little handmade map I carried. I got on the dirt road and very slowly made progress. First keeping to the winding road, later getting off of it and hitting the rocky field surrounding it as it was easier to pedal on the hard surface compared to the soft sands of the road. I reached a half moon shaped opening in the mountain that I thought was the valley. I cycled through the narrow canyon, worried that it was a dead end every time I saw a big rock blocking the road. I got out of it and into this wide valley that went right and left. Which one was I to take? Which led back to the main road? I went right. I cycled slowly through a red, rocky valley boasting round shapes. I hoped it led back to the road. It was getting dark, the sun was slowly setting and I didn’t have any time to lose. I cycled, getting deeper and deeper into the valley until I hit the dead end. The road was blocked by 50m high rock walls. There was no getting out of there.
I turned back and quickly pedaled back. It was getting dark and I was getting worried. Luckily, the trip back was all downhill and I got out of the canyon much faster than I had entered it. I moved so fast that I almost flipped the bike when I reached this rocky area. Out of the canyon there was a whole lot of field between me and the canyon. Again, it was mainly downhill until I reached a clearly defined road that connected me to the main road. It was all uphill though. I tried cycling up the dirt road for a while but by then I as exhausted and I didn’t last too long. The soft sand under the tires wasn’t of much help either. I pushed the bike for the remainder of the road.
By the time I reached the main road it as already dark. It as pitch black and I was a little, dark dot on the highway. I had no lights or anything indicating my presence on the road. I put on my jacket not only because I as super cold but also because I was hoping it would reflect the light. I as hoping it ill make my presence on the rod known. I waited for a couple of cars to pass by before I crossed the road and slowly started making my way up the road. Again, it was all uphill and I was tired very quickly. I could see cars going downhill a couple of kilometers away from me but first I had to make it there. I thought things would be much easier and quicker once I got to the downhill part. I couldn’t be further from the truth.
Once I reached the downhill part I realized going fast downhill on a 120km/h highway in complete darkness wasn’t a good idea. All I could see (and even then barely!) as the white line on the road separating me from the cars. Cars were flying by on my left and a precipice as on my right. Joy. On top of that there were rocks on the road making my descent very tricky. I let the bike go relatively fast until I hit a large rock. The bike jumped up in the air; meanwhile I pressed the breaks real hard resulting in a screeching back tire, partial loss of control and a dislocated chain. I managed to stay on the bike however, and I thanked God for the lack of cars on the road at that moment. My chain was dislocated though. I wondered what it would be like to change tires in the dark but luckily I didn’t have to find out. Fixing the chain wouldn’t be less tricky though. I stepped aside and tried feeling the chain. It seemed to be stuck. I turned the bike upside down, ready for some serious repairing. I thought having the chain closer to me (instead of having to double over it as a better, more convenient idea. Luckily, a car passed right at this moment, illuminating the bike parts and I managed to get it unstuck. From there I managed to get it back onto the wheel by feel. Luckily it wasn’t damaged and it worked just fine. The incident got me worried though. I decided to take it very slow from then onward regardless of how long it would take me to get back to the village.
Back on the road I was cold. I had no idea how far I as but I calculated it much be at least 10km. I wasn’t having fun. I just wanted to go back to safety. It was freezing cold, and the road as getting worse (more rocks, sand and wholes). I was worried. I saw lights in the distance at some point but nothing immediate. Imagine my relief when I finally saw the welcoming sign for the town and its warm lights in the nearby distance. I was on the verge of crying. That’s how happy and grateful I as at that moment. I was pretty shaken up by the whole night cycling experience and just wanted to get back home and go to bed. By the way, the area here I got lost as called ‘Valle de la Muerte’ or ‘Death Valley’ (at least I thought so at the time) – some place to get stuck at!
I took the bike back, told the guys I got a bit lost and that the bike has proven solid and he asked me what did I mean by that comment. I thought I’d spare him the chain accident and just told him it had handled the off road sandy bits very well.
On my way back home I stopped at an Inet café and related the day’s story to Mario. I felt like I needed to share with someone. Back in the hostel, there was no hot water again. I just undressed and went to sleep. What a day!
Day 3: July 10, 2010
I woke up and there was no hot water again. Oh well! I headed back to the bike office for my second day of cycling the Atacama Desert. This time the guy behind the desk was a lot more friendly and even gave me a kiss ‘Hello!’ upon seeing me. I was going to some nearby ruins and possibly to some further rocks. But first some chores needed doing. I had to take some money out and buy my bus ticket for the following morning. I was going back to Argentina, meeting Mario in Salta. And I also wanted to book a tour for the afternoon (Laguna Cejar). I was going floating in some extra salty lagoons. A nice present to my sore body and a nice way to end my visit.
I as sore from the day before and I really took my time cycling. When I made it to the ruins, I first decided to climb up to a viewpoint and was pleasantly surprised by the views it revealed. I could see the town from the top, a reddish rock valley as well as what I think as the actual Death Valley. I was so happy to get a panoramic view of it afterall. I still don’t know whether it was the valley but I’d like to think so. I hung out on top of the hill for a while and then made my way back down. I still had the actual ruins to explore.
That consisted of another hike up the hill in between the ancient walls. The view from the top revealed what I already had seen from higher up and therefore wasn’t worth it. I made my way down and had a relaxed lunch (meat empanadas) before I headed back to town. I had taken my time and there was no time left to go cycling anywhere else. I dropped off the bike and went to the tour agency where we were being picked up.
For my surprise I met Amilkar, a buddy from the hostel and his dad waiting to leave as well. I as happy we would be doing the trip together. Soon after I arrived we got onto the minibus and headed to the lagoon. There were three lagoons and most people floated in the one with the rocky bottom (one could cut his feet). Our guide thought it better to float in the one without a bottom or at least one that was very deep down under the water (50m). The third lagoon’s bottom was muddy and unsuitable. We undressed and after a short explanation we went in in search of the hot spots. The water was freezing cold on the surface but pleasantly warm near the salty bottom. I let myself float and quickly swam to the center of it looking for a hot spot as indicated by our guide. I found one and floated there for the next 10-15mins only occasionally adjusting my position in search of the hot water. Once we were out our guide rinsed us all with fresh water, we took some more photos and got back onto the truck for our second stop.
We reached the so cold Eyes of the Desert (Ojitos del desierto) – a couple of fresh water lagoons. It was fun taking reflection photos there but we were soon rushed back to the bus as it was time to head to our final destination where we would watch the sunset over some Pisco Sour and snacks. Yum! We reached the Mirror Lagoon (my name for it) just in time. The light was perfect and the reflection of the mountains and people – impeccable. The light, hence the scenery changed three time before the sun set completely. We just munched on cheese, olives and chips, drank Pisco and enjoyed the view. First thing we did when we got there though was to take our shoes off and walk into the water over the shallow salty bottom.
– How much further does the shallow extend? – I asked the guide.
– Nobody knows – he answered. But at some point it just breaks into an underwater precipice – he added. That was when I abruptly turned around and went back. I was not going to fall through the salt into God knows what.
Soon, the sun was completely gone and e headed back. Amilkar was very excited about his day and kept talking. Not just to me but to everybody that as in the car. Brazilians for you!
Back at the hostel we had a BBQ waiting for us. We had agreed on it in the morning and we found Cintia (a Chilean girl living at the hostel) making hot, spicy salsa for the churripan (sausage in bread). We quickly bathed; there was hot water and great water pressure this time.
By the time I came out of the shower, the fire had been started and people had gathered around. We sat around, drinking, chatting, and most importantly eating. The sausages didn’t take too long to cook and before I knew it I had downed three of them, a glass of Pisco Sour and some red wine. We also had some grilled chicken. Everything was absolutely delicious. It was a great night. After dinner, we all sat around, chatting, enjoying the warmth of the fire.
Close to 12am I got pretty sleepy and thought I would go to bed. Just before I did I had to settle the bill. I walked into the kitchen and as I was paying Cintia approached me asking whether I wanted to go to a party.
– What kind of party is it? – I asked.
– A party – she said. My friends are sitting in a truck, around the corner waiting for me. Come on lets go – she urged.
– No, I think I am just going to bed – I said. I am pretty tired.
I went inside and brushed my teeth and then it dawned on me. ‘What if it is one of those desert parties I have heard people talk about? That’s pretty cool. I am tired but I don’t want to miss such a party.’ I thought to myself. That’s when Amilkar came in and asked me what as that party Cintia was talking about. I told him I didn’t know and also shared my concerns. What if it WAS a desert party? Cintia also came in shedding more light on the issue. It turned out that the party was someone’s birthday in some house. I thought it wasn’t worth it and tried to get myself out of it but Cintia was really persuasive and convinced me to go. I just couldn’t say ‘No’. I told her I was only going to stay a couple of hours before I came back and she assured me she would get her friend to give me a lift back. Luckily, Amilkar was coming too.
We left the hostel and packed into an old pickup truck with Cintia’s friend Alex and his 40-year-old drunk buddy. We drove through town, soon leaving the well lit streets for the dark, dirt roads of the surroundings. I sat on Amilkar’s lap (there were four of us on seats for three) and wondered where we were going and whether these people could be trusted. On top of that Alex kept messing up the directions and we had to rely on the drunk’s directions. If that wasn’t enough the truck’s engine wasn’t working properly and kept switching off. I have to admit it was funny and we spent the whole way to the house doubled with laughter.
We finally saw the light of the house and heard the music spilling onto the dark street. It turned out to be a bit more than a barn with a few tables covered with leftover grilled meat, empty bottles and plastic cups. In the center of the dirt courtyard was a rusting metal container that doubled as a fireplace. We met the birthday person, who turned out to be a 40-year-old and paid respects to what appeared to be his wife. We then huddled by the fire and spoke between ourselves. I feeling slightly uncomfortable and thinking we didn’t belong there and were so out of place. The 40-year-old drunk we had come with kept hitting on me and I kept trying to get rid of him. Things didn’t get any better when another mature gentleman approached me asking to dance. I danced, it was fun for a while but then he kept insisting and I had to make up a whole lot of excuses. I told him I was tired and I needed a rest.
– If you dance with me, you will be the most popular girl here! – he said. ‘Tempting, but no.’ I thought.
I talked to Amilkar, to Alex, to one of the locals, we talked about family and children, about racial problems in Chile, and we danced a bit. It was soon 2am, the promised two hours were gone and it was time to go home. Alex got into the truck, and so did four of the girls that were at the party. To sat in the front seat, another two at the back, and there was barely any space left for me and Amilkar. Again I ended up sitting on his lap. Alex tried to back the truck through the narrow gate but instead got stuck in the ditch that was right in front of it. He tried to maneuvers it out but every time the truck’s engine would switch off. After a while the drunken birthday man took charge and got the truck out. That wasn’t enough though; he decided to give us all a ride back to town. Some of the girls sitting in the truck were his relatives and urged him not to drive, but he wouldn’t listen. I was worried and so was Amilkar. We exchanged looks and held tight to the front seat. Luckily, the driver wasn’t as drunk as we thought and managed to take us back to the hostel in one piece.
Throughout the night, Cintia had jokes about how I am never going to forget that night and she sure was right. I don’t know if it was good or bad but it was certainly unforgettable.
I went to bed and woke up in the early morning in time to catch the bus that was taking me back to Argentina. On the way to the terminal I bumped into Cintia and her French buddy Victor who were just coming back from the party. It was 9.30am. I wondered where Victor had slept since Cintia and Alex were dating and probably had spent the night together…
We took our goodbyes, hugged and kissed and I left Chile for the last time.
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