After a restless overnight journey we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, upon leaving the coach we could already feel two things; the intense heat and the thin air, San Pedro de Atacama lies at roughly 2407 metres above sea level. We walked with our heavy backpacks to our hostel and as it was too early to check in we sat on the dusty sofas in the outside courtyard with heavy eyelids and shortness of breath. After drinking as much water as we could manage to combat the altitude sickness we walked very slowly into the centre of town for breakfast before spending several hours talking to the many tourist agencies to set about organising a tour of Salar de Uyuni which we had learned could be done from San Pedro de Atacama. We found a tour operater that could organise three tours in the desert and also our Salt Flats tour.
Our first tour was to Piedra Rojas or 'Red Rock'. We were picked up early and did the rounds to pick up everybody else. After a drive the first stop was to a church tower made with old materials including cactus fibres. We then stopped at the beautiful Atacama Salt Flat where we saw flamingos perfectly reflected in the shallow water. We learned that the pink appearance comes from their diet of brine shrimp which gradually turns their grey feathers the pretty blush colour; the older the flamingo the pinker their feathers. We admired the birds and the otherworldly landscape for some time, the air was thin but bearable and the moon was out; it really felt as though we were walking on the surface of another planet. We returned to the van and had breakfast overlooking the salt, the sun had started beating down.
The next stop was the red rocks themselves. We had been warned by the helpful tour operator who booked the trip that the photographs advertised of the rocks aren't quite accurate, they are often photoshopped to look more red to entice visitors. Unless it has been raining the rocks are actually a dusky brown colour. Despite the colour the rock formations are still impressive. We were advised not to run and jump in the area due to the altitude as overexertion can cause altitude sickness and so we slowly walked across the landscape to the still lake reflecting the mountains. Colour remains ever present in my memory of the place, blue sky, white salt and brown rock.
We boarded the van again and drove on to a sight with large lakes, volcanoes and vicûna's; our wonderful guide was very patient and after explaining everything in Spanish repeated it again in English for us as we were the only non Spanish speakers on the tour. The locals attribute fascinating stories to the landscapes which were a joy to hear. After a short walk by the lakes we had lunch at a quiet little town with the tour group before the long drive back to San Pedro.
The following day I was awake before 4am. I could hear dogs barking, people in conversation walking by the wide open windows and cars screeching past. The air was hot and dry and the lack of oxygen made my head feel fuzzy. We had a sunrise tour of the desert geysers and so falling back to sleep wasn't an option. We got on the minibus and were squeezed between two large blokes. Everybody including us fell back to sleep for the journey as we were encouraged to do by the guide. We awoke at the geysers and disembarked, it was cold and we were grateful we decided to wear our under layers. The geysers were amazing, huge bellows of steam rose toward the moon as the sun slowly appeared shining light on the tips of mountains. We've been lucky enough to see geysers in New Zealand and Iceland on our travels but these were by far the most impressive. Walking through the worlds highest geyser field we watched as the mud bubbled and minerals caused brightly coloured water to shimmer under the sun. We had some breakfast and afterwards Craig took a dip in the thermal pool, it looked lovely and warm until he got out. The steam as his warm body hit the chilly air reminded me of why I wanted to stay a spectator in my warm thermal socks. We went to another geyser field a short drive away and saw two erupt right in front of us; we were in awe. We stopped again at a church and viewpoint before returning to San Pedro. We had a short time to organise many things before our afternoon tour to the Moon Valley. We had to have lunch, buy supplies for our Salar de Uyuni tour the following day, book accommodation for the end of the tour in Uyuni and arrange a place to stay over Christmas before places got booked up in Sucre, Bolivia. After a little stress we managed to organise everything with time to spare.
We were picked up for our Moon Valley tour which began just a short drive away as it is not far from the town. We found ourselves at some salt tunnels which we walked and crawled through; the entire tunnel is made from salt though we decided not to taste the walls. We then walked to a viewpoint where we could see volcanoes and huge sand dunes which really made us feel as though we were in the desert. As with our tour the day before we learned stories from folklore of the mountain and volcanoes which were fascinating. We saw the three 'Maria's' made from rock before watching the sunset at Mirador Coyote. The orange sun setting over the vast landscape was an excellent way to end our weeks in beautiful and diverse Chile.
Next: entering Bolivia via Salar de Uyuni.
🎥 Chile - Up's and Down's:
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