San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

I’ve had minimal problems with weather in the last few weeks – I’ve been lucky.  You’d think that I’d be fine in the driest desert in the world.  Well, turns out that there’ve been record-breaking rains and floods here.  (In the meantime, southern Chile, which usually has a lot of rain, is suffering from drought.)

The floods have subsided a little, but there are now new rivers and new bridges must be built.  Also, some attractions are not viable in rain, and it still rains here occasionally – odd for a city that usually never sees a single cloud.  As a result, many attractions here are inaccessible for tours – including Laguna Cejar, which I wanted to see: a lake like the Dead Sea in that you float because of the salinity.  When the attractions do open, the tours fill up almost immediately.

At least I’m lucky enough to get to the Valle de la Luna.  Famed for being one of the most inhospitable places in the world (no water, no vegetation…maybe no organisms?), it’s also known for being the closest Earth equivalent to the surface of the moon.  However, due to the rains, it looks entirely different now – sand has become clay, and the salts covering the hills have been cleaned by the rain, giving the alienlike hills a bright white dusting like snow.  The normally cloudless skies have splotches of white and grey.  It may not look like the moon anymore, but I’m fortunate to see the Valle de la Luna at a rare state that most tourists don’t see.  (Unfortunately, now I haven’t seen it at its normal state!)  Same goes for the Three Marias, three strange towers formed by erosion, and the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley).


It’s only been a little over half a year since I’ve been in a desert (Rajasthan, India), but clearly I haven’t learned my lesson – it may be hot, but it gets cold fast.  Forgot the jacket again.  Whoooops.  At least there were pisco sours at the end to warm us up.

Upon returning to my hostel, I finally see Óscar and Silvia!  Hugs abound.  And with them, two Argentine friends they made at the hostel, Matias and Luciana.  And knowing that I was here, they bought extra food for me!  Awww…so nice.  We had a wonderful asado for dinner, except it took three hours to get the fire going and we ate dinner around 11 pm.  (I was dying – all I had to eat that day was a completo, cheap Chilean fast-food: a hot dog with diced tomatoes, mashed avocado, and mayonnaise… at 1 pm).

I was slightly pressured by the hostel owner to book a full day tour to the Lagunas Altíplanicas – high altitude lagoons.  But it was expensive, and I was still suffering a little bit from the altitude.  Besides, Silvia and Óscar only had one more day in San Pedro.  Wanting to stay with some good company, I decided to cancel and just hang out for a day.

Unfortunately, Óscar and I both picked up bedbugs from our hostel in Valparaíso. (Silvia escaped unscathed.)  With no washing machines around (unless we wanted to lug our laundry ten minutes into town and pay a fortune in this expensive place with little water), it became a laundry day.  Also, my first time washing clothes by hand…heh…

Over a nice home-cooked lunch from Óscar and Matias – okay hold on a sec.  Silvia, Óscar, Matias, and Luciana are all amazingly nice.  They’ve cooked every meal for me since I’ve gotten here, and refuse to let me help – not even pay for groceries or wash the dishes, since I have openly admitted to being terrible at cooking.  Anyway, during all of these meals and just lazying around on the hammocks at the hostel, we’ve just been talking about anything.  Mostly in Spanish.

It’s right about now that I realise that I’ve improved enough to be able to function, just barely for now, in Spanish!  Yay!  Over the past few days in San Pedro, being with awesome company just made me want to talk more and try more, and I’m expanding my vocabulary a bit from just the survival stuff.  (Grammar, too – stuff that I never learned in Spanish 1.)  Sure, I lapse into English sometimes (and Silvia and Luciana are able to loosely translate when Óscar and Matias don’t quite understand), but at least I can understand conversations in Spanish better now.

Anyway, after walking to and from town four times due to the shops I need (bus companies, tour agencies) opening and closing at random hours (very frustrating, but at least some local yelled out “ni hao” instead of “konichiwa” to me for once), for our final meal together as five, Óscar made tortilla de papas, a “Spanish omelette” of potatoes, so to speak.  Mmmm.  A toast, to good company!  I may run into Silvia and Óscar again in Bolivia or Peru, hopefully!  (I tried to convince them to change their route and come to Salta and Tupiza with me before heading to Uyuni, but alas…)

The next morning, after a sleepless night (paranoid about bedbugs), watching a beautiful sunrise over Volcán Licancabur, and more hugs and goodbyes, I headed out to a tour to Valle de la Muerte to try out sandboarding!  (And sandboarding in Spanish is…sandboarding.)

It’s exactly as it sounds.  Climb up a sand dune, strap on, slide down.  Only problem is you have to walk all the way up the dune again.  So the ride’s pretty short and it gets tiring pretty fast since you have to walk uphill carrying your sandboard (sandboard in Spanish?  Tabla de sandboarding, or…board of sandboarding.  Hmm.), especially when the desert warms up.  However, it’s easier than snowboarding in a few ways – you’re in loose clothing, the sand is comfortable to sit on and not as hard as snow, and just…easier?

The newfound confidence in my Spanish (still FAR from good) led me to meet two people on my sandboarding tour, Johan and Celeste from Antofagasta.  Very picture-happy couple – though I suppose the idea of sliding down anything on a board is strange to most people!  Us Canadians are spoilt…and yet I’ve only ever snowboarded once!  We all had fun wiping out a million times (sand gets everywhere…) and snapping action shots of each other.  Excellent weather too, since the Valle de la Muerte looked a ton better then than during my tour two days before.

I returned to the hostel and opted to wait for Luciana and Matias to return from their tour at 3 pm, so we could have lunch together.  A new group arrived though – Beto, Jimbo (both nicknames) and Pamela and their 2-year-old daughter Sofía (a tiny bundle of energy), all from Antofagasta.  We became fast friends, and soon enough Luciana and Matias joined in as well.  More Spanish…though at least Beto and Jimbo have pretty decent English for when I fall back on it.

Beto’s been to San Pedro five times now.  Despite this being a tourist town, he really enjoys the small town feel, the attractions nearby (they’re so unique in the world, after all), and meeting travellers.  He did note that almost all foreigners he’s met are travelling for long periods of time like I am, whether months or years – a concept unheard of for Chileans.  Also, getting out of Antofagasta, where he claims there is only the beach to go to, and San Pedro is only five hours away by bus.  His cell phone/mp3 player constantly blares out English-language 70s rock, which is something I’ve found to be quite amusingly common around Chile – he says that during the Pinochet dictatorship in that decade, all outside media was censored.  They’re certainly making up for that now, 40 years on!

Since I had a giant lunch (courtesy of Matias and Luciana, of course) at 4 pm and I needed to wake up at 3:45 am for my tour the next day, I had a light dinner – kuchen.  This German cake thing is extremely common in Chile for some reason.  Not complaining at all, cause it was delicious!

Well then, waking up early…yeah.  After a bumpy four hour ride on bad roads due to the recent flooding (at least the good weather is here to stay now), we were rewarded with a very nice view of El Tatio, one of the highest geyser fields in the world. The sunrise, the huge mountains, the desolate brush landscape, and the clouds of steam in the distance were quite worth the trip.  The geysers themselves, however, were a little underwhelming in that they never went higher than a metre or so.  Still – the setting.  And the animals around – vicuñas, taguas, flamingoes, domesticated llamas.

Due to the high altitude (San Pedro is at 2400 m, some areas around El Tatio reach over 4000 m), we were offered mate de coca (coca leaf tea) during breakfast.  This coca leaf is the same plant that results in cocaine, but it’s absolutely not for nefarious purposes here: locals swear by it to cure altitude sickness and indigestion.  Despite not suffering from the altitude, I decided to try it – it ended up making me lightheaded, and I ended up feeling worse for the rest of the excursion.  Oh well.  (And I certainly hope not to be taking a drug test for the next few weeks, cause having mate de coca will cause false positives!)

During the tour, we also passed by a hot spring (despite the temperature being perfect, I passed due to suffering from the tea), a view of Río Putana, and a Machuca village.  By the time I return to my hostel, it’s 11 hours after I left!

After lunch (same situation as usual) and a ton of lazying around on the hammocks, Matias, Luciana, and I went for a walk to town and we ran into Kevin, who I met in Pucón.  I haven’t been to a city in Chile so far where I haven’t run into someone familiar!  Over some rather expensive drinks (touristy town after all), the four of us had a rather interesting conversation, with a four-link translation chain: Kevin would say something, I’d translate it into Spanglish, and Luciana would translate for Matias into Spanish…and then in reverse when replying.  First time being a translator, yay!

Evening?  Hammocks, campfire, conversation, and Milky Way.  Also, Matias attempts Óscar’s tortilla de papas…and though it doesn’t look alike at all, it tasted alright!  I think I’m gonna have to try to make that someday too – eggs, potatoes, and onions.  Simple, right? 😛

Today’s my final day here, and after an almost tearful goodbye to Luciana and Matias, Beto, Jimbo, and Pamela invited me to join the four of them (Sofía included) to bike to Laguna Cejar, which just reopened.  25 km each way…oy!  We started at 1 pm, and for the first 15 km or so, we had a nice, flat paved road.  Then we got to the dirt road, which eventually became a sand road.  (Hey, at least the scenery was nice, with the nearby mountains and volcanoes of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina in full view for the first time during my stay.)  After walking our bikes through the sand for quite some distance, we stopped a tour bus heading the same way and got them to take Pamela and Sofía.  However…that meant we were now three people with four bikes.

What we didn’t know was that we had about 5 or 7 km left to go on the dirt/sand road.  Ack!  We took turns walking with two bikes, which slowed us down significantly.  Eventually, I opted to bike one-handed while holding the other bike in my right hand.  I was the only one able to do this, but I never was able to manage more than a couple hundred metres at a time, if at all, before I’d stumble or ram into the other bike and get tangled.  Probably one of the more dangerous things I’ve done…  But we’d alternate between taking turns walking with two bikes or having me bike while holding the second bike.

Our supposed two hour ride ended up becoming three and a half hours.  But it was all worth it to get to the laguna!  We were so exhausted and totally ready to jump right in, and the temperature was perfect.  As mentioned earlier, this is a high-salinity lake, so no effort required either.  What was even more strange was that the surface of the lake was cold, but the bottom was quite hot!  Good for those sore legs.  However, due to the long and arduous bike ride, I was sunburnt and had a couple scratches on my legs – the salt reaaaally didn’t help there!

Beto and I also walked around a neighbouring mini laguna, where there were some flamingos.  They’d spot us from afar and just fly away, though.  Still…pretty!

The lake was so relaxing that we left a little bit late – 6:30.  After putting Pamela and Sofía and one bike on a tour bus, at least we could bike back without the extra effort.  However, we chose an alternate path that ended up being a dirt road the entire way!  Owowowoww.  It took us so long that we got back to San Pedro after dark, sometime after 9.  Sure, I was really quite regretting not hitchhiking (entirely possible and easy), but watching the sunset on the mountains, our shadows grow longer and longer, then the stars emerging was nice.  And now I can also be proud of the fact that we biked 50 km in a day, mostly on bad roads!  Well, I’m gonna have a sore bum for the next few days though.  While I normally would’ve picked a tour over a 50 km bike ride that was just a few dollars cheaper, doing it with new friends made it totally worth it.

Despite having far more time here than I originally wanted, I’ve really appreciated what came out of it.  This may be the most touristy town I’ve visited in the last six weeks, with many vendors and operators capable of speaking English, but somehow I ended up in a hostel with a Spanish-only speaking owner, and making some amazing friends who mainly speak Spanish.  These are some of the strongest new friendships I’ve built so far, and with it comes the motivation to try to communicate more and learn more (and of course the hope to be able to keep in touch, not just in terms of frequency, but linguistically).  I’m ready, but I’m also quite sad to leave this (and Chile in general!) behind tomorrow.  I must though – I have now reached the halfway point of my South America trip, but I’m quite behind now in terms of mileage, and something in my plans has got to change!

One last time to enjoy some good company on the hammocks under the stars…

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