San Pedro de Atacama and a Family Visit

The road to los Lagos Altiplánicas
The road to los Lagos Altiplánicas

I’m back in Santiago after an incredible week in San Pedro de Atacama with my aunt, JM! The desert was stunning. The views go on forever, the salt crusts the earth for as far as you can see, and there are so many stars at night that it’s difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins. You can look and look and look but it all seems to go on forever. We walked through Valle de la Luna|Moon Valley and Valle de la Muerte|Death Valley, woke up at 4am to travel into the Andes to see the Geyers del Tatio, and stepped gingerly along Laguna Chaxa to get an up-close look at the flamingos|flamencos feeding in the salty water. We wove our way up to 4,200 meters above sea level to see the Lagunas Altiplanicas. Twice, we watched the sun set from Piedra de Coyote and looked back to see the colors reflected over the Andes. It was a wonderful way to finish up my traveling in Chile as my time here comes to a close.

Suddenly, I have a mere three weeks left until packing up my life here and flying back to the United States. When I think about how quickly the time has passed, I feel like I just arrived. However, when I think about everything I’ve been able to see and experience during half of a year here, I feel like it’s been a lifetime. I wrote back in November about how I feel like my life has surpassed my wildest dreams, and I must admit that it’s a feeling that has stuck around since then. I have my routine here, some days I just sit around and read, I still do homework and spend Monday through Friday in the office, but I’m living fully and I’m so very happy. For years I’ve dreamed of traveling and living immersed in another culture, and I’m finally here doing just that. I’m immensely grateful.

First breakfast with a view
First breakfast with a view

I came across this article recently about skills and character traits you build from traveling. I thought it outlined my goals for this experience well, and I’ve found myself identifying with each at different points during my trips over the past few months. Some I’ve mentioned in previous posts, while others are more subtle changes. In honor of my last big trip within Chile, I thought it relevant to share.

And now, I present to you a photo recap of San Pedro! JM and I took hundreds, but I’ve chosen my favorites to share with you here. For those of you who are interested, we stayed at the Planeta Atacama Lodge: about a 15 minute walk from the town center. Cozy adobe rooms, fresh breakfast every morning, and beautiful views. I highly recommend it! From our dinners out in town, we found Las Delicias de Carmen to be our favorite restaurant. They only accept cash, so make sure to stop at a cajero automatico|ATM beforehand! But the food (as the name suggests) is delicious. Ceviche, a glass of wine, and carne al jugo was a tasty and satisfying end to the day. To JM, thank you so very much for taking the week to come and visit Chile! I was thrilled to have you here, and had so much fun traveling together and catching up. See you soon!

Meet my incredible aunt!
Meet my incredible aunt! Here we are just before the sun goes down on our first night.

As a side note, everywhere we explored we went with a group. We booked all of our tours through IncaNorth, and we were very pleased. Everything was taken care of, the tour guides were friendly and knowledgable, and I learned a lot.

We started the week with an evening trip to Lago Escondido to check out the Salar de Atacama and float in the salty pools. We drove for at least an hour through the salt-crusted desert to reach the pools, and had to pick our way through tiny salt formations to get from the dirt road to the water. The water was crystal clear, but some of the pools were so deep we couldn’t see the bottom. However, with a salt concentration of almost 15%, we had no trouble staying on the surface.

Isolated.
Isolated.
Look mom, no hands!
Look Mom, no hands!
Snow or salt?
Snow or salt?

After floating around for a while, we rinsed off and headed to Piedra de Coyote to check out the sunset. Looking out over the valley was breathtaking.

The view from Piedra de Coyote
Piedra de Coyote. Click to open an enlarged version of the picture.
Looking out over Valle de la Luna
Looking out over Valle de la Luna

Our second day was long: 6am wake up and with two different excursions planned back-to-back we didn’t get home to the lodge until almost 10:30pm. But it was so very worth it. We got up early to make the drive to the Lagunas Altiplánicas, located at about 4,200 meters. Simply stunning.

The smaller of the two large lagoons
The smaller of the two large lagoons
Walking towards the second lagoon
Walking towards the second lagoon
Among the Andes
Among the Andes
JM was braver than I was... It was cold!
JM was braver than I was… It was cold!

After our time at the lagoons, we headed to Laguna Chaxa to see the flamingos who feed in the salt flats. There weren’t as many as there sometimes are, but we still were able to get some great shots as they fed close to the waters’ edge.

Up close and personal
Up close and personal
The flock
The flock
Into the flats
Into the flats
A moment's rest
A moment’s rest

Back in San Pedro, we had a quick lunch in town before meeting up with our group for the next tour. We piled into the bus and went to Valle de la Luna|Moon Valley. Sand dunes, rock structures, salt for as far as the eye can see: the landscape is everything I would imagine that the surface of the moon would look like. It’s well-advertised in the area that because of the valley’s similarities to the moon and Mars, NASA conducts testing there when the need arises.

Las Tres Marías|The Three Marys
Las Tres Marías|The Three Marys
Salt salt salt
Salt salt salt
Unlike most sand dunes, this one does not travel: the way the rocks support it there is nowhere for it to go
Unlike most sand dunes, this one does not travel: the way the rocks support it there is nowhere for it to go
Small sand clouds were whipped up by the wind, as seen in the background
Small sand clouds were whipped up by the wind, as seen in the background
The lines along the rock indicate different periods of time: the first layer suggests that it was under the ocean at some point
The lines along the rock indicate different periods of time: the first layer suggests that it was under the ocean at some point

Following Valle de la Luna, we spent some time in Valle de la Muerte|Death Valley. It was quick, but enough to get a feel for the area. To end the day, we stopped at Piedra de Coyote once again to watch the sun drop behind the mountains.

Among the rocks in Valle de la Muerte|Death Valley
Among the rocks in Valle de la Muerte|Death Valley

Our final full day in Atacama was an early one: 4am wake-up for a 4:30am pick up. JM is a self-proclaimed “not morning person” so I was proud when we were both out the door – with our shoes on the right feet – in time for the bus. 4am may seem absurd, but there’s a method to the madness: sunrise is the best time to see the Geysers del Tatio. The third largest geyser field in the world, bested only by Yellowstone and a field in Russia, Tatio is incredible and best experienced when you can see the steam rising from the ground. Also, the colder the air, the thicker the steam. And it was cold. -8C or approximately 17F. I wore six thermal shirts, leggings, ski socks, a neck warmer, a hat, and mittens. And wrapped myself in a blanket.

Geysers del Tatio
Geysers del Tatio
IMG_1022
Bubbling up

If you’re currently in the Northeast in the states, I can see you mock-sympathizing with me after your bout with the extreme cold this winter! I tried to channel my inner New Englander for the trip, but I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering as I wandered between the geysers. All in all, a beautiful scene and highly recommended to anyone visiting San Pedro. At 4,300 meters among the Andes, some people experience altitude sickness. Luckily, JM and I had no trouble other than mild shortness of breath after walking.

Chilly in Chile (Too good to pass up)
Chilly in Chile (Too good to pass up)
As the sun rises
As the sun rises

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at a fresh water oasis to see some of the animals native to the higher altitudes. Following the stop, we spent about an hour in a small indigenous town. A single street spanning approximately two blocks, with a church a quick walk up a nearby hill, the community gave new meaning to the name “small town.” The town was funded by the government to bring native people back to the area after the Spanish conquistadors came in and killed the inhabitants of the nearby ancient village. The remains of the old houses are scattered throughout the valley, but the new town is compact and full of life.

Fresh water oasis
Fresh water oasis
Adobe style
Adobe style
Vicuña: a camel cousin
Vicuña: a camel cousin

We returned to our room at Planeta Atacama for a well-earned siesta|nap. We spent the evening picking out gifts for my cousins and grandparents, and topped off the week with wine and dessert. An early night to bed to make the most of the cozy room, and we were en route to Santiago the next morning.

Around Atacama
Around Atacama

Our last night together, Friday, JM and I went to Bocanariz in Santiago’s Barrio Lastarria for a tapas style meal and flights of wine to taste. I can’t say that I’m anywhere close to a wine expert, but I would like to learn! So until I have better developed my pallet, I’ll keep taking the wine connoisseur waitress’s recommendations and liking almost every wine I taste. Fresh brushcetta, warm bread, and a caprese salad left us satisfied and happy.

Bocanariz
Bocanariz

As I mentioned before, this was the last of my big travels for my time here. My next few weeks will be spent working, keeping up with my online Drexel class, spending time with my roommates, and seeing my other friends around the city one last time before I head out. Everyone at Pontificia Universidad Católica comes back to campus next week which is exciting! Also, I have yet to make the quick trek up Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago… Definitely a must before I head out. Hopefully this weekend or next!

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