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San Pedro de Atacama – Desert Town with Spectacular Views

Posted by on August 28, 2010

And so the backposting continues. Have found some details escape me, so much has happened, but this was one of the best days so far.

The next day we had a decent breakfast and headed to the tour company first, to book in for Saturday. Easy enough, two nights and three days, we’d be in Uyuni on Monday night. I emailed Blair accordingly, and then we shifted hostels to the cheaper one. It was still very nice, but a YHA hostel (although they wouldn’t let us join to get the discount – you have to join in your own country apparently?), and for the first time I’ve seen, our room had triple-storey bunks. Amal had been assigned a top bunk, and apparently it’s quite a view from up there!

As we exited, the two German girls from the day before saw us, and asked why we’d shifted. They then mentioned they were going on a tour that afternoon to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Valle de la Muerte (of Death) – the place on earth most void of life, and that we should come. Not ones to turn down two lovely girls, we popped down to the company and added our names to the list, and confirmed that Susanne and Simone were on the same tour.

The tour didn’t start till 3, so we headed down the main street to do some tourist shopping and desert gear finding for our big tour the next day. Amal needed a decent jacket, as his UK one’s zip had, well, stopped being a zip, and needed some decent glasses, while I was more focused on getting random food for the trip (you bring your own water and snacks, meals are provided). We found there were only two places in town for gear – a small random one, and North Face. Settling on one there, we found a minimarket and stocked up, mainly on biscuits and water. Lots of water. Then some postcards and lunch, before meeting the girls for the tour. They were pleased to see us, and we were all pleased to see our vehicle – a beast of a truck, a massive 4WD with big windows and lots of power.

The driver, brilliantly, was speaking both Spanish and English, which again worked well for us wanting to improve our language skills. By now we were at a point where we could often tell when stuff was left out of the English version, or when they changed descriptions slightly to suit the language, but still struggle with the speed of speech, and as it’s still a case of word for word translation, just not quite fast enough to keep track.

We headed out of town and up to Moon Valley. And what a view. A massive vista spread out in front of us, a huge ridge to the right with low mountains behind, many little rocks and hills below, and to the left in the distance, the major volcano and the rest of the Andes mountains, with only the Atacama desert between (and around) us. We were on a cliff itself, with several hundred feet down to the rocks below. No safety fence of course, which just makes for better pictures really.

After getting the geography and history lesson, we hopped back in and headed to the Valley of Death. The guide impressed upon us that nothing lives here, and that it’s lacking in water and life, etc etc. (Oddly, an almost word for word description from the Top Gear episode where they traverse the Altiplano, making Richmond Hammond the smallest living organism in it). The colours and rolling formations are spectacular, with the majestic Andes providing a backdrop. The guide does some more geography teaching, explaining the layers of strata, and then tells us we must hurry, as it’s nearly sunset and we don’t want to miss it. But first, cerveza for all! The driver has pulled out a table and set up a bunch of beers for us, and some soft drink for the kids on the bus. We all chat, and the topic quickly changes to the recent world cup, countries, and I had a banter with an older English guy about his team’s performance :) All good fun, and we jump back on and head to a clearing nearby, with a massive ridge atop a dune to our right. The guide explains that the best view is from the top, and we should probably hurry.

Hurry is NOT something done well at altitude. It’s rough enough just walking around town, and as we’d found yesterday in Calama, it’s quickly exhausting when exercise is involved. This was a reasonably steep incline, and on thick sand. Which of course means each footstep slips a bit as you take the next one. We finally reach the top where several other tour companies have also sent their guests, and again are amazed at the view all around. As the sun drops lower to our west, the Andes behind and dunes below to our east slowly change colour, a spectacular array of browns, oranges and reds. It makes such an impression in your mind, that turning back to the west the mountains below seem to be turning a shade of blue as a result. Just on sunset, the almost-full moon rises above the Andes as well, and cameras fire all around us. It’s worth the walk, a great introduction to the desert.

Back into town, Susanne and Simone suggest dinner, as Susanne’s had a place recommended to her by a colleague. It turns out she works in Santiago, Chile, and Simone has flown out from Germany to spend some weeks visiting and studying. They’re in San Pedro for the weekend, before returning to life in Santiago. We agree to pop back to our hostels, and then meet at the restaurant.

Shortly later, we’re enjoying a red Chilean wine in an open air restaurant (Cafe Adobe), this time right next to the fire, conveniently, as it’s quickly cooling again. It’s odd but I can’t remember what I ate, but there’s a fair chance it was steak, given previous days. Susanne and Simone it turns out are step-sisters, each with a brother. Simone’s studying in Germany, while Susanne is getting very worldly experience in a public financial role, which would be years beyond one’s reach with that level of experience if living in Europe. Impressively she knew no Spanish before going to Chile – although she did learn Hebrew while studying in Israel for four years, has done NINE years of Latin(!), and quickly learnt Spanish for her job in Santiago(!).

A band comes on, and while I only recognise a couple of the instruments, it’s very good. It somehow fits with the setting, the cool open air dining, the fire, and the band – it all just feels right.

We do the Facebook exchange and are offered accommodation for when we eventually reach Santiago, and part ways – we have our tour in the morning, and they were off sandboarding. San Pedro is an amazing tourist spot – it still feels like a tiny desert town, but there is SO much to do.

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