For our last week in Chile, and the first week of our vacation, we went to the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. A couple of months ago, we almost reached it while exploring Bolivia: we stopped just a few kilometers short.
We rented a car and headed straight to Valle de la Luna, known for its – surprise – moonlike landscape of dunes, rugged mountains and distinctive rock formations. We made it just in time for sunset.
The next day we ventured further afield, to Laguna Miscanti. We wanted to go even further to Salar de Talar but halfway to the laguna we realized we didn’t have enough gasoline to go that far.
We came back to San Pedro, our base town, earlier than expected and decided to go to Valle de Marte (Mars Valley), just a few kilometers away. After our car got stuck in the sand on the way up to a viewpoint, we continued on foot. After a short hike around the edge of the plateau, we jumped on top of a sand dune, a popular sandboarding location. We didn’t sandboard down though, we simply ran down the dune.
For the following day, I had a grandiose plan to cycle on my Brompton up to the Chile-Bolivia border. Roughly 100km round trip, reaching an altitude of 4700m. I unpacked my Brompton and headed out toward the mountains. At the 12km marker I heard a pop: the rear tire blew up! I had a spare tube but not a tire. That was the end of it. A complete fiasco. An utter disappointment. I tried to flag the rare cars passing by, to no avail. Luckily I still had a smidge of reception on my cell phone. I texted Julie and 20 minutes later she drove to my rescue.
We did make it to the border though – by car, with Greengo in the trunk. In 45 min we drove to 4741m asl – a 2200m ascent. However, I was left wondering if I would have been able to get there on my Brompton.
At night, we went on a stargazing tour. The Atacama Desert is one of the best places to view the night sky. The AMLA observatory is located nearby for a reason. It was an entertaining tour thanks to our funny Canadian guide. Even with an almost full moon, we could see a myriad of stars with the naked eye. There were telescopes of different sizes pointed at various celestial objects that we could use. The most spectacular was seeing Saturn’s rings.
On Thursday we decided to take it easy and “only” drove 70km to Valle de Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley. It’s very colorful indeed. After an impromptu lunch, we drove another 25km to the village of Rio Grande (why not?). The Rio Grande happened to be a very small stream and the town was quite unremarkable.
On our last full day in San Pedro, or San Perro as it’s sometimes called for its number of stray dogs, we decided to go to the El Tatio geyser field, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. We got up at 4:30 am, drove for 90 min on a dirt road, and arrived on time for the sunrise and before the tourist buses. It was very cold, so cold my iPhone literally froze: it stopped responding until I put it in my pocket to warm it up. As for the geysers, the highest was about two meters high but most of them were just gurgling at ground level.
It was still morning when we returned to town. To kill time, we opted to drive to Garganta del Diablo. As we were advancing the winds were getting stronger, scattering dust all over. Then there was a river to cross that was a bit wider and a bit deeper than we were willing to take a chance with. We turned around and headed back. By the time we got back to San Pedro, it was a real sand storm – we couldn’t see the surrounding mountains.
We really liked Valle de Marte, Valle de Arcoiris and the area close to the Bolivian border, around volcano Licancabur. As for the rest, having been to the south of Bolivia, everything here was not as impressive.
P.S. All our driving – on steep roads, dirt roads, narrow roads, roads with potholes the size of our car’s wheel, roads crossing small streams – was done in a small Kia.
This week in numbers:
12 – f@&ing kilometers cycled, a far cry from the planned 100
4700m – asl, the intended altitude to cycle to
2535m – asl, the real altitude I cycled to
1142km – distance driven