In the driest desert in the worrrrrrrrrrld: San Pedro de Atacama!

Happy April and happy spring or fall, wherever you are! I absolutely love the fall weather here – the crisp air, the crunchy leaves, and the colors. It’s nowhere near as beautiful as fall in the Northeast, especially in New England, but it’ll do for now. If you’re reading this in an email, please please click on the title of this blog (or this link) to read it from the website! Otherwise you can’t see the videos (they just don’t show up in the emails)! *EDIT: videos did not make it into this post – they’ll be in the next one!*

Almost three weeks ago, Jordin and I left for our final trip during our time in Chile – to San Pedro de Atacama! The Atacama Desert is in the north of Chile, covering approximately 41,000 square miles (thank you Wikipedia), and is the driest AND highest non-polar desert in the world, and is known for being one of the best (if not THE best) places in the world to see the stars. At the beginning of 2017, the NY Times published an article about the best places to visit in 2017: #1 is Canada (I agree), and #2 is the Atacama Desert! I was lucky enough to visit both of these places for the first time in the same year, and would love to return. I know it seems like we’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the past few months (which we have), but we chose to go to the Atacama the first weekend in April because of the moon! When we were in La Serena at the end of February, we did an astronomy tour there, and it was during the new moon, so the sky was the darkest it could possibly be and we could see much more than when the moon is out. We planned this trip according to the moon calendar, and the new moon was at the very end of March and very end of April. We didn’t want to put off this 4-5 day trip until the end of April, as that is just a couple weeks before we return to the U.S., and we felt we would rather travel to the Atacama sooner so we can spend our final weeks just in Santiago.

*Here is a 45-minute History Channel documentary about how the Atacama Desert was formed and why it’s the driest place on earth, if you’re interested!* 

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Thursday, March 30

After just a two-hour flight from Santiago, where we deliberately chose seats on the right side of the plane to have a view of the Andes the entire flight, we arrived in Calama on Thursday at 4pm. The town of San Pedro is about 100km/62 mi from Calama, or about 1.5 hours by car. The town of San Pedro reminded me a lot of Santa Fe, NM: full of one-story buildings built from adobe. The town is very small, with one main street, a plaza, and a few other streets surrounding that area, which makes it very walkable. Every other door/shop is a travel agency, and the rest are hostels, restaurants, or souvenir shops. Jordin and I are planners, and didn’t want to arrive there without set tours/plans for each day, but we realized that it’s entirely possible to go there without any plans and simply book the tours the day before or even day-of.
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Our first dinner there was at a vegetarian/vegan restaurant (yes, it exists up there!), then we arranged a bike rental for the next day, and at 8pm, we got picked up at our hostel for our astronomy tour (most of our tours picked us up at our hostel, which was very convenient). This tour was led by a man named Jorge, who greeted us as “Mr. and Mrs. Metz” – Jordin and I have been mistaken for a couple too many times when we go places, especially since we often arrive together and I have a bad habit of talking in the “we” form. Anyway, Jorge took our group of 10 to his house, where he has 13 telescopes in his backyard! First was a 1.5 hour astronomy lesson, then a very intricate snack with hot drinks prepared by his assistant (his wife), and then an hour or so looking through all of his telescopes – here are just a handful of interesting things we learned:

  • There are 88 official constellations in the sky – in the 1920s, they divided the sky into 88 quadrants, each with one constellation. Just like the world is mapped by latitude and longitude, the sky is mapped using quadrants of constellations.
  • In the southern hemisphere, the North Star doesn’t exist, and there is no South Star. You see the Southern Cross, a constellation that doesn’t exist in the northern hemisphere, which will help you find the approximate location of the South Pole.
  • WE move, not the sky – throughout the night, the locations of the constellations kept shifting because of the rotation of the earth.
  • We saw the MILKY WAY, as we also did in La Serena!! I actually think that the sky in La Serena was slightly better in terms of what we could see, and the new moon definitely was the main cause of that.
  • Our guide Jorge used to work at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is the biggest telescope/astronomical operation in the world, and a partnership of various countries. We passed by it while driving through the Atacama – there are satellite dishes everywhere. It’s altitude is 5000 meters (16,404 feet).
  • Jorge is not only an astronomer, but an astro-photographer as well! He snapped this incredible photo – it was a very long exposure (this took 1-2 minutes to take):

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Friday, March 31

On Friday morning, we went to the bike shop to pick up our bikes we were renting for half of the day. We arrived at 9:15am, and the shop was supposed to open at 9, but because this is Chile, no one arrived until 9:40. We were planning on biking to Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley), which is just a few kilometers from San Pedro, but the woman at the shop told us we could also get to a few other places before going to Valle de La Muerte in our 5-hour timeframe (we had a tour at 4pm) so we could see more of the area. She gave us a map, and we headed off to our destination #1: Pukara de Quitor. After biking for 20 minutes, we arrived and climbed a small hill with a very pretty view, and then saw some stone faces that look cool and ancient but actually are pretty new. IMG_8757

Then we set out for destination #2: Quebrada del Diablo. We followed the map we were given (note: map was definitely not to scale), and we we looked for the bridge the bike woman told us we had to cross. Well let’s just say that there was no bridge, but we had to cross a river (it winds its way through this area of the desert) eight times in total: four times on the way there, and four on the way back. The first three crosses went pretty smoothly – we had to bike through the river, but it wasn’t too wide nor deep, and even though our pants and hiking boots got pretty wet each time, they dried rapidly afterward. (Quick shoutout to Eastern Mountain Sports for providing me with the best hiking pants and hiking boots ever – these things have seen a lot in their short lives, and I’ve never gotten tired of them. I wore them for two weeks straight in Patagonia and then Machu Picchu, and my pants didn’t even smell afterward! Amazing. EMS, if you would like to sponsor me, I would be delighted.) But THEN we got to the fourth crossing – it was wider, deeper, and the current was significantly faster. I went first – I started a little far away and flew through the river at lighting speed….and then fell over completely up to my hands and knees. Jordin was actually going to record this since we both anticipated something happening, but sadly did not, so no one has the pleasure of reliving that except for the two of us, in our minds. Jordin crossed next, but moved a little upstream where the river wasn’t as wide – while he didn’t fall in, his bike didn’t make it across so he jumped off and his bike starting floating down the river! Please see this incredible photo for evidence: IMG_0426

IMPORTANT NOTE: Waterproof hiking boots are the BEST in every situation, that is until water actually gets inside them, and then they’ll be soaking wet for hours upon hours. After this eventful 4th river crossing of the day, we kept trudging along to try and find a church, which would signify that we were close to the Quebrada del Diablo. It’s also important to note that 99% of the roads were sand, which was unbelievably difficult to bike through, and also slowed down our trip by a lotttttttt. Eventually we just turned around because it was already 12:30 and we hadn’t encountered anything, so we had to cross the river four times over again. The first crossing was the biggest one from before, and this time Jordin filmed me crossing it – while I did not fall off my bike completely like I did before, I did not make it across, and my shoes and pants were completely submerged in the river once again (stay tuned for a video in a few weeks when I compile all of our clips). Of course, Jordin was fine. On the way to Valle de la Muerte, we stopped to squeeze out our socks and shoes three times because they were so soaked. The first part was slightly uphill in sand for three kilometers. The views were incredible, but we were absolutely exhausted at this point. We reached some gorgeous sand dunes where people were sandboarding! This meant there was only 1 kilometer left – we started it biking, but then when the sand got to be a few inches deep and literally impossible to bike in, we left the bikes on the side of the “road” and walked the last kilometer, which was uphill to the viewpoint. Finally, FINALLY, we reached the top and it was absolutely 100% worth it. 

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It took us over an hour from the entrance to get to the top (4 km total), but the way from the viewpoint all the way back to the town of San Pedro (about 6km/3.7mi) took under 25 minutes, because the majority was downhill. And after leaving Valle de La Muerte, we were finally on pavement instead of sand! But before we reached pavement, Jordin fell off his bike twice in the sand, and one of those falls was while he was recording a video :) We think we biked about 26 km/16 miles that day, mostly in sand, and we felt it in our legs and butts for the next few days (those bike seats were not very comfortable). And we were definitely responsible for some rusting of those bikes. Another reason it was so difficult was because the air was so dry, in some parts less than 10% humidity, and we weren’t accustomed to the altitude. But we were both so excited to get back to San Pedro, even though we didn’t have time for lunch before our next tour. Even though the last few hours were excruciating at times, we motivated each other through it – there was a time that I wanted to quit and Jordin kept me going, and a little later he wanted to stop and I pushed him – that’s what twins/siblings/friends are for. We both shed blood (we each fell twice), sweat, and tears throughout the day, but the views and experiences were absolutely worth it.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • If you have a tight timeframe, go to the best place first!
  • Always bring neosporin (sorry Mom).
  • If you have the chance to rent bikes for a whole day in the Atacama instead of just a half day, do it.
  • If you ever have the opportunity to bike on sand and think it will be cool, it won’t.
  • Never assume that the map is to scale.
  • #PantsInSocks (I wouldn’t bike any other way)
  • Always bring a twin with you if you can :)

Our one tour on Friday was to go to Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley)! First we went to Las Tres Marias (The Three Marias), which is a rock formation that “looks like” three women(a priest in the 1950s said that). They were considered sacred before being named Las Tres Marias, and are right off of a road that used to be the main route to San Pedro, especially to bring water to the people who worked in the mines.

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There used to be five different mines here – the valley is covered with white stuff that looks like snow but this is a desert – it’s actually salt! There are four different mountain ranges in the Atacama: the Andes and the coastal mountains (which formed through tectonic plate action), the Domeyko range (formed from plutonic rock processes), and the salt mountains (formed through the accordion effect, which is the pressure on the ground from the Andes and Domeyko, squeezing the earth up in between the two ranges). The only range that doesn’t have volcanos is the salt range. We then went to see some perfect sand dunes and then to Coyote Point to watch the sunset! 
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Saturday, April 1

Our first tour today (called Geisers Tatio/Tatio Geysers) started at 4:30am! We were dressed in our many layers for the first time – t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve fleece, fleece jacket, windbreaker, hat, and gloves! We drove for about an hour and a half before reaching the third biggest geothermal field in the world (the first biggest is Yellowstone National Park, and the second is in Russia)! This field has about 100 geysers, and approximately 80% of them are active. The best time to see the geysers is at sunrise because when the air starts warming up, the change in pressure causes the geysers to erupt more rapidly (hence the early start time).IMG_8990
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From there, we went to some hot springs! Only three people in our group of 12-14 chose to go in – Jordin and I specifically chose this tour so we would have the chance to swim. The altitude here was4250m/14,000 feet – we were in the Andes mountain range, surrounded by snow-capped mountains! The air outside was freezing, so taking off all of my layers was very difficult, but getting in the water was worth it. It wasn’t extraordinarily hot, but just enough that I warmed up immediately. But getting out was extremely difficult… 

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We then went to see Volcán de la Putana, or “Volcano of the Prostitute” – prostitutes used to come for the miners that worked here. We returned to San Pedro around 11:30am, and I felt like I had been out all day and it was already nighttime.

We got lunch and walked around for a while, and then went on our second tour of the day: Laguna Cejar. We drove 18km/11 miles outside of San Pedro to Laguna Cejar, an area with three different lagoons, one of which is the saltiest body of water in the world – more than the Dead Sea in Israel! It’s called Laguna Piedra and is 33% salt, which means that you float the minute you get in, and that our wounds from the previous day’s biking excursion stung a bit. There are often flamingoes near these lagoons, but unfortunately we didn’t see any. After getting out, we were absolutely covered in salt, and that salt moved onto our backpacks, hats, sunglasses, and camera. We took quick showers in the little spickets that were there, but there was still salt in my hair and on my skin for the entire day. 

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We then went to Ojos de Salar (salt eyes), which is a salt field where the salt looks like snow (as it all does here), and two giant holes in the ground of freshwater (called“agua dulce” in Spanish, which literally translates to “sweet water”) because it’s filtered through clay. You can swim in these, but they’re much deeper than the other two places we swam that day, were probably pretty cold, and you had to jump down 10-15 feet. So that was a hard pass on our part. These were especially cool because they reflected the sky incredibly well! 

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We then went to an area where we walked along the shore of a lagoon for 25 minutes before watching the sunset with some snacks and pisco sours with our tour group.Mind you, we were at least at a 4000 m/13,000 ft. altitude at this point, so I felt my half glass of pisco sour almost immediately. We met some great people in our group, including two siblings from Germany around our age who are traveling through South America for six months and are vegetarians! What a place to find some very similar people. Something else we learned today: there are places in the Atacama Desert where it hasn’t rained for 23 million years! WHOA!

Sunday, April 2

Our tour today was the smallest of all of them – just three people and a guide. This was fantastic because we were in a car instead of a big van, and we had the opportunity to really talk and get to know each other. The other person was a girl from Germany, also age 23, who is spending a few months in Chile on a break from medical school. This tour was very different than the others because it was so small, and because our tour guide Pablo Pedro did the tour in the opposite order than other tours – he drove us to the farthest place first (180 km/111 miles from San Pedro), and then on the way back we made a lot of stops, so we avoided the big tourist rush in the typical tours. However, Pablo Pedro also took us to places that weren’t necessarily touristy, so we were often the only people there!Laguna 3-road pic

Here’s where we went:

  • Salar de talar/Aguas Calientes (4100 m/13,451 ft) – the water was very light blue like in the Caribbean, and we were only about 50 km/31 miles from the border of Argentina!IMG_0499
  • Laguna Tuyacto – this was a huge lake, very blue, surrounded by mountains of all colors. We ate lunch on the shore here and it was probably the best view I’ll ever have while eating a lunch that delicious (and all vegan!): a creamy vegetable soup, quinoa, tomato, avocado, sautéed vegetables, mango juice, and wine and beer. We were the only ones here, and looking at the car reminded me of a Jeep commercial or something – a white car on a beautiful shore with blue water and mountains in every direction.Lagoon 2 lunch 1
  • Piedras rojas (red rocks) – again, very blue water with very red rocks! The rocks are more than 85% ferrous oxide. Piedras rojas

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    I did not get the jumping gene.

  • Lagunas Altiplánicas: Lagunas Miscanti & Miñiques (4200 m/13,780 ft) – we saw one flamingo here (the rest are all migrating to Canada…that’s really far/sounds familiar to what some Americans are doing). At this stop, we had a snack with a view, and drank wine as well. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the wine like I felt the pisco sour, even at this high of an altitude.

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  • Laguna Chaxa – we watched the sunset here! It’s the national reserve for flamingos. The cordillera (mountain range) was absolutely spectacular.

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Here are some of the things we learned:

  • Ayllu de Toconau – this is the highest vineyard in the world, at 2400 meters / 7800 feet! The wine is produced right there in the Atacama.
  • We saw many plants as we drove and ascended in altitude that are indications of the altitude – for example, one called Tolar that only grows below 4000 meters/13,100 feet and then it starts to disappear, and another Coiron that only grows above 3900 meters/12,800 feet (photo below of coiron and a vicuña – more notes on them later!).

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Monday, April 3 – final day!

We went on our last tour to the Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley). Our first stop was at a place called Hierbas Buenas (Good Herbs) with lots of petroglyphs (rock drawings). There were lots of petroglyphs of animals, especially llamas and guanacos (description below). We also saw some cool plants! One is called cojín de la suegra (cushion of the mother-in-law), which is very easy to break apart and get caught in the hair of passing animals. People used it to treat a cold or fever because it has lots of Vitamin C. We actually tried it! It was similar to a kiwi except wayyyy more bitter/sour. The next entertaining plant is called Planta Pingo Pingo, which was known as the Viagra of this region. Our tour guide emphasized that you MUST ask your doctor before consuming this plant.

Then we went to the actual Valle del Arcoíris, where we saw rocks from three different periods in one place, which you can tell because they’re three different colorsRed from the oxidation of iron, gray from ashes of the volcano, white/yellow from sulfur and calcium, the darkest green is from chlorine, lighter greens have other minerals, and some more white is salt and gypsum. This area used to be an ocean in the past, so there’s lots of salt on the surface of the ground – we tasted it! If anything describes Chile, it’s mountains and salt – usually not salt like this, but about the same amount of salt in the food (aka a LOT).

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  • IMG_9660Guanaco vs. Vicuña vs. Llama vs. Alpaca
    • Guanacos (wild) – one color, in groups up to 50, very curious, don’t have great hair to make scarves, etc.
    • Vicuñas (wild – can’t be domesticated) – round back
      • If they lose their pack, they accept their inevitable death and walk until they die, without eating or drinking. In a pack of vicuñas, there is one male and many females. If another male comes, the two males fight, and sometimes one will cut off the testicles of the other! That’s pretty intense.
      • It’s illegal to sell vicuña wool, pero in the black market in Bolivia, it sells for about 1000 euros/kg.
    • Llamas (domesticated) – many colors, have more genes from guanacos (photo below).
    • Alpacas (domesticated) – more genes from vicuña, so their wool is much better for making clothing. 

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GENERAL NOTES ABOUT THE ATACAMA DESERT

  • The Atacama Desert is full of volcanoes, especially because Chile is in the Ring of Fire.
  • We brought all of our layers (and our real coats, which I had only worn once before in Chile, in October) because the desert can be very cold at night, and we’re very glad we did! During the day it was pretty warm but often windy, and at night it was pretty chilly outside. The coldest we were was during our early morning geyser tour – 4:30-9am was very cold!
  • The majority of people on our tours were from Brazil and Germany, with a handful of others from Argentina and Chile. We didn’t meet anyone from the United States.
  • For the altitude, we had leftover altitude medication from when we went to Machu Picchu (and the altitude there – 8000-11,000 feet – now seems like nothing in comparison to in the Atacama), so we took that twice a day. Otherwise we had no problems! But except for our day biking, we weren’t doing much exercise/hiking here – we did plenty of walking, but not much climbing on foot.

A few Santiago notes: we’re still loving it and taking advantage of every day, since we’ll be home in a month! I’m very content and happy with my job as a teacher and my students, my friends, my salsa/bachata classes, my public health meetings, my Chilean family, and going out to 1-2 salsotecas every week! I’m exhausted right now because we’ve been going out to salsotecas/parties/bars on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and I’m always out until 11 or 11:30 on weeknights because of salsa/bachata classes and Spanglish Party, so it’s hard to get enough sleep sometimes. But all is well! More updates to come on the next post, which is probably the last before we leave! Besos y abrazos!!

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