San Pedro de Atacama
We left Valparaiso on the afternoon of the 22nd September, headed for the desert. First, another bus trip (only 6 hours this time), hugging the coast on part of the Pan Americana Highway, which runs from Ushuaia in Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska! Weird cacti dotted the cliffs, flashes of ocean, and strange feathered plants, like Indian braves riding over the headland from the sea. We arrived around 10pm at a large modern hotel in a place called La Serena where we were to spend one night. After dumping our bags in the room, we headed straight for the bar, for the complimentary pisco sours. Priorities. There's not a lot to say about La Serena, except that it is the second oldest town in Chile after Santiago. We visited the central square and three out of its many churches in the morning, then had a bizarre, porridge like meal called chupa for lunch - a one pot, faintly seafood tasting dish, covered in cheese, with a crab's claw stuck in the middle of it.
The second bus trip left La Serena around 4pm, an overnighter, arriving in San Pedro de Atacama around 8am. It rarely rains in the Atacama Desert (15mm a year), so we had been lucky enough to witness a particularly rare spectacle in these parts on the bus journey - the Desierto Florido, or Flowering of the Desert, although we didn't realise we'd seen it until afterwards. I had heard of the flowering of the desert, but imagined exotic blooms on cacti, not a ground cover of delicate yellow and purple flowers that looked like moorland blooms. After breakfast at the bus station cafe, we hot-hiked over pot holes with our bags to our hotel, a ranch style hostel behind an anonymous red clay wall. Built around a central courtyard, it had a small outdoor pool and comfy outdoor seating. The Portuguese receptionist wasn't up for letting us check into our room early, so she filled a bit of time by giving us detailed info on the trips we could take over the next couple of days. We chose one for that afternoon, to visit 'The Valley of the Moon' (Valle de la Luna) and to see the sunset over the desert. It didn't start until 4pm and it was hot in the desert, so we sat for a while to cool off under the verandah and drank coca tea - it was also very high where we were going.
We headed into 'town' where we looked around the small central square. It was Sunday morning so we walked into the beautiful *adobe church, to the sound of children singing - they were practising up on the minstrels gallery, led by a nun on an electric guitar. Other children were milling around excitedly, giving out the service sheets and consulting with the priest. Apart from the Sister Act up on the balcony and the priest who gave the sermon, the service was conducted by the children. The whole affair was very relaxed - people walked around, went out, came back in again or ran after their toddlers. Then, about 10 minutes in, an elderly lady walked down the aisle from the back, with a small white poodle on a lead, dressed for the occasion in a frill-edged flowery dress, and I mean the dog, not the old lady. The creature looked decidedly unimpressed by proceedings and sat under its owner's chair trying to stare us out. Perhaps she didn't like having her photo taken, or wearing a dress. Half way through, we left by the large double-doored side entrance which had been left open throughout, letting the sun in, and went for lunch (the priest was going on a bit). We had the 'Quiche Menu' in a small cafe - Spanish omelette style pie, followed by apple pie. Diet starts on our return.
*"Adobe is a building material made from earth and often organic material. Adobe means 'mudbrick' in Spanish" - Wikipaedia
On the afternoon minibus trip, the lunar landscape consisted of strange twisted rock formations, peach coloured crags dusted with a frosting of salt, and large sand dunes scattered with small stone chippings, bleached pure white by the sun. The view when we climbed up and across the top of the sand dune was to a barren valley, clay roads and a backdrop of snow-topped volcanoes. 'Chris of Atacama' in his makeshift scarf-turban completed the picture, before we headed to an escarpment to watch the sunset over the desert.
Our next trip, with a 7am start was called Las Rocas Rojas (Red Rocks). First we drove to the salt flats, getting closer and closer to the steaming volcano (reassuringly, the guide told us it does this every morning) to see the flamingos. There are three types - Andean, which are the rarest, and have yellow legs. Chilean, which have greyish legs, pink knees, and bills that are more than 50% black. Then there are the James flamingos, thought to be extinct, until a single colony was found in 1956 - they have brick red legs, a yellow bill, and are pale pink with carmine streaks. We also saw black and white Andean avocets and the small puna plover, which moves in a darting fashion making it difficult to capture facing the right way. After our short trek round the water, we were ready for breakfast, cooked by our driver/guide/chef, on a small gas stove in front of the van. The best breakfast of our trip, it consisted of scrambled eggs, toasted cobs, mashed avocado, orange juice, tea and coffee, and 'brownie' which was like a ginger cake texture, but with a chocolaty taste. After a brief stop, to visit a tiny adobe church, with stonework porch, thatched roof, and hand painted friezes, we arrived at the beautiful flower blue lakes of the altiplano, 4,120m high. First was Lake Miscanti, which we hiked down to and around, a lone vicuña on its far side, significant patches of snow still lying due to storms the previous week. This day was clear and bright though, the tufts of 'pasta brava' or 'brave grass', (because it survives in the hostile environment) golden in the sunshine. We then walked over a boulder-marked way, across the plain, with backward views to the lake and the snow-topped volcano-mountains behind. The largest of these volcanos, 'Miniques', gives its name to the smaller lake which we visited later for a 'panorama' because its eruption (hopefully some time ago) separated it from the larger Lake Miscanti. On the road again, our guide spotted a fluffy-tailed rabbit creature. What it was, nobody knows - perhaps it was that mystery creature sighted in Quorn a couple of months back.
Finally, Red Rocks - an unassuming name for a truly gorgeous beach, on the edge of the palest aquamarine and lavender lake, heavenly in its elevated spot. The red rocks themselves were a pastel pavement of salmon pinks, blues, lemons and browns, scattered with Neolithic tomb arrangements of terracotta boulders, creating pools near the shore, which would have been tempting if it hadn't been for the arsenic contained in those seemingly clear waters. All of this with a backdrop of the obligatory snow-capped volcanos. Two of our party were so enamoured that they were half an hour late back for our meet at the bus. The rest of the passengers (and ourselves) were not very forgiving as our late lunch was now even later, at a pre-arranged restaurant about 40 minutes away! We did get to see vicuña on the way though, very close up, as they decided to cross our path and stand in the middle of the road, posing for a heavily laden passing cyclist who had his camera out. After lunch we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and visited a small village with a shot-up church (or possibly just paint-flaked by the heat), and a realistic phallic cactus.
The next morning, before we left the desert, we chose a relaxing trip to the thermal pools, fed by the volcanos (who knew). Next stop, Arequipa. Finally, Peru!Read more
The Oasis in the DesertOctober 12 in Chile
San Pedro de Atacama