Chile: San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro beat Joshua down.  It slammed him against the bed and didn’t release its grip for 36 hours.  He was sensitive to light, not hungry at all and CRABBY!  It was his first taste of altitude sickness.  I, on the other hand, was perfectly fine…which probably exacerbated his pain.  The problem was—San Pedro has a lot to see, all of which can’t be done from the confines of a dingy hostel room.

In a dusty, adobe town of about 2,000 people, there are 70 tour operators offering similar (if not exactly the same) tours.  We couldn’t comprehend all of San Pedro’s highlights until we read about the same 4 tours that everyone advertised on the streets.  We got suckered into all 4, since each offered a piece of the desert we came to see.  But, of course, Joshua got a deal…and he also made some friends along the way.

We awoke our first morning before 4am to get shuttled to the Tatio Geysers which are “best seen” at sunrise.

I’ve never been so cold in my life.  In San Pedro proper, the temperature had been 85 degrees, but before the sun broke the horizon at 4,200 meters above sea level, the geysers were arctic, hovering around 5 degrees.  I couldn’t feel my hands or feet.  I couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee when they made us breakfast because I was shaking so much.  It was pure pain.  The next stop, however, provided a complete 180.  We got to sit in the thermal pools created by the geysers.

We warmed up in the 90 degree mineral baths for 20-30 minutes, longer and the guide said your body could absorb too many minerals for one day.  It was a strange phenomenon to have the heat coming from the sand on the bottom, so sitting on the ground would burn your tush, but the water on top was the coldest, so everyone was huddled in little balls trying to hover over the warmest parts of the pools.

Joshua said I was making some weird noises and asked why this was the first time in our relationship that he had heard those…I can’t remember anything but the pleasure of my hands and feet thawing.

The following morning we woke before sunrise, AGAIN, for a trip to the Atacama Salt Flats which are home to three different species of flamingos.  As photogenic as flamingoes are, they were extremely difficult to capture on film.

In addition, the lake has shrunk dramatically in the last few years due to mining, so there are a fraction of the number there once were.  And the ones that we did see weren’t nearly as pink as those at the Sacramento Zoo or the Flamingo Casino in Vegas (according to a 13 year old Joshua).

We visited two Andean Lakes and several towns who have remained in existence in the desert by cultivating quinoa, corn and small, colorful potatoes.

We spent the afternoon visiting the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Death for sunset which was spectacular.  The Valley of the Moon is chalk full of dirt and rocks (my mom would go crazy), but much of it is being tainted by visitors, sadly.

The dunes are half the size they were just a few years ago from people walking on their crests; and since they were created by tectonic activity, who’s to say if they will ever be the same.  One of the Tres Marias rock formations fell last year when a Japanese tourist climbed on top for a picture.

I don’t understand why some tourists feel they are so special that they should be able to ruin sites like these for future generations, but it happens.  AND, it pisses me off.

The sunset at the Valley of Death was packed with people…and for good reason.

It is one of the most popular tours.  Most come with cocktails set out in the back of vans.  There was a band playing Chilean music on an overhang.  Not a bad end to any day.

We also tried our hands sandboarding.

The favorite activity of many a surfer/snowboarder stuck in the middle of the desert.  Sebastian, our instructor, was our fearless, dreadlocked, chain smoking leader with just enough self-taught English to be dangerous.  He took us, 2 other girls and 17 children from the local mining town out to the dunes for a lesson.  As a fearful snowboarder who would rather sit in the lodge, this was a challenging day for me.  The hike up the hill was exhausting with no chair lifts in sight.  The altitude made it that much harder.   It took everything I had to make myself walk up the mountain again for a 15 second ride down.  Sand is a lot heavier than snow, so everything you know about turning and stopping has to go out the window.  The trick is to lean back and go straight down—not very promising for a scaredy cat like me. Plus, sand gets stuck in a lot more places than snow when you fall.  The instructor liked our California style and complimented us several times on our smooth riding.

Joshua tried a few tricks and still has sand in his pants pockets and ears to remember how those worked out.  Notice the sunglasses shooting off his face.  That’s what he gets for showing off.  How quickly he forgets the wakeboarding accident of 2009.

We washed all of the sand off with our final tour of the Cejar Lakes.  They have a high concentration of salt so you can easily float, but, dang, they are cold.  Once in, most people turn into Olympic-caliber synchronized swimmers with limbs naturally above water, myself and Joshua included.

The problem was drying off.  The salt would form crystals around your body hairs and cause our (almost all the time amazing) performance fabrics to rip these hairs out.

We could hardly move for fear of the pain, but we didn’t have a choice because our tour was led by Nicholas Cage from Con Air, plus 20 pounds, minus some hair.  He was also playing his part in Gone in 60 Seconds, as an ex-race car driver who liked to speed through bumpy dirt roads and throw his passengers around in his Chevy Astro Van.  So we sat in the back through the torture of individual hairs being ripped out alternating with our heads hitting the ceiling…all the while, Nick, as we fondly called him, watched our pain through the rear view mirror.

But, the guy knew how to make the most of the tour.

He took us to the most amazing lookout for sunset, brought out a few bottles of pisco and before you knew it he was dancing with two young girls from Spain who sang for him (and our entire car) the whole way home.  We even busted out our Joby as a microphone to help back them up.  What a gig…for him!

The last excursion we signed up for is the most frightening thing we have done, yet.  In San Pedro, you can purchase a 3-day 4×4 excursion across the desert of Northern Chile and the Bolivian salt flats.  Horror stories include broken down trucks, drunk drivers (because it’s legal to drink and drive in Bolivia, seriously), being stranded by your tour, being moved to a different tour company after crossing the border, questionable food, running out of gas, getting stuck in sand/salt/etc.  You get the idea.  It was this or a 9-hour bus ride.  Wish us luck.

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