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Report 1754: A Trip to Argentina and Chile

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2008

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Page 8 of 9: The Atacama Desert - The Driest Place on Earth

photo by Michael

The Altiplanico

We flew from Puerto Montt to Santiago and then Calama. It was a very clear day and the flight along the Andes was stunning with the jagged snow covered peaks. As we approached Calama we could see the huge areas of the salt lakes glistening in the sun. From Calama we were picked up and driven to San Pedro de Atacama.

We were booked into Hotel Altiplanico about 20 minutes walk from the centre of San Pedro. This is a new adobe building designed to look like a traditional village. Each of the rooms is different and has tremendous character. We had a small private sitting area outside the room and an outside shower (as well as one in the bathroom). This was great for cooling off at lunchtimes. There were lots of shaded outside sitting areas and a small swimming pool. Breakfast was large and good. Tea and coffee were freely available in the reception area. This was a great place to stay and we really enjoyed it.

We loved the Atacama - it was seriously brilliant. Parts of it are completely dry and there has been no recorded rainfall. These areas are just stone, sand and dust with no plants. As you get nearer the mountains there are a few streams with trees and vegetation. This is where the small settlements are. If they are lucky they may get a some rainfall during the summer months - assuming there is some still left in the air as the main air flow is across the Andes from Argentina and most of the rain has been dropped before it arrives in Chile. They may get up to 2" a year. There was no snow left on the mountains - there has been a drought for the last four years. Last time the drought lasted seven years. Temperatures were 30 (ish) during the day but dropped to below freezing at night.

San Pedro is a tourist hub and there are a large number of travel companies running tours. It has an excellent small museum covering the history of the area. Close by are the remains of tulor with a 3000 year old house foundations and Pukara de Quitor, a 12thC stone and adobe fortress built on the hill above the river valley. These made an interesting morning’s trip.

We did the compulsory trip to the Tatio Geysers, which leaves at 4:30 as it is a two hour drive to the geyser field. You arrive just as dawn is breaking. The temperature was -12°C and even with all our layers you could feel the heat being drawn out of your body. Then the sun came up and the warmth gradually runs through you. The geysers are best seen at dawn as the water vapor and steam from them hang in the cold air. Once the sun comes out the temperature goes up and the water vapor evaporates so you can't see it. The bus driver provided breakfast and the cup of tea was very welcome.

The trip to the Valle de la Luna was well worth while with some amazing scenery. We watched the sun set over Licancabur turning it golden and then purple.

The full day trip to the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama with the Miscanti and Miniques Lagoons was the highlight. We loved the high plateau at 4,000+ meters. We had to remember to walk slowly and you couldn't walk and talk at the same time. The grass hadn't begun to grow yet and was still golden. There was a deep blue sky (not a cloud in sight) brilliant gold hillsides and lakes of blue water with very white edges - the water is fairly salty so evaporates leaving behind the salt. There are huge great salt flats with flamingos in the lagoons where the crust has broken. The eroded rock formations were amazing. Vegetation was sparse with a lot of cushion shaped cactus with vicious spines, which rejoiced in the name of ‘mother-in-laws cushion.’ They were beginning to flower. There were also the great tall cacti which you see in all the western movies. They grow 2mm per year and some of them were two to three meters high. They were used in place of wood in church roofs and floors. The skin was removed and the ‘wood’ soaked before being cut as otherwise it would split.

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