Enter Sandman..the Atacama desert and doorway to the Antiplano (Chile part 2)

So we arrived into San Pedro de Atacama bus station at 9.30 pm, once we emerged into the dry desert night we grabbed our bags, slung them on our backs and then were suddenly really tired – we were feeling the effects of the altitude, San Pedro was at 2400 m. We slowly moved off and tried to locate our hostel,  Juriques Hostel. We had no number and my maps.me app did not have all the street names on it so we ended up asking in one of the travel agents, who kindly pointed us in the right direction. The town consists almost exclusively of travel agents, restaurants, tourist shops, a chemist, a police station, two churches and a bus station. It is tourist central, very safe with good relaxed vibes but is smack bang on the “Gringo Trail” so full to bursting with backpackers of all ages.

We eventually found the hostel- as the town appeared online to be “almost booked out” we had booked three nights here and after basically collapsing onto the bed the minute we got into the hostel it wasn’t until the following morning that we got out and about.

So the following morning we went exploring, first stop was food then planning our activities for the next few days. There are a few things you can do by yourself here but most things are easiest to get to by tour.

The range of tours here is insane-a quick search will bring you up a list of exciting tours. For the more adventures you can go mountain/volcano climbing, mountain biking in the desert and sand boarding or there are the more sedate tours where you get driven about- these are the most common. There are tours to hot springs, coloured lakes, geysers, Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and the Atacama Desert itself. Apart from being one of if not the driest place on earth, the height of San Pedro means that the air is also thinner and its small settlement size means there is very little light pollution so it is the perfect place for star-gazing which you can do with many companies in the town. Further into the desert ALMA is located. [Due to the global importance of ALMA they are actually looking at making the area around here a UNESCO site to protect it from development that might increase light pollution]

So on our first full day we went looking to see what was on offer and to book onto our first tour – Stargazing. In the end we decided to go with Alarkapin booked through Latchir Expendiciones. Basically because they were on at 8.45 pm rather than 10 or 11 pm like most of the others. Later is better but we had planned to do a tour of the geysers the following day. Which we booked with Cosmo Andino.

That evening we were collected and with a small group of 5 people including us, we were whisked just out-of-town to a private observatory where we were given a 30 minute presentation on space before heading outside to observe the night sky, first by eye and then with a small (but large by amature standards) telescope.  You can see the milky way pretty well here plus Orion-I did not know he had a sword on his belt! Too dim to see most places I guess (though a friend informed me that it is visible in Cork).  Plus we saw the Pleiades cluster, (the seven maidens that, Orion was perusing) an old fashioned eye test if you can see six or seven (depending on visibility due to light pollution) you’re doing well. What else? Orion’s dog with Sirius on the collar, Southern cross (seen as an anchor by Andean and Aboriginal people), Gemini-which in local tradition was two mountain lions, Taurus plus the two nearest stars. Using the telescope we were able to see the Orion Nebula as well as a closer look at the other clusters. Very cool. Then we moved to the big scope (the largest amateur one in San Pedro apparently), where we got to see Jupiter up close (you could see the bands on it!) and its moons! Plus the Sombrero Galaxy and Betelgeuse. It was amazing to see these things so close, this ended up being our highlight of Chile.

After a quick hot chocolate to warm us back up after standing outside in the ever increasing cold, we were dropped back to our hostel. The previous night there were a few people playing cards, tonight it was party central. *Sigh* and the next morning we had to get up for a 4.30 pick up, unfortunately we, well I, had no sleep thanks to the lovely residents of the hostel.

By this point we had been in San Pedro over 48 hours-which appeared to be the minimum time needed to get used to the altitude and apart from being slightly tired we felt fine.

So at 4.30 am, a bit bleary eyed we were picked up by our driver Felipe and we were off into the cold desert night. En route most of us slept and soon I was fast asleep with everyone else. I’m not sure how long I nodded off for but when I woke up I felt that horrible wave of heat come over me and I was instantly dizzy and nauseous. I sat there trying to relax, hoping it would go away but no I was firmly in the rough grasp of altitude sickness. We were ten minutes from the park gate when I had to stop the bus to throw up. I thought it might help, it didn’t. I now felt cold and still very queasy. When we arrived at the Geyser field we paid our 5,000 CLP (£5, $7.50) entrance fee, used the facilities (by this point I was in a cold sweat) before heading down to the field itself.

After this we were thankfully on the way back down, past the Rio Putana.
Continuing further down the valley I was almost back to feeling human, the empanadas we had in the village helped!
After our 4am start we were very glad to get back to San Pedro at 1 pm. We took it easy for the rest of the day.
The following day we needed to sort out our trip to Bolivia, we had extended our stay until the 12th March so we had until then to sort something out for our onward travel to Bolivia. Of course we wanted to take the classic route: A three day tour through the Bolivian desert to the town of Uyuni taking in the worlds largest salt flat. So we visited a few shops and got a few prices to have a think.
That afternoon we decided to go with Latchir Expediciones for the Valle de la Luna tour (the guys we booked our stargazing with). It was one of the budget tours for 10,000 CLP (£10/$15). We saw all the sights we could see but we felt it was a bit rushed and then we ended up waiting for ages for the sun to go down. Interesting place overall though.
With one day left we had to organise our tour. The thing about San Pedro is a lot of shops seem to shut suddenly (by the looks of the notices on the doors it seems to be for tax infringements) so we were leaving it till the last-minute for this reason.
We ended up deciding to go with Domeyko Travel, run by a guy from Uruguay, Pablo and his Chilean wife. They only had a Facebook page (no Trip Advisor) but had some good reviews  plus they were the cheapest and promised us a private room on the second night of the trip (the first night was in a refuge and was a dorm room). So we booked our places (100,000K/£100/$150) each and, after explaining my experience of altitude sickness he told us to make lemon water (a big bottle of water with two lemons chopped into it rind and all) as well as what else to bring (toilet paper, snacks, 5L of water plus a day bottle, day pack, warm clothes and swimming gear for the first day) and we needed to get bolivianos. There would be no ATM until Uyuni so we had to use one of the many money exchangers and exchanged the minimum amount we thought we would need  but as always got a crappy rate (61,000 CLP for 500 BOB rather than 600 BOB as it should have been but c’est la vie.
After collecting the rest of our supplies we were all set for our next adventure, the three day tour to Uyuni!
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