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14-19 December 2013. Once again we boarded one of Chile’s luxurious double-decker buses, took our seats in the upstairs front row, and journeyed east from Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama. We thought the scenery of the Atacama Desert had been pretty spectacular so far, but we discovered it was just beginning.

But first this:

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It’s a roadside shrine. We saw them frequently in Argentina, and then again in Chile as we travelled from Santiago north to Antofagasta, but they seemed to increase exponentially the further north we got. Dozens of them, hundreds probably, seemingly one about every half kilometer. They are all shapes and sizes, from a simple small cross, to a small wooden “house” about 12 inches high, to quite large structures. What they all have in common are crosses, all kinds of “bricabrac” that presumably has some meaning for the dead, and are open to, and face the road. A variety of different materials are used – wooden buildings, old tires as seen above, painted rocks to outline a pathway, tiled structures, flags, some had bushes (though I have no idea how they survive in the desert), some had the name of the person who had died, one had the message Adios hasta siempre Marcello, and one was so large it contained a car mounted on a platform. If ever the desert scenery became monotonous, which it didn’t, there was always the endless and varied array of shrines to attract our attention.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis desert town and a tourist mecca for arriving from, or heading to, the high desert, altiplano, and salt flats of Bolivia, and for day tours in the area to some truly dazzling scenery. It’s just a desert, but unlike any desert you could imagine. We were constantly moved by its beauty.

San Pedro seems to be divided into two sections. One section is beautifully preserved in the original mud brick and whitewash style, and houses everything a tourist could wish for – hotels, hostels, tour companies, local craft stores, restaurants, cafes, bars, and convenience stores. It’s beautiful.

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There is another San Pedro for the local population of about 5000, which, from the brief glimpse we saw of it, is not so pretty, however I imagine the endless tourist dollars make this a relatively prosperous place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place where there’s such a distinct division between the ordinary town and the facilities for tourists. We usually go walking all over the place, and I’m sure we would have discovered that other San Pedro, but because of the altitude we were not feeling very energetic.

San Pedro, at 2400 metres, was our first introduction to altitude. We planned five days there to give us some time to adjust. Our constant cry was more red blood cells, more red blood cells! When we’re usually so fit it’s not fun to be gasping after climbing a flight of stairs, and to have mild headaches, mild nausea, and sleepless nights. All this did not deter us however. There was too much to see in this incredible part of the world.

Our first excursion was to the Salar de Atacama (salt flats of Atacama) where we swam, or I should say floated, in the extremely salty Lago Cejar.

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This was followed by a quick visit to a freezing cold, extremely deep, fresh-water desert well to wash off the salt. We both declined, preferring the prickly salt on our skin to the freezing water. Finally we were taken to Lago Tebinquinche, which is less a lake than a large expanse of salt, covered in parts with a thin skim of water. This is what Don’s feet looked like after we’d walked all over it.

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We stayed there for a sublime sunset, enchanted by the ethereal beauty of this strange landscape. We were also given Pisco Sours to drink which I’m sure helped increase our appreciation of the moment.

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We got up at about three one morning, and were collected at a little after four to be taken to the literally breathtaking Geysers del Tatio at 4320 metres above sea level, an increase of almost 2000 metres in the space of a couple of hours. It was breathtaking in every sense. Tatio means grandfather and it is one of the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. If you think the earth is still, quiet, inert, solid, a geyser field will soon change your mind. Don and I went our separate ways wandering around watching and photographing the earth steaming and bubbling, hissing and spouting. It is far from still.

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After sunrise looking away from the geyser field:

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As long as we didn’t move too quickly we were fine. After a breakfast that included eggs boiled in one of the geyser spouts, we grabbed our daypacks and headed to the change rooms to have a soak in one of the hot pools. Don didn’t make it. Suddenly his heart went into tachycardia, and all he could do was sit. I went into a freezing cold change room, stripped down, changed into swimsuit, ran freezing and barefoot, and climbed into a pool that was either too hot or too cold depending on where you sat. Out within five minutes, running freezing back to the change room and drying and dressing at lightening speed. Back to Don. He’s still in tachycardia but okay. In my freezing rushing, and taking care of Don, and carrying both daypacks, I managed to lose my flipflops. I’ve lost so many things on this trip – I seem to be shedding stuff everywhere I go.

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at a small village for snacks. I think the village is mostly seasonal housing for shepherds.

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I loved the juxtaposition of the Christmas tree, the mud and rock house, and the painted flamingo:

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Most people went to look at the church and bought barbequed llama snacks. I walked off in the opposite direction and found a few llamas grazing in a field, and this:

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and this – a couple of baby cormorants in a nearby river:

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Back down to earth, relatively speaking, and back into the desert, a couple of days later we headed to Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte (Moon Valley and Death Valley). We began with a little caving, entering through a narrow passageway in the rocks, scrambling half bent over in the dark for a short while, led by our fearless guide Marcelo,

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and emerging here:

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The Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte area is one of the most visited parts of the Atacama, and of Chile. Here’s why:

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Next post: Things got even more amazing, and breathtaking, as we travelled on a three day 4×4 tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia, climbing to 5000 metres. Three days we won’t ever forget.





All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.