San Pedro de Atacama

Posted by on Feb 2, 2013 in Chile, Play-by-plays, South America | 0 comments

San Pedro Moon

We got to San Pedro de Atacama after our tour of Southern Bolivia, and the first orders of business were showering, laundry, and enjoying warm weather at a paltry altitude of 2400 meters. This is the driest desert in the world, so by warm I mean balls hot. Most people do San Pedro in 2-3 days and jam pack all the popular tours, but we actually did the opposite. We stayed for over 4 days in order to relax and catch up with life and because we arrived on the day of full moon, we needed to wait at least three days to be able to do an astronomical tour which was high priority. And then because of bus schedules (no buses to Salta on Thusdays during this season), we had to wait an extra day. Overall, San Pedro (despite its small size and exorbitant prices by South American standards) has become one of my favorite stops based on the quality of the few tours we did do as well as literally being an ideal oasis to spend a few days and recharge.

The are 4 standards tours most people do, which include a sunrise near geysers a sunset in Moon Valley, and two different lagoon ones. We actually did only one of those (the rest were too similar to things we had already done), but if you do go to San Pedro and want to do all 4, haggle for a discount. As for the operator, pick Desert Tours on Caracoles (main street).

The first night we went sandboarding in Death Valley under the light of the full moon. The valley is named so not for the poor survivor rates of those who go, but because of a translation error. Some guy thought the rock formations of the landscape reminded him of Mars, so he named it Valle de Marte, but mispronounced or miswroite it and it became Valle de la Muerte aka Death Valley. I had never sandboarded before–it is way more friction than snowboarding, and the full moon illuminating the out-of-this world landscape was magical.

After a day of downtime, our next adventure was renting bikes and exploring the San Pedro surroundings. There are many roads you can bike, but keep in mind that under the desert sun, under no shade, and on sandy paths, most long rides are overly optimistic. Close by are the Pukara de Quitor ruins, but these involve parking your bike and hiking up a bit of a hill. You can also see Quebrada del Diablo (Devil’s Ravine–yes all local names are morbid) not too far away. Pack water!

Next up was the Laguna Cejar tour. We first visited the local salt flat, which is much smaller than the one in Uyuni, but it was dry so we got our chance for perspective shots! Then were two lagoons called Ojos del Salar, which are apparently 30m deep and have a 30m diameter, so the water was surprisingly cold. Finally was the Laguna Cejar, which is saltier than the Dead Sea and we got to float effortlessly in the frigid water (deserts are so bizarrely extreme). Word of warning, don’t go in if you have cuts or scrapes, you will thank me later. Also once you get out of the salt soup, your nether regions begin to sting from the salt and you dry off quickly and become a saltine cracker, so hopefully your tour guide has a portable shower to rinse off.

Over a couple Pisco Sours and a pretty in-depth lecture on the local geographical and geological formations, we saw an incredible desert sunset.

So… Nerd alert!!! If you want to skip the lecture, pan down to next section. Basically, the South American continent used to be flat and with a huge sea in the center. Then the techtonic plates moved, which formed the Andes Mountains and trapped some of the sea within. The Andes, young and volcanical, spew hot magma which resulted in a couple of things. One, the water of the inner sea evaporated and left a layer of salt which we now know as the salt flats in Bolivia, Chile, and northern Argentina. Second, the lava kept piling up and constructed the Chilean plateau (altiplano) which is why it looks as if the volcanoes’ bases are on a platform–3-5k meters high. The Bolivian altiplano, on the other hand, is a geographical not a geological phenomenon. The flatness of the country at 4000 meters high is due to those plate shifts back in the day. And remember the Parque Cretacico in Sucre? Well, it all ties together. The ground shifted 70 degrees which is why the tracks are at an angle. And were found in a quarry, because all this tectonic and volcanic activity releases minerals which means eventually want to mine. That also explains why the world’s biggest deposits of lithium and the like are in this region, and the local governments are still figuring out how to best mine them. The local salt flats, unlike ones in the States, for instance, have huge deposits of minerals from eons ago when the water dried and also because they became lower altitude valleys , so the yearly water runoff from the mountains keeps depositing more and more of them. Ok so back to Chile, we explained the salt and the mountains, now why and how are the lagoons there? How are they so deep and frigid and well, still there despite the dessert heat? Honestly I don’t really remember, but there is a theory that they are connected to the Pacific Ocean, because the water levels of the ocean and lagoon change in sync and the depth of Laguna Cejar was attempted to be measured and is allegedly 1500meters deep. Ok nerd logorrhea over.

Actually, nope, more nerdiness here. Probably the coolest tour we did was with Space Observatory where we learned about stars, planets, galaxies, and got to look through 10 telescopes to check out all the phenomena. The Atacama desert has over 300 clear nights a year and so is a great spot for astronomical observations. One of the largest scientific endeavors is taking place here. The ALMA project is a collaboration of 30(?) countries on three continents and will have 66 high precision antennas at an altitude of 5000 meters to bring us information about space, infinity, and beyond. Before moonrise (like sunrise,but not), it was incredible what we could see with the naked eye: Sirius, Orion’s Belt, South Pole, several Zodiac constellations, Jupiter, several satellites orbiting the Earth, the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and shooting stars (there are 10 per hour here!!!). I finally learned what each zodiac sign means–essentially when the sun passes through the constellation of your sign–so now it is finishing up with Aquarius. And along the Zodiak is where you see not only the constellations, but also the sun, moon, and the planets. Then we watched the moon rise over the Andes Mountains and got to take photos of it through a telescope with our digital cameras (first photo), the most obnoxious of which was watching a guy try to use his iPad to take a photo.

As you can tell, I’m a huge proponent of San Pedro. Aside from getting our nerd on, we also relaxed, went back to cooking meals instead of going out, enjoyed pretty strong Internet speeds (jfox, where are you? We need a speed test!), experienced our first mini earthquake of the trip (it was centered hundreds of miles away and deep in the ground so we only felt swaying which honestly just made me question whether someone spiked my OJ with vodka), and last but not least, shared a dorm with the loudest most maddening snorer ever. Seriously it was like two jackhammers fighting to Dubstep. Next we are making out way back to Argentina through Salta, stopping by Cafayate to taste the famous Torrontes wine and visit a goat cheese farm/factory.

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