The Atacama Desert and Norte Chile
11.09.2010 0 °F
I took a bus from Valparaiso back to Santiago to catch a flight out to Calama in Northern Chile. The town of San Pedro de Atacama doesn't have an airport so couldn't book a direct flight. Both towns are in the Atacama desert and are about an hour's drive from each other. The flight to Northern Chile gave me a chance to get an aerial view of the Andes mountain range. Here's a shot from the plane.
Calama is a small mining town in the Atacama desert. It's claim to fame is the gigantic copper mine just north of town--one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. I had wanted to go see this abyss but couldn't fit the trip into the schedule. There's a shit load of activities to do in San Pedro anyways and Calama is well an eye sore of a town and makes TJ look like Beverly Hills. Chileans, however, are very prideful of Calama and for good reason since this town provides the Chilean economy with a staggering amount of copper money year after year.
It's dry as fuck in this high desert and this town is sky high--over 8,000 feet above sea level. San Pedro is an oasis in the desert but apparently the water here is naturally polluted with high levels of arsenic which leaches from the surrounding salt lakes. I brushed my teeth with the water here and bathed in it and so far haven't suffered any ill effects from arsenic poisoning yet. The polluted water and high elevation isn't enough to deter tourists from visiting this town and the hordes of visitors has turned San Pedro into a Disneyland in the desert.
I first visited Laguna Chaxa, which has been turned into a reserve since 3 of the 5 known species of Flamingoes use this lake as a breeding ground. The lake itself is very accessible and is a short drive from San Pedro. Walking around the lake you can also see volcanoes all around and one of them is the volcano Lascar which is the most active here in Chile and you can see plumes of smoke rising from it's crater. The volcano last erupted in 1996. The reserve is within the Atacama salt flat and the earth's crust here looks like a roided-out stucco wall.
From Laguna Chaxa I went even higher up above sea level to see the alpine lakes Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques, which are both named for the volcanoes that rise up above these lakes. It's a long drive to get to these alpine lakes but once you see the scenery it makes the trip out here worthwhile. You can't go down to the shores of the lakes because again these lakes have been turned into reserves. At 14,107 feet above sea level it wouldn't make for a fun walk back up from the shores. Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, is at an elevation of 14,505 ft so you do the comparison. I couldn't make any sudden movements without feeling disoriented and nauseous from the elevation.
The next day I woke up at the wee hours of the morning to see the El Tatio Geysers. Tours leave no later than 4 a.m. since the best time to see these geyers is dawn before the air temperature warms up and the winds will start to disperse the steam. The drive up the Andean plateau to get to these geysers is a fucken bitch. It takes 2 hours to get there and you need AWD and high clearance to get over the river fords and unpaved roads. I thought I had acclimated to the high elevation from yesterdays trip to the alpine lakes but once again the 14,107 feet elevation is busting my ass. Nearly passed out a few times and dry heaved a couple times when I got out of the car. Oh and I must mention that at this elevation at dawn, the temperature is below freezing and it definitely doesn't look like it with all the steam rising up from the ground. I tried to stay warm by crouching down next to a small geyser (I stayed away from the big ones because the crystal crust around the alpine geysers is very thin and can collapse so you'll burn yourself or better yet die...more on that later). I didn't warm up because the geyser was too small, about the size of a frick'in nipple and I got up too fast and things went black for a few seconds.
Unlike the geysers in Yellowstone you can get right up to the gurgling holes here in El Tatio. There are also fumaroles galore and one of them was spitting out plumes of sulfurous gas like a fog machine or better yet my cousin Chant's ass. It was funny seeing other tourists walking into the plumes of gas totally unaware that they'll probably pass out and die from inhaling too much of the sulfurous gas. As you can see this place is not regulated much.
As the sun starts to rise shafts of light crown the ring of volcanoes and the rising steam begins to glow making an unforgettable scene. You look around and it seriously looks like a world out of Dante's inferno.
By early morning the sun is in full view warming up the air temperature and the steam starts to disperse so what's there to do next but to enjoy a nice dip in the thermal springs. Yay-yeah! Stripping down to my tiny board shorts in the frigid air I looked forward to a nice relaxing soak in the thermal hot springs. The water temperature however wasn't as warm as I thought. Makes sense though. At this elevation water never reaches 100 C since the low pressure lowers the boiling point of water thus the lower temperature of the thermal springs. Right behind the thermal springs lies "The Killer." Its aptly named for taking the lives of a few people who stood too close to the geyser and the the fragile salt crust gave way and turned them into human soup. I watched from afar.
San Pedro is also known for it's landscape, especially Valle de la luna or Valley of the moon. You go there a few hours before sunset to hike some of the trails and later hike up sand dunes onto a cliff to catch the sunset. The valley definitely looks like the moon hence the name. This valley would've been a great place for mountain biking but by this point I was suffering from something that I don't really understand. I wasn't sure if the arsenic in the water was starting to do something to me but it felt like I had a combination of the flu and a 3 day hangover but I haven't been drinking...not much anyways.
The town of San Pedro is tiny with unpaved dusty streets and high priced meals because of the tourists. I did visit the surrounding pueblos in the Andean plateau. All of them have dwellings made from adobe with thatched roofs and are populated by the indigenous Atacameno people. One of the pueblos had solar panels atop the roofs. They all can speak Spanish though and are influenced by the Inca. The houses all have crosses on top of them to ward of evil spirits.
At the time I didn't know it but I was clearly suffering from altitude sickness. I keep forgetting that San Pedro is over 8,000 ft in elevation. Having dinner the last night in San Pedro I couldn't hold down my food. For 2 nights straight the Chilean dude staying in the room across from me was puking his innards out...altitude sickness as well. We shared a bathroom at the hostel and my bed is right up against the wall adjacent to the bathroom so a good's night rest was rare. Looking forward to the 5 a.m. transfer to Calama to catch a flight back to Santiago.