Three days in the Atacama
Moon Valley. Death Valley. Rainbow Valley. Even Dinosaur Valley. Each one of these project vividly the landscape we were about to explore.
Well-known for its picturesque yet arid environment, Chile, and the Atacama region in particular, promised to offer a mix of adventure and wonder. We landed in Calama, a two hour flight from the capital of Santiago into one of those small but modern airports - you know the ones, where the plane spins after landing and returns back up its runway. The arrivals and departures board revealed that flights to and from Calama only involve Santiago.
Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama, through long roads flanked by the Andes on one side, nothing but red rock and blue skies on the other, the remoteness of our location became clear. San Pedro is an oasis in the desert - almost like the ones you read about as a child - where the dryness of the rocky floor is suddenly refreshed by increasing vegetation and single floor homes and buildings. San Pedro is a bit of a shock to the senses if you're a first-timer to South America, although on further inspection, a calm and friendliness runs through its veins.
As a British traveller, there's something slightly reassuring about seeing pharmacies, supermarkets and shops offering tourist trips, particularly somewhere like this. You almost don't want to admit this to yourself, but as long as no-one else finds out, then you can remain the illusion of the hardened traveller.
The circumstances of our trip are a little unorthodox, and so we find ourself staying in one of the best hotels in the town, the Noi Casa Atacama. San Pedro is a bit of a melting pot for travellers who stop here for a few days to sample what it has to offer. There seems to be far more hostels than hotels, which makes for a nice blend of young travellers and locals. Even the sense of tourism is diluted - each tour provider is competing with the next, but there's no hard sell or jostling for your attention.
After taking some advice, we book our selection of tours, which would lift us to the lofty plateaus of the surrounding mountains, bathe in salt pools, get up close with the wildlife and trek the canyons carved through the landscape.
Our first tour, led by Emilio and driver Jose, opened our eyes to the spectaculars of our temporary new world. We were on a trip to one of the plateau regions, a 2 hour drive from where we are based. San Pedro is already 2300 metres above sea level. When you consider that London is around 35 metres and New York is only a few feet above in most cases, this is pretty high. What we got for that altitude is stunning clarity of colour in everything we see - each hue is vibrant to the point of already looking 'over-photoshopped'. It's having the effect of making an already unreal world seem more alien and brilliant at the same time. The downside (there's always one...) is that the physical effects on the body start to be felt. Altitude sickness will hit different people in different ways, but essentially, the body is receiving less oxygen due to the thin atmosphere and so you're working harder for each breath. We can certainly feel this when we get out at our first stop - a pristine lake surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. There will be no leaping or bounding around, we're on small steps.
We continue further around, the landscape morphing with every turn, colours running the spectrum. Being photographers, we're a little overwhelmed at each opportunity Emilio gives us to jump out and fire away. Each new location promising more than the last, with lakes, salt flats and mountain peaks as part of the design. We stop off for lunch around 5 hours in, settling down by a lake as we stalk the flamingoes in the near distance. Don't worry, by stalk, I mean walk as far as the land would reasonably let us without our feet getting wet, hoping the range of our lenses would push us further. It's nice to be spectators here, rather than bullying the local wildlife. In the end, the pull of lunch is greater than the birds, and we enjoy ourselves with food made freshly that morning.
Back on the road for our last few stops, we reach one of the Agua Calientes, of which there are a few. It's taken us this long to realise the luck of travelling out of season as we spent most of the day without another soul in sight. Even when we did spot a rare tourist car, we beat them to the post, with Jose and Emilio seemingly one step ahead.
Our evening buffers the next day with a stargazing opportunity at the local astronomy centre. It says a lot to support the suitability of the Atacama for watching the night sky, when the town has its own observatory, telescope on top. Aside from being able to view some of the planets with clarity I've never seen before, even viewing the sky with your naked eyes is incredibly impressive.
Our second day introduces another character to the mix in the form of Miguel. Seasoned, assured, relaxed, and with Jose in the driving seat, we depart early for an area called Guatin, around 40 minutes away. We come to realise that everything here is at least 40 minutes away, but with postcard scenery through every window, it's hard to care. Jumping out of the car in the middle of nowhere, Miguel leads us to the start of our adventure. We progress down into the canyon, smelling the naturally grown Rica Rica, which is a little like peppermint (and also good for digestion apparently). Tracking aside the small stream of water that has run down from the Andes, we realise this might be more physical than we had first imagined. While this won't scare off your avid trekker, my Nike Air Max trainers were probably not the best choice, knowing my past history of falls and 'rescues' on similar treks. They do hold up well though, even though we're having to jump over water, scale rocks, and combat the incline towards the end. One particular feature of this canyon is the giant cactuses. They are exactly what you expect them to be, and line the canyon all the way down. Note to self, next time, don't touch them. It hurts. Once we finish our climb, Jose is smiling at us with a bottle of beer and a coke in waiting.
A couple of hours deserved rest and we were back at it again, this time, visiting the Moon Valley. The people out here are seemingly both proud and slightly obsessed by the altitudes of the places we visit, and why not? We are led on foot through caves that are lined with salt. We trek slightly higher up and over, the terrain resembling a cookies and cream ice cream, slightly crumbly underneath. It would have made a good ice cream if it were one. Some death-defying manoeuvring on the rocks, and we're able to look down over the area, craftily avoiding a neighbouring tour of agile teenagers (who we chose to ignore in favour of pretending we were the only ones out here for miles).Transitioning by car and some hefty motions by foot (made slightly more strenuous with the weight of my Nikon) we hit a huge peak and we're able to look down over the whole valley, one section in particular looking very unworldly. Capped by a sunset view from a privileged viewpoint, this wasn't a bad day.
The undoubted highlight of our short trip came accompanied by the dramatic expectation of extreme altitude sickness, for which we were recommended coca leaves to alleviate some of the effects. Thankfully, coca tea and sweets were an option - the raw leaves themselves are pretty unappealing. Whether these worked, we'll never really know, but either way, we felt the effects as we drive higher and higher in the early hours before sunrise. Our breathing became heavy, and a sense of almost claustrophobia edged in before I got a grip. It was well worth the momentary discomfort, as the view from the top, at minus 8 in temperature, was sublime. Pockets of steam escaped every ground crevice, and huge geysers ominously boiled as the sun came up, illuminating the area how you would imagine an asteroid looks hurtling past the earth.We had somehow managed to pick the perfect time to visit. We're told that at its peak (no pun intended unless you found it hilarious) tourists are a bit swarmy, but thankfully we've only the odd mini coach to contend with. Just after sunrise, we're almost fully alone with Jose and Miguel, who have made us breakfast, including hot chocolate heated straight from the geyser.
Our final two excursions were very much undertaken in wind-down mode - a quick hop over to Rainbow Valley - coloured as such due to the various minerals deposited in the rock - and eventually to Cejar to float in the high density salt lake. We were warned our last day would be cloudy. Well, we're from London. Two clouds in the sky doesn't make it cloudy! But what a privilege to be in a place that persecutes clouds so easily. There are some pictures that you won't be seeing i'm afraid, to understand why, let's just say that forgetting your swimming shorts doesn't leave you with the best of images...
It's hugely impressive the way the key attractions of the desert are run and maintained - with a definite preference for putting the environment first. We understood that the lake in Cejar has a limit of 300 visitors per day and when it hits this it simply closes. There's something brilliant about this in the modern world we live in.
Whilst we didn't spend much time around San Pedro itself, you get the impression that you could go anywhere for good food and drink, in bars and cafés that didn't have to try too hard to be unique. Yes, they are catering mainly to us foreign visitors, but they seem to enjoy showing us as much of the real Atacama they can. The reality is that there's something here for almost everyone. We didn't have time for the mountain biking sand surfing or other more extreme sports, but they're all on offer. Maybe next time?
For anyone looking to stay in the Noi Casa Atacama, we were blown away by the quality of the room, facilities, food and the staff. Whilst the hotel won't give you the rough and ready travellers experience, it'll give you everything else.