A few days in the desert
I went to the Atacama for a few days, on a trip that was supposed to be four people but due to one missed flight and one cancelled work shift, only two of us made it. So Dave and I headed to San Pedro. It was my fourth trip to the area but Dave's first, so I went to see some of the things I'd seen before. We headed up to El Tatio, 4,300m above sea level, and it was as impressive as always. But we made the mistake of trying out the geothermal pool. When I'd been here in 2005 there was no man-made pool, just a large natural pool that a few people went into. Now they've built a pool and some changing rooms. But I do not recommend the experience. One end of the pool was a tiny bit warm but the rest was cool, and after a few minutes when I got out into the cold thin air, I was shivering so hard I thought I was going to give myself a brain haemorrhage.
On the way back down, we stopped at Vado Putana, where the Río Putana spreads out into a mini-lagoon and creates a sudden splash of what, by the standards of the Atacama, is lush scenery.
We made a trip up to Laguna Miscanti. It is at serious altitude, even higher than El Tatio, but we were a bit acclimatised now. It was early spring but there was a lot of snow on the ground, and we couldn't drive to the lake shore. We stopped a little way down the road, and hiked for half an hour or so across the snow to get there. We powered ahead of the less acclimatised travellers and made it to the shore first.
After the laguna we headed down into the Salar de Atacama. A little over 20 miles away from the laguna, it was like another world, hot and humid in the watery bits, with flamingoes wandering around.
One evening in San Pedro it looked like we might be in for an epic storm. Nothing came of it in the end, but the sunset was pretty awesome with the storm clouds gathering over Licancabur.
We randomly made a trip to Valle Arcoiris. We wanted to go somewhere else but there were no trips going on the day we wanted to go. Luckily, the valley was worth the trip. And it seemed that not many people have heard of this place because it was deserted apart from us. That alone made it better than a lot of other places around San Pedro.
I was going to Paranal after San Pedro, but they postponed my shift by four days, so I had some extra time to hang around in San Pedro. I had some work to do so couldn't spend my extra four days seeing the sights, but in the evenings I went for hikes out into the desert. The Valle de la Muerte is just outside town and I went up there a couple of times to see the sun set.
One our way to San Pedro from Calama, we'd got a Frontera bus and it had broken down on the outskirts of Calama. A Turbus had passed by and picked us up. So on the way back I got a Turbus, but it broke down not far out from San Pedro. After a long wait while they investigated the problem, they eventually said they would have to wait for a mechanic and it could be an hour or two at least. We had stopped by a minefield, an absurd legacy of dictatorial paranoia in the 1970s, when Argentina was threatening to invade southern Chile over territorial disputes in the Beagle Channel, and Chile feared that Bolivia and Peru might invade in the north if Argentina did in the south, to take back what they lost 130 years ago in the War of the Pacific. There were still minefields along the road to Torres del Paine when I first went there in 2005, but they've been cleared now. Here in the north, the clearing is not so advanced.
I was interested by the sign, indicating the minefield in Spanish, English, and a third language that I think is Aymara. Pampa definitely means field, in Aymara and Quechua, and minatawa is clearly derived from "mine", but I was surprised that the word for danger was derived from Spanish.
I waited by the minefield. It was getting late, and I was preparing myself for a long wait until the bus got going again. Luckily, a Frontera bus appeared, and had space to pick us all up, so we abandoned the Turbus. I headed to Antofagasta, ready for my Paranal shift the next day.