San Pedro de Atacama is a very small town in the middle of Chile’s Atacama desert. The town itself is a quaint, lovable desert town, like many of the small desert towns in this pocket of the world. But let’s be honest, people do not come to San Pedro for San Pedro. People come to San Pedro as a launching point to explore the vast and incredible surroundings of the Atacama desert. This is the driest place on earth.
So what is there to do in the world’s driest desert? So. Freaking. Much.
I am sad to have to leave without doing it all! Atacama’s desert adventures are set up through a serious of tours. Joining a group and getting a tour guide is one of the only ways to really see much of the magic of this incredible desert. So here is a little review of the tours I took and my time in Atacama.
Valley de La Luna, Piedras Rojas, Star Gazing and climbing Volcán Lascar…
(I am trying out a new format, so be sure to click on the pictures to see a larger version!)
VALLEY DE LA LUNA
Valley de la Luna was carved by mother nature over thousands of years through a magical combination of river erosion and wind. What has been left behind is a truly breathtaking valley filled with canyons, unusual rock formations, and immense sand dunes. Valley de la Luna, or “Moon Valley” is one of Atacama’s major tourist attractions. It is located just outside of San Pedro de Atacama, and can be reached by bicycle or tour bus. After exploring the unusual landscapes, tours take you above the valley for a spectacular sunset that splashes intense colors on the rocky mountainous terrain below.
PIEDRAS ROJAS (RED ROCKS)
This is an all day tour from San Pedro de Atacama that explores some of desert’s farther reaches. First we elevated into the high and frigid altitudes to see the Piedras Rojas and beautiful lagoons. The rich minerals in the area create the beautiful contrast of the red rocks against the aqua green laguna. Next we made our way to Laguna Miscanti, where we walked along the outskirts of the cold beach and admired the beautiful colors and mountainous surroundings. After a lunch break, we took time to learn more about the geographical history and how the region became rich with so many minerals, and active volcanoes. We finished the day back in the desert heat, while visiting the salt flat where the flamingos wander freely in their natural habitat.
I do not have photos from this excursion because it was all at night. Looking at the beautiful night sky in one of the world’s least light polluted places was fantastic. The tour took place outside of a lovely couple’s home, who are major outer-space enthusiasts. Weather you know a lot about our night sky, or very little, this is an interesting experience. For me, it was a refresher of many things I had forgotten from my basic astronomy course 12 years ago. And for some it was all brand new information about the vastness of our universe. Being from the Northern hemisphere, it is really cool to get a really good look at a part of the night sky that I can never see. I now know how to find the Southern Cross! We had a chance to look through several very impressive telescopes for a closer view of other galaxies, and stars. We even got to see Jupiter, with four of it’s moon’s and colorful stripes.
Even NASA agrees that this is the place to be. They have major projects in Chile’s Atacama desert because it is the place on Earth with the least amount of water molecules in the air that could potentially interfere with imaging in the search for planets that can sustain life outside of earth.
This is the hardest of the experiences to write about. Climbing Volcán Lascar (one of the world’s most active volcanoes) was really something that cannot be put into words. But I shall try.
First of all, it was hard. Really, really hard. When my group returned to our hostel at the end of it, we were all complaining about our headaches, how crappy we felt and how cold it was… and several people said to us “you are making this sound miserable, I definitely don’t want to do it now”, and we all responded through our groaning… “no it’s AMAZING”!
The climb is not particularly steep, or particularly high from base to top. The killer is the altitude. Beginning around 4500 m (14,763 ft), and culminating at around 5,600 m (18,372 ft) above sea level, this little hill can kick the ass of even experienced athletic hikers. And I… am not that. After i signed up with 9 other people from my hostel for this excursion, I immediately began to regret it. I knew it was going to be excruciating. I knew the altitude would be rough on my already weak lungs. But I hoped for the best, and decided to push myself and try.
And sure enough, as hard as it was on everyone in the group… it was even harder on me. At the halfway point when we stopped for a rest, I was ready to give up completely and ask one of the guides to take me down. I got really light headed. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. This was despite walking incredibly slowly, as instructed. But when I told Nicholas, the group leader and guide – he was nothing but encouraging. He was so convinced that I was fine and that I could make it to the top. He asked one of the other guides (there were 5 for 11 of us) to stay in the back of the group with me. I ended up going much slower than everyone else, and taking many 2 minute breaks to catch my breath and allow my heart-rate to slow itself. All with the help of one very patient guide. And although it took me about 20-30 minutes longer than the rest of the group, I reached the mouth of the volcano. I cannot even begin to explain how proud of myself I was.
Almost immediately upon reaching the “top” the group was given an option. We could trek an extra half hour to a second summit for another spectacular view. Or we could stay put and rest. I was the only member of my group who chose to stay and rest (and it turned out to be the best decision ever). But 3 of the guides chose to rest as well. Almost immediately after the group moved on, all 3 guides that were with me fell asleep. I was completely alone with one of the most unbelievable sights any human being could ever see. Alone to watch the steam come up from the center, smell the sulfur and see gasses pour out of the walls across and into the abyss.
And what happened then? I lost my shit. I started bawling my little eyes out like a baby. At first I was just so happy and proud that I made it. That I didn’t let being a diabetic, asthmatic stop me from accomplishing this. But it quickly became so much more. I thought about my mom. For a couple of months now, I have been a bit numb and emotionless. And somehow, for some weird reason, being on top of Volcán Lascar helped me to unlock the emotion that I had been storing up. I don’t know why. Nothing about the experience reminded me of her in any way. But being up there, alone, for that half hour or so was somehow medicine. And my mom was all I could think about.
Anyone who ever gets this opportunity should take it. If I can do it… yeah…