Hot in Chile: The Atacama Desert

Sorry for the long hiatus, I have been (1) super sick and (2) caught up with the amazing, blessed experience that was Sing, City! 4. But now I am back to bring you more tales from abroad — this time from the desert San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. [This is the final installment of my Chile trip (read about Santiago and Valparaiso here).]

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Okay, so Atacama! Reading the descriptions of this desert town in the guidebooks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The boys came across a luxury hotel ($150 a night) that had its own swimming pool! Was that supposed to be a big deal, I thought. Would I die of heat exhaustion? Would there be enough water?

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As it turns out, much of the town has been built for tourists. The facades of each building looked like dusty, clay homes… But step right in and you have perfectly functional — comfortable even! — restaurants or hostels.

After taking a shuttle bus from the single-runway airport in Calama, we finally reached Atacama around 2pm. We decided to make full use of our time there and went off in search for Tours and Adventure. First stop? A Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) tour that promised surfaces that actually resembled the moon — unlike the other Moon Valley tour we took in La Paz, Bolivia, where some guy named it as such because he thought it would look like the moon.

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In the Atacama version, however, scientists have tested their Mars rover prototypes! While I won’t be on the moon anytime soon, the valley did remind me of our Uyuni trip, especially because of its dry salt lakes (though they weren’t as expansive as the ones in Uyuni). Thanks to Geological Processes, the saline outcrops present in the uber-dry desert become impressive-looking sculptures over time.

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This is the Tres Marias, or Three Marys. Presumably named because if you look hard enough, they look like three women, standing or kneeling, faces turned towards the Heavens as if in prayer. It’s actually quite a beautiful thought!

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We also climbed an abandoned salt mine, where huge, unrefined grains could still be picked off the ground. If I’m not wrong, it’s a different method from how salt is “harvested” in Uyuni (where salt is scraped off the flats and left to evaporate in the sun) but I’ll let Google guide your interests.

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Wenbo on an abandoned salt… tractor?

We walked around these harsh terrains under the blazing sun and I kicked myself for not bringing a suitably skanky pair of FBT shorts. Alan amazed all present by finding the energy to climb up a salt crop to take a jump shot.

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We had to walk some more to get to a giant sand dune (which made me wonder why we paid our guide in the first place, haha I am a spoilt child). I want to say I was enthralled by its beauty and majesty but honestly, to me it was just sand. I tried to think positively, but my earlier praises about the awe-inducing effect of nature had suddenly dwindled.

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Ok la, it looks quite cool in pictures.

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And here’s a photo of Aaron looking like he’s walking away coolly from an explosion.

After that we made a stop to the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death), a misnomer because the Spanish word for Mars (marte) got lost in translation somehow. To me, however, the landscape looked like neither. You be the judge.

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Our final stop — by this time I was a little sian and in desperate need of a pee break — was a photo-taking spot to capture the sun setting over the vast landscape. This was a tad hard to do, what with the dozens of people milling about, all trying to get the same photo. (It was quite unlike my Uyuni experience! where the ratio of individual to personal space seemed a lot more favorable.)

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Taken after cropping out all the death glare-giving couples standing just right of the frame

Ok la but the sunset quite pretty.

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Onto Day 2, my favorite part of this segment: FLAMINGOS! We headed down to the Reserva de Los Flamencos and I think I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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SO MANY FLAMINGOS. As much as I found the Atacama trails more sanitized than the ones in Uyuni (where you could walk up close to the edge of the lakes), it’s heartening that the authorities are taking steps to preserve the natural habitats of these endangered birds!

The second half of the trip took us to the lagoons. Again, photos — since too much time has lapsed since the trip that I can’t remember most of the interesting geological tidbits. Sorry.

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Finally, Day 3, which took us to the El Tatio geysers. We had to wake up at an unearthly 4-freaking-am, bundle ourselves in winter wear and journey up to reach an altitude of 4,200m. The geyser field is the largest in the southern hemisphere, and the third largest in the world. The geysers don’t go very high, but the columns of white clouds (from steam condensing in the bitter -5 deg C cold) can be pretty cool to see.

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Our tour guide fed us a breakfast of… warm chocolate milk + boiled eggs, cooked in the bubbling hot waters. COOLEST BREAKFAST EVER.

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Eggs are in the white plastic bag.

I ate like… 4 eggs. HAHA. I didn’t eat all the yolks, so don’t scold me for cholesterol issues! After that we headed down to the thermal pool, where Alan and I both saw a 70-year-old granny’s swimsuit bottom fall to the ground. 🙁 I felt bad for her, but also for myself.

Mish, Jane and I didn’t like the idea of freezing in the cold air as soon as we emerged from the springs so we settled for dipping our legs in the water.

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Photo courtesy of Aaron Koh

We headed back, ate more food and took our flight home the next day. In general my Chile experience was alright. The sights didn’t wow me (though I must clarify that I really did enjoy myself in Valparaiso), but my friends definitely made the trip super fun. I can’t wait to head down towards the southern tip of Chile one day, where the nature + greenery seem to be of another world altogether. But until then 🙂

RACHEL’S LOWDOWN 

  • Getting there: You’ll fly from Santiago to Calama (buy your tickets on the Spanish LAN website because they will charge you more on the English one) on LAN (~$160 return), then take a 1 hour + shuttle from Calama to Atacama (~$17 one way). 
  • Where to eat: Adobe, Bendito Desierto, Sol Inti. Stanley, Aaron & Wenbo raved about their meal at La Estaka too.
  • Where to stay: We stayed at the Lomo Sanchez… but my room was super hot (only a tiny window which opened up to the main street, so I kept getting woken up at night 🙁 )
  • Finding toursIt’s a tourist town. Walk around, negotiate, pull out every card you could to get a better price (ask your pretty girl friend to discuss terms, say you’re students, want a group discount, etc.)

Coming up soon: COACHELLA 2013 omg this is the best thing ever.

2 Comments

  • Jo Davies says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog entry and the photos are fab – can you offer some advice about how cold it was when you visited the geysers in the early morning? I don’t know what to expect really in terms of how cold and what’s best to pack. Thanks x

    • Rachel says:

      Hi Jo! Thanks for your kind words. We went in March and it was the ascent up the mountain, in the bus, where I felt the coldest. I had a winter jacket, scarf, knit hat and gloves but I thought I was going to freeze in there. Once we got on ground and started moving about it was much better but I would bring a good set of winter clothes if you are going to see the geysers. It is supposedly cold no matter what season it is, so you might end up with beach wear for the bulk of your Atacama activities and thick winter wear for that half a day of geyer seeing. Have fun!

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