- Flying to the moon
- The Chilean-Bolivian conflict
- The village in the dessert
- Hostel time
- The perfect astronomy lesson
- Valle de la Muerte – the San Pedro classic
- Lost in the Valle de la Muerte
- Bolivia News coming soon
Last time I wrote, I had just immersed into the capital, Santiago de Chile. Now I am back in San Pedro and just came back from 4 days in Bolivia. It has been absolutely incredible and I need to process what I experienced before I will write about it. So first my pending News on San Pedro de Atacama.
Flying to the moon
Atacama, literally meaning hijos de la tierra dorada in the native language, rings a bell in everyone´s ear. I wanted to come here by crossing the northern border of Chile and Argentina, however, I found out that it was quite complicated in the winter and gave up on it. Then my dear friend Juancho basically forced me to take a flight here from Santiago and here I am.
I don’t even know where to start to describe this place which is not from this planet. During the flight from Santiago I had a seat at the right window and we flew along the Andes for 2000km. It was absolutely amazing to see how the vegetation of this country changes constantly and eventually I reached the most arid dessert in the world. In some parts of the Atacama desert rain has never ever been recorded. But first some history of this place.
The Chilean-Bolivian conflict
The whole region which is now northern Chile was territory of Peru and mostly Bolivia. At the end of the 19th century the Chileans attacked and conquered these territories and thereby took away the sea access from Bolivia. Until today this is a huge debate and Bolivia and Chile do not hold any diplomatic relations at the moment, although they are neighboring countries. Both countries, and especially Evo Morales´ Bolivia, use this conflict time and time again for populist reason. As I have said before already, 55% of Chile´s exports (and this number was much higher in the past) is composed by copper mining, and all of the mines are located in this desert. So for Chile this very hostile vegetation is actually the lifeline of its economy. Similar to the Malvinas or Falklands conflict, it was very wrong what has happened, but the current status quo cannot be changed and should be accepted. From the airplane I got an amazing view on the huge mines and the ghost towns created by the nitrate production in the 19th century.
The village in the dessert
When I got out of the plane I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at: a desert with an infinity of different colors. Then behind it the Costillera de los Andes which forms the natural border with Bolivia in the north-east and Argentina in the east and is entirely composed by volcanoes, most of them active. And finally on top of all this stunning scenery the bluest sky I have ever seen, a sky where clouds do simply not exist.
I am really wondering why people lived here before the mining began. It just seems like the most hostile place on the planet. But this area was and is indeed inhabited mostly by indigenas and the only town in the Atacama desert is entirely populated by them, San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro is located at 2500m above the sea level. It is a little village with 2000 inhabitants and 120km away from the next town, in the middle of the desert. They found some sort of irrigation and can cultivate a bit of vegetables and fruit. From here you can take off to an infinity of tours, all of which are incredible. The houses are made of adobe and are all very small, giving the city a laidback, chilled atmosphere.
I found a nice hostel here, a bit outside of “town”. As always, I took the cheapest there is, because I believe that the encounters you have in these hostels are just more memorable than in more expensive places. It is a very simple house with an outdoor chilling area and rooms around it. I really like it, as everyone always gets together in the main area and I am the official hostel cook again, providing good and cheap pasta in a place where dining out is very expensive.
The other side of the coin is that they do not have any heating (not nice when it gets to -5 at night), the showers are cold and I “lost” my mobile here (I am pretty sure they stole it from my room when cleaning it).
The town itself is quite nice and cozy, however, you can tell that nowadays it exists to provide various services to tourists and during the weekend I visited it, more than 4000 tourists invaded this little desert town. I try to stay far away from the hassle and spent the time getting to know people in my hostel.
The perfect astronomy lesson
From San Pedro you can do tours all over the place: high plains, salt flats, volcanoe springs and the list goes on and on. However, I had booked a tour to Bolivia and I was told that during this 4 day tour I will get to see everything they offer in San Pedro, just less touristy and more amazing. So I thought that the best idea would have been to do two activities that are unique to San Pedro.
I remember watching a documentary years ago about a place in Chile which is supposed to be the best in the world for watching stars. Then I found out that this place is the cloudless Atacama desert and decided to pay a couple of euros more than the standard tour and join an actual French expat astronomer, who built a little house just outside of San Pedro, installed some proper huge telescopes and offers tours at night.
I put on several layers of clothes to cope with the -10 degrees temperature and off I went with my newly found German friend Alex. We got there around 11pm and for 2 hours they explained us everything. First, we analyzed our sun system and had a look at planets through the telescopes. Jupiter was particularly amazing as we could see it perfectly, as if it were projected on a screen.
Then they showed us galaxies composed by millions of stars, most of which cannot be seen with the bare eye. They explained that our universe is composed by 400 billion galaxies, each of which has around 200 billion stars. Most of these are completely out of reach for us and the closest star outside of our sun system is the Alpha Centauri which is still 4 light years away.
We had a look at the Milky Way and only now I realized that all of the constellations they showed us cannot be seen from the northern hemisphere and that the sun moves from east to north and not to south as in Europe. It was very interesting, but I have to be honest that it was a lot of information to take for an astronomy ignorant like me. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it, despite the teeth shattering cold. I have just never seen so many stars on the sky: the Milky Way was a clearly visible white stripe and I saw at least 50 fading stars.
The French astronomer is not the only one who discovered the advantages of a clear sky at a high altitude without any winds: the international project ALMA will launch in 2015. It is a cooperation by countries such as the US, Chile and the European Union. They are building 500 radio telescopes all with a 50m diameter. To exemplify how powerful the ALMA will actually be they explained that with those methods you will be able to spot a fly on Mars, crazy huh?
Valle de la Luna – the San Pedro classic
After this very cold but unforgettable experience I decided to go for the San Pedro classic: Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. We got into a 4×4 jeep around 4 pm and first drove around the Valle de la Luna, which gets its name because the NASA sent astronauts here to train before boarding moon expeditions in the 60s.
We drove through the desert valleys which have very peculiar rock formations. Unfortunately, you cannot walk around as you please, because the Chileans mined their own territory in an attempt to scare off Bolivia from conquering back what used to be their territory. Our guide showed us around the area first and then brought us into an ancient salt mine, where people lived in the most unbearable conditions to extract this costly salt, which does not contain any iodine and is therefore very healthy.
After this we headed on to the Valle de la Muerte. A couple of centuries ago, nomads tried to get to the most hospitable lands around San Pedro. On the way their animals started dying and by the time they had crossed this arid rock valley most of their animals had deceased, hence the name. We went to the hills which overlook the valley and offer a spectacular view on San Pedro and the mountains in the back. Our guide cracked open a bottle of Piscosour, the national drink in Chile (Pisco is a spirit produced by distilling very very sweet grapes and it is then mixed either with coke or lemonade). We watched the sunset with a glass in our hands and it was just amazing how the color of the volcanoes and of the desert changed literally every 5 seconds.
Lost in the Valle de la Muerte
Usually, these tours end with the sunset and you are then driven back to town, which is about 12km away. Our guide asked us if we were up for some adventure and suggested that we could run down the 400m tall sand dunes in the dark, then walk inside the underlying Valle de la Muerte and that he would pick us up there after 10 minutes. And so we did, we ran down like crazy and it was just awesome, as these dunes are really tall and steep, but the soft sand allows you to run down at full speed nevertheless.
It only got problematic when we started walking in the Valle de la Muerte: it was completely dark and we had only an iphone light to guide us. Moreover, the valley looks quite frightening with its sharp rock formations. So we walked for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20, 25, 30, 45….. still no guide in sight. Also, we didn’t have any reception and only after 50 minutes we managed to call the agency which told us that the driver got stuck in a sand dune and that we would have to walk all the way back to San Pedro. It was actually quite nice with all these amazing stars and the pristine nature. Only the last 5 km on the main highway in the dark where really annoying and once at the hostel I was really really happy to have precooked enough sauce for 10 people before leaving for the tour.
Bolivia News coming soon
The next day around 6am I got picked up for a 4 day tour to Bolivia. I just got back and have to sort my thoughts first. This tour was the best I have ever done and I saw natural wonders I didn’t even know existed. However, everything comes at a certain price, and when you are travelling at 3700-5200 metres of altitude in the winter, you will have to endure a lot of cold and pain to enjoy the nature wonders. I will write the News for Bolivia soon, expect landscapes that do not seem from this planet, true story.
Hast luego viejos