Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Desert - San Pedro de Atacama

If you are a geologist, or interested in geology, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is quite a fascinating place to visit. Unfortunately, I am neither a geologist, nor that interested in geology.

This desert is the driest on Earth because of the placement in relation to the Andes (all the rain falls on the other side of them), the Humboldt current running along the coast (which is a cold current so there's little moisture in the air), and then a persistent high pressure system in the area. For the science people out there, those three factors probably explain nothing to you. But for the non-scientist like me, it makes enough sense.

There are some indigenous groups in the area, but others began to arrive for the nitrates - used in gun powder. As the need for nitrates plummeted, the markets for copper and lithium help out the area today. There's a big copper mine, and a good chunk of the world's lithium comes from that area. 

For tourists, there are salt flats, interesting landscapes, and amazing star gazing.

That's not ice breaking up in the spring time, it's part of the salt flats.

Today you fly into Calama, the heart of the industrial desert. I was quite surprised to see high rises in the downtown area. More surprised that 80% of our return flight to Santiago were single men, obviously connected to the mining industry. A little bit of Fort McMurray in northern Chile.

After arriving in Calama, you make your way on one of the handful of shuttle services to San Pedro de Atacama about 45 minutes away which is the oasis town where the tourists flock. The definition of oasis is all relative. Compared to what is just beyond the town's boundary, the town is quite an oasis with trees, water and a lovely square in town, but compared to many other places in the world, oasis is not a word that jumps to the front of my mind.

Our hotel was quite glorious. It had only 12 rooms, a pool, an outdoor shaded area, and a  bar fridge loaded with beer and water to which we could help ourselves on the honour system of recording it. But even our hotel find did not protect us from dry, flaking and scaly skin or dry lips.

Moving beyond the town led to journeys with rough roads, long distances, and a desolate view with few things to look at but sand, or rock, and sun. If you couldn't already tell, I wasn't a huge fan of the place, and I never need to return.

But, I'm so glad we went because by travelling here with the kids we saw:
  • Eamon's joy at trekking through a cave like he was Indiana Jones. He loved it - so much so that he happily posed for photos for me. The look of pure bliss on his face, and the enthusiasm with which he talked nonstop about that cave, are tough to beat.
  • Meaghan's pride at conquering for fear of caves. Going into small dark places is not her thing and she wanted no part of it. But she did it and she beamed afterwards
  • Both kids climb up a mountain with ease, and then skitter down again as if it were nothing. They saw adults struggling and took note that not everyone went up. They also heard the talking about how steep the climb was. They knew how awesome they did and felt might proud of themselves.
You can't actually tell how high up we are in this photo, or in any of the other photos,
but trust me, she's high up.
  • Meaghan leap out of bed with speed and enthusiasm at 3:50am after I'd whispered to her that Kerry was up on the roof stargazing and he could see... -- She moved so fast I never even had the chance to finish telling her what he had seen.
  • Two Spanish women in their early 20s swoon over Eamon and wanting to have their photo taken with him.

And this is where travelling with kids varies so much from travelling as just a couple, or even as individuals. Kerry and I never would have travelled here on our own, but we thought the kids might like it and even if they didn't, it would be interesting to see. But the kids loved so many parts of it, and we saw the joy on their faces doing things we may not have done elsewhere. Seeing them happy and confident with themselves was worth the trip.

But I don't want you thinking that I didn't enjoy anything on this part of the trip because there were some spectacular moments:

The flamingos. They are just stunning. It helps that they have a spectacular backdrop of the Andes. 

Lagoon Cejar where there's so much salt in the water you float like you would in the Dead Sea. We all enjoyed this one, a lot.

The salt dried onto Meaghan's legs after leaving Lagoon Cejar.

The geysers. Though Yellowstone might have more on offer, these are interesting because they are the only unstable geysers in the world. With the minerals in the soil being water soluble, the ground, when combined with all this boiling water, changes constantly. Only a couple months ago a Belgian woman fell into a geyser when the edge gave way. While I forget the exact number of deaths over the last 10-15 years, I do remember it averaged out at almost one death per year.

Water bubbling up in a geyser.

Volcanoes. They are everywhere. Some are extinct, some just inactive, but one had a little bit of activity after its eruption at the end of October. Lascar is the flat topped mountain below. There's a little bit of steam and gas that you can see first thing in the morning. So no, that's not another cloud the arrow points to. I feel quite fortunate that we've seen two erupting volcanoes so far on our journey.

Good food in town. It's expensive, but everything in this town is pricey.

People watching. This has got to be among the best people watching anywhere. It's fantastic. The diversity of the people astounds me: locals, rough backpackers, rich oldies, and everything in between. Quite unbelievable.

Favourite tourist town yet: Pueblo de Machuca. We stopped at this small town whose sole purpose is to make money off of tourists. But in a surprising move, there were no handicrafts for sale. Not a one. That alone is reason to like it, but it gets better. Because most of the tourists come through around noon, they sell bbq'd llama kebabs - delicious by the way. They also sell empanadas, and a man plays his guitar. Not only have they found a far better way than handicrafts to make money, most of the houses have solar panels. What's not to love about this town.

Stars. While clouds do appear, it's not often, and there's no light pollution. As a consequence, the star gazing is spectacular. Unfortunately, we visited around the time of the full moon so the moon brightened the sky too much for any of the star gazing tours to operate. But that didn't matter. We did head out early one morning after the moon had set, but before first light and what we saw was pretty fabulous. Maybe not up to the standards of a serious star gazer, but certainly beyond our standards.

Shadows. The desert is a harsh place with harsh shadows. However, as the day comes to an end, I quite love how long and thin my shadow legs appear. 

While this portion of our travels won't be my favourite, we had some terrific moments and saw some fantastic things. And this will be the part of our year that stays with us the longest -- I don't think I'll ever get all the dust out of our shoes.

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