GUEST ARTICLE: The flight from Santiago, Chile up to Calama only took two hours. From above you could see the drastic change in the terrain and soon the most arid desert in the world was below us. Stepping out onto the scorching black tarmac, our eyes burned not only from the brilliant sun but from the extremely dry air. After picking up our rental we drove about an hour southwest to our next destination – San Pedro de Atacama.
The smooth rolling hills and numerous volcanoes lined the long empty highway, and as the sun started to set the scenery became even more breathtakingly beautiful in colour and shadows. We soon found ourselves driving through an incredible sight called “Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley” .This place has rightfully earned its name; it literally makes you feel like you’re on the moon.
As we wound down through the valley we saw the little oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. The town has kept its Spanish colonial influence and is literally made out of clay and stone, with numerous little dirt roads winding their way throughout. Every place looks pretty much the same, so you can imagine it was a treat trying to find our hotel – Casa de Don Tomas in the dark.
After using some dodgy Spanish for directions we came upon our humble abode and settled in for what I call the longest night ever! I have to say that was one of the most uncomfortable nights I’ve had, not because of the room (that was great) but because of the air being so dry. I swear I must have drunk about 2 litres of water during the night; I have never experienced thirst like that! Thankfully we soon acclimatised ourselves and were pretty much back to normal in a few days.
The next morning we did a walkabout throughout the town, what a cool little place! The dirt streets are narrow and lined with small boutique shops, restaurants, tour organizers and tonnes of hostals (hostels). The town has a really cosy feeling, the people are all very nice and of course the food didn’t disappoint.
We were really fortunate to also be there for the anniversary of the region, so we were able to see Chileans in their beautifully bright coloured traditional garb, fantastic! In the afternoon we hopped in our car and headed for a more intimate tour of the Valle de la Luna. It was all dirt road but thankfully for us and our poor little car, easily accessible.
The Valle de la Luna was formed about 22 million years ago and with years of wind and atmospheric conditions it has been transformed into an incredible myriad of shapes. Although incredibly beautiful it is also the most inhospitable corner on earth.
From San Pedro there are 4 roads, each heading out in different directions and to some pretty incredible sights. One day we ventured down another dirt road for about 30kms to check out some natural thermal pools we had heard about (Termas de Puritama).
We parked our car and started down a very steep and narrow road into a massive canyon. At first glance it’s hard to believe there could possibly be a group of thermals down there but we were soon proved wrong.
After handing over $5000 pesos each to our nice Chilean caretaker, we meandered down a little red wooden walkway in search of our first pool. With the sun at about three quarters down the lighting to this place was magic and so were the clear blue green pools. They were as natural as you can get with slippery fluorescent green moss rocks, gravel bottoms and little waterfalls surrounded by typical Chilean foliage.
The temperature was perfect in each one but let me tell ya, getting out was not treat, it was freezing!! When the sun starts to go so does all of that scorching heat and you soon start to really respect the drastic temperatures in the desert.
The next day we headed south to check out some lagoons. After about 60kms we came upon our first lagoon – Laguna Chaxa (Part of Salar de Atacama). This was another exquisite sight, amongst a massive salt crust were shallow lagoons harbouring hundreds of Chilean and Andean Flamingos, what a sight!!
Our next stop which was about another 50 kms south east was the Lagunas Miscanti y Meniques. Two of the most magnificently coloured lagoons situated 4000m above sea level nestled in the Andean Mountains.
The lagoons get their intense blue colour and stark white banks from the Volcano Meniques eruption 1 million years ago causing the stagnation of the water. The stark contrast of the lagoons, yellow rolling hills and the Andes is something I will never forget. To top it off we had a kodak moment when a herd of wild Alpacas started grazing in front of one of the lagoons – talk about a magic moment!
Today we did a last looksee and drove west toward A Paso Jama Argentina. After about 40kms we started feeling really woozy and breathless, we hadn’t realized we just did a gradual climb to about 5,000m above sea level – uggg. There is no way I would make it as a mountain climber! Besides having a touch of altitude sickness, yes you guessed it, it was totally worth it.
We saw a few more beautiful salt lakes with the odd flamingo and lots of wild Alpacas, Llamas, Vicuna (similar to Llamas) and one giant flightless bird called a Puna Rhea – excellent!
Oh and some other bird that nearly took my head off….I was peacefully taking some nice photos of some grazing Alpacas when all of a sudden I heard a loud screech and thrum of wings! What was my lesson learned you ask?
Well, for starters obviously watch out for nests, never wear thongs on gravel and never try running at an altitude of 5000m!! By the time I made it back to the safety of our car I had rocks the size of marbles stuck in my thongs and I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me!! Damn you bird!
Okay, so there’s the mega scoop on one of the coolest places we’ve been to so far. Judging from this whole trip in Chile so far, you really can’t go wrong here. For now I’ll let the pictures tell the rest, I hope you like them as much as I loved taking them (besides the bird incident). Next stop Buenos Aires, Argentina!!
This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!