The Atacama Desert

Now that we visited Valparaiso in a day instead of the three days I had initially set aside for it, what were we going to do between now and Torres del Paine (TdP) [the only thing we had set in concrete (other than our Airbnb booking in Santiago)]?

Nathan successfully changed our bookings for the TdP campsites of the O Trek bringing it forward three weeks earlier than scheduled. Securing earlier bookings at the TdP would theoretically mean better weather; we’ll soon find out!

We had about a week and a bit to spend somewhere before going to Torres del Paine, so we set off to the dry and arid Atacama Desert.

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Note to self: last minute plane tickets are not cheap (and we paid the price). In hindsight the bus would have been an experience, but we ended up doing more things with the time we saved which made it such that we probably didn’t need to return to the region. (Not to mention we avoided having a sore butt.)

Another note: trying to secure car hire at short notice is also no easy task. We thought we outsmarted the rental car companies by booking it through a third party (ie. Kayak.com), only to arrive at the airport wanting to pick up a car but the car hire company never got our booking. We ended up hiring a small hatchback for the first two days of our stay, before swapping it for a AWD which made for a much more comfortable trip on gravel roads or on roads which were semi-flooded.

San Pedro de Atacama is 2,408m above sea level, and some of the main attractions were beyond 4,000m above sea level; e.g. the El Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world.

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[The geysers are a lot more impressive in video, I promise!]

The most commonly used adjective in this blog (which I find myself using in and amongst my surroundings) would be the word “beautiful”. Words cannot describe the variety of landscapes on offer in this part of Chile – from high-altitude fields, rolling mountains, dried-up salt lakes to the arid dry desert.

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Piedras Rojas from afar

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Exploring salt lakes in the Atacama Desert

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Valle de la Luna

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San Pedro de Atacama is, as Nathan describes, a “backpacker’s haven”. The quaint dusty pedestrian streets are filled with tour companies organising day and multi-day tours to the various tourist attractions, even as far as to the famous Uyuni Salt Flats across the border in Bolivia. Accommodation was expensive for even the simplest of private rooms in a hostel.

The cheaper option of staying in the nearby village of Solor costed us just under 35,000CLP per night (AUD$75; for a double room with an ensuite). The accommodation in Solor was a unique experience in a typical B&B hosted by locals who only spoke Spanish. We had difficulty getting to the B&B due to the poor signage, and speaking to the host on the phone did not help because we knew so little Spanish. When we finally arrived she was pleasant (and knew instantly I was the fool who didn’t speak Spanish – at least, not enough to be led to the accommodation or to explain where in Solor we were).

The highlights of the region were the wild camping spots we found whilst driving. Hiring a car and driving is not a cheap way of travelling, but it gave us the freedom to car camp. It was an experience that a tour couldn’t get for us – sleeping and waking up to beautiful sunsets and sunrises.

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Salar de Tara

In some of the spots we were sleeping at 3,800m above sea level – very high altitude which meant sub-zero temperatures in the morning (and the requirement to acclimatise to the altitude). Thank God for our very warm equipment – especially our Feathered Friends Spoonbill 900-goose down two-person sleeping bag. It seriously kept us very warm even in the coldest of nights. I cannot stress how important it is to have the proper equipment and gear to have a comfortable night’s sleep in the wilderness. (The months of research Nathan poured in has paid off – good job!)

Aside from the scenery one cannot forget the unique fauna that are native to this land.

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I now understand how foreigners in Australia are mesmerised by koalas and kangaroos. Llama and vicunas are incredibly adorable!

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And last but not least, the significance of the Atacama Desert is that it is home to the indigenous Atacamenos. About 500 – 1000 years ago they lived in the dry and arid conditions of the desert, without any of the “proper equipment” I talked about. The geoglyphs (amongst other things) evidence their existence in the lands:

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The infamous Atacama Giant, and… me

In this mountainous desert where the nights are freezing and the days are dry and hot, the land is stark, dusty and barren, yet it is home to the indigenous Atacameños.

PS: If you haven’t been following our Instagram, we now have a Youtube channel with videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrsMgW9DZxLL-7eJq152-SQ

Another medium of story-telling is through video and we are experimenting with documenting our travels through video (because I often can’t find the words to express myself or convey what I want to say, ironically…)

If you enjoy the videos, please subscribe and share them!

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