Wednesday, January 30, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama 3

Day three (January 26th) of our Atacama sojourn started early; we were picked up at the hotel at 0500 for a predawn run to the El Tatio Geyser Field, the highest in the world at 14100'+ msl. The group now consisted of RuthAnn and me and would be that way for the next two days. The 95 km dirt road was mostly hard pack and fairly fast; our driver sped through the dark passing 14 other vehicles until we got off on the wrong track and almost got stuck in the deep sand in the process. Three of the vehicles we had passed now got their revenge and moved ahead of us on the rush to get to the geysers at dawn. Two faster small pickups also edged past on the now very rough and washboard road; so we had a net gain of nine vehicles on the way to the geysers!!

The geyser field lies in a huge caldera and the reason for early arrival is to see them when it is cold and the steam is at its maximun; later in the day when the temps rise the steam is not as evident, sort of like being able to see your breathe on a cold day in Wisconsin! We were glad that we had heeded the advice of the tour company to bundle up and bring a warm hat and gloves as the temperature was probably about 25° in the shadow of the caldera lip; once the sun rose enough to clear the edge of the caldera the temps rose quickly.

Breakfast was served after walking through the mists and rising columns of steam. Freshly brewed coffee (our guide, Leo, warmed up the chocolate milk for our cafe mocha by immersing the box of milk in one of the hot pools!), bread, cheese, ham and cake made for a nice, but cool outdoor breakfast.

El Tatio Geysers
RA staying warm
RA and Leo's niece
Our speedy Sprinter
Coffee brewing
Breakfast spread!
Vegetation in the caldera
Dirty truck!
Mineral formation
RuthAnn "explaining" something to Leo!

On the way back to San Pedro we were able to see all of the scenery we missed in the early darkness.

In the dark run to the geysers we noticed that the road was well marked with reflective signs and reflectors on the dirt road surface.

Reflector glued to dirt--wonder how long it stays there!

We stopped at the small Atacameño village of Machuca before returning to San Pedro. A deep fried cheese empanada really hit the spot.


Self portrait--tough shot because the wind kept moving the mirror!
Church bell tower--not quite Pisa, but on its way!
Thatched roofs
Most of the homes in Machuca have a cross on the roof
RA found a friend in Machuca!

After an afternoon rest we headed out again about 1630 to visit a couple of sink holes that served as local swimming spots and the salt lagoon of Tebinquinche.

RA and Leo on the salt at Tebinquinche
Reflections at Tebinquinche

The last destination for this long day was Laguna Sejar; a small salt lake that has a 40% concentration of salt. The objective here was to "float" not swim!! It was not a pretty sight as two retirees from De Pere tottered out past the underwater rocks to where it was deep enough to float along on our backs occasionally hitting a rock with our bums. We lay there with our feet high and dry above the salty brine thinking we would tip head over heels, but that did not happen. The squeals of delight from the children and giggles of the adults made for a fun time. We got as close to the shore as we could before staggering to an upright position to dry off, hop in the van, and head back to the hotel. There is no photographic evidence of this venture so you will have to take our word for it!!


Monday, January 28, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama 2

Today (January 25th) we visited the Atacama Salt Flats (Salar de Atacama) and the altiplano lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques; a seven hour tour south of San Pedro. Our first stop was the small village of Toconao which was heavily damaged by the extraordinary floods of February, 2012. The quaint church bell tower was one of the main attractions along with the small artisan shops. The skeleton of a 1923 Ford pickup truck attracted all the gear heads in the group. I had forgotten how much wood was used in the frame work of these old vehicles.

Cactus wood door of the church bell tower in Toconao
1923 Ford pick up in Toconao

Our next stop was the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and one of the largest in the world. This is where we got our best views of the Chilean and Andean flamingoes and other water fowl.

Chilean flamingo (l) and Andean flamingo at Salar de Atacama
Salar de Atacama

Back in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with our small international group, we headed toward the string of volcanoes that presented a constant backdrop for our visit to this part of Chile. Our destination was the altiplano lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques at 13500'+ msl. At one time there was one larger lake, but it was cut in two when the Miñiques Volcano erupted and sent a lava flow through the lake. Overhead we were presented an amazing sight with impressive clouds against the deep blue sky.

Laguna Miscanti
Miñiques Volcano

We stopped for lunch in the small village of Socaire on our way back to San Pedro; the small church there presented an interesting sight.


San Pedro de Atacama 1

We left our hostal in Santiago at 0700 on the 24th for our 0905 flight to Calama in northern Chile. There were at least 10-15 check-in counters for LAN, but between them and us were probably 300-400 people! We got our our boarding passes printed at one of the self-service kiosks with coaching from the man in line behind us. Boarding passes in hand, we proceeded straight to security screening and the gate--the joys of carry-on luggage!!

The LAN flight on a newer Airbus 320 was pleasant enough despite tight seating, but a snack and drink kept us happy. After the two hour ten minute flight and a twenty minute wait for our transport we were on the road for the 100 km ride to San Pedro de Atacama (7900' msl). Our hotel, the Terrantai Lodge, is located in the center of town right next to the church and town square.

San Pedro (population about 3400) is the gateway for visiting the many interesting natural sites in this part of the Atacama Desert hard by the Bolivian border. It is a fairly new attraction for organized tourism now boasting over 30 hotels (12 years ago there were 5) and accompanying tour operators, artisan shops, restaurants, bicycle rentals, etc. There is not a paved street to be had in town, generators provide the electrical power, the local water supply is still adequate, and the growing pains are obvious. Many of the Atacameños have left town due to the rising cost of living here--the price of change in today's world.

A few hours after our arrival we were picked up by our tour operator, Rutas Andinas Expeditions, for our visit to the the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna). Our group of eight consisted of couples from France, Holland, Italy and us. The four hour riding/walking tour took us through some incredible moon-like scenery. At out last stop on an cliff overlooking a rugged gorge we watched the sun go down and the colors of the distant volcanoes change dramatically with the waning light. We were pleasantly surprised when the guides and the driver unloaded two small tables, covered them with a table cloth, and put out a nice selection of cheeses, crackers, dips, and a tasty Chilean Carménère.

Patterns in the sand
Full moon rising at sunset



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Days in Santiago

Yesterday we took an hour long walk along the south side of the Mapocho River to the Sculpture Park (Parque de las Esculturas). Surprisingly, we were able to stay in a narrow strip of green space for most of the way to the park. The park lies on the north side of the river and the bridges on either end of the display are lined with sculptures. The 22 pieces in the park entertained us for about an hour before we headed back the way we had come.

On the way back to the hostal we passed this huge fountain.

We also saw a new use for a wheel barrow!

When we tried to find a restaurant for lunch, we discovered that most of the restaurants near the hostal were closed due to a water main break. We also tried to visit the museum home, La Chascona, of poet Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971), but it too was closed due to the water shortage. When we ventured forth again about 2000 we found an excellent eatery in the same Bellavista neighborhood.

Today we took a 20 minute cab ride to visit the Parque por la Paz on the former site of the Villa Grimaldi which was turned into a secret torture and execution site during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It is estimated that 4500 people were held and tortured here and over 250 were executed on the grounds. The buildings were razed by the regime shortly before its fall, but the site has been preserved and is now a powerful reminder of those dark days of the recent past. The most graphic display is that of sections of railroad rails that were tied to the bodies of the executed before they were dumped from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean.

As was the case yesterday during our visit to the Scupture Park, a raucous flock of bright green parakeets provided a cover for the street traffic noise.

This afternoon we were successful in visiting La Chascona--a home with three separate sections none of which are accessible from any of the others! A very eclectic dwelling built into the side of a steep hill. We look forward to seeing his other homes in Valparaiso and Isla Negra at the end of SAm 13.

Tomorrow we will be up early for our flight to Calama in the north of this long, narrow country. After a 100 km van ride we will arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, our home for the next five days. We will be making several excursions to various sites in the Atacama Desert. Hopefully the wi-fi connections will be good as I'm sure we will have some good stories and great pictures to share.