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The Desert


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South America
Southern Chile
Chilean Lake District and Argentina
The Desert
South American Album
South American Information
North America
Turkey 2003
Mount Cameroon 2005
Technical notes

The site is a work in progress, the 'Album' page in each section contains some photos but only some sections have much text.

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Tuesday 11 April 2000

Woke up around 0900 to see the Pacific passing by the windows before we headed up into the desert. The desert was a strange landscape, inexplicably more barren looking than the Brunt ice shelf despite having plants and animals.

Occasional towns and police stations were dotted along the road but otherwise there wasn't much to be seen.

We had a brief stop at Antofagasta and got out to stretch our legs before the bus took us back into the deep desert. The road passed mineral extraction plants and what looked like riverbeds full of sulphur. Once in a while we would stop to drop somebody off in a tiny dusty town.

When we arrived in Calama we checked into a hostel then wandered into town to sort out buses and laundry.

Tea was at the Club Croata, excellent but expensive. I had rabbit in a spicy sauce.

Wednesday 12 April 2000

An early start, around 0600, to get out to the Chuquicamata copper mine. We caught a colectivo out to the mine, which is more like a small town. We arrived before eight but had to wait until half past to buy tickets and then until ten to start.

Ahead of us were a couple of busloads of schoolchildren, all in uniform and green hard hats, accompanied by some stressed-looking teachers.

The tour started with a talk from the guide, in very high speed (and not always intelligible) Spanish and English. People who didn't have either of those as a first language had considerable trouble.

A quick promotional video was followed by hardhat issuing and boarding the bus. We drove round to the mine area, driving on the left for better visibility from the huge dumper trucks.

The viewpoint had an impressive view of the huge hole in the ground, it looked like a very well run operation, but the visibility wasn't too good because of all the dust in the air.

An old and relatively small truck sat at the viewpoint and was intensely photographed; the newer trucks carry 500 tonnes. Everything about it was big, the wheels, the hydraulics and the fact that 1000 litres of fuel only lasts eight hours.

On the way back we passed the garages, workshops and offices. We couldn't go into the smelting plant for health and safety reasons. We were told that all the accommodation was being moved into Calama within five years, due to concerns over the dust and fumes.

We were shown the old hospital, a very large building, which is due to be covered up by a spoil heap once the new one is completed in Calama.

After a colectivo trip back into town we booked our bus tickets to San Pedro and wandered out to the only listed attraction in town, the Parque del Loa. It's probably the most unattractive attraction I've ever seen, a grotty park with a nasty-looking river flowing through it, a miserable condor in a cage and a few straggly trees.

We collected our rucksacks and waited for the bus, which took us through the desert in the dark and up through an even darker twisting pass. The paved road ended as soon as we entered San Pedro de Atacama and the bus dropped us off beside the football pitch.

We found somewhere to stay, the Casa Corvatsch (run by Swiss). It was reasonable enough but seemed to have rather a lot of rules. We had a meal in a truly awful restaurant, the "Adobe". It was a sort of Andean equivalent of an Irish pub, horribly fake, expensive, and the food was not good.

In the restaurant I met Robin again, having his last meal before heading home the next day.

Thursday 13 April 2000

Had a nice lie in until 0900 then walked into town to buy breakfast. It looked a lot like Mexican towns in westerns, mud walls, dusty streets and lots of dogs. The water there isn't potable so we started using Dugly's filter, the wonderful taste of iodine entering our lives.

We sorted out a tour of the Valle del Luna for the afternoon, the El Tatio geysers for the next day and the three-day tour into Bolivia for Saturday.

Lunch at Casa Piedra was very good and only USD5. The Valle del Luna wasn't terribly impressive, just dusty. Tea was cooked on the stove outside before an early night, to the sound of bagpipes being played badly somewhere in town.

Friday 14 April 2000

We got up at 0330 to be ready for an 0400 departure, not very nice at all. The minibus turned up with two Swiss-Germans (from near Berne) a Mexican tourist called Jaime and our driver and guide Juan.

The roads on the way to El Tatio were terrible, I'm sure a four wheel drive vehicle would have been a better choice than an aging Nissan minibus but we eventually arrived at about 0630 with the air temperature around -15°C.

We spent some time looking at the geysers and standing in the warm columns of steam coming off them then had breakfast just before sunrise as the columns of steam were lit up in reds and pinks.

The red rocky valley looked very Martian in the early morning light, despite the odd plant here and there. This was spoiled slightly when we drove over to look at the vizcachas, rabbit-like animals with squirrel tails.

Next we drove over to the thermal pool, which varied from cold to uncomfortably warm depending on whether you were over a vent. Climbing out into the still-cold air was decidedly unpleasant.

Jaime and the Swiss couple provided translation for our 'English speaking' guide as we passed several llamas, some within spitting distance and stopped for occasional photos.

Lunch was in Caspana, a small village that hadn't been noticed by the Spaniards during the conquest of what is now Chile. As a result it was quite different from places such as San Pedro. The village was in a sort of oasis valley in the desert, the contrast between the barren land outside and the greenery in the valley was amazing.

Our packed lunch of chicken and rice was excellent, after which we wandered around this valley oasis for a while.

The next stop was a much more Spanish village, Chiu-Chiu, which was less interesting. After that another valley oasis at Lasana, containing the ruins of a pre-Inca fortress (pucará).

The drive back into San Pedro with the sun setting and moon beginning to light the desert was magical, especially feeling as sleepy as we did.

Our last meal in Chile was at La Casona, a very pleasant Dutch-owned restaurant. For USD5 I had a salad, steak and dessert, to make up for the cheapness of the meal we bought a USD15 bottle of wine.

Saturday 15 April 2000

Dugly's alarm woke us up at about 0700, we were ready by 0730 and started hanging around outside the Colque tour agency. A large crowd of tourists had gathered by the time a couple of minibuses turned up.

We were loaded into a bus, with all our luggage and driven to the Chilean border, where the usual bits of paper were stamped.

After an hour's driving (mostly uphill, past two huge high volcanoes) we reached the Bolivian border post, a small shed at 4500m above sea level. We paid our national park entry fee and then I was surprised to discover that Irish passport holders now need a visa.

This caused a huge delay while the English-speaking guide was found. Various people related alarming stories of Irish people they had met being trapped at the border for up to ten days.

In the end the immigration guy relented and gave me a thirty-day stamp, allowing me to continue.

Our next stop was 'Laguna Blanca', a large mineral-filled lake with flamingos. We stopped here for breakfast and were decanted into Toyota landcruisers. My fellow passengers were:

  • Steve, formerly a racetrack bookie, travelling for six months after selling his business, from near London
  • Claire and Giles, a nurse and accountant respectively, from England
  • Oliver, a German living in the Netherlands
  • and of course Dugly.

Our driver, Honario, seems very helpful and friendly but once more the 'English-speaking' guide turns out to have almost no English. Steve's pretty good at Spanish so we managed to learn that Honario had been driving for two years, since giving up work in mineral extraction plants on the salt flats.

We drove round the back of the two volcanoes we saw earlier to 'Laguna Verde', another coloured lake. This time the colour was affected by the wind, just as we left it turned a brilliant green.

After a bit more driving we stopped at a thermal pool, most people didn't bother going in, as it still wasn't very warm. The desert scenery was stunning, bare rock and sand with a brilliant blue sky.

Next were some more geysers, this time mud-filled and splattering boiling mud quite energetically. They were very impressive, if a little smelly. This was where we were told the story of the 'El Frances' geyser at El Tatio, apparently named after a French photographer who walked back a little too far while composing a picture.

One of the geysers was just pouring out steam and making a noise remarkably similar to a jet engine. It was near here that I got caught out by one of the more enthusiastic geysers, it caught me with a shower of hot mud while I was looking elsewhere.

'Laguna Colorado' was more impressive than the other two, coloured not by minerals but by the algae and plankton living on them. It was full of flamingos and had pools and bands of scarlet all across the lake. Small herds of llamas were feeding around the edge and the occasional squadron of low-flying flamingos would shoot by.

Once round to the other side of the lake we arrived at the campamento where we would be spending the night. It was pretty basic and had terrible mattresses but was OK on the whole. Dinner was chicken with rice and chips and afterwards we stayed in the dining room for a while as the sun set and the temperature plummeted.

I had a very poor nights sleep, attempting to toss and turn in the deep indentation in the middle of my mattress.

Sunday 16 April 2000

Got up around 0700 packed up and hung around until breakfast. Some people had had worse nights than me, suffering badly with the altitude.

I didn't have coffee with my breakfast (it gave me a bit of a headache at altitude) but instead picked the vilest herbal tea I've ever encountered, and most of them are pretty nasty.

We left in our Land Cruisers at 0830, passed a few more lagoons, some with flamingos and stopped at the 'Arbol de Piedra'. This was an area of rock formations, many shaped like trees. It was a lovely area and beautiful for scrambling around on the rocks like kids.

The next load of rocks was of interest because they were covered in vizcachas, which seemed remarkably tame. It looks like they get fed by every group of tourists passing by.

Lunch was at a lagoon positively infested with flamingos, they were a lovely sight and it was fascinating watching them feed. Nearby was an alleged viewpoint for a couple of volcanoes, but they were too far away to see properly. Instead we just scrambled around the weird rock formations.

Claire got very excited about some big green lump so we rushed (and wheezed) our way over to have a look. It looked a bit like a one metre diameter lump of moss but up close it looked like a bundle of tiny plants with succulent-like leaves.

The next section was over very bad roads and then on to the salt lakes. At the end of one the railway line and road from Chile pass through a small military post and checkpoint.

A load of kids, looking 18 at most and some almost in uniform, asked to look at our passports. It seems this was mostly to laugh at our photos and try to pronounce our names. The one in the Adidas sweatshirt, apparently the most senior, waved us through. Looks like a bit of a nightmare posting.

After another bit of driving across salt lakes, at more than 110 km/h, we arrived in San Juan. This is an exceptionally dusty little village in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand it was where we were staying for the night.

It also contained two B&Bs, a hotel, a bar, a 'discoteca' and a phone. Dugly went to the (only) shop and bought our first Bolivian beer, which wasn't too bad.

Monday 17 April 2000

We left in the morning and drove across a shallow, dirty-looking salt lake, then took some very odd roads to avoid another checkpoint. Just as we drove onto the blinding white salt fields of the Salar de Uyuni Pink Floyd started on Honario's tape, it was strangely appropriate.

Somewhere on the Salar we had to stop to redo some luggage straps, so we took a few photos as well before continuing to the Isla Pescado. This was a small cactus-covered island where we stopped for lunch and had a bit of a walk.

After more high-speed driving on the flat surface of the Salar we reached the Hotel de Sal, constructed entirely out of salt blocks, even the chairs and tables.

Uyuni was another dusty little desert town, although slightly more lively than San Juan. It was full of tourists, mostly Israelis. I was somewhat shocked when the woman in the Colque tour office turned on the lights by hooking a couple of bare wire ends together.

Checked into the Hotel Avenida along with Oliver, Claire and Giles. It was BOB80 for a very nice twin room, about 12 dollars.

We went out for a meal and a few beers, Dugly and I ended up with dried llama, which is very tasty but took several minutes of chewing per mouthful. I phoned the Irish honorary consul, the very talkative Peter O'Toole but his mobile phone cut out before he had told me anything useful.

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