23.03.2010 - 25.03.2010 25 °C
On arrrival in Santiago we travelled on the metro to Provendencia to find the tourist information and breakfast. We got both and set about using our 3 hours in the city to best advantage, walking round the old town. It actually looks like a really nice city and there was no visible damage from the earthquake. More time there next trip.....
The airport on the other hand was still in bit of chaos. The terminal was closed and the car park was full of marquees for use as check-in and cafes. But it was very efficient - white boards for gates and a girl with a loudspeaker annoucing the flights and we got on our flight to Antafagasto without incident.
In Antafagasto we got on a transfer to the bus station to get a bus directly to San Pedro de Atacama. The transfer took ages dropping everyone off, few nervous moments, but we made it in time to buy tickets and get on the bus meaning we would arrive at midnight, without a hostel reservation, again. We thought it would be like Pucon with lots of hostel touts awaiting the arrival of tourist buses, but it wasn't. Luckily there was one lone taxi (of sorts) at the bus station, he was great and drove us around for 15 minutes (and helped with the Spanish) while we decided on a hostel. Total cost- 2 pesos.
First day we slept in after our mammoth travelling session, and then in the afternoon we hired mountain bikes so that we could ride out to Laguna Cejar. San Pedro de Atacama is situated in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth (apart from Antarctica, of course! but they don't advertise that). The town is pretty amazing with low set buildings and dirt roads. All the walls and roads are made of sandy mud and it very much feels like a desert town. It is situated at the foot of the Andes where active volcanos are clearly visible form the town. The altitude was 2500m and it was super dry, making breathing quite laboured, so any excercise is pretty tough.
The tourist information, bike shop and travel agent all gave different distances and directions (all hand-drawn maps), ranging from 17km to 26km each way. The reality was about 23km, half on bitumen and half on corregated gravel roads, with sections of sand that had to be walked. There were moments on the way out and back that we were not sure if the hand drawn maps were right, whether we were following them right or whether we were going to perish in the desert. We did not see any other bikes or cars for the bulk of the ride.
This salt lake is 40% salt, the most concentrated in the world, more than the Dead Sea. We floated around in the lake, which is easy because of the salt. Jumping in, was weird as you didn't go down, you just bobbed up easily. When you get out and dry off there is so much salt that your arms and legs are white and the salt is thick on your skin. Luckily we knew this and took 1L of water to rinse off after the swim before the bike ride home.
It took 2 hours to ride out and just over 2 to ride back. We were in rush by this time as we had booked onto an astronomy tour leaving at 8.20pm and it was 7.45pm when we were still 1k out of town with a decent incline still to get up. Seth having to stop and stretch every 500m due to cramp (yes he may be getting fat and unfit). The mountain bike was also very small which meant it was very uncomfortable and added to the cramping.
We made it to the astronomy tour and went about 20 minutes outside of the town where they have a number of telescopes set up and they give you a talk and explanation and then let you look at things through the telescopes. The talk was great and explained a great deal (for the uneducated). The most interesting fact being that the Southern axis of rotation, is 4.5 times the length of the long arm of the southern cross (from the bottom end). See, I can still learn things. This is the point at which the sky rotates, due to the earth not being on a straight up and down axis itself. Lots of other stuff I forgot also. We saw the saucepan (Orion's belt), the Southern Cross, the Milky Way, she pointed out a few of the Zodiac symbols and other stuff, some of which you need quite an imagination to see!
After some explanation, we got to look through the most powerful telescopes I've ever used. We saw craters on the moon, and Saturn with it's rings, and a few other bright stars, which just looked like big dots, even through the telescopes!
San Pedro is one of the best places in the world to watch the stars as it has 300 nights of clear sky a year. The second most expensive (after CERN) science project is being built on a plateau just above San Pedro at 5000m altitude. Here they are building 66 electro-telescopes to look further into space than ever before.
Day two in San Pedro involved more mountain bikes, but this time the bikes were a little bigger. We went on a ride out to Valle de Luna (valley of the moon). Yes it resembles the moon surface. This ride was a little easier but we were out on the road riding or walking from 11am till 5pm in the heat of the day again. But the scenery was amazing. Valleys of fine smooth sand, cerrated rock walls, ampitheatre shaped formations, to name a few.
There was a canyon which we walked around and climbed into caves and through narrrow exits. The views back to the volcano Licancabur and other hills in the Andes were amazing. There were also salt mines and some rock formations. We only came across one other couple in a car during the whole time so again felt like we were very isolated out in the rugged terrain.
We were adopted by a dog who ran next to us for about 4 hours, stopped everytime we did and sat in the shade and then started again with us, all the way back to town. The last stop on this day was a lookout that gave us a bit of a view of the Valle de la Meutre (valley of death).
So after two days on the mountain bikes both Sarah and I are absolutely stuffed. We had a very basic dinner, no meat, booze, milk and many other things as tomorrow we head to 4500m on our tour which takes us into Bolivia. All of these things are excluded on the advice of the tour guide to avoid altitude complications. I was also waiting for him to tell me to drop 10kg, but obviously he realised it ws not going to happen over night.