Atacama Desert in Chile

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Atacama Desert, Chile

We leave the boat at anchor in font of marina Puerto Amistad in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. For $5.00 per day while we are away, the marina staff will watch over Fata Morgana, clean the green vegetation and logs floating downriver catching on the chain, and provide a 24/7 security service. They will contact us if anything comes up, and will deal with any issue while we are miles away. It is important to know that the boat will be OK while we are backpacking in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador for about two months; to have peace of mind, even if it costs us a little something.

We take the bus to Guayaquil in Ecuador, then the bus to Lima in Peru, then the bus to Arica in Chile and then the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. A total of four endless days and nights, riding the cheapest possible busses, waiting hours in bus terminals or walking kilometers from one terminal to another with heavy backpacks, sleeping in bus seats, listening to terrible music and watching horrible films, wearing the same stinky clothes, shoes and socks, no shower, using pubic and bus bathrooms, eating whatever we can find around the terminals as long as it’s cheap and not too suspicious…

It’s a long trip- over 4,000 km. The plan is to get to the farthest point of our trajectory as fast as possible and then slowly to start returning towards the boat. This is Ivo’s plan and he doesn’t care if it sounds more like torture than a trip.

As soon as we cross the border from Ecuador to Peru, the landscape becomes monotonous arid desert unchanged for thousands of kilometers.

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On our right is the blue of the Pacific Ocean, on our left is the ochre of the rocky desert sprinkled with small poor villages of tiny straw houses and big dusty cities with unfinished brick buildings. Nature remains dry and lifeless all the way to Chile.

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Hungry, dirty and exhausted, we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama- a town made of red clay in the middle of the desert, dominated by the Licancabur volcano.

Вулкан Ликанкабур при залез слънце

Licancabur Volcano

The town, which begun as an oasis in the high plateau of Bolivia at about 8,000 feet (or 2,400 m), is today part of Chile (after the War of the Pacific), and is constantly invaded by tourists and backpackers; there are more hotels and hostels than private homes and everything is extremely expensive. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town- $40.00 per night is the cheapest option!!! We get a nice room with private bathroom and hot water. We feel like spoiled kings. First thing’s first- we collapse on the beds. We haven’t been in a lying position since over 100 hours. Next- we take off our shoes and toxic socks, we remove our clothes which smell of lamas, and one by one we hit the shower. There, in the shower, we find paradise…

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Maya enjoying her comfy bed in Hostal Licancabur

But we have no time to loose. It’s still morning and even though we are super tired, we cannot afford to spend more than one night in this expensive place, so a soon as we check in the hostel and after a short rest, we walk to town to decide which of the many tourist attractions to visit before we continue on to Bolivia- a much poorer country, where everything is much cheaper.

•Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times

Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe

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Adobe houses in San Pedro

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San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is strategically located near various sites in the Atacama Desert but for most you have to join an expensive tour, as there is no public transportation. A visit to Chaxas Lagoon in Los Flamencos National Reserve, Salar de Atacama, home of pink flamingoes, or El Tatio geyser field with over 80 active geysers are very attractive places but will ruin our budget. The cheapest option is to rent bikes – $6.00 per person per day and bike to the Valley of the Moon- El Valle de la Luna, 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of San Pedro.

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In the heat and salty dust (the exhaustion continues), we ride our rental bikes to one of the strangest most desolate places on the planet, with such an otherworldly appearance, it actually reminds us of another planet- inhospitable, burning, red.

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Situated in the two-sided rain shadow of the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, which prevent the arrival of moisture from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Atacama is the oldest driest desert on Earth, stretching for over 1,000 km (600 mi), west of the Andes Mountains. Rain is the rarest of occurrences here, and some parts of the desert have never ever seen it at all! This vast stretch of dry land has been covered with nothing but rocks, salt, lava and sand for the last 200 million years- a phenomenon called hyperaridity, making it the oldest continuously arid region in the world, rivaled only by Africa’s Namib Desert.

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The Salt Caves

We enter the Moon Valley National Park. Stone and sand formations, salt caves and dunes colored in yellow orange and red, carved and shaped by wind and ancient water. Not a blade of grass, not a single flower, not a bird, not one tiny creature can survive in such alien environment. In fact, the driest parts of the Atacama Desert, one of which is The Valley of the Moon, have been used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions and the location has been used by Hollywood for filming Mars scenes in films like Space Odyssey and others.

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And there, amidst this dry hot lunar landscape devoid of any life form- the loneliest saddest of places on Earth- we suddenly hear a familiar language! A group of tourists walking on the road are speaking BULGARIAN! Now, this is impossible! How often you meet Bulgarians? In the desert? Twenty of them! A group of adventure-travelers from the Adventure Club in Sofia touring Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Our reaction to this miracle, as well as to any other sudden unexpected wonderful miracle, is utter surprise and happiness. We lough, we scream, we hug each other like old friends. Some of the guys in the group recognize us as “the Bulgarian family who lives on a boat” and we make plans to meet with them for dinner.

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An unexpected meeting with 20 Bulgarian travelers from the Adventure Club

And even though we dream about the moment when we will hit the beds for the first time in five days, as soon as we return from the bike trip- we find our compatriots’ hotel and they take us to a nice restaurant in town where we celebrate with delicious local meals and beers the most surprising of meetings in the Atacama Desert. Thank you friends!

 

Sites of interest near San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times.

  • Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacama, inhabited by pink flamingos.

  • El Tatio, a geyser field with over 80 active geysers.

  • Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, a radio-telescope site, home of “ALMA”, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

  • Laguna Miscanti (Miscanti Lagoon) and Laguna Miñiques (Miñiques Lagoon), two neighbouring altiplanic lagoons at the altitude of 4,200 m (13,500 ft).

  • Licancabur, a notable volcano near San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Pukará de Quitor (Fort Quitor). A fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century.

  • Puritama Hot Springs

  • Salar de Atacama, a giant salt area (3,000 km² / 1,864.11 mi²) in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

  • Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”), a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines, and worker huts.

  • Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): a valley where gigantic dunes and rocks abound.

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