#936367 by honey lamb
29 Jun 2017, 17:59
The Atacama Desert! Well what can I say? Read on and I hope I can help you to experience some of it with me.

We had arrived in Calama, a mining town on the edge of the desert. To get from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama, our destination was roughly an hour and a half drive away and for the only time of our stay we had hired a car. As we left the town, we could see the housing developments that were springing up on the edges of the town. Those of you who were growing up in the 60s and the 70s might remember Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” and that became my earworm for the longest time. As we headed east into the desert the terrain changed. We tend to think of deserts as swathes of sand and sandhills. Up till now my experience of deserts had been that outside Dubai where we had done a desert safari and the Great Karoo in South Africa which is mainly semi-desert and thus scrubland. This time we went through stony land, stretches of sand, scrub, salt flats in the distance and wonderful rock formations. At one point we rounded a bend and this was before us…
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…it was to be my focal point of my stay. To see it each day made my day.

Eventually in the distance, we saw the greenery which was to indicate that we were near San Pedro de Atacama. Chris had directions to get to our hotel and handed them to me. Wherever he had got them from, they were hopeless! We found ourselves wandering through mud strewn streets, badly named, full of young backpackers. It reminded me a bit of Luang Prabang with the number of young people around. Up and down we went through the various streets, sometimes going the wrong way down a one way street with various people shouting at us. Fortunately we were the only car on the road! The streets were narrow and all the buildings were all single storey and mostly indistinguishable from each other.
Looking for the hotel
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Those offering tours or the various restaurants had signs outside but otherwise it was a nightmare. I began to wonder what we had come into and thinking that this was going to be a disaster near the top of the Honey Lamb Disaster Rating but I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to be lovely and inspiring and what I had paid my hard earned savings for. Fortunately, after the fourth time of coming down a road on which our hotel was supposed to be located I saw a sign bearing the name of the hotel Except it wasn’t! It was their parking lot. Well at least we were on the right track. By this time we had come to learn how the street signs and numbers worked and suddenly we found ourselves in front of our hotel some 45 minutes after arriving in this small town! I went in to check that we were in the right place and after that everything unfolded. We were heartily welcomed, our cases were offloaded and a staff member accompanied Chris to the parking lot we had already seen and given him the key to the same and I checked in for the two of us while partaking of a refreshing drink and nibbles.

The hotel was lovely. It was built on an adobe style with individual cabins. There was a reception area with a long table on which fruit infused carafes of water and snacks were set out. This led onto a semi-open lounge area with a breakfast room leading from it and from there a path led to the cabins, a pool and various garden areas. There was free wifi in the common areas but not in the rooms but this was not a problem. The staff were fantastic. I couldn’t praise them enough. They engaged with you the minute you arrived and made sure you were happy with everything. If they met you in the town when they were off duty, they stopped and asked you if you were enjoying yourself. As part of a welcome gift was a flask which you would need for the various trips and a small bag with various local infusions.

The highlight of the place though, was the free wine tasting that happened between 6-8pm every evening. We went there the first evening to find that the long table had been set up with various place settings. There were three cheeses on display, one was a tomato and basil one which tasted a bit like spaghetti sauce and two white ones which I cannot remember. The wines were a white wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Carmenere which is exclusive to Chile. The wines and cheeses though were incidental to what happened each evening. We met people from all over the world and from all walks of life. On our first night we were joined by an elderly couple (although at this stage who am I to call anyone elderly) They were from Chicago but she had been a Fulbright Professor and they had lived in Mongolia and Romania. Their luggage hadn’t arrived with them and they were at the end of their second day without it as it made its separate way from Chicago! There was also a young couple who were both doctors from Brazil and more specifically from Rio and they spoke of their experiences during the Olympics as they had both been actively involved. That night had been the smallest number attending but we met people from various US states, some from France and Germany and towards the end of our stay a group from the UK arrived. Remember when someone in Easter Island was from the same town I was born in? On our last night a lady I was talking with who was involved in the medical profession, said she had visited Cork and mentioned a consultant in one of the hospitals. “Oh, yes” sez I. “I know him” Twice in South America and I’ve met people I’ve had some kind of connection with! However, back to the wine tasting. As each new people, be they single or in a group appeared the general questions were, “Where are you from?” “When did you get here?” “How long are you staying?” Those of us that had been there a day or two gave information of our experiences; newbies asked questions; advice was given and received and a massive bonding was experienced as those who had gone on expeditions that day relived their experiences. While this was going on, our glasses were topped up again and again. It was brilliant and one of the highlights of our trip.

On our first day we decided to head for the salt flats and the flamingos. Armed with information from the hotel staff we headed off and soon we were driving south on a road parallel with the Andes range. I should say at this stage that we were very near to the border with Bolivia and on the other side of the mountains were the Bolivian rainforests. This meant that from time to time there was a certain amount of cloud cover as the moisture met with the hot air on the Chilean side. The Atacama is known to be one of the driest deserts and also the clearest when it comes to night skies so that many of the main observatories in the world are sited there. However although we did pass one en route, it was little more than a hut and probably feeding information to the main ones so if star-gazing is one of your priorities, think about another destination there. While I would probably have enjoyed it, I wasn’t disappointed it wasn’t an option where we were.

So, back to the flamingos. After driving for some time along the main highway, we turned off onto a dirt track which took us to the salt flats and thence to the Visitors’ Centre. There were a few small groups of people but for the most part it was deserted. There was a very comprehensive Information Centre which gave information about the salt flats and the flamingos and - truth to tell, was very welcome when we visited having walked round the area in the midday sun. Before we were allowed to go along the flats, a guide insisted that we put on sunscreen. No matter that we had put it on before setting out on our journey, we had to do it again - no ands, ifs or buts! No sunscreen, no visit! Suitably protected we wandered along the shimmering white paths which, if we hadn’t sunglasses would have been dazzling! At one stage I licked my finger, rubbed it along the path and licked it again. Yup! It was salt!
The salty path
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We passed a pool of brine shrimp on which the flamingos feed and a few minutes later we arrived at the ponds where the flamingos were feeding. I was a tad disappointed at first as we tend to think of flamingos as being pink because of their diet of shrimp and these seemed to be totally white. However as we gazed, we could see the pink markings on some of them, partly due to their young age and partly due to the breed of flamingo. We learned these details later in the Information Centre.
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After leaving the flamingos we decided to go to the Valle de la Luna, so called because it is said to resemble the surface of the moon and indeed some of the moon rovers were tested there because of that. En route we met a herd of llamas and of course we had to stop for a photo opportunity.
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In the Valle de la Luna the terrain was indeed dramatic.
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The best time to see it is at sunrise/sunset when the colours are really dramatic but our experiences of sunrises/sunsets has been that there have been loads of people there and that the experience has been underwhelming and so we passed on that!! Besides, there were glasses of wine with our names on them at the wine-tasting.

The second day we were to go to the geysers which necessitated a 4.30am start! Although we had our own car, we opted to go with a tour as we had been told that the terrain was rugged and we would be travelling in the dark. To view the geysers, it was necessary to go before the sun rose as they were active until the air temperature rose and equalled that of the hot springs below the surface. We were picked up at the hotel at 4.30am (Incidentally the hotel had a breakfast buffet set up each day at that hour for those making the trip) and joined the long trek. The guide familiarised himself with the passengers, made several safety announcements and as the trip was nearly two hours long, bid us goodnight and turned off the lights! The journey was bumpy to say the least and at one stage I looked out of the window to see a river of headlights behind us as people made their way to the geysers.

We arrived just after dawn had broken but before sunrise and, advised by our guide availed of the facilities before going over to the geyser area. We were fortunate enough to be among the first arrivals as within minutes the queues had become humongous!! In the area one could see steam vents spread over a wide area and indeed our guide told us that the caldera extended under the Andes to Bolivia.
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I don’t know what I was expecting but Yellowstone Park and Iceland it ain’t. The geysers bubbled gently on the surface with an occasional “Whoosh!” as they burst a mere couple of feet into the air. However as the sun started to peep over the Andes,
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the effect was magical as the rainbows danced in the air.
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Soon the temperature started to rise and we could see the geysers begin to diminish in size as if to say “Show’s over!” By now it was time for breakfast it had been some 4 hours since we had left San Pedro and our guide set up a table alongside the bus with a selection of breads, meat and cake as well as coffee or hot chocolate. The other buses had similar arrangements.

We were to take a different route back in the hope that we would see some wildlife. Along the road we spotted vicuna,
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llama and some more flamingo as well as other waterfowl. We stopped at a little village in the middle of nowhere to visit the tiny church on the hill and also to partake of llama kebabs which were being barbecued when we arrived (along with every other bus that had been at the geysers. Itis obviously a good source of income for the people). The housing was very basic cabin style with thatched roofs - but also some had the addition of solar panels and satellite dishes.
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There was plenty of llama round there (probably to provide meat for the kebabs) including this little baby.
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Back in San Pedro we explored the town a bit more including the very pleasant square and also found a market which was perfect for souvenir shopping.

The next day we left San Pedro having loved every minute of our stay there. Our plan was to go through the Valle de la Muerte en route to Calama where we would stay the night before flying back to Santiago the next day. Valle de la Muerte was full of deep canyons and massive rock formations not dissimilar to Valle de la Luna. There was also massive sand dunes and we watched as several people tried sandboarding before heading off once more.

An hour later we arrived back in Calama and it then took us three hours to find the hotel where we had a reservation for the night! The printed directions were hopeless and the map given to us when we rented the car was just as bad. As the directions were from the airport we went back there time and time again to try and get our bearings but to no avail and we were beginning to hate Calama. Our problem was that we had been driving round the city centre and at some point we realised that the area we were looking for was just off the top of the map!! Eventually we found it and although it was described as an hotel, in reality it was a glorified B&B. Not, I hasten to add that there’s anything wrong with B&Bs - it was just not what we expected. A young and very glamorous lady checked us in but she didn’t speak English. Chris had High School Spanish which got us by but there was absolutely no engagement with us. She gave us the key, pointed to the door of our room which was across the hall and left. The room itself was small but beautifully appointed although the following morning the shower was a nightmare as it was one of those that has spray jets at different levels and I couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted it! We were hungry but at this stage we had had enough of Calama to last a lifetime and so we headed to a nearby shopping centre and had a very satisfying meal there. The hotel had a lovely garden and we decided to stay there for the rest of the evening - and very pleasant it was too. Our flight was an early one and we knew that breakfast was available from 6am. We has sussed out the dining room the night before. Everything was laid out for the guests. There was hot water in thermos flasks, a microwave and a toaster and essentially it was do it yourself! At some stage the glamorous young lady walked through the dining room but spoke to no-one and when it was time to leave, we rang the bell to summon her, collected our receipt and handed back the keys without she speaking a word! It was surreal!

At the airport the lines for Sky was massive. There were a few tourists like ourselves but the majority of passengers were male and were men from the copper mines who were heading to Santiago and probably home for the weekend. There was one elderly toothless man who was somewhat incongruously was carrying a large blue toy owl that was so big it was nearly the same size as him and looked like it would need its own seat! He was laughing and joking to all near him in the queue who were studiously ignoring him. There were no check-in kiosks and as OLCI was not available for this airline everyone had to check in at the desks. The line moved slowly and many were sent over to repack their bags and take them to another scale to be weighed. The guy with the blue owl was having to do some serious repacking especially as the owl was bigger than his about-to-be-checked bag! We were there about an hour before we reached check-in but we were dealt with quickly. As expected, because we had booked separately we were seated in different rows, I managing to score 3A. Security was easy and we did some last minute souvenir shopping before joining the now familiar boarding lines. Mr Blue Owl appeared sans owl which had obviously been consigned to hold of the aircraft and thus our entertainment ended! We had been standing in line once the boarding crew had appeared and when the boarding announcement was made, a German couple marched up to our line and blatantly placed themselves in front of us in the line. There was much eye-rolling between the two of us but there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting and this was one of them. On board I headed to my seat in 3A. Guess who were in 3B and C? Yup! The German couple. This meant that the whole boarding line was held up as they unbuckled themselves, moved out of their seats to allow me to get in. One of my bugbears is people who hold up boarding lines and right then, I was one of these people. It also meant that in my haste to get out of the aisle, I hadn’t taken my iPad out of my carry-on and it was now nicely ensconced in the bin above my seat so nothing to occupy me during the flight. However I soon realised that I hadn’t put it into Airline mode and so with a quick word to the cabin crew, it was retrieved but with a telling-off that I should have taken it out before I sat down. Point taken, but if Herr und Frau Deutschland hadn’t been so eager to get on board I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to clear the aisle. After that the flight became bog-standard with one exception. It took off and landed but I didn’t have a G&T. The only other noteworthy thing was that as we taxied in to the terminal we passed the official French aircraft. Obviously Francois Hollande or some other dignitary was in town.

Once landed, Chris undertook to collect the luggage while I went to book the taxi. We fought the now customary melée on the Arrivals concourse to find our dispatcher and made our way to the hotel which was to be our home for the last few days of our stay in Chile.
#936368 by hiljil
29 Jun 2017, 18:40
Thank you for a wonderful and informative TR. I most certainly do feel I was there. I really enjoyed your marvellous photos - particularly the one of the mountain . Brooklyn Beckham eat your heart out !!

What a memorable trip you had.
#936369 by pjh
29 Jun 2017, 18:51
Nothing to say but...wow!
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