• Crossing to Bolivia

    San Pedro de Atacama is about one hour driving time from the border with Bolivia. I wondered why our van had to stop in San Pedro to complete the exit paperwork for Chile. My guide said that someone who lived up the road, let’s say a half hour towards the border, would have to drive to San Pedro to complete the paperwork. Only then could that person turn back proceed to the border. How inconvenient for the traveller!  

    I wondered why border control wasn’t close to the border. But when I arrived at the Chilean-Bolivian border I understood completely. There is absolutely nothing there except a hut for the Bolivian border control personnel and a few modest one-story buildings which I assume are for the border people who drew the lot to be stationed at this outpost. 

    The altitude is high enough for me to feel, so I assume it is at least 3,657 m (12,000 ft). The wind is blowing, and the cold biting. The door to the border control office is wide open. Two men sit at a modest wooden table. I can’t imagine working in an unheated building in this cold, but they seem to manage. I present my paperwork for them to stamp. 

    Outside, our Chilean driver stays on the Chilean side of the border. He unloads our van and passes our luggage and supplies to our Bolivian driver. This exchange makes me feel as if I am a spy being passed from one country to another. But it is all for the good. From this point on, the road system is pretty much non-existent. Our Bolivian driver is supposed to be one of the best. I’ve been told he has memorized the entire countryside—every rut and every crevice—and he can navigate from point to point without GPS. Let’s hope this is true. 

    When all of our crew—Oscar our guide  and my three traveling companions—are finished with the border control paperwork we hop into the van with our new driver, Felix. 

    I see ten different vans at the border control. I assume we’ll leapfrog each other as we get farther and farther into Bolivia. But is turns out that we will never see these people again. From here on out, there isn't a road as I know it. (Try to find one in this image.) You have to wend your way through the altiplano. Felix seems to know routes that no one else takes. The Bolivian adventure begins!

  • A Tale of Two Salars

    Every great adventure starts with a flat tire. Or at least that what I hoped. We drove for an hour and a half south of San Pedro de Atacama to hike to two different salars—Salar de Talar and Salar de Capur. While I was gazing at a nearby volcano, the van stopped. The driver announced we had a flat tire.

    I find myself standing outside well above 4,000 m (13,100 ft) pummeled by a biting cold wind. It is sunny and I am surrounded by incredible beauty. Our group of five is anxious to get to the start of the hike. We know it is only a few miles away. But the tire must be fixed first. The roads are so rough around here, or at least the roads we take, that flats are common. It takes our guide and driver about 20 minutes to make the fix, and we are on our way.

    The wind seems to be a constant factor in Atacama, as are sunny, cloudless skies during the day. I put on my windbreaker and set out with my companions to the first salar—Salar de Talar. The cold wind tricks me into thinking I see snow in the distance. I remind myself this is salt.  As I descend towards the plain, I spy a lone vicuña. That’s unusual because they typically travel in groups. Maybe this one is antisocial. 

    The brown-and-white landscape is broken by pink dots. As I get closer, I realize I am looking at flamingos. There are a couple of species in Chile—James, Andean, Chilean. You need to get a good look at the feet and head markings to identify each. Our guide explains the difference, but I know I will not remember once I get home. So I appreciate gazing at the birds and appreciating their ability to exist in this environment. 

    When we’ve walked from one end to the other of Salar de Talar, we start an uphill walk to the crest of a distant hill. The altitude is noticeable, but it’s not too taxing. As we ascend, the wind becomes much stronger. As I fight the head wind, I wonder if the compression of the air results in getting more oxygen. Probably not, but I tell myself it does. That helps me appreciate the fierceness of the wind.

    As I come over the crest of the hill, I see an amazing sight—Salar de Capur. It’s pure white basin contrasts with delicately hued mountains. No one is here except us. It seems as if we are on another planet.

    We’ve been hiking for some time, and I’m hungry. Farther down the hill, our van and driver appear. He sets up a buffet lunch in the windshadow of the van. Spectacular view, wonderful food. A great adventure indeed!

  • The Valley of the Moon (or is it Mars?)

    I’ve never been to the moon, and I doubt whoever named this valley has been there either. In fact, I am certain that Valley of Mars would be a better name. Parts of this landscape are remarkably similar to the photos taken by the Mars rover and are in the book Mars 3D. 

    The Valley of the Moon is one of most popular sites in Atacama. It’s close to San Pedro de Atacama, so just about every tourist makes the drive to the most scenic viewpoint to snap a photo at sunset. My guide is determined that our group of seven will have a wilderness experience and not see anyone. 

    We leave from the hotel at 5:00 PM. As instructed, I have a windbreaker and a warm coat in my backpack. Oscar, our guide, says the temperature drops and wind increases at sunset. I also have a buff to wear around my mouth. It is already windy and the sand is blowing. I don’t want a mouthful of the desert.

    The van drives us into the park. We pass tour groups until we get to a stretch of the road where we don’t see anyone. We hop out of the van and start claiming up a dune. The van pulls away. 

    The sun is still illuminating this otherworldly landscape, creating sharp shadows as we hike up and down the ancient dunes and through the salt studded, cracked earth. When the sun starts to dip towards the horizon, we climb a dune and see the Licancabur volcano in the distance. But we don’t see any people.

    We perch ourselves on the edge of the dune, sun behind us, and watch the landscape change from brownish hues to bright red. The sun sets. The wind becomes gale force. The temperature starts to drop. That’s our cue to descend from the dune. It’s easy and fun to run down the dune. There is also a bit less wind below. In the distance, I see a van. It’s ours. 

    It takes the van about 45 minutes to wend its way in the dark over the rutted landscape and get to a real road. I begin to appreciate how important it is to have a skilled off-road driver and a solid vehicle in this part of the world.

  • Gateway to the Atacama Desert: San Pedro de Atacama

    Most trips to the Atacama Desert start in Calama, the closest airport and mining town. My trip was no different. And, like most tourists, my primary objective after collecting my luggage was to get out of Calama as fast as possible. Located at 2,280 m (7,400 ft) it’s dry, not particularly scenic, and rooted in mining. 

    A few minutes into the one-hour-and-twenty-minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama, it is apparent to me that Atacama is desolate. Desolate, but with a stark beauty that intrigues me. As we start gaining altitude, I notice what appears to be snow scattered on the ground and in the distant mountains. But it’s not snow. It is salt. It’s so dry here that the salt grows up from the ground. If the climate wasn’t so dry, rain would dissolve the salt and it would re-form into a smooth plain like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. It doesn’t do that here.

    As we drop down over the first mountain range, the straight road gets a few curves. Every curve seems to be littered with truck or car wrecks. Really nasty ones. The accident debris remains, perhaps as a reminder, but perhaps because of the remoteness. I see a load of five-gallon water jugs scattered next to the road. I imagine a water truck taking the curve too fast, its load going one way while the truck continues another. There is nothing out here. No houses, no businesses, no people. I wonder why they build a straight road. It is so straight most of the time that the curves seem a cruel joke.

    Out of the salt-peppered brown-and-pink landscape I finally see a swath of green. It’s San Pedro de Atacama—the destination of most tourists who visit the desert. The altitude is just a bit higher than Calama—2,400 m (7,900 ft). So far, I don’t feel any effects.

    We drive through town and arrive at Explora Atacama, a hotel just outside of town whose aim is to help visitors detach from their busy world and immerse themselves in nature. They have an army of guides who are prepared to take from one to eight visitors at a time on an “exploration.” I hope to do a lot of hiking in this area. After which I’ll head to Boliva. 

    Now it’s time to unpack and get settled. (The photo is the view from one of the windows in my room.)

  • Our Lady of Cell Service

    On a cloudy day in Santiago, there are no lines for the funicular in Parque Metropolitano. The park is one of the largest in the world—almost 1800 acres while Central Park in New York City is only 843. When it’s sunny, the  San Cristóbal summit affords spectacular views of Santiago. Although I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, I did find the cloudy view was pretty good.  

    Like many South American cities, hills always seem to have a huge statue at the top. San Cristóbal is no exception—Our Lady of Cell Service guards one of Santiago’s cell towers, ensuring text messages and selfies created on the summit are transmitted safely to their destination.