MSN just ran a big story on the hottest places on earth. I think I have been to only one, so far. Guess which one? Yes, right here in California is Death Valley, not far from Las Vegas, aka Glitter Gulch.
The hottest place in the known world, according to researchers is the Lut Desert in Iran, in 2005 with a surface heat of 159 degrees Fahrenheit! But get this! It is too hot for milk to spoil, since bacteria cannot grow in temperatures that high. It was declared an abiotic zone. The place is not ugly, as it does have some interesting sand pyramids, including the world’s tallest sand pyramid.
Nobody would guess that Australia would place second in this “contest” of heated extremes. But Queensland, the northeastern state on Australia recorded 156 degrees back in 2003. Technically, our visit to the Great Barrier Reef started and ended in Queensland, though we were obviously on the coast. Who knew the state would have these extremes? And why is it so hot? Blame the cold water currents from Antarctica, since cold water does not evaporate to form rain clouds as easily as warm water.
Another surprise, in third place is China in the Turpan Depression, a 508 foot deep mountain basin in the Taklimakan Desert in the Xinjiang region. China’s lowest temperature was recorded in Funjun county, Xingjiang. But thousands of people live here, farming fruit and vegetables with an adequate water supply.
I would expect a place like Libya to be hot, hot, hot. And the town of El Azizia in northwestern Libya recorded 136 degrees back in 1922. Yet, it is a town of over 300,000 people! The sand blowing off the nearby Sahara Desert can change the temperature over 20 degrees in a matter of hours. No thank you!
In fifth place, and needing a fifth of something to cool off is our own Death Valley, CA. How strange the sight of snowy peaks appearing close enough to touch. It is void of life except for tourists and park rangers. In July, temperatures routinely reach 115, with the highest recorded temperature at 134! Take my word for it, the best time to visit is December, when a jacket is needed. In fact, it snowed during the night!
Turning from hot to dry seems like just another chapter in a travel book called, “Do NOT Go There!” But dry is different from hot according to the weatherologists. And believe it or not, I have been to the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desertin Chile. The average rainfall is .004 inches a year, with no rain in some years. Certain places in the Atacama have not had rain in over 400 years! Yet, it sits next to the biggest body of water in the world, the Pacific Ocean! But the desert does extend upward into the Andres Mountains accounting for its high elevation. However, it can get cold, with temperatures ranging from 0 to 25 degrees C. I can testify that it is a dry and lonely place. The little town of San Pedro is more of a trekkers and backpackers wide spot in the road. Flying into Calama, most of the people on the plane are headed to work in the huge copper mines. A few of us are headed to San Pedro, and an adventure of unknown proportions. Actually, there are geysers, hot springs, and the god-awful sport of sand surfing.
This area is 72,500 square miles, with some of the desert sitting at an altitude of 10,670 feet above sea level. And like Queensland, the cold Peru Current from Antarctica chills the desert air, thus inhibiting rain clouds. Not even cacti grow here! The air is so dry (how dry is it?), that metals do not oxidize, and meat can be left in the open to preserve itself. Nothing rots without moisture. They say the summers are so hot that your hair will crumble and fall, and your finger and toe nails begin to chap.
My trip there a few years back (2009) had some interesting twists. Here is a repeat of that adventure.
Chile’s tremendous length covers a hugely diverse array of landscapes, from the desolate moonscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, to the fertile vineyards of the Central Valley, to the lush rainforests of the Lake District, down to the magnificent glaciers and peaks of Patagonia — not to mention more than 4,830km (3,000 miles) of coastline and Easter Island. It’s truly mind-boggling to think of how many different experiences a traveler can have in just 2 or 3 weeks in this South American country.
The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile is one of the most spectacular and unique areas on the planet. Despite having almost no annual rainfall, its landscape features crystal clear blue lagoons, bubbling geysers, hot springs and rivers, and geographically it is a bizarre combination of lava flows, salt basins, rock formations and canyons. The region is so desolate, it is often described as moon-like. The plateau extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains and in the middle of this desert, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, lies the Spanish colonial village of San Pedro de Atacama, surrounded by a green oasis. Because of the high altitude and nature of the geysers, the Atacama is not a destination recommended for young children, pregnant women or anyone with a heart condition. How about us?
We so worried about what to pack for this trip. The cold in Patagonia requires hiking boots, big warm jackets, and gloves. The desert requires sunscreen, tank tops, bermuda shorts, and tennies. Maybe I will just ditch the warm clothing after leaving Patagonia, just to lighten my load.
Copiapo is the main city in Atacama, located 805 km north of Santiago. It is an agricultural oasis, along with mining. Silver was discovered here in 1832 by miner Juan Godoy. The Copiapo River flows nearby the city. It is possible to view a florid desert, depending on the seasonal rainfall.
To make a comparison, it is fifty times drier here than Death Valley in California. The desert is 20 million years old and consists primarily of sand, lava flows, and salt basins. It just seems so strange to have this desert between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. A coastal inversion layer created by the Humboldt Current and the anticyclone of the Pacific keeps the climate dry. There is evidence of NO rain between 1570 to 1971. The Andes in this region are completely free of glaciers. Some areas get a layer of fog that provides enough moisture for algae, lichens, and some cacti.
Another freaky fact is that perchlorates are found here, as well as by the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008 on the surface of Mars. This, of course, leads to speculation that life on Mars is not compatible with perchlorates. Testament to that are the numerous (170) abandoned nitrate mining towns here. But the desert still has rich deposits of copper and other minerals. And the world’s largest natural supply of sodium nitrate. Can you believe the Pan American Highway runs through here?
We flew yesterday from Santiago to Calama, on our way to San Pedro de Atacama, where stargazing and sand boarding are the two most popular activities. Sandboarding is similar to snowboarding, except with no bindings, making it much more dangerous. But without a mechanized lift to the top, boarders must walk or ride a dune buggy to the top of every dune.
Sandboarding looks like fun, but is much more dangerous than snow boarding. If we get a chance to see it up close, we may try it. Who knows? The world sand board speed record is only 51 mph, held by American Erik Johnson. And the longest back flip is 44 feet, 10 inches by Josh Tenge. Personally, I think both records are safe.
I found a hostel type motel for about $60 USD, breakfast included. It is about a few levels below Motel 6, but very clean and quiet. We also had an electric blanket on our bed, a single bed I might add. But we had hot water for a shower this morning, so all is good.
We headed out to the Valley of the Moon for some driving on gravel roads, and a hike up to the ¨moon crater¨. So, one small step(s) for Mike and Gerry, one giant leap for heading south to Patagonia. Interestingly huge sand dunes and rock formations here. But over 4000 meters in elevation, very windy, cold, and not a plant in miles.
We then decided to get really crazy and went over to the Explora Lodge, where a minimum four night stay is about $2500 per person, meals and tours included. We finally had our Kuntsmann Beer and lots of ¨free pistachios and almonds. It is an oasis here in this dumpy but quaint little town. The main street is a mud and gravel affair, no cars allowed, even though we drove down it by mistake this morning.
We also have a car with a balky starter. So, here we are in the middle of the desert, and the car will not start. Fortunately, we were at the top of a little incline. So, I told Mike to get in, and I pushed with every ounce of muscle, and luckily, the car started. Good thing it is a stick shift. We did not see any cars in the national park while we were there, as it is off-season. And my phone did not work either. It could have been ugly.
Another day here, as we may drive to the world-famous Tatio Geysers tomorrow. Most tours leave at 4am for a sunrise geyser tour, but we will leave around 7am and drive our car, a Toyota Yaris. We pray that it will start again.
Many people here speak good English, having spent some time in the US to learn. It has made our trip much easier so far. But my Spanish is getting better, por favor.
They Call The Wind, Mariah! (9/8/09)
Now I know why they call the desert wind MARIAH. It blows the sand and covers every bodily orifice. It also covers things put away in cases, like expensive wines and jewelry. My shoes will never be the same, nor will my nose.
So, a big steak and a glass of Carmenere, a Chilean red. Salads here are not very appetizing, and they have Mike’s favorite in it, string beans. I spent about $10 for what I thought was a big salad. It was mostly shredded carrots, string beans, cucumbers, and horrible tomatoes.
We are at the main street internet cafe right now. We are trying to decide if it is worthwhile to get up at 4:30am tomorrow to see the geysers on a bus. Right now, I say NO. But the geysers are one of the big attractions here. We tried to rent an SUV and driver, but it was over $300 USD. The bus tour is 8 hours and cost only $40 USD.
I have a new temporary pal, a dog around the corner from the hostel. I tried an empanada, but it had too much curry in it. So, I now have a friend for life. But now I cannot find him. I guess he knows that Buddy is the only dog for me.
Most everyone is just going to dinner around 9 or 10pm. We are ready to call it a night.
Two Guys To The Geysers (9/09/09)
With nothing else to do this morning at 4am, we woke up at 3:30am for our bus to El Tatio Geysers, about 80 miles northeast of San Pedro. The bus turned out to be a very crowded mini van, with mostly people from Brazil and Argentina.
So, we headed out in the dark, picked up a few more people along the way, and headed out. The roads in town are not paved, so we were rather pleased to see a paved road about a mile outside of town. Our hopes were quickly diminished when the gravel, dirt, and pothole routine began anew. But this is Chile.
I tried to sleep, as did everyone else but the driver. I did see a few things once early sunrise began. We were headed to the high desert, well over a mile high, dry, and not much green or trees. As the driver slowed to make turns, I could not figure how he knew where to turn. No signs, and certainly no intersection. But after a few hundred feet, a dirt and gravel road appeared beneath us.
We had some interesting moments however, especially when crossing streams and rivers. As some of you know from your travels, the water goes OVER the road, not under. We would probably have made it with our little Toyota Yaris, but why take the chance? I doubt Triple A will show up to tow us out.
Once there, we got the routine potty break and paid our park fees, before heading to the first geyser area. Now, we have great geysers in both California and in the United States. So the $40 we spent did not seem like too much of a rip off when we saw how small they are. But these are the highest elevation of geysers in the world.
After this, we had the tour provided breakfast of instant coffee, dry bread, and a slice of cheese and ham. No wonder I had to have a sandwich when we got back into town. And we did get back!
A few more geyser stops, and then the obligatory stop in an ¨authentic¨ village. I pretty much slept in the van, while the others dutifully bought brochettes of llama or some kind of red meat. But it was still colder than hell. (The highlight was watching the girls change into their bathing suits by the geysers!)
But the real highlight of the entire trip was seeing the birds and animals. We saw the high altitude vicuña on a very high plateau. Then lots of llama and emu I think. Then lots of geese, gulls, and even pink flamingoes. Pink flamingoes in the desert!
I slept most of the way back, but as soon as I finish this rather incoherent email, I am headed to sleep. The 4am trip is just not my cup of tea.
So, dry and hot, or cold and hot. Take your pick.