Have you ever visited one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, the Atacama in Chile? Well, on the long drive through the “Thin Country”, we spent a few days in the Atacama before heading south. They say some parts of the desert have not seen rain for over a hundred years.
As I recall, Mr. Mike and I were there during the early spring. The nearest town, San Pedro was a cold and windy frontier town, on the edge of the Atacama. But on the few occasions it rains, the desert transforms into a beautiful cascade of wildflowers.
NASA uses the Atacama to mimic Mars. The Valle de Marte resembles the red planet. The unique colors have also provided landscapes for Hollywood movies.
The desert is also ideal for stargazing, with cool, clear nights, with an average 330 cloud free nights per year. Scientists love it here too, with the world’s largest radio telescope, capable of identifying a golf ball from a distance of nine miles.
Despite its dryness, the amount of flora and fauna are remarkable. There is enough vegetation to support Andean foxes, vizcacha (a type of chinchilla), llamas, vicunas, and guanacos. High altitude lakes are filled with flamingos.
It is hard to believe nearly a million people live here. Lithium and copper mining are the major industry, along with tourism. But crops can be grown using a fog harvesting method called camanchaca. Basically, a net with holes to capture water vapor, the moisture is piped over to nearby crops. Can you believe the water is also used to make beer?
The oldest mummy, the Acha man, found here dates back to 7020 BC. They were mummified naturally in the dry desert, helping to preserve the bodies. Over 282 Chinchorro mummies have been found here since the first ones discovered over a century ago.
But I think my story is just as interesting. We flew about two hours from Santiago into the nearest airport to San Pedro, called Calama, a little pueblo basically. The plane was full of copper and lithium mine workers from Santiago. It was a rather grim flight. Without a car rental reservation, we got the last car, a tiny rundown Toyota Yaris. We were lucky, so we thought.
Driving in the total darkness of the desert, we found the “bright” lights of San Pedro about an hour later. But at 9 or 10pm at night, most of the town was shut down. Very few lights were on, except for the headlights of our little car. We drove around the little town, mostly in fits and starts, until we got lucky.
We pulled up to a large wooden gate, with the name of our “hotel” on the gate. I opened the huge gate myself, and we drove in. There were no cars, and no lights inside this rather spacious, dark parking area/courtyard. Using a bit of logic, we tapped on door number one, to no response.
Finally, in the quiet darkness, a woman appears out of nowhere. We told her we had reservations for two rooms for a few nights. Though I made the reservations online, I never received a confirmation. Repeated attempts to reach them prior to landing were not successful. We hoped, rather, prayed, we were in the right place.
It was now even colder, and windier outside. And yes, this ramshackle, dusty motel was indeed, our home for the next few nights. But we were tired, cold, and hungry, so this would have to work.
So, with room numbers two and three, we settled into this worn-down old place. It was clean, simple, and leaking the cold windy air like Wikileaks on steroids! But I soon found the control for the electric “blanket”, which was really a heating pad under the sheets. This might have been one of the most comfortable nights of sleep I ever had (in a little twin bed)!
When we finally woke up the next morning, our hostess told us to sit at the little tables outside our room. She brought hot coffee, and a simple, but delicious Chilean style (cheese, bread, fruit) breakfast. The cold wind had died down, and the sun warmed our weary souls. We survived our first night in the mighty Atacama Desert!
But the story gets more interesting, as we decide to get a closer look at the Atacama. We head to the Valle de la Luna entrance, and pay the magnificent sum of $4 (or 2500 Chilean pesos) to enter. We were the only ones there.
So, we parked the car, and headed up the hills, to explore, and see what we could see. It was as desolate as we were led to believe. And it was rather warm and windy day. After a few hours or exploring, sand walking and falling down, we decided it was time for a cold beer or two back in San Pedro. In other words, we had sand in just about every crevice on our bodies!
But upon returning to the car, it would not start! Nobody was around. No park personnel were around. We had no Chilean AAA emergency auto service. Cell phones did not work. We were stuck!
Two fortunate facts were soon uncovered. One, this rundown Yaris was a stick shift. And two, we were at the bottom of a slightly inclined parking lot. We pushed the car to the top of the incline, turned it around, and pushed with all of our strength.
Mike jumped in, I kept pushing. He popped the clutch and the tiny engine sputtered to life!
Of course, not having seen anyone for the last three or four hours had nothing to do with our jubilation. But we did drive quite quickly back into San Pedro for a nice lunch with lots of cold beer. And the car started quite easily after our lunch. And to further celebrate our good fortune with the car, we headed over to the ultra-luxurious Alta Atacama Desert Lodge.
Or should I say, we drove into the lodge from the service entrance, and tried to hide our car in a service shed near the back entrance. Why? We just did not seem to fit the profile of this place, with our rundown car, our hiking clothes, and our English! But we found the bar, and two of the best drinks we had on our trip.
But upon our return to our little motel, neither one of us could find our laundry that we did that morning, by hand, in the shower. Upon further investigation, the manager lady hung our clothes out to dry on the hotel laundry line! What service!
So, did we get lucky? Would you have stayed at this place? It was dark and we were tired. And there were two of us. The car was a piece of sh*t, driven hard by previous renters. We lost a hubcap the night before as well, and had to pay another $50 for a lost hubcap! We knew we would never cross this path again.
The next day was just as curious, so to speak. We decided to drive up to the famous Tatio Geysers (Geysers de Tatio), highest in the world at 4300 meters. Asking around town, everyone recommended that we take a tour van rather than drive. This was probably good advice, based on our rundown little car, and the rough terrain, with few paved roads, many stream crossings, and rather mountainous terrain.
So, we woke up at some ungodly hour, like 4am, missed our wonderful Chilean motel breakfast, and headed out to Tatio with a group of about 20 people in two mini vans with four-wheel drive. First stop, coffee and some sort of Chilean doughnut, underline the dough. Second stop, a potty break where it was so windy and cold, I stayed inside the van and napped.
But the fun would begin when we reached the geysers. Now, those of you who have been to Yellowstone National Park, and seen the magnificent geysers, the Tatio Geysers looked like little kids’ wading pools. Nonetheless, all the young women in our two vans had to jump in! Imagine our great surprise when they stripped down to naked or almost naked, and jumped in? It was quite the show, as all the other tour van’s female occupants did the same thing! It was like a nymphets swim party.
Of course, everything after this undie show was less interesting, including the llamas, vicunas, flamingos, and assorted rodents, I assume. But I was suffering from either altitude sickness or Montezuma’s, so I stayed in the van. I caught the best part of the show, and decided to sleep on our way back into San Pedro!
Nevertheless, the Atacama became a trip to remember, for several reasons. And not the least of which was getting out of the hot desert in a rundown old Toyota. We decided to make a side trip to Argentina, and drink some wine in Mendoza, after we got back to Santiago.
PS: I cannot seem to find more photos of the Atacama and geysers. Sorry, I know you wanted to see naked bodies!