After a few days on the coast of Chile, we rapidly tired of the “Riviera of Chile” and decided to head north. Most of northern Chile is a desert, the Atacama. Looking down on the coastline as we approached Santiago from the air, it appeared rather strange to see the desert bordering the Pacific Ocean.
FYI, the Atacama is the driest non polar desert in the world. It consists of a 600 mile (1000 km) wedge of land between the coastal Cordillera de la Costa, and the more famous Andes. It has been a desert for the last 150 million years. The average temperature here is a relatively mild 63 degrees F (18 C). The driest part of the desert receives less than one millimeter of rain annually. The Atacama is home to over a million people!
So, after returning to Santiago from the coast, we headed over to the airport, rather than drive the northern part of the country. Our flight to Calama was filled with miners, heading back to work in the copper and lithium mines. We were the only tourists on the Sunday evening flight.
Let me be the first to tell you this vast desert is VERY dark at night. We were the only car on the road from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, the main tourist town in the Atacama. And the town was very dark as well. We literally stumbled into our hotel, having received no confirmation online after we booked it. It was very cold and windy, and we prayed this “hole in the wall” motel had room for us.
I moved a very large, tall gate so we could enter with our car. We finally rousted the manager, and were given rooms 1 and 2. Any minute, the wind might blow topple this old, rickety motel (pictured above). Prepared for the worst, and needing a good night’s rest in a warm room, we were literally shocked when we got into our rooms. Each had a single bed, with a small bathroom and not much else!
I was freezing, tired, thirsty, hungry, and a little irritated. But I soon discovered the bed had an electric mattress pad that warmed me perfectly! It was the best night’s sleep of the entire three week trip. While that was quite a revelation, the best was yet to come.
We drove our little rental car over to the Atacama Desert after a nice motel breakfast on our sunny “porch.” After a short drive, we paid our entrance fee and drove through the entire park, never seeing another vehicle, whether tourist or park attendant.
Eager to hike up to the top of the many sand dunes, we parked and went on a several hour trek, the sand now blowing into every crevasse on our bodies, almost blinding us at the peaks. We soon tired of sand in our shorts!
The warmth of the car felt great, but the car would not start! There was nobody around. And did I tell you our rental car was a beat up old Toyota Yaris, about the size of a large go kart?
But two great minds think alike. Fortunately, the Yaris was a stick shift, and we noticed a slight incline in the parking lot. So, we pushed the old Yaris (pictured above) up to the “top” of this dirt parking lot. We turned the old car around, and started to pray. Not really. Mike jumped in after we both pushed for about 50 feet, and the old junker started!!!
We were so darn happy as headed back into San Pedro, yet to see another vehicle. We decided we would find the best place in town for lunch and several tall, cold beers. We decided to take a tour van over to the famous geysers the next day, since everyone said our little Yaris would not make it over the creeks and streams in the road.
Upon returning to the motel, I could not find my laundry I had washed in the shower. Wouldn’t you know it, but the lady manager had hung both Mike and my clothes out on the clothes line, basking in the desert sun!
The story has a “coup de grace” when we made it to the geysers the next day. The young ladies (pictured above) in our group decided they wanted to partake of the geysers, by stripping down to panties only! So, not only did we get to see the famous pink dolphins, we some other rather pink creatures!