Northern Chile – San Pedro and surrounds

I absolutely adore northern Chile. I could have quite easily stayed there forever. The quaint little desert towns and the ‘out of this world’ landscapes, not to mention the laid-back attitudes and the safe and friendly atmosphere, won my heart. To begin with, we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, a beautiful little town located in the middle of the Atacama Desert. After the cold weather and high altitudes we experience in the Andes, on Lake Titicaca and on the Uyuni Salt Flats, we were so relieved to be able to walk around in shorts, t-shirts and thongs. We stayed at Hostel Soncheck,, where we were able to while away the time basking in the courtyard sun and take relaxing siestas in our simple, yet comfortable room. San Pedro reminded me a bit of Mediterranean Europe in the summer – the same dry air, the same relaxed, yet upbeat, atmosphere, the same feel.

During our stay in San Pedro we visited the nearby Tatio Geysers and Moon Valley. Once again we woke up at a ridiculous hour, 4:30am, and waited for our transport to the geysers. Trying to sleep on the mini-bus on the way was a little impossible, as our guide was a bit of a chatterbox, but extremely funny and good tempered, even at this early hour. We received quite a shock when we exited from the bus – the balmy weather of San Pedro was replaced with temperatures below freezing – not surprising seeing that it is located 4200 metres above sea level. If you do plan to visit the Tatio Geysers, I would definitely recommend rugging up in your winter woolies. Cheryl, my great friend and travel companion, was wearing thongs, as we weren’t expected it to be this cold. Brrrrr. To make-up for the chilly Arctic weather, we were greeted with the amazing sight of the Tatio Geysers. El Tatio is one of the largest geyser fields in the world, as well as one of the most elevated. You must take care where you step, as some of the puddles contain boiling water, heated by the volcanic activity beneath the geysers. It is best to visit the geysers at daybreak, as we did, when the geysers erupt and the hot steam condenses in the bitterly cold air, creating a dramatic effect. Besides seeing the extraordinary geysers, we were also lucky to experience the changing colours and shapes of the desert sunrise, as see in some of my photos beneath. On the way back to San Pedro, we made a short stop at the village of Machuca, where the ancient llama caravans once rested on their travels along the ‘Inca Highway’.

After a afternoon siesta, we headed for Moon Valley, or as it is known in Spanish, Valle de la Luna. This valley, which is located about 15km from San Pedro, transports you to another world, to the moon to be precise. Hence the name. The amazing rock and sand formations, which have been shaped by wind and water, bear a striking resemblance to images of the moon. Or even more precisely, it looks disturbingly similar to the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars. Being one of the driest places on earth, there are no signs of life – no plants, no animals, no birds, no insects – nothing. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ravines and crevices of the valley, marvelling at the incredible shapes and textures of the rock formations. Just before sunset, we made our way up to one of the peaks in order to witness the incredible light show over the valley. The setting sun created beautiful shadows over the rugged landscape below, enhancing the forms of the crater like shapes. And as we were heading back to San Pedro, I admired the solitary silhouettes of the surrounding volcanos, standing solemnly against the violet sky, as the sun said goodbye.

The village of Machuca

Words and photography by Jade Spadina.

The Uyuni Salt Flat & The Atacama Desert in a 4WD

An amazing three day adventure traveling through the Atacama Desert. No electricity, no internet access, you’re lucky if you can find a proper toilet, freezing temperatures, bumpy roads, or actually lack of roads, driving through endless expanses of nothingless…doesn’t really sound like an ideal trip, does it. But this three day 4WD trip from the small Bolivian town of Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile was a truely unforgettable experience.

Our epic journey actually commenced in La Paz where we boarded an overnight bus to Uyuni. Many people warned us not to take this trip, as the bus travels along a non-existant road in the desert, meaning, firstly it is extremely difficult to get any sleep on such a bumpy ride, secondly buses are known to breakdown in the middle of nowhere making help difficult to find, and lastly, highway robberies are not uncommon. But despite all this, we had a rather non-descript trip to Uyuni and even managed to get a few hours sleep.

After a few hiccups in Uyuni (a desolate, somewhat unexciting town in the centre of the desert – just think empty streets, delapadated buildings, tumble-weed being blown by the dusty wind), including a mad dash to get our Bolivian exit and Chilean entry stamps, a wild goose chase around town to locate our tour provided and being freaked out by a man with a python in a box, we set out in our 4WD with an amazing driver and a fantastic group of people. Over three jam-packed days we saw the rail graveyard of Uyuni, the Salar de Uyuni (the incredible blinding white salt flats of Uyuni), an island overrun by giant cacti in the middle of these salt flats, a number of sulpha lagoons (one of each of the colours red, blue and green – the properties of the minerals found in each location affect the colour of the lagoons) full of elegant flamingos, numerous extinct, a few active volcanos, we had an overnight’s stay in a hotel made entirely of salt, an early morning swim in natural thermal springs, visited the arbol de piedra (a site which influenced the work of Salvador Dali) and saw the spurts of gas from geysers during the few moments before sunrise. We had some good laughs, some delicious food prepared by our superhuman driver/guide/cook/interpreter (I can’t forget that home-made apple pie on day one), made some lasting friendships over a few bottles of wine. All in all, it was definitely one of those ‘one in a lifetime experiences’, although, there’s always the option of doing it all over again.

Our tour providers were Red Planet Expeditions, which come highly recommended. All 4WD expeditions include a Spanish/English speaking driver/guide, all meals (and they’re damn good meals at that), simple share accommodation with your tour group, but exclude a few national park entry fees, which are minimal.

Image thanks to Ryan Quiel

Image thanks to Ryan Quiel

Image thanks to Ryan Quiel

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina