long may you run
Week 44: Desert days and starry nights
Since travel days are always better when starting out with a full tummy, we filled our plates from the elegant and diverse offering at the hotel buffet, ate, and went back to fill-up again. With a selection of exotic fruit, locally made honey, 3 kinds of yogurt, waffles, muffins, and eggs a la carte, how could we resist?
Leaving Santiago, we discussed what an easy, friendly and Toronto-like city it had been to experience as travellers. Reflecting the current economic stability and growth of Chile and vibrancy of its people and culture. Landing in Calama, it was immediately clear to us that Santiago was benefitting from the mining projects in the north, though Calama itself, with casino hotels and rows of identical quickly-built housing was, perhaps, not.
We whisked through the small airport and into a truck, where we headed down the road, away from the city and began to take our first glimpses of the Atacama landscape.
First down a valley and then up over the Domeyko Mountain range, where our ears popped, alerting us to a significant change in elevation. Down through the next valley, and up a second pass, the Salt Mountain range. Finally as we descended into the third valley the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama appeared and the looming volcanos of the Andean range, bordering Bolivia, came into view.
There is no comparison on the planet (at least not that we’ve experienced) to the dry air, red earth, rugged and rocky landscape and vastness of the Atacama desert that surrounds San Pedro. The craggy contours of sand, eroded from rain and wind, jut out violently from the ground like hot coals and ash of a recently burned fire. Our timing also followed closely behind a flashflood to the area, bringing over 40mm of rain in one day, to an region that sees less than 1 mm annually. The result, dust and surface dirt were washed away leaving rings of white salt, resembling (at least to two Canadians) and overnight dusting of snow.
Paved highway turned to dirt roads, and the adobe wall-lined streets of San Pedro sheltered us from the winds sweeping across the open lands. A traditional-style hut with local wood fencing and roof coverage kept us cool during the hot days and warm during the cold nights. The following morning we checked out the nearby Cejar ponds where we floated effortlessly in the saline waters, while taking in views of the surrounding volcanos. The micro-organisms in the water were the only other living things around as the high salt content makes the waters otherwise inhospitable. Nearby the ponds, we met a French family who are spending a year traveling around South America in an RV. The father was admittedly not a ‘car guy’ but has learned on the road everything there is to maintaining a motorhome across the challenging terrain of the desert, the Andes and long stretches of rippio in southern Argentina and Chile.
From the salt ponds we drove southeast past Toconao for a quick lunch in Socaire before climbing in elevation up to 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) to the altiplano lakes of Miscanti and Miniques. The two bright blue sky mirrors set at the base of the volcanos are the meeting point for flamingos, nesting horned coots, and swift-footed vicuna. Winding back down the mountainside the vegetation changed as the vicunas stayed up above 3,500 meters just as the distant lithium mining ponds on the valley floor came into view. We rested in the afternoon after the heat and short un-acclimatized altitude exposure took its toll. Plus we had a stargazing appointment and astronomy lesson scheduled for a fews hours after nightfall.
We traveled with Jorge 15 minutes outside of San Pedro into the desert darkness. Sitting in fold-up lawn chairs with blankets we listened to his animated presentation about the stars, the Andean culture’s relationship with the sky and our place in it all. For us, the southern hemisphere’s sky was a all new. We learned that there are 88 recognized constellations in the sky and how to find the (real) southern cross. Jorge setup his telescope and quizzed us on where to find various bright stars and constellations in the sky. Supernovas, planets, nebulas, and moons - through a car-adapter powered telescope we gazed out into the dark until it became light again hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of light years away. He would focus on a feature in the sky and we would all quickly take a turn looking through the lens to see it before our rotation and its orbit would put it, again out of view. Staring into Orion’s nebula we got lost in the cloud of dust, gas, new stars and cosmic energy. Saturn and its rings were clear and brightly coloured through the telescope - and with that somewhere for a moment it all was put in perspective, we were so small, made of the same stuff, all inhabiting the same place - no exceptions.
After some fresh rica-rica lemonade Dave left with Santiago for a walk among the giant cardon cacti. One of the freshwater springs that feeds the oasis of San Pedro continues to carve a valley from the high mountains down to the town. Hiking through the valley we sought out the cool water breeze and shade from the high rock walls from the mid-day sun. Back in time for a fresh lunch with Hil before packing up for an overnight in the desert. We rendezvoued with Javier and crossed the Salt Mountain range en route toward Mantacilla where we unpacked the truck and set camp in the depth of a U-shaped rock feature, protected from the wind. Wandering the wind-blown canyons as the sun began to set the colours changed from dusty beige to brown to yellow to orange to red as the ferocity of the sun’s blaze focused it fading rays on the tallest outcropping in the landscape. While we waited for the stars to shine, Javier spoiled us with some top-notch gas stove cooking, and a good Chilean red wine. Dave made use of his new tripod and recent astronomy learnings to capture some night photography scenes as the 180 degree sky lit up covering us in pinhole pierced darkness.
Returning to San Pedro we took the long route through some historical petroglyphs carved into amphitheatre desert walls over one thousand years ago. Images of shamans, llamas, and large cats show the history of a people that passed by caravan through this area along ancient trade routes.
From our overnight tent under the stars we moved to the Corrales, the site of an old cattle corral and our rusted modern glass cube. Dave met Yasu and and biked the up the valley, across rivers, through eroded arches, and under rainbow rock overhangs. Carrying the bikes over tough terrain and up hill Dave learned about Yasu’s young family and their passion for the mountains. With no electricity in his home he loves to make the most of daylight hours, climbing, mountain biking and guiding across the Atacama. Hil joined for a windswept hike across the top of Valle de la Muerte and then the joyful descent into the giant dunes. The sands, warm from the day’s sun puffed and clouded as we ran down the ridge, our feet landing on either side of the shadow line puckering the smoothed perfection of the shifting sands. Bounding down hill we ran and jumped into soft landings filling our shoes, socks, mouths and ears with grains of the desert dunes. As the sun set we shared a meal of fresh garden greens and a glass of Carmenere.
At 8:30 in the morning Dave and a guide were rolling towards the Andean range and the tri-border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. After nearly a week of taunting in the Atacama it was time to not just gaze out at the volcanos and mountains on the hazy horizon but also to look back at town from the summit of one of them. Our hourlong drive to the base of Toco doubled our elevation from 2,500 meters to almost 5,000 meters leaving just a short 600 meter ascent for us to slowly climb past the snow line to the summit. Loose rock, frosted snow shapes, cold temperatures and brilliant sun challenged our steps. Walking in a slow single file we chewed coca leaves which is chewed by Andean alpinists and high-altitude truckers alike. The views from the summit introduced us to other mountains, in other countries deeper in the Andean range. We looked down on multiple satellite and astronomical projects watching and listening for the ancient creators of all these peaks. We descended without incident, rehydrated and returned to San Pedro listening to dance music as the diver’s enthusiastic head-bopping only added to the exhilaration of the climb. Wind, sun and altitude soaked Dave rested in the afternoon which suited Hil, who was already enjoying a slower pace poolside.
With the new day’s light crawling down the side of Licancabur’s perfect conical shape we walked out together along a wooden foot path to meet Marti for another morning of yoga. Hil and Marti had bonded immediately, as Marti is also pregnant. We embraced her practice, introducing new movements and sequences to us in beautifully calm spanish-accented english. The crisp temperature had not yet been overpowered by the sun’s heat and our bodies warmed as we breathed, folded and stretched. With open vastness all around us, Marti shifted our focus inward, and to our baby. As we floated into a deep shavasana she guided us with a final thought: “The mind is like a pendulum, swaying from the past to the future, to still the pendulum is to be in the present.” Words to keep and repeat.