Wednesday 4 July 2012

San Pedro de Atacama and around

I feel I have neglected my blog a bit, although it has only been 5 days, and one of those I spent travelling here to San Pedro de Atacama.

I decided to get the bus up from La Serena, mainly so I could see the scenery changing. I ended up on a 1:20am bus from La Serena, which meant I slept for the first 8 hours (thankfully!) and by the time I woke up I was well and truly in the desert!

I'm not sure exactly where I was when I woke up but the scenery was quite spectacular - literally no vegetation at all.

Having slept for less than half the journey, I still had plenty to see though. The countryside changed in the sense that mankind changed it. As we got further north towards Antofagasta, there were what seemed like countless industrial plants, which I can only assume were related to the mining industry which is so prevalent in this area.

After a quick stop in Antofagasta for lunch (which was awful!), we carried on towards San Pedro and one of the huge advantages to the timing of my bus was that we approached San Pedro just as dusk was setting in. The landscape and colours were gorgeous - coupled with a beautiful full (or almost full) Moon. The photo below doesn't really do it justice but in my defence I was on the bus!
Approaching San Pedro de Atacama at sunset
I really did feel like our bus could have been on Mars! There are amazing rusty-red rock formations just before San Pedro, right alongside the main road, which really do look out of this world!

Anyway, I managed to find my way to my hostel alright (San Pedro isn't very big) and then met a couple I'd met in La Serena for dinner that evening. Didn't have a late night as I'm pretty much non-stop here!

On Tuesday morning I was up bright and early, ready to be picked up for a tour to the Lagunas Altiplanicas at 8am. We were a nice small group, and our guide was excellent. We first went to a small village nearby called Toconao, and on the way there I got my first glimpse of the ALMA OSF! I was very excited, when I saw it and the guide told the group about it. I then told him that I was going to be visiting it later this week. He didn't quite believe me at first - I think he thought I thought I could just go myself - but when I explained about my trip he was so jealous! He says if he sees me net week he'll be quizzing me all about it!

Laguna Chaxa
After Toconao, we went on to the Salar Atacama (the salt flat of Atacama) and to see the Laguna Chaxa. It is part of a National Reserve for flamingos and we were not disappointed, although we didn't see any very close up.

As well as flamingos, the Laguna Chaxa is home to various other birds, including Andean Avocets, Andean Gulls and Puna Plovers (Puna is the name given to the plateau). I took rather a lot of photos of the birds.

Again the scenery here could have easily been from another planet! Fantastic jagged sculptures of salt going on for miles, only interrupted by the occasional pool of water, and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges.

After the Laguna Chaxa (which is at 2200m approx.) we headed up into the mountains and to some Lagunas between 2 volcanoes. We had to climb to 4200m to reach these lagunas, and this was to be my first experience at high altitude. Thankfully, other than feeling slightly more out of breath than usual (although quite hard to tell really since I'm so unfit!) I felt fine - which bodes very well for my trip to the ALMA site at 5000m on Friday.

It was pretty chilly up at 4200m, and a bit windy, but it was worth it. We saw Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques - both stunning lakes of beautiful turquoise blue water, with amazing mountains around them.
Laguna Miscanti, with Cerro Miscanti volcano behind
On the way back down from the high altitude lagunas, we saw some vicuñas - the smallest of the camelid family.

Being at high altitude surprised me really. I would have expected there to be less vegetation the higher you got, but in fact, there was more in the way of flora up at 4200m than there is at 2200m.

Today, I got up super-duper early to go and see the highest geyser field in the world at sunrise - the El Tatio Geysers. I was picked up at 4am (rather bleary-eyed I have to say) and we had an hour and a half journey to get to the Geyser field - of course, I slept for the journey there. Well, it was dark anyway, so I couldn't see anything out the window of the minibus!

Once there, it was quite magical. The sun didn't really start to rise properly for about the first half an hour, so we were in the dark with all these steaming, bubbling geysers around us. And it was minus 9 degrees! The Moon was still up so that created an even eerier experience! Our guide for the tour cooked our breakfast in one of the geysers which was quite good fun. The water is boiling at about 85 degrees (since we're at altitude of course, the boiling point of water is lower - remember that from my chemistry lessons at school!) so he popped some eggs in to cook, and some cartons of milk, so we would have hot milk for breakfast.

We had a wander around some of the geysers whilst our breakfast cooked, all the while the light was changing as the sun started to rise behind the mountains. It was quite incredible to feel the change in temperature. Don't get me wrong, it was still VERY cold, but you could definitely feel the difference. The smell was also quite pungent of course, but in a very weird way, I quite liked it!

After we'd had breakfast, we went to the 'swimming pool' part of the field and some brave soles actually got in! Mostly, the water in the pool was about 28-30 degrees, which I'm sorry, but for me just wasn't tempting enough with the outside temperature the way it was. But I did paddle a bit which was nice - got some feeling back into my toes, other than just pain from being so cold!
Very Scottish white legs
I've really liked what I've seen of San Pedro and the surrounding area so far, and for the most part it does very much feel like I could be on another planet, or a moon of another planet. Today at the geysers I did find myself thinking about Enceladus and its active eruptions, possibly of sub-surface water...

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