Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Below Zero and Above 4,000 in the Atacama Desert

It's a warm, sunny afternoon in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile as I type this.  I'm lounging in a hammock on the hostel's patio, catching up on reading, writing in my journal, emails, and of course this blog.  My bus to Arica (also in Chile, near the Peruvian border) isn't till 8:45 tonight, so I have lots of time. 

No cushy cama buses this time, though -- one of my travelling companions of the last few days headed on to Arica yesterday and he sent me a message warning that there's no dinner and no blankets on the bus.  So I'll be stocking up on fruit and chocolate bars (the dinner of champions) and adding a few layers of clothes before I board the bus -- it gets awfully cold in this part of the world when the sun goes down.  But it's dramatically beautiful scenery, with mountains and desert and salt plains and vast open sky -- gorgeous to behold as long as you don't mind occasionally shivering uncontrollably.

It was actually below zero one morning, as we stood on the street at 4 a.m. waiting to be picked up for a sunrise geyser tour.  I'd had enough of freezing so had splurged on a warm NorthFace jacket with fleece the night before, and without it I might have died of exposure (or at least would have been very, very uncomfortable) -- so well worth the exorbitant price I paid.  (I don't even want to think about how much cheaper it would have been at home ... warmth was worth the extravagance.  I bought an alpaca sweater, too, but, while that will also help keep me warm, it was mostly just because I really liked it -- and it at least was cheap.)

But the geysers were very cool, as well as cold, although the sunrise wasn't much of anything.  It's not the largest geyser field in the world -- it doesn't begin to compare in scale to Yellowstone or Rotorua -- but it's the highest altitude one at 4,300 metres.  San Pedro is perched at about 2,400 metres above sea level, so it was quite a climb up to the plateau where we found the geysers.

I hit even higher altitudes yesterday, as I went up to the high altiplano at nearly 4,500.  There are some pristine, beautiful lakes -- tiny but lovely -- way up there, and wildlife abounds.  I saw many vicuna (related to the llama, but daintier and more graceful -- llamas are goofy, ungainly creatures) and even a desert fox, whose brown and gold colouring blended perfectly with the stunted bushes and grasses of the altiplano.  The villages way up high are a different world and time entirely -- life is much more primitive than the suphisticated south of Chile. 

Lower down in the plateau, in the vast Salar de Atacama (a salt plain), the ponds are filled with flamingoes -- the bright pink kind that I'm familiar with, and a couple of other species that are black and white.  They spend summers higher up in the mountains, but this time of year come down to the lower plains where it's a little warmer.

Further away from San Pedro, but also in the Salar, there's a small lake -- Laguna Cejar -- that's saltier than the Dead Sea (85% salt) and considerably colder.  I took the plunge anyway, just to see what it felt like to float effortlessly on top of the water; once I got over the initial shock of the cold water on the surface, it was actually quite relaxing, and the water under the surface was warm as it was fed by springs underground.  The only unpleasant part was getting changed out of our wet swimsuits afterwards -- Annie (one of my recent travelling companions) and I, as the only two girls who went in the water, ducked behind the bus to change as there was nowhere else to go.  Awkwardly changing underneath towels and sarongs, we managed to be pretty discreet -- to the dismay, I think, of the four bus drivers who were quite openly gawking at us as we changed.  (Please, boys, it's nothing you haven't seen before -- foreign women have all the same parts as locals.  Give us a break.)

So it's been a lovely few days, and I'm loathe to leave this mellow and chilled-out little town in the middle of nowhere.  I've even been able to have real coffee (not Nescafe) and real breakfast (not pastry with dulce de leche) here, and we discovered a cool little bar that serves a fine Chilean microbrewery beer called Austral Calafate, so it's been an enjoyable time.  But I'm going onward tonight, to Arica in the far north of Chile -- from there I might try to go directly to Arequipa, instead of spending the night in Arica.  But I'll decide once I get there.  My travel buddy John the Aussie went on to Arica yesterday, so has promised to report back on whether the town's worth a visit.

From Arequipa, I'll head into Cuzco and figure out the Machu Picchu thing -- hoping to hike, but I won't be too upset if it doesn't work out and I have to go by train instead (but I'd definitely come back and hike another time).  So far, I'm still coping well with altitude and have suffered no ill effects, so I'm hoping that continues in Peru.

I'll probably spend a few days more touring around southern Peru -- Puno on Lake Titicaca, maybe Nazca for the famous lines -- and might venture over the border into Bolivia as far as Copacabana on the lake (but not to La Paz).  From Cuzco, I think I'll fly to Quito, since I'll otherwise have to spend about 4 days straight on the bus -- potentially enjoyable on a pampered Argentine bus ride, but in Peru and Ecuador likely to be decidedly less comfortable.

Then a Galapagos tour from Quito, and some side trips in Ecuador as time permits ... then home for about the middle of July.  That sounded so far away when I started this trip, but it's sneaking up on me fast -- just a few weeks to go.  *sigh*

No comments:

Post a Comment