Otherworldly landscapes in the North of Chile
25.04.2019 - 28.04.2019
We arrived in the Chilean mining town Calama after a 12-hour bus ride from Salta, but our day was not over yet. We picked up our rental car at the airport to drive to San Pedro de Atacama, our base for the next three nights. Since many of the sights in this area are only accessible by rocky or sandy dirt roads, we chose to book a larger car. Still, we did not expect the giant 4x4 they gave us in Calama, though it definitely proved very useful over the next days.
The North of Chile is the location of the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet. In some places here, rainfall has never been recorded. The arid, rocky landscape is the closest one can get to feel like walking on Mars or on the moon. NASA even tests equipment for Mars missions here. One especially stunning place is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). We spent a morning hiking around this place and admiring the large sand dunes and otherworldly rock formations.
Because of the clear skies and the high altitudes, many of the world’s most advanced observatories are located in the Atacama desert. Unfortunately, visits to the observatories near San Pedro were booked out months ahead, but for stargazing, it was enough to just look up at the sky at our accommodation. Our lodge was located some way out of the village, which meant that there was very little light pollution. We could see the Milky Way and even a stellar nebula with the naked eye. The sky was even clearer here than at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
On a sunny afternoon, we drove up to the altiplano near the Argentinian border. Many nice lagoons and salt flats cover this area which is above 4000 meters in altitude. Surrounding the scenery were several snow-capped mountains and volcanoes.
In the high altitudes, we saw lots of vicuñas by the side of the road. Vicuñas are closely related to the guanacos that we have seen in the South of Argentina, but they are slightly smaller. Since they are related to camels, they can survive up to a week without water. We also learnt that the vicuña wool is one of the most valuable wools in the world. For example, a scarf made from vicuña wool costs at least $1000.
On Sam’s birthday, we woke up at 4am to drive up to the world’s highest geyser field, the El Tatio Geysers. It took us around 2 hours to ascend the decent gravel road to the geysers at 4300 meters above the sea. Dawn just begun when we arrived and the geysers started to become more active. The time between one hour before and one hour after sunrise is the most active, due to the sharp rise in air temperature. There are about 60 geysers in this area and while they do not erupt as high as other geysers we have seen, they do so almost constantly. It was beautiful to watch the sunrise in this surreal scenery and it was definitely worth the early start. After the spectacle was over, we drove down to Calama, where we relaxed for the rest of the day. We gave back our rental car, surely the last one of this trip, as Sam would not dare to drive in countries like Bolivia or Peru. We are very happy that we never had any rental car problems along the way.
The next morning at 6am, we took a bus to Uyuni in Bolivia. The end of April marks the start of the dry season in Bolivia so it’s a good time to move on. We left the Chilean territory for the 5th and last time, after spending 50 days in this country. Nowhere else did we spend more time on our trip. From the glaciers in the South to the deserts in the North, Chile has it all.