Two bus journeys and 36 hours after setting off from Pucon, our scene has changed from plush leafy greens to endless arid oranges. San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama desert is one of the most arid places on earth. The intense dry heat is a welcome change from the previous sticky humidity of Iguazu. San Pedro is a tiny desert town existing soley for tours. We meet up with a Chilli Kiwi Alumni Matt and start planning our trip to the Bolivian Salt flats. Hoping for a group discount, Matt brings Max, yet another Chilli Kiwi-ite. As we are deciding who else to invite we bump into to more people from Chili-Kiwi (you see the theme here – it would appear Ste and I were temporary celebrities in this tiny town. Having now hoped onto the Gringo trail ourselves, our old guests were everywhere. After several interactions with subtle confused eyes being between myself and Ste, I realise we must get better with names…). We convince a lovely German couple (regular customers of the burger boom) Yannick and Carina to join our tour.
Our first San Pedro tour is to the Luna Valley. Matt and Max join us taking a last minute deal. For ten pounds we purchased a late tour guide, who was clearly preoccupied with something very important when he was rudely interrupted and reminded he had to work. I guess get what you pay for.
The Valle de la Luna, The Valley of the Moon. Aside from the tarmac access road cutting across the scene, the dusty rocks and sandy peaks were other-worldly. It was a constant battle to keep up with our clock-watching guide as he rushed us across the luna landscape. We were bundled through a busy cave walk and off to watch the sunset. However, the beauty of the scene was slightly diluted by the sheer density of tourists. As with Iguazu, all photo opportunities had to be carefully positioned to create the illusion of the freedom of travel, escaping the crowds to be at one with nature. In truth it was just a mass of SLR wielding travellers, queuing for the best spot. The reality of it created the reverse desire and we stored the cameras away, set our eyes to record, and just took in the sunset for ourselves.
The next day we reunited with the lovable bearded Dane, Marcus and his two Belgian companions. We hired bikes for the day (3,000 pesos – £3.50) and set off into the desert in search of ruins. The questionable artistry of our hand-drawn map lead to multiple river crossings and cycling across fields whilst being chased by an ecstatic bouncing hound. As we dropped the bikes across barbed-wire fences it turned out there was a perfectly functioning road the other side of the river. We stopped halfway up a large hill, admitting defeat to the combination of desert heat and altitude (San Pedro sits at 2,400m above sea level) we lunched at the shady foot of a cliff before hearing back down. Having trailed the pack most of the trip due to my ill-poisitioned saddle, a lunch time adjustment had given me new legs. In order to take the road back we had to cycle the largest and deepest river crossing. After watching a car on the way up, I decided it was achievable and as the others scratched their heads about feasibility, I accelerated down into the river, blasted my legs against the current and landed safely on the other bank. I think I almost saw a glimmer of respect in Ste’s eye.
That evening, Matt and Max who we were later to do the Salt flats with headed with myself and Ste for a night of astrology with ‘La noche con las estrellas’ (A night with the stars). For 18,000 pesos (£22.50) we headed to a bungalow out in the desert. The group was divided into English and Spanish and our group headed inside for a glass of Chilean wine and a lesson in astrology. The tour was run by a husband and wife team, and the wife did the initial education, running us through the basics of the universe. Following this we headed outside to view snippets of the cosmos though powerful telescopes. Both humbled and inspired, we viewed the constellations upside down (perks of the southern hemisphere), different star forms, the southern cross (and how to use it to find due south), learned of the movement of the constellations across the sky and finally glimpsed Jupiter and a handful of her moons. Following the slight disappointment of the Valle de la Luna, this tour exploded our expectations. Channeling my inner Brian Cox it ignited a fresh appreciation and wonderment for the universe.
Back to the hostel, we shared crazy Spanish and English tounge twisters with our Argentinean roommates and packed our turtle backs ready for our early start. We were off to the salt flats.