After the first kiss Chile continues to seduce us all and our love affair continues with this magical country. We arrived after a gruelling 11-hour drive into the dark, packed, narrow, dirt streets of San Pedro de Atacama. Lonely Planet had given us the Takha Takha hostel and campground to aim for, a lovely description, great location, and the added bonus of a pool to retreat to after a hot day exploring the sights of the driest place on earth. Of course we hadn’t booked…. But fortunately they had space in the carpark for us to pull into, and agreed a price after some haggling by Dean. Although tired we were excited by our arrival and, having put the tent up and got Fred out of his jim jams which he’d been in all day, we walked into town to find a pizza that had been promised to Fred. A tiny eat in and take away served us the most delicious thin pizzas which we washed down with non alcoholic lager, as the place had no alcohol licence. On our way back we dropped into a bar and treated ourselves to a very modest single pisco each. Eyes drooping, and the cold of the desert night having arrived, we got into bed and settled down to the wonderful noise of a town just waking up for a night of local partying 2 days in advance of Fiestas Patrias, apparently the celebrations for Chilean Independence lasts a mammoth 5 nights in most of Chile. Thinking sleep might evade us we discussed getting our earplugs out. We needn’t have worried, seconds later we were out for the count.
In the morning we awoke to find the most delightful colourful secret of gardens sprinkled around the site. It had been established by, and was still owned by an elderly Chilean lady, who has made a haven for explorers of this ancient village. A black and white photo from the 50s of her and her husband was on the wall of the reception. Immaculate in a belted sun dress, she sat nestled into the arms of her besuited husband, who sported a neat groomed moustache and slickly Brill Cremed hair, beside the Tatio Geysers. It reminded me of my grandfather who never left the house in anything less than a 3 piece suit and brogues, regardless of where he was going.
We decided that we needed a day of rest, so after a breakfast of homemade pancakes and a desperately needed shower, we settled down by the pool to read, catch up on social media, and a much required muck out of Stan the van. Dean found a local laundry shop and dropped off two bin bags of clothes. Fred, delighted to have wifi, could finally play his newly acquired Pokemon Go app. As I presume has now become familiar to readers back home, he spent most of the day wandering the large site phone in hand catching a variety of Pokemons, each one exciting him. The Raymond Chandler Big Sleep trilogy kept me entertained, as did the ice cold swimming pool that washed my sinuses thoroughly every time I dived in. After shopping for fresh veg we cooked dinner on our camp stove and then headed out into town for another evening explore. Having been pretty much alcohol free since we were in Pisco Elqui we made another Pisco pit stop. Predictably one turned into two, which turned in to three, and as an experiment we decided to see if we could wear four without a hangover. The barman seemed impressed by our efforts and we were rewarded with the most delicious platter of tender steak mignots and deep fried seafood dumplings courtesy of the house. With a promise to give a fabulous Trip Advisor review we very merrily walked the final 20 yards home to the van. We’d arrived in San Pedro with a full moon which would quash our hopes for star gazing. However every night there was a magic hour between darkness falling and the moon rising. Rather tipsy, we climbed our steps into the tent and there above us was the most glittering of starry displays.
Fresh brewed coffee from our stove pot and pancakes fixed us in the morning, no we can’t drink four Pisco Sours and not feel a little weary on waking, before we set off for the Luna Valley and Salt Flats. As we drove out of town we were treated to the range of 7 volcanoes that surround the town. Three of them remain active, and Fred couldn’t believe that he could see smoke puffing out of the most active of them. We later learnt that it erupts every year, but the regularity of its eruptions means it’s a rather undramatic affair. It only took us 15 minutes to arrive at the gate to the Lunar Valley Park. All the tourist venues are staffed exclusively by the indigenous population, and rather like the rest of South America speak no English. Nevertheless, we managed to pay, get a map and secure directions. Some help came in the form of a group of French University students on a year long placement in Santiago, that had come up to San Pedro for a break. In convey we set off into the desert on a track we had been warned not to deviate from. The map marked a series of parking spots to set off on foot to explore different geological features. First up was a narrow slit in the vast rock face that is the lunar valley. It was marked as a cave and we expected to find a small entrance quickly, how wrong we were. Instead the slit in the rock face continued for a circular mile taking us dramatically deep into sand coloured hill side. We flexed our bodies, weaving along the narrow path rock above and around us, sunlight illuminating our way until we entered the start of the cave, when we were plunged into total darkness. Fifteen minutes in and now only able to shuffle along the path sideways, due to its narrowing, and lit only by the torch on Fred’s mobile, I began to feel rather claustrophobic. Pot holing is my idea of hell. Much to Fred’s disappointment I called a halt and we doubled back. As we walked back to the car we saw a family of 3 who had completed the entire circuit. They had industrial torches in hand and were extremely dusty and dirty. Even if we had been better equipped and prepared I think I would still have bottled it!
We continued through the stops, taking pictures of the stunning landscape along the way, until we eventually came to the plateau that gives the tremendous view of the Lunar Valley. Multi coloured rock formations stare back at you, set off by the bands of salt that are ever present here, reminding me of the rainbow layered sand gifts that you’d be given after an aged aunt returned from a trip to the Scilly Islands. Although best seen at sunset, we were truly impressed by our mid afternoon visit. We bumped into Vince, an American who had lived in Santiago for the last 10 years with his family, running a high end suit making business for US customers prepared to pay $5,000. We passed 15 minutes with him and his daughter, both of whom yearned to be back in the US much to our surprise. Feeling adventurous, we took a road to our left which was marked on the map as the ruined Salt Mines. It turned into more of an adventure than we had bargained for. Clearly only suitable for 4x4s, we found ourselves bone crunchingly bouncing over the glassy bouldered track uphill with no way to turn round and head back. It took a nerve shattering 15 minutes to reach the abandoned mine and housing stock. Some hardy cyclists rested against the broken down walls. We spotted Vince and his daughter who had followed us. Clearly traumatised by the route, although in a 4x4 pick up, they didn’t stop, we saw them make a quick turn and double back. They missed a treat. This terrifying journey, and a short walk further uphill, gave us the best view of the Lunar Valley, which now opened up in a crescent below us. Fred then thought we should take the path that led into the Salt Mine. We made our way down through a gully that ended in the start of the mine which was snow white. Rather disturbingly the walls around us creaked, and having only recently watched ‘The 33’ about the buried Chilean miners, I again lost my nerve. We steeled ourselves, climbed back into Stan, and set off for our return journey to the main track. Thankful that we had only metal crockery, and once more bounced about like a ball on a roulette wheel, we got back to safe land determined to be more cautious on our next outings. The trip back down through the park afforded us more stunning views. We only wished we knew more about geology, and had paid more attention to our geography teachers, however we agreed we’d use the wifi back at Tahka Tahka to read up on what we’d seen.
By now mid afternoon, we carried on to the Cejan salt flat lake where you can swim. This was one of my must do’s of the trip, and as we wound our way along a desert track for several miles, we eventually emerged at the gate house to pay our entry. Three lakes make up this location, with one of them swimmable, and I was determined to test the claims that you can’t submerge yourself, such is the saline levels. Although the sun of the desert, and at the altitude of 2,500m is dangerous without full sun block, due to the delicate biosphere you have to wash yourself free of sunscreen, or any body products, in an ice cold shower before walking to the swimming lake. Fortunately, Fred has a UV swim vest so he had some protection. It is just stunning as you make the walk to the lake. A bright turquoise colour, it nestles in the pure white of the salt flats, which combined with the bright rainbow backdrop of the distant lunar valley, and the stunning pure blue sky is an outstanding sight. Hardly anyone was around, maybe 2 other families, and we found one of the 4 shelters giving shade. Fred and I set off for a dip first, we hadn’t expected our toes to reveal the water to be utterly freezing. Still determined we both jumped into a deep part of the lake. Shockingly cold we immediately bounced back up to the surface and sat there unmoving, suspended in the water by the salt. Not sure if Fred just didn’t read the memo, but he shot out of the water on the basis that it was salty and had just swallowed a mouthful. Dean obliged with a photo shoot from the shore, not nearly quickly enough, and once that was over we were out of the water in a flash to lap up the hot sun. Satisfied, and with some stunning photographs, we took another icy shower to rid us of the salt coating our bodies before heading back to enjoy the last of the hot sun by the pool. A long day, and the residue of 4 Pisco Sours each, made for an early dinner, with nothing stronger than water, and early night.
On Saturday we woke with excitement to the alarm we had set. This was the day we would visit the highest observatory in the world, ALMA. The visit was free but we had booked online 6 months in advance. We’ve all become very obsessed with ‘The Big Bang’ and how the universe started, evolved, and what lies in store for it. We’re an ‘arts’ minded family, and I (much to my shame) got an ‘Unclassified’ in my Physics O’level. Consequently we’ve been reading voraciously over the last 6 months the works of John Gibbons, Stephen Hawkins et al to redeem and educate ourselves on the life scientific, especially astrophysics. We walked to the bus station, where the ALMA bus would collect us. We were greeted, as we approached, by Eleanor who called out to us. She thought we looked like ALMA visitors, I suspect that was Dean’s beard, and we replied that yes we were. Being rather early we had not had breakfast. I left Dean with Eleanor and set off with Fred in search of coffees and Empanada’s as the bus wasn’t due for another 15 minutes. When the bus came there was much disappointment. Dozens had turned up hoping for places, there were none spare. Sad for them, but glad we’d booked and turned up on the right day (some had arrived weeks or days out from their booking), we set off. I got to ride the bus with Eleanor. She was charming. In her early 50s she had 2 daughters and a granddaughter that lived with her in San Pedro. From a wealthy US family that had moved to the Netherlands, she had arrived in San Pedro 30 years ago and become a guide. Things were tough for her, newly arrived ‘guides’ with no real knowledge of the area or culture were undercutting established, experienced guides. She was 3 months behind on her rent with a 12 year old to support. It turned out that Eleanor’s older daughter worked at Takha Takha and Fred later gave one of his surplus toys to her for Eleanor’s granddaughter. Eleanor had landed the ALMA tour gig after much lobbying, and hoped that the prestige of being selected would help her land more business on her newly launched website. We certainly found her a wonderful guide.
We were split into 2 groups when we arrived at the Operations Base for ALMA, a large Spanish speaking group and a smaller group of 6, which Eleanor guided, for the English speakers. The Operations Base, which includes the housing and facilities for the scientists and support staff, sits at 3,500m, whilst the dishes are positioned at 5,000m and engineers working with the dishes have to wear oxygen masks. We learnt that this international venture, involving 5 space agencies and countries, is at the cutting edge of astrophysics and astronomy. The 66 dishes are spread out over a 16km site and operate together to provide the largest span of imagery of space. Being set in the driest place on earth and at 5,000m, the highest information point in the world, ALMA can provide the clearest picture of the stars, moons, planets and galaxies beyond earth. It is not an observatory in the usual sense, there are no telescopes, instead the dishes read the radio waves, created by astral events going back billions of years, from which images are then generated via the largest non-military computer in the world (over 1M processors crunch the data). ALMA is truly at the cutting edge of discovery. We were amazed to find, as we talked to some of the scientists, that in the last 12 months they have found sugar molecules in space. Sugar is the key building block of life, and they believe that this discovery will eventually lead to evidence of other biological life forms. In one of the offices, where some of the scientists were analysing banks of screens showing live data I took the chance to ask whether they thought black holes contained something or nothing. Stephen Hawkins had postulated, in the 1990s, that black holes crunched matter to nothing and this remains one of the critical questions, what happens to matter in a black hole. I had the most marvellous 15 minutes listening them debating between themselves. Of course, they said, matter can’t go to nothing. One of them believes we will find that something comes out the back end of a black hole, possibly into another universe. It was one of the best 15 minutes I’ve ever spent, and I desperately wished I could have asked questions and listened to them for hours. They left me with the advice to follow the news closely over the next year, they are expecting a paradigm changing discovery, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was. So it’s probably worth us all subscribing to ‘The New Scientist’ forthwith! Very kindly, an engineer came into the offices with the scientists to give Fred an ALMA badge. He had seen him through his office window and had chased us down to give Fred the badge. He spent 10 minutes talking to him about his ambitions, and encouraging him to take a science and engineering route. There is a material culture of education and development of young people at ALMA. The majority of the workers are Chilean, a commitment made by ALMA in return for the Chilean government providing the site. In addition, they fund, and actively take part in, the education of local schools. They have a stated aim to develop engineers and scientists from the local population. It was impressive and enlightened, a sharp contrast to the history of colonial treatment of the indigenous population. What we also loved about this wonderful group of people was their humour. Dotted around the vast site were cartoons and white boards sporting ‘geek’ jokes, very endearing.
After our intensive educational and mind blowing experience we retired in the afternoon heat for a rest by the pool. Fred notched up a few more Pokemon’s, who knew there were so many in the desert. We also prepared Stan for our next 24 hours, where we would head up to the highest hot springs in the world. A 90Km drive uphill, into the heart of the volcano field, would take us to 5,000m. In preparation for this, determined to give ourselves the best chance of dealing with the effects of altitude (remember ALMA workers do not ascend to 5000m without oxygen canisters attached to tubes in their noses) we drank lots of water and no alcohol with another camping stove dinner, before taking a stoll out to find the music of the fiesta that was calling us on the eve of Fiestas Patrias. In the main square we found a flat bed truck loaded with musicians, surrounded by children in traditional costume dancing set dances with joy. Feet stamped in unison and white hankies waved high above their heads. A small café had a terrace overlooking the gathering. We ordered coffees and water, stopping for an hour to watch the locals in ponchos, knee high leather boots decked in silver spurs, and women in tightly corseted dresses with fulsome skirts taking to the cobbled dance floor. Our highlights were the 2 and 3 year olds throwing themselves into the mix, teenagers uninhibitedly keeping traditions going with smiling faces, and a wonderfully middle aged couple dancing a coquettish play of seduction reminiscent of voluptuous aging sopranos singing the willowy youthful Carmen. We briefly popped into the boozy hub of the fiesta at the municipal car park, but with a full day ahead of us a quick tour sufficed and we headed home.
A wonderful nights sleep and a refreshing shower set us up for the trek on Independence Day, the main national holiday. We had anticipated it would take us 2 hours to reach the Tatio Geysers. How wrong we were. We had misjudged 2 things; the stunning scenery with outstanding wildlife, and the terrible condition of the vertical hairpin road. For the scenery and wildlife we kept stopping for pictures that just had to be taken, over 24 hours we had more than a 1,000. For the road we dropped to 10Km per hour on many occasions. We crossed a rocky ford which we had to approach and leave at an angle of 30 degrees (see video) which got our nerves going again, but around the next bend a salt lake full of wild flamingos was our reward. As we worked our way up, the springs that spill out from deep below created narrow verdant valleys that iced up at the edges. The deep blue sky, rainbow geology, white of the ever present salt, was now complemented by deep green marshland around more aquamarine spring water. Pop a few stunningly pink flamingos, wild vicunias, foxes, llamas, donkeys, and vast array of birds into that landscape and you understand why we were so trigger happy with our cameras. All the mini bus tours go up to the geysers in the early morning and we gingerly avoided them as they descended. We were the only ones making the upward journey at midday. After 4 hours we reached the 5000m mark and the entrance to the Tatio Geyser park. No one was at home. A white flatbed truck was parked round the back and we eventually found a lone worker. Crushingly we discovered that the park was closed from midday, and tantalisingly we could see the geysers a mile from where we were, across the flat plateau surrounded by the tops of the puffing volcanos. Another 2 workmen appeared, after discussion between them, and confused exchanges with us, they moved the bollards blocking the park entrance and shooed us onwards with ‘Vamoos’s’, when we didn’t move and still looked disappointed, they got in their trucks and beckoned us to follow them. At the edge of the geysers they parted company and waved us on to enjoy this magical place alone.
The park has two attractions, the geysers, and the hot springs that form a pool that you can swim in. Human engineering has intervened and a natural swimming pool has been developed with the construction of a small dam. Icy cold at this altitude, we wrapped up and walked to the pool, past boiling water holes bubbling water heated at the earths core. With not a soul around we stripped and plunged into the wonderfully hot water. We swam, played and then lay still having a timed minute of mindfulness. We edged to the boiling water springs and felt the searing currents, making waves with our hands in the water to dissipate the dangerously hot water. Thankfully the altitude only slightly affected us, the lack of oxygen left us a little breathless, probably due to the slow progress of our journey up from San Pedro. Dean had the clever idea of boiling some eggs in the boiling springs, so I nipped out of the hot waters to the van and returned with sieve and eggs. 5 minutes later we were enjoying a late lunch of avocados and boiled eggs, washed down with yet more water to keep ourselves hydrated. With the van parked in sight we decided this would also be a great spot to shoot our Wicked Campers ‘get naked’ photo. Wicked Campers offices are decorated with customers stripped, but ingeniously hidden bits, in the wilds with their campers. Dean retrieved the tripod and camera and we created our family pic. I’ll leave it to Dean to decide if he posts it on this blog page as he was our main centrefold!
We had toyed with the idea of camping up at the geysers, but cautious of the severe cold we would have at night, and the possibility that prolonged exposure to the altitude may affect us, we decided to descend to a hamlet of 5 houses, thatched white washed chapel, and cemetery at 4,000m. As we made the journey back down Dean and I agreed that this had been the best day of our lives. When we had been going up past the hamlet the village’s Fiesta had been in full swing, dressed in traditional costume they were seated at red, white, and blue decorated tables, oil drum BBQ smoking away. As we arrived back in the early evening their celebrations (for the day) were over. With permission given, we set up camp in a sheltered spot and Dean went off to find bathrooms whilst I started cooking. Fred had got his football out and within seconds small, medium, and large children came tumbling out of a pick up. Dusty and dirty, the little ones wrestled one another to the ground in between playing football. They were like a joyful pack of puppies, seemingly oblivious to dust in their eyes, even the grit and odd rock that they occasionally threw at one another. As Fred played with this group of kids Dean shouted me over. I had thought that the music coming from one of the long houses was a stereo, but no, it was a cowboy hatted old boy with an acoustic guitar playing and singing the most beautiful Chilean love songs into 2 microphones, the speakers carrying the music across to me at the van. Sat next to him was the most sozzled but welcoming of companions emotionally singing along with him. We were given a cup of the local hooch, and stood there listening. It was the 4am in the morning point at a party, except it was 6pm, and we’d just arrived. It was another beautiful moment in a wonderful day and we loved that we were there for this dying moment, 2 men alone playing and singing and kept awake by coca leaves stuffed in the sides of their mouths. We declined the second drink, altitude headaches had started, and thanked them for letting us share as we left to cook and bed down.
With a stunning sunset came biting cold. We layered up in skins, jim jams, hats and woolly socks, and piled every blanket and quilt into the tent. We were looking forward to a peaceful night, free of the noise of San Pedro’s partying between 11pm and 5am, but it was not to be. I was woken by Dean screaming “Oh My God” which got me straight out of bed. Not disaster, as I had feared, but rather the stunning sight of the Milky Way right in front of us. So bright, visible and detailed I felt I could reach out and touch it. Stunned we all, including Fred who had been woken by the kerfuffle, gazed slack jawed at the sky that was so foreign to us. I’d like to say we sat and watched it for hours, but the wind had got up and it was so cold that Fred was soon crying, and I wasn’t far behind being in full possession of a splitting altitude induced headache in addition to being chilled to the bone. We bedded down again, overjoyed at the night sky and the fact that we had seen it, with Fred between us, warming him through. However the night time excitement was far from over. The wind continued to pick up and the top sheet of the tent came part free and flapped aggressively against the rest of the tent for the whole night, a wild donkey visited and decided to call to us (they are very very very loud), my headache worsened and I alternated maximum doses of ibuprofen and paracetamol through the night (my ‘Far From Help’ Wilderness Medical training course that had covered dealing with altitudes was paying off), and we all woke to drink water which then made us all need a pee. Waking very bleary eyed and poorly rested we unanimously agreed that the best day of our lives had been followed by the worst night of our lives, with the exception of our Milky Way and star gazing. We lolled in bed for a bit before cooking up more pancakes and coffee to set us up for our return journey. As we did so the mini bus tours that had made a 5am sunrise trip to the Geysers were now on their way down, stopping at our hamlet where the hungover locals were preparing llama meat on skewers over their oil drum BBQs to sell to the tourists. Between 10-11am 20 mini buses turned up. Much to our amusement they included us and Stan the van in their tour of the village. Most only asked permission and took photos, but a couple of groups stopped by for a chat, in awe at the psychedelic van with tent and ladder and curious about us. One family of 3 brothers in their 30s and their father from Santiago spent over an hour with us. They were great company and because they spoke excellent English we got the opportunity to talk to them about their extensive travelling, work in mining and banking, and Chile’s politics and economy. We parted Facebook friends and with more offers of a bed in Santiago when we drop the van off, and a commitment that Fred could come and stay with them in Santiago when he’s 18 and doing his own trips. Having enjoyed the interesting and relaxed pace of meandering conversations, with people in no rush, we felt ready to drive the remaining 3 hours back to Takha Takha and the restful oasis it had become to us.
We refuelled, checked tires, and oil levels at the gas station on our return. Picking up some more food at a local butchers and veg stand we were ready to recuperate and recharge. Eleanor’s daughter was on reception when we arrived back, and she made room for us in our old spot. We gave our report of the day before and she marvelled that we had had the Tatio Geysers to ourselves, and promised to tell Eleanor what a wonderful time we had enjoyed. Touchingly she was visibly delighted that we had found her home so magically special. The dusty clothes we had worn for the last 24 hours got a hand wash, and Stan had another clean out before we took to the pool relaxing on the loungers, too tired to even read. We passed a lovely gentle afternoon before dinner. Fred made more new friends with Sophia and Alberto on holiday from Santiago, passing a few hours with variations of Marco Polo in the pool, followed by hide and seek and other land based international kids games when the sun went down. We sat down to eat as they left to go out for dinner, but not before Instagram and FB details had been exchanged. Sophia and Alberto’s mother made another offer to host us when we get to Santiago.
This was our last night in Chile before we crossed into Argentina for 2 weeks, before crossing back into Chile to drop Stan off and flying out to Sydney. With Fred tucked up in bed we sat out and chatted over sparkling water. We have found nothing but warmth and friendship in Chile. More offers of accommodation than we could ever take up, rescued and cooked for when we got stuck in the sand, stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife, history, art, music, science and culture. At every stop dogs have joined us and kept us company, making us feel at home and useful. Friendly, gentle, curious and kind, we have fallen in love with Chileans. We read that Chileans will always ask you what you think of Chile, they want to hear if you think they, and their country, is OK. We found this to be true in all our encounters. So to our new Chilean friends who read this, yes you are OK, you are far more than OK, you’ve been wonderful and we thank you for every moment we’ve enjoyed with you. Lets hope we, in more ‘sophisticated’ societies, can find the humility to step outside of ourselves to look and learn, and ask the questions of ourselves and our society that Chileans ask. There’s a lot we can learn from you.
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx