San Pedro de Atacama was our destination after our wonderful journey in Bolivia through the Salar and its surrounding lakes and volcanoes. This is probably our last visit to Chile and we expect to be only here for ten days or so, maybe a little longer. It is a small dusty town of unpaved roads with small adobe houses, dim-lit streets in the evening time, bars , restaurants, funky shops which are certainly the best for many miles around.
We did a trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de la Muerta (Death Valley) Here wind-blown sand has made weirdly shaped rock formations by slowly carving out amazing shapes and curves. Some of them feel very dry and crumbly and they would probably be washed away by now if there was ever any rain here. There is no animal or vegetable life here so its a pretty deserted place. There are many places for great walks with interesting little alcoves to explore, but the best of all is when you watch the sunset. We saw the rocks turn red, gold and amber but immediately the sun left us, it was cold and amazingly dark until the moon starts to appear – amazing sight! When we went to see the Valley of the moon, we parked on the cliff overlooking the valley at about 4 p.m and at that time we had the whole place to ourselves, but this was soon to be shattered at about 5.30 p.m when ‘the tourists’ arrived, obviously ending their long day on a mini-bus watching the sunset. All of a sudden there was about 100 people, but within half an hour there was just 2 again (yes us). We parked over night here and as it was during the full moon the colours on these rock formations changed many times during the course of the evening. We welcomed the next day with a beautiful sunrise and had the entire place to ourselves. It was like we were living on top of the world. Oh, the joys of being independent!
We also spent some time in The Salar de Atacama, which is the largest salt-pan in Chile. (very different from the salt-pan in Bolivia, I might add.). It has a rough broken up surface and is an attractive place in its own right, the vastness of the whole place, the emptiness. In this part of the desert we really had the whole place to ourselves ,the silence, disturbed by nobody ! Even though it is very dry , there are many drought-resistant plants that survive here , many animals, but we only saw foxes and vicuña and of course birds like coots, Andean gulls and condors (only in the distance). The Salar has quite a Flamingo Reserva, with a few small shallow lakes in which all three Chilean species of flamingoes can be found – James, Chilean and Andean flamingoes, so we visited the Chaxa Laguna so as to see the Andean Flamingo . We passed through a very small village en route called Toconao with 700 inhabitants, which had a very old church, with a separate bell -tower built in 1744 and the roof was just mud and straw.
I guess a bit like the ‘thatched’ roof’s in Ireland is a good way to describe it. This town is famous for its carvings in liparite, a volcanic rock which comes from a quarry near by. We had a lovely afternoon by Laguna Cegar which is saltier that the dead sea. At this time of year if you floated in it, you would float higher than in the dead sea, but you would FREEZE! We saw a few brave tourists running in for a swim, but by the time we picked up a camera they would be running out doing a great impression of Mel Gibson in Braveheart – Blue all over and screaming! No doubt in the summer its the place to cool down from the really hot temperatures that they experience in this area. A lovely place for walks through the rushes, and to watch the sun glistening on the water, lovely colours appear all over the place.
Iglesia De San Pedro de Atacama in the main Plaza itself, is built of adobe walls, the roof is made of algarrobo wood and the ceiling is covered with cactus mixed with mud and straw. One of the days that we were here, the celebration of The Virgin of Carmen took place. This is an annual event, and we were lucky enough to have picked the right weekend to visit. Maybe all our detours due to the snow were a good thing. The festival involves bringing the small statue of the Virgin for a walk around the town, and loads of brass bands and dancing.
One of the very popular tours in San Pedro de Atacama is an evening Star Gazing. We had heard of a French guy who did these tours, and his company is called SPACE, so we booked an evening with them. We were collected in the town at 7 pm and taken a few kilometers out-of-town to their site, where they have 10 telescopes permanently erected. Our tour guide was Canadian , Les, and he explained and showed us many different constellations, stars and planets. We could then use each of the telescopes to do our own Star Gazing and the most amazing for us was the Moon and the Rings of Saturn. To round off our great evening , we were treated to steamy mugs of hot chocolate inside with a Question and Answer session. Les really knew his stuff!