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The Driest Place on Earth, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

After two months in Chile we were headed to the last region of the county we had yet to visit, the northern region. We would visit the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert on Earth. After Torres del Paine and Easter Island it is the third most popular tourist destination in Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town set on an arid high plateau in the northeastern Andes mountains. It is known as Chile’s archeological region and is an import center of pre-Inca culture. It’s dramatic surrounding landscape incorporates desert, salt flats, volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs. Many travelers have told us that it is a destination that we have to visit because of the natural beauty, unique geography, and stunning scenery.

So, after our Carretera Austral road trip we made a brief stopover in Santiago. We quickly settled into our favorite neighborhood in Providencia, where we watched the Super Bowl and caught up on some of the Oscar contender movies. With three days of rest we were recharged and ready for a new adventure in San Pedro de Atacama. The adventure would begin with a twenty-three hour bus ride from Santiago to the town of Calama. I did a little research and discovered it would be best to rent a truck in Calama instead of taking pricey tours, which were little more than transportation to the sites in Atacama. Calama was just over an hour from San Pedro and was the nearest town with rental cars. This would also provide us with our own transportation while in San Pedro.

We decided to splurge on our accommodations as we would be heading to Bolivia next and would probably be roughing it for awhile. I booked a charming boutique hotel on the outskirts of San Pedro for four nights. The small hotel had eight rooms, a wonderful pool, a fire pit in the courtyard, and best of all, no light pollution from the town. This made it perfect for stargazing at night.

No place on Earth is better for stargazing than the Atacama desert. It is famous for the clearest night skies on Earth. The Alma observatory, the world’s largest astronomical project is located here. It is high, dry, and has no pollution. A stargazing tour with high powered telescopes would be the only tour we would try to sign up for.

The landscapes in the Atacama Desert are so unusual that they are compared to the Moon and Mars. Due to it’s extreme dryness, the Atacama is one of the most important environments on Earth for researchers who want to simulate the conditions of Mars. This desert is where NASA tests its Mars Rovers for drilling and detecting life.

There is geological evidence that extreme dry conditions have persisted in the Atacama Desert for over 15 million years. It is the oldest desert on earth and there are some areas that have not received rain in over 4,000 years.

Most of the sights around San Pedro are located in Los Flamencos National Reserve, one of Chile’s most diverse national parks. The park is just outside of town and contains the largest salt flats in Chile. The park is also home to three varieties of flamingoes, condors, and vicuna. And, maybe I would be able to knock off my list the one animal I had yet to see, the Puma!

Some of the highlights of the Atacama include floating in Laguna Cejar, which is just as salty as the dead sea, bathing in natural hot springs after visiting Geysers del Tatio. The geysers are some of the highest in the world, and at 13,780 feet (4,200 meters) they are the third largest with over 80 active geysers. Trips to the geysers leave at 4:00 am in order to capture the amazing images at sunrise.

While I was excited about the wildlife, Ol was excited about the images he could capture with his photography.

We picked up our rental truck at the Calama airport and began the 90 km drive to San Pedro de Atacama. No sooner were we out of the airport did we see two young hitchhikers with their thumbs out. Chile is famous for its hitchhiking and we have enjoyed meeting the young people that we have picked up.

These kids were the same age as our daughter and in their last semester at University. They were on their way to San Pedro to get a bus to the famous Unyni salt flats in Bolivia. Lucy had already visited San Pedro and was excited for us to see it.

The Calama area is famous for it’s mining. One of the largest copper mines in the world is located here and some of the largest lithium mines. The area is so rich in minerals that the desert is said to bring it’s visitors good energy.

As we approached San Pedro we saw the first mirador with a beautiful overlook of the moon valley. We pulled in for a few quick photos. The highway winds through a canyon, and its walls looked as though they were sculpted into a giant sea serpent or dragon. When we exited the canyon, we had a panoramic view of the plateau and the Andes mountain range. We were in the desert but surrounded by numerous snow capped volcanoes. The tops of the mountains were so high that they towered above the clouds.

The views that we experienced lived up to the hype. The only thing we were a little confused about, were the clouds. Where were the famous clear skies?

We drove into town, down dirt roads lined with decorative adobe walls. We said goodbye to our hitchhikers and set off to the town square to visit the tourist information office. The road was closed to cars and it was lined with travel agencies.

The town of San Pedro is small, about 12 square blocks. Only a few roads had paving stones, the rest were dirt and rocks. The square was anchored by a charming adobe church built in 1557 and made with cactus wood and llama leather. Tourists crowded the streets which were lined with little restaurants and shops.

The first building that we noticed was the tourist information office. I picked up a map and a brochure and waited in line. It was early afternoon and my plan was to visit at least one area a day. I had an itinerary which included all of the major sights and the best places to watch the sunrise and sunset.

The tourist official spoke perfect English but I couldn't comprehend what he was telling me. I had simply asked for a suggestion on where we should go for the afternoon. He kept telling me that the desert was closed. It didn't make sense! The desert was closed? How do you even close a desert?

“How can the desert be closed?” I asked. The official explained that we had just missed the flash flood alerts issued the day before. Ol and I looked at one another, both totally confused. How can the driest place on Earth be closed for flooding?

We were told to seek shelter for the afternoon because the rains would start again at 6 pm. He said that we could check back in the morning to see what might be open then.

We decided to get a bite to eat and then head to our hotel. Surely our hotel could tell us what was going on. Thankfully the GPS on our phone was working. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have found our hotel that was tucked away down an obscure street on the outskirts of town. Most things in San Pedro are located behind big adobe walls with large wooden gates. Street signs were sporadic, and even though we were just a few minutes out of town, the roads were confusing. I was just thankful that we had a car as these streets were long and extremely dirty with dust and mud.

When we pulled up to our hotel, we were not disappointed. A gentleman pulled open the gate and we parked in a gravel courtyard. It felt as though we were walking into a spa in Arizona or New Mexico. The gardens were colorful with succulents and herbs and the stone pathways led to a modern adobe building.

We were greeted by Natalia, given a tour of our house, and shown to our room. Our room was spacious and comfortable. There was also a living and dining area, outdoor sitting area, and a kitchen for our use. The patio led to a large courtyard with more covered dining and seating and a beautiful pool. It was even lovelier than the pictures.

After our tour of the place, Natalia sat down with us and gave us brochures and advice on what to see and do. She told us about the weather and said this has happened for the past few years. She said that the climate in this desert was changing. She told us that it will rain in the late afternoon, but we should be able to visit a few of the sights in the morning. She said that she would find out what was open in the morning and let us know at breakfast. She said that we should pay attention to the weather while we were here for our visit. Flash floods were dangerous in the desert and often resulted in many deaths.

Ol and I unpacked and looked out at the drizzling rain. Nothing that we read about the Atacama desert had ever mentioned a rainy season. I plopped down on the bed and googled "San Pedro de Atacama and flooding and rain." After viewing a few Youtube videos of past torrential flooding in this desert, I was having a mild panic attack.

Apparently, in an area that only gets a few millimeters of rain a year, one inch of rain is catastrophic. I knew that flash flooding happened annually in the deserts in the United States, but this was supposed to be the driest place on Earth.

Ol and I worked on the blog and went to bed early. We were determined to get an early start. Surely there would be places to visit tomorrow.

We awoke to partly cloudy skies and had a nice breakfast and headed out to the one area of Los Flamencos National Reserve that was open. The reserve has a total area of 73,986 hectacres, which are divided into 3 different sectors with diverse landscapes.

We would visit the Altiplanic lagoons of Miscanti and Miniques in the Highlands at over 12,000 feet. Even though it was cloudy we could still make out the towering volcanoes that dominated the landscape. The drive should take about an hour and a half but took longer because of our frequent stops to take pictures of the landscape, wild vicuna, donkeys, and llamas.

We drove through stark landscapes with rainbow mountains and desert sand that appeared in all shades of white, grey, black, and pink. The blue sky was stunning. I was glad that we had our truck as several parts of the roadway were flooded, but passable. Remnants of recent flooding were evident and I could see why areas were still closed.

It was a beautiful drive, even though we passed small impoverished villages. These towns appeared to be indigenous communities and after seeing the videos on the flash flooding from a few years ago I could see how these communities were still recovering. It was shocking to see villagers hauling water from a tap set up in the middle of town and homes that were just tin and cardboard. I silently said a prayer and thought of our experiences with natural disasters..

The drive slowly ascended in altitude and Ol and I both got headaches. Though we slept in San Pedro at 7,000 feet, our bodies were still adjusting to the high altitude. Most sights in the area were between 7,000 and 12,500 feet. We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn and stepped on to the Inca trail that ran through the area.

We made it up a narrow windy road which was partially washed out and visited two beautiful lagoons. We weren’t able to get close to the water, but could see a few pink flamingos and Andean geese. We were both out of breath walking the trails. We usually acclimate before we do high altitude hiking.

When we exited the park, we looked at a map that showed that we could continue south on Highway 23 and make a loop back to Socaire. I was glad that we were on our own schedule and had a car. The packed tour vans looked miserable. I told Ol that the route would take us past several more lakes and lagoons and we would be on the back side of the volcanos that we had just visited.

The park ranger assured us that the drive was beautiful and that we would love Salar El Laco. So off we went.

The highway was newly paved and fantastic. When we saw our first salt flat we pulled over. We could see wild vicuna and a few flamingoes. We decided to take a closer look and started to walk down to the lower lake. We were quickly yelled at by a tour guide and told that we could not get any closer.

Again, we were a little confused as the large park signs lining the highway had pictograms of hikers and tents on them. The roads were blocked off with large boulders, but we thought that we could hike for a closer view.

We finally found a tour guide who spoke English and he explained that these restrictions were recent changes. Apparently, the indigenous community and the park service have closed a lot of areas, but the signs have not changed.

The guide told us that the salt lakes were being used by kite surfers and they were harming the flamingoes who use the areas to nest.

We ended our drive when we arrived at a road barricade with two stop signs. Ol said that this was the border with Argentina. I didn't believe that this was the border. Ol and I ended up getting in a argument. We stopped, and after no one came out we honked, and then Ol got out and still couldn’t find anyone.

I told Ol to just drive through the roadblock. I argued that if it was a border, someone would be here. Ol wanted to turn around and go back. He told me that I could drive because he wasn't going to drive through an international border without permission. Just as I was about to say something that I probably would regret, an armed border agent came out. We apparently were interrupting lunch. Yes, this was the border to Argentina.

He told us that the road for the loop was closed. If we wanted to go down it, he would be responsible for rescuing us. We thanked him and turned around. It was probably for the best, because we had a few hours drive back and the skies were beginning to darken.

A few minutes later the rain started. It was light and sporadic. When we were thirty minute out of San Pedro, we were in a sand storm with lightening. By the time we made it back into town in was poring rain and hailing. So much for the driest place on Earth!

I remembered the YouTube videos and spent the rest of the night worrying about flash flooding. So much for my evenings itinerary of stargazing!

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