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Getting Wet in the Driest Place on Earth, The Atacama Desert, Chile

February 22, 2018

We were not washed away in the torrential rains during the night in the driest place on Earth. However, we still did not have power in our hotel room. We learned at breakfast from the manager that two years ago, during a one inch rainfall,  the road in front of the hotel flooded one meter. He told us that in the event of flooding that we could get on the roof of the hotel. At least we now had a plan.

Because of the weather we were getting a late start. We made our way to the town center to find out which sites were open for the day. We found that the entire town was without power. We visited with the tourism office and were given a list of the few things that were open. All of the areas were close to town. We were glad to have visited the area we did the day before because now they were now closed due to snow and ice. 

The north east area of Los Flamencos National Reserve was still closed so we would not be able to visit the geysers, hot springs, or petroglyphs.  We were happy to see that San Pedro’s largest attraction, Valle de Luna, was open, as was the archeological site of Pukor de Quitor.

Two young German girls were in line ahead of us and were getting the same briefing. They had arrived in town during the night and were also caught off guard by the weather. I told them where we were going and asked if they would like to join us. It would save them the cost of a tour. They happily accepted.

We made our way to our truck and the girls told us that they lived near Germany's famous castles. They had just finished their studies and have visited all of the places in South America that we have yet to visit. They have been to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Their plans were to head north to Peru and then they were to fly to Cuba before they made their way home. 

Like us, they realized that South America is so vast that it is impossible to visit everything planned, even with a lot of time. 

It was a short ten minute drive to the entrance to Valle de Luna. We each paid the 3,000 pesos entrance fee and piled back in the truck. Immediately upon entering the park, we were treated to beautiful and dramatic landscapes that were carved out of sand and salt.

Many of the formations and dunes were sculpted by the elements over millions of years. I regretted that I did not bring my hiking poles, as many of the sites included short hikes and climbs over rocks and boulders. I was thankful that Ol let me use his shoulder as a hiking pole and helped me down some steep steps and pulled me up in a few places.

Our first stop was a Salt cavern. It was stunning. We had fun taking photos of the girls and hearing the laughter as we watched each other contorting our bodies to make it through the tight spots. I had to get creative so that I didn’t have to crawl in order to save my knees.  

Again, I was thankful that we could experience the attraction at own pace when I heard tour guides shouting to their passengers to hurry.

Our next site was a rather long walk up a sandy trail to a beautiful ridge. The views were stunning. Unfortunately, dark clouds were quickly moving in. Lightning was just off in the distance and the winds were picking up.

When I heard crashing thunder I had had enough of the view no matter how beautiful it was. Ol and the girls wanted to walk the length of the ridge and I headed back down. I don’t know why everyone thinks that Ol is the more sensible one of us.

Just as I was headed down, I met a tour guide with a group of Australians. He gave his group five minutes to go up the ridge. He told them not to walk the ridge where Ol and the girls were headed. I took the opportunity to visit with him and he told me how dangerous the lightening is in the dessert.  

He asked if I  was part of a tour. When I told him we were in our own car, he suggested that we hurry. If we headed to the end of the park and visited the attractions in reverse we would probably see everything before the park closes due to the weather. They park officials close the park from the back to the front.

I called out to Ol and did a theatrical wave for him to come down. He just waved back. It was pointless, he was like a little kid, he was not coming down. I decided to head back to the car as it looked like the rain was getting closer. 

After about thirty minutes Ol and the girls returned to the car sweating and laughing. They had run all the way down. I told them what the guide said as I started to drive to the end of the park. 

We were too late. Two park rangers had already closed the road. We would not be able to visit one of the beautiful salt caverns. We hopped out of the car and quickly took pictures of the "Three Maria's", a unique rock formation.

Just as I was getting ready to take a picture, I saw a very large lightening bolt go across the length of the sky. The thunder was deafening. A light rain started to fall and we all ran back to the truck.

We drove back toward the sites that we had passed.  Surprisingly, the weather cleared up just as quickly as it rolled in. This time I decided to climb the ridge for the stunning views.

The park was about to close as we took our last photos. The light was spectacular on the cliffs as we made our way back to the entrance of the park. 

We asked the girls if they wanted to go to another site or to go back to town. They were hungry and wanted to get something to eat. We said our goodbyes and promised to call them when we visited Germany. They promised us a tour of the castle in their town.

Ol and I headed to an archeological site that was only a ten minute drive from town. Just as we pulled up the ranger told us that they were closing for the day. Everything would hopefully open back up at 8 a.m., weather permitting.

We headed back to town, parked, and made our way to a nice restaurant. It wasn’t quite open yet, but the 6:00 p.m. rain started and they seated us anyway. We ordered a bottle of wine and looked at the photos we had taken that day. 

Despite the weather we had an amazing day. Dinner was great too. We both had raviolis stuffed with king crab. We were surprised that it was better than any of the crab dishes that we had in Chile’s port towns.

We made our way back to our hotel. Just as we were getting ready for our showers, the hotel lost power. With no power we had no water. We took our electronics to the kitchen to be charged as it was operated on solar power.  We went back to our bedroom where we listened to the rain on the tin roof. 

We decided to spend the evening making plans for our next destination. Our original plan was to take a three day, two night tour to Uyuni, Bolivia to see the famous salt flats.  We were advised that with the recent rains it might be better to cross the border into Bolivia from Iquique, a city further north on the coast of Chile. The trip to Uyuni would have to wait.

I pulled up google and looked at flight and bus schedules. This was going to be a challenge. I hated to go north just to back track again. I got excited when I pulled up my Bolivia Unesco World Heritage sites. I saw that Oruro, Bolivia was just across the border from Iquique and it’s Carnival was one of the most famous festivals in all of Latin America. We had a new plan.

The next day we awoke again to no power. No shower. My delightful pricey boutique hotel was not quite working out as planned. After breakfast we followed our usual routine of heading into the tourist office to see what was open.

One of our chores for the day was to get $320 USD to pay our visa fee for Bolivia. We already had our Visa paperwork. We had gotten it stamped at the Bolivian embassy in Quito, Ecuador. The Bolivian government requires that US citizens pay in US cash at the border. In order to do this we had to get Pesos from a bank machine and then find a money changer with new US bills. The border won’t take worn currency. Unfortunately, the town was once again without power and the town's three ATM’s were all shut down.

We decided to head out for sightseeing. We decided to visit a few of the salt lagoons and then in the afternoon visit the Valle de Marte (Valley of Mars) and the few archeological sites that were open.

We we a little disappointed with Lago Cejar. I had envisioned us floating in the beautiful azure salt lake under the warm desert sun. When we arrived, the admission price was 18,000 CP or $60 US. All I could see were three small murky ponds surrounded by grass. The sand wasn’t even pretty. There were no flamingoes or birds. After a short visit, we decided to pass and head to the next lagoon. The 18,000 CP we saved would go towards a really nice bottle of wine!

We drove twenty minutes further south to Laguna Tebenquiche in the middle of the Salar de Atacama. I was getting excited as the reviews that I had read said that this was supposed to be beautiful. Tebenquiche is the lake where many pink flamingoes nest. Hopefully, we would finally see a sea of flamingoes!

We drove through the washed out dirt road. Tractors were busy at work fixing the areas that had been damaged during the storms over the past few days. We came across two large deep water holes in the middle of the salt flats. The water was dark green and there were reeds surrounding the pools. 

Tourists were busy taking pictures, I thought for sure that Ol would stop to take a picture. He didn’t. I think that Patagonia has ruined him.

We could see the large salt lake from a distance. It was a beautiful white with clear teal water. It was large and the trail around the lake was nicely maintained. It was beautiful and I was grateful for the lone flamingo feasting on crustaceans. One is better than nothing.

We walked around the lake, took a few photos and were on our way. There were a lot of sites that we had to see on our last day, and today the rains were supposed to start earlier.

We had a decision to make. Should we continue forty-five minutes south to Laguna Chaxa (another gorgeous lake) or head back to town and visit the archeological sites?  Though there were no signs we decided to try to find the lake. We went back out to Highway 23 and headed south. 

Because of the lack of signage we had to guess at the turn off to the lake.  We guessed wrong and ended up overshooting our destination. We turned around, found the right exit, and drove fifteen minutes down the dirt road, only to find that it was closed.  We had lost an hour, but we were not disappointed because we were surrounded by such beauty.

We decided to drive to Valle de Marte. Along the way we saw tour buses pulling into Coyote mirador, so we decided to follow suit. We paid our 3,000 pesos and were treated to the same view that can be seen for free by pulling off the highway.  

We finally found the entrance to Valle de Marte. We had not seen any literature or brochure for this site, so we didn’t really know what we were going to see despite paying 6,000 pesos (USD $10).

As soon as we drove through the narrow canyon entrance we were treated to unusual sand and salt formations. The view was beautiful. With red sand and mountains surrounding us, it did seem as though we were on Mars.

The highlight of the drive was the large sand dune in the middle of the canyon. At it’s base was a little shop with sand boards (snow boards) for rent. We looked up at the top of the dune and could see people ready to come down. We pulled over for about thirty minutes and watched a few talented sand boarders and some obvious novices. There were some brilliant wipeouts.

Ol had been driving all day so I gave him a break. I was driving and got stuck in the soft sand about half way up the steep ascent. That meant that I had to go back down in reverse, in slippery sand, with a little cliff on my side. I begged Ol to switch drivers but he said that I could do it. I so rocked it!

We were making great time. It was around 4:00 p.m. and we should be able to see two more sites. We headed toward Pukara de Quitor, the site of a famous battle between the indigenous population and the Spanish. We also wanted to see the petroglyphs of Quebrada.

We found the road marked with a sign to Pukara de Quitor and could see the pre-Inca fortification up on the cliff. We spent the next thirty minutes trying to find the entrance. When we finally found it, we were driving down a narrow one lane road with a few vehicles in front of us. Then, traffic stalled. 

Ol got out and there were cars and buses coming from the other direction. One group would have to back up. Even though there was no cliff involved I refused to drive in reverse down a windy road. Ol took over the driving and backed down the road we had just driven.

We decided that a one lane road to a major tourist attraction, with no one directing traffic did not deserve our patronage. We decided to call it a day and head back into town. We still needed to get enough pesos to exchange for dollars for our border crossing. Hopefully the power in town would be restored.

We parked and walked into town. The good news was that the power was on, the bad news was that only one cash machine in the entire town was working. We made our way to the machine. 

When we saw the long line, I just sighed and took my place in the back of the queue. I sent Ol to go scope out the exchange rates at the various exchange offices. He returned confident that he had found the best rate.

After about thirty minutes we were close to the front of the line. I was calculating pesos to dollars and figuring out how much we would need. I was worried that there would be a limit on how much cash we could get out. We have found that many of the cash machines in Chile haver small limits. Ol had his calculator out and was double checking my math. Soon, we were out of the street and inside the room with the cash machine. Two people ahead of us.

Just as the guy in front of us typed in his PIN, the machine broke. It began to flash a message that it was "out of order." There was an audible moan from the line behind us that stretched down the street. I just looked at the machine in disbelief.

Ol and I walked out and decided to go get a pizza. We stopped across the street at the money changer to ask if getting money during the weekend would be a problem at the bus station. He assured us that we wouldn’t have any problem in Iquique. 

Just as we walked out the door, we could see the line forming at the cash machine. The machine was working again! I jumped back in line. There were only fifteen people ahead of me this time. After a short wait, we were able to get our pesos. We then walked to the money changer Ol originally talked to. Apparently, they did not understand him. The rate was quite different. Luckily, we met a couple in need of exchanging dollars for pesos. We now had our cash!

We ordered pizza to celebrate, but not before the rain started. We ended up running back to our truck and made our way back to our hotel. We settled in and started working on our blog, within a few hours the power was out again! Why did I not jump in the shower when we first got back to the room? 

We both laughed. Ol went to plug everything into the kitchen and I curled up with my kindle. We had a big day tomorrow, we would finally leave Chile, we were going to one of the best Carnivals in the world!

 

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