Sunday, January 29, 2017

Atacama!


So happy to finally be in San Pedro de Atacama. This will be our home base for the next 5 days as we explore the Atacama Desert. I have set very high expectations for this so I only hope I will not be disappointed.

Flash back to earlier today.  Our flight from Santiago did not leave until 12:15 so we had some time to kill.  It's Sunday morning so the streets around our neighborhood are deathly quiet.  We walked a few blocks to a park and then headed back to the apartment via a different route.  There was plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast before heading out.  Bro is very good at doing a thorough check of the premises before leaving.  The apartment door autolocks so once we're out, there's no going back!


I fired up Uber and surprisingly, our ride arrived in just a few minutes.  As we reached the outskirts of the airport, our driver Diego mentioned something to us in Spanish.  Even though Bro understood the words, he didn't quite get the meaning but  I eventually figured it out.  Diego was trying to tell us that Uber drivers are not allowed to drop off people at the airport so if we were asked, we would answer that Diego is our friend.  Once I explained this to Bro and he confirmed with Diego that I was supposing was correct, we all had a good chuckle over the matter.  Nobody likes Uber but everyone uses it!  We got checked it easily and headed straight to the departure lounge.  Yes, Bro brought his melon with him and yes,  there were no problems getting it past security.  In fact, we would board the plane with full water bottles!



We landed in Calama on time.  Calama is where the airport, that serves San Pedro de Atacama, is located.  There was a young woman, holding up a sign with my name on it, as we exited the arrival hall.  For our stay in Atacama, I had arranged for Bro and I to go on a series of guided tours from a company called denomades.com.  They are a local Chilean company and they have quite a few offerings on their website and they are all extremely reasonably priced.  I signed us up for their "Perfect Plan for 5 days" tour.   As part of the package, airport arrival and pickup is included.   

We exited the terminal to a picture perfect day.  The weather here is warm and dry.  I am already a happy camper having left the heat and humidity of Santiago behind!

Outside the airport terminal, our driver was waiting for us.  We followed him to the shuttle where there were already people on board.  There were a few more joining us and then we were off for the 90 minute ride to San Pedro de Atacama.


The first part of the drive was what I expected of the desert - flat and arid.


We did pass a windmill farm.  It's good to see that wind energy is being tapped.  I don't think the region has any access to hydroelectric power.


Bit by bit, the view of flat landscape began to change and I could see mountains.  As you can tell from the photos, I was seated in the middle.


Then.....a snow capped peak.


And more snow capped peaks. Quite a dramatic view against the brown of the desert floor and the clear blue sky.


As we neared this single peak, the driver called out its name - Licancabur, active volcanic peak..  Standing right behind it, in the photo below, is Juriques, a much older volcano. Even though it's not the tallest peak in the region, Licancabur is unequivocally the most well known mainly because it holds religious significance for the local Atacemeno people.


We were driving along the Ruta del Desierto which passes through the Cordillera de la Sal, a large salt flat.



I'm back using my Nikon today.  Unfortunately, I was still using my cracked filter lens which explains the odd dark blue ribbon that runs down the left side of the photos below.   I either have to switch out the filter or remember to rotate the filter to eliminate the crack.  Argh......!!!!

Anyway, back to the Cordillera de la Sal.  Our driver stopped at a viewpoint so we could get out and have a better look.  Millions of years ago, it was a salt lake that was pushed up by being squeezed between the Cordillera Domeyko on the west and the High Cordillera on the east. Folding and successive fractures led to a complex set of stratifications. Because of the high saline content of its soil the cordillera seems permanently dusted by snow.



It was a brief stop at Cordillera de la Sal and there were no more stops until we reached San Pedro de Atacama.  One by one passengers were dropped on.  When it came to us, we were dropped off right outside the gate of the hostal we are staying.  The gate was locked and no matter how much we knocked or called out, no one came by.  Since the hostal is located on a street corner we decided to see if the entrance was located on the other street and indeed it was!

Inside the small reception building, a crusty man got us checked in and handed us the key.  I don't think there are more than 10 rooms at the Hostal Lickana and aside from my brother and I, no one else seemed to be here.  Not complaining as hopefully that meant that the nights would be quiet and we could sleep comfortably.

We quickly settled in and then headed out to check out the town.  The main reason I picked the Hostal Lickana is for its location and I don't think I could've done much better.  The place itself is located less than a minute's walk from the small town's main street - Caracoles

Walking the street, I would describe the heart of San Pedro de Atacama as a dusty, tourist outpost town  The street is filled with shops, restaurants and tour agencies.  But I love the way that nothing here has been *fancified* to cater to tourists.  One of the passengers on the shuttle van had noted that the paved road ended the moment we entered the town. Indeed, few of the roads are paved and you don't see all that many cars around.  Shuttle vans, buses and bicycles, yes.  There are no buildings taller than one story and many seem to be constructed of adobe. I am sure there are five star accommodations but they are well disguised!  It's a very laid back, hippie kind of place and I love it here!         

The sun here is intense. I will be wearing my hat everyday and while I hate wearing sunscreen, I will have to be mindful to slather it on whenever I am not wearing long sleeves.

Downtown San Pedro de Atacama was like a ghost town.  Where is everyone I wondered but then I realized that everyone is probably out sightseeing - exactly what we'll be doing the next few days!

                                                

The main street we were on is Caracoles and if you walk it through town, you eventually reach the town's main square - Plaza de Armas.  That's where we ended up.


Flanking the small tree filled plaza is the town's main church - Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama.  In previous incarnations, the church's exterior facade was whitewashed but today, it is its natural adobe color.   The front door was closed so we'll have to enter another time - there will be plenty of opportunity to do so in the days to come.             


Also flanking Plaza de Armas is a very colorful handicrafts market - Feria Artesanal.  The market is housed inside what looks like space created by covering a narrow alleyway.  It was a nice respite to be in some shade!  None of the handicrafts interested me as they were mainly cheap souvenirs.



Instead, we were curious about the different herbal offerings for altitude sickness.  Bro came armed with Diamox but I came empty handed even though I know I am mildly susceptible to altitude sickness.  San Pedro de Atacama is situated at an elevation of 2,407 meters....just around 7,900 feet.  For most people, that's not high enough to cause sickness so both Bro and I were fine.  But tomorrow, when we visit the altiplanic lagoon region, we will be going much higher and so we were both concerned about getting sick, especially Bro as he's never really experienced prolonged travel in a high altitude region.

We passed over the dried leaves as we had no way to make tea and we also passed over anything that I had no clue if it was effective or not.  Having been to Peru, I was familiar with coca which is related to cocaine.  After chatting with a couple of the vendors, we settled on getting a small bag of coca candies.  I have no idea if they will be effective or not, especially for me but I figure better to have something than nothing.  Who knows, maybe the placebo effect of sucking on some candy will counter the headache and nausea that I know will befall me.

From Plaza de Armas, we walked back down Caracoles.  Funny how they named the street after the snail.  I don't think there are any snails in the desert.


It was time for an early dinner.  We kept our eyes out for places to eat and the vibrant colors of the O2 Salon de Te caught my eye.  The menu offered a very reasonably priced meals so we decided to pop in.   The back room, which offers al fresco seating, was filled so we ate in the front room.  Perfectly fine.


While we had not eaten much the entire day, we also hadn't done much to burn off calories so Bro and I were fine with sharing a meal.  The cafe offers a set menu of quiche, a salad and dessert.  We ordered the ham and spinach quiche - you get  a sizeable serving and I quite enjoyed it.  The salad was just cucumber and tomatoes.  Considering we're in the desert, I wasn't expecting much so this was fine.  Desert was a slice of apple pie.  That was okay.  We washed our meal down with Cokes which we both seem to only drink when we are traveling  :-)


From the front dining room at O2 Salon de Te, you can walk right into a small household goods store.  On the odd chance that they would carry the glue that I needed, we went and asked.  Lo and behold, they had a tube for sale!  I was so ecstatic, I had to buy it.  Hopefully,  it will work!

After dinner, we also went to a convenience store to buy bottled water.  Given we'll be here for a while, we walked out of the store with a gallon sized container as well as  2 liter bottle.  I'm counting on the tour company handing out bottles as well so hopefully this will last us a few days.  I hate the plastic but no choice :-(

By the time we were ready to head back to our hostal, the sun was beginning to set and incredibly, I think the air temperature had dropped 10 degrees.  It was the perfect time of day for a stroll.  Just before we reached the hostal, we came upon an ice cream shop that advertised artisanal offerings.  Of course, I had to check it out.  Indeed there were some interesting flavors to be had,  I was not in the mood for ice cream tonight so I will hold off.  Good news is that we have to walk past this place anytime we are walking to Caracoles :-)


Back in our room, it was time for a shower and laundry.  With the dry temperatures here, our clothes will dry in no time. Our night is not yet over.  At 9p, we have to be outside the front gate.  We have a stargazing tour to go on and I can't wait!!