Trekking the Atacama Desert v.1: Exploring Chile

Valle de la Muerte

Gearing Up & Getting to the Atacama Desert

We did something different this trip. Instead of leaving the second we got out of work on Friday, we left on Saturday instead. With all the craziness in my life recently, I needed the extra time to pack and chill. Was nice, but also cuts our vaca to the Atacama Desert down a day.

Caught an Uber to the airport and Jeff told me after we’d been dropped off that the driver had a gun, a holster, and a tactical vest in the trunk. This is after he rated the driver a 5. Maybe the guy was a security guard or something, but please Uber drivers: remove all weaponry from your vehicle before giving people rides! …Should I even need to say that?

Found a hair in my beer over pre-flight libations. Gross. Still drank it. (This one definitely doesn’t make the list of “Drinks Around the World.” Yuck.)


Miami Airport = The Worst

Flight to Miami was uneventful, which is a good thing in airport speak. When we got to Miami, however, we learned we had to walk from Concourse D to Concourse J since they don’t have a sky train or shuttle. Like… what? Just add it to the reasons I hate Miami airport. And no, there were no letters missing from the “concourse alphabet.” It didn’t suddenly jump to T, the usual international concourse letter (because it’s Miami); we had to walk D, E, F, G, H… You get the idea. Just sad I wasn’t wearing my FitBit. The Atacama Desert better be cool.

You also have to check out of security to access the other concourses. And go back through TSA. God help me. Security was running extra slow. So slow, in fact, that the entire Australian Paralympics wheelchair tennis team made it through screening plus bag (and wheelchair) checks before Jeff alone finished his bag check. Was pretty cool running into them, though. They were on their way to Rio to compete.

Chilean Alps

Our overnight flight to Santiago was pretty sweet, actually. We had extra leg room, I mostly slept, it went pretty quickly for an eight hour flight, and they fed us well. Still traveling into tomorrow’s post, but it’s official: We. Have. Arrived.

San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing

The Santiago airport was really nice. We only had an hour and a half layover and had to get our bags, get through customs, and recheck our bags for Calama to the Atacama Desert. But that was a minor oversight.

I asked the accessible-friendly customs counter if we could shimmy through real quick since the regular customs line was ridiculous, as usual. They asked if I was pregnant to qualify for expedition. Lol. I almost thought about just saying “yes,” but didn’t want to start my trip out by lying to a foreign government. They let us through, anyway, when I told them we only had twenty minutes to make our next flight. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, folks! Fortunately, we got a special “running late” sticker on our tickets to expedite us through the rest of check-in.

Santiago to Calama in northern Chile was only a two-hour flight. Flew right over the Chilean Andes, which was a special treat. The Calama airport was small and clean, though it bore the staple stray dogs outside. They looked well fed and not too mangy. We found our ride to San Pedro de Atacama with relative ease.

The Way To San Pedro de Atacama

Eleven of us were packed in this little van to San Pedro, the major town in the Atacama Desert. Two rows of four and myself, Jeff, and the driver up front. I spent an hour fifteen stuffed between the two of them with the stick shift stuck in my leg, but it really wasn’t so bad. A slew of bad American eighties tunes played on the radio.

The landscape was just as you might imagine—sand for miles, mountains in the distance. We passed memorial after memorial on the side of the road. The sites are much more elaborate in Chile than in the U.S. They build entire monuments around the crosses, and even have spirit houses. The driver almost seemed to periodically nod off swerving ever so slightly onto the shoulder, which made me a little nervous considering.

All was fairly quiet a half hour in when suddenly a pack of Starbursts was shoved into my face from behind. A fellow passenger was offering them out to everyone. We all introduced ourselves and talked about where we were from—the US, France, Brazil.

The driver began telling us about the landscape, but because it was in Spanish, we were only able to pick up some of the more obvious statements. He stopped for a photo opp at the Valley of the Moon, just outside town. Lots of colorful, geologic features. We’ll be doing a sunset tour of it later in our trip and should get to know even more about it.

San Pedro’s Main Street

We arrived in town and were dropped off at our hotel. Beautiful desert resort. Room wasn’t ready yet. Grabbed lunch and hitched a quick shuttle into town to sign up for a stargazing tour that night. The shuttle dropped us off a couple blocks from Main Street and the altitude was quickly evident to me.

San Pedro only sits at around 7,000 feet (no higher than some places we’d stayed in Yellowstone, like Sylvan Pass), but some of the tours we’ll be doing go up to around 13,000. I was quickly out of breath, felt ever so slightly light-headed, and even a little loopy. Fortunately, I booked the high elevation tours a couple days in to allow for acclimatization. Good thinking ahead because all the vendors recommended two nights in town to take certain tours. Should you ever visit the Atacama Desert, there are definitely a few things you should know ahead of time—the altitude is one of them.

Atacama Desert San Pedro resort

The town is made up of adobe home after adobe home and tiny dirt roads intertwine them all. Hostels were abound and travelers packed the streets.

Nomad Travelers & Lots of Sand

These particular travelers are a very different breed of people than what I’ve encountered before. They all seemed to be friendly, engaged adventurers in search of something. From all over the world, too. I’m not quite sure how to describe it.

We’ve met many friendly nomads in our journeys, but this just feels different. Maybe it’s because San Pedro is not exactly in the direct line of your typical tourist path. These folks are serious adventurers, and look to be forever on the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the minority only staying a few days. There definitely aren’t many Americans around.

Booked our tour and grabbed some drinks. Started the walk back to our shuttle pick-up point, shielding ourselves from gusts of sand. If there’s one thing you can say about the Atacama Desert, it’s that there’s sand everywhere. And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. I mean that it gets into every pore and every crevice in your body. It’s in your ears, up your nose, and all over your clothes. People smarter than us were wearing face scarves “downtown.”

An Atacama Desert Oasis

When we got back to the hotel, we ran into an older American couple who exclaimed they thought they were the only Americans in San Pedro. As luck would have it, their daughter lives in the town over from us and works… at UMUC. Yes, the university I just left after ten years the Friday prior. Small world indeed.

Checked into our room and took a quick nap before our nighttime tour. Our bathroom has both an indoor and an outdoor shower and is all glass. We’ve got a patio out back that looks over the desert and, in the near distance, the mountains. Our suite is the last of the last and furthest away from the main hotel area.

Never fear: our trusty bellhop, Andreas, drove us down the stone walkway in a golf cart at top speeds, laughing hysterically at himself, I guess. It was pretty funny, but I think Andreas almost launched Jeff from the cart more than once.

Had dinner and my first pisco sour. Pretty good, if I do say so myself, but it is a lot of alcohol. Hitched back into town for stargazing where we had to walk those couple of blocks to Main Street in the dark. A little sketch and a random girl suddenly walking past us almost gave me a heart attack, but we survived. Main Street is happening after hours! It was surprising for a Sunday night. Almost makes me wish we’d’ve stayed in a hostel downtown.

Stargazing in the Desert

After perusing a few stores and grabbing a quick coffee, we jumped on our tour bus. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, second only to Antarctica, and is home to the largest observatory in the world. Unfortunately, it isn’t open to the public. To counter that, however, Atacama is also home to the largest public observatory in [at least] South America, which also happens to house the largest public telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Yep, that’s where we went.

It was frigid temperatures by ten o’clock in the desert, but the Milky Way was visible with the naked eye, something we’d only seen once before in New Zealand. We stood outside for two hours learning about astronomy, pointing out “falling stars” (as they say here), and viewing space in seven different telescopes, several of which required ladders to access. Among other things, we viewed a nebula, the remnants of a supernova, a double star, Alpha Centauri, another galaxy, Mars, and my personal favorite, Saturn (rings!). The evening finished off with a Q&A in an astronomy house over hot chocolate.

Got dropped off at our hotel and started the long walk back to our suite. We were almost there when the husband suddenly got really light-headed and stumbled a few steps before it went away. Good thing he recovered without passing out, because I could not drag him the rest of the way to our room. Physically impossible. I assume it’s just the altitude playing games with us.

Long, long day. 23 hours of travel, plus the stargazing tour, which went until 1 a.m. I struggled to fall asleep, while Jeff snoozed away effortlessly next to me. Tomorrow, we sleep in and visit Valley of the Moon and Valley of Death over sunset.

The Atacama Desert’s Valley of the Moon & Valley of Death

It was great sleeping in! Sleeping in, as in, 8. It took me a while to fall asleep and, when I finally did, I was freezing cold. I was happy to see the sun shining on our deck. Grabbed some brekkie and spent the morning chillin. Showered in the glass indoor/outdoor shower.

Every part of me feels dry. My lips are dry, my skin is dry, and my sinuses are dry. I spent a good part of the morning sneezing and getting a ridiculous amount of dust out of my nose. I’m trying to drink as much water as possible for the big day tomorrow at crazy elevations. Dry lips are a sign of dehydration… which is a side effect of high altitudes. Two nights’ acclimatization needed for the Altiplano!

En Español: Valle de la Luna

We decided on a tour of Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte for the day. Our first stop was Luna, and we were a little surprised to learn that we’d be doing a lot of hiking in the desert. (They did not mention this in the tour description!)

Valle de la Luna in Atacama Desert

Valle de la Luna is filled with desert rock formations and the salty earth literally makes everything glisten in the sun. We ended up hiking a cave system that I can only imagine is similar to The Narrows in the Grand Canyon. It was so dark, we had to use our phone flashlights to navigate and some portions of the cave were so narrow, you had to take your backpack off to make it through.

Did I mention the space wasn’t exactly upright? Yes, we had to scoot and bend every imaginable way horizontally, all while watching your head. One of those hikes so challenging you’re paying more attention to securing sound footing than you are to your surroundings. And many of the outdoor portions were steep scrambles up loose rock. Our guide, Juan Pablo (seriously) seemed hell bent on traversing the terrain as fast as humanly possible. It was all gorgeous, regardless.

Las Tres Marias & Duna Mayor

Our second stop was Las Tres Marias, some random rock formations in the heart of the San Pedro salt flats. Looks like three women praying… sort of. We passed a group of girls biking and one of them had just taken what looked to be a pretty nasty tumble. We stopped, of course. Can you imagine? As though a raspberry isn’t bad enough, you literally just skinned your knees and elbows in a salt flat. It’s the very definition of adding salt to a wound! And the salt here is not fine and soft, either. It’s large, solid crystals. Whole rocks of it. She was fine. Maybe a touch rattled. We passed her on the return trip, back at it.

Duna Mayor in Atacama Desert

We moved on to the Duna Mayor, the largest dune in the valley. Only portions of it were particularly steep, but you’re literally hiking in dry sand the whole time. Not an easy task. I emptied I dunno how much sand out of my shoes after. Made for great photos!

En Español: Valle de la Muerte

Our last stop was Valle de la Muerte, where we got to catch the sunset. The valley turns a dark red, the salt floor actually looked blue, and the mountains in the distance were a deep violet. It was pretty incredible. You could see all the surrounding volcanoes, including one that was actively smoking. I’ll have to check the map at our hotel to figure out which it was.

Returned to the hotel where we had a drink each and a random meat and cheese platter. I say random, because we were deciding what to do about dinner, when a girl who seemed to be staying by herself dropped this platter at the bar and offered it to us since it was too much for one person. We devoured it. It was definitely too much for one person.

Tomorrow’s the big day! Elevations of over 13,000 feet and peaks over 16,000. Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert boasts some of the highest elevations in the Western Hemisphere, and we will be making the trek. Altitude sickness is the real deal, though. Your only option is to turn around and head back down, I’ve read. Lots of water, no drinking, no smoking, acclimatization, etc., etc. We probably shouldn’t have had drinks at dinner, but… we’re on vacation.

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