The last two weekends
The Atacama Desert
Chile has an incredibly diverse landscape – you have the desert and Andes mountain range to the north, the lakes, rivers, and volcanoes in the center, and the ice fields and Patagonia to the south. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to explore a lot of the central and south regions, but somewhere we definitely wanted to see was north in the Atacama Desert.
Our friends Pat and Erin had plans to visit us in Chile, and one of the places they also wanted to see was the Desert as well, so it worked out perfectly. So we met up with them the first weekend in April.
We met up with them in Santiago and headed to the airport together to catch a flight to Calama, the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama, the main destination and central hub of the Atacama Desert.
Based on the schedule, we had Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday – and we packed in as much as we could! It was a whirlwind weekend, but we saw some amazing desert landscapes. Here are some highlights!
Friday night we booked a stargazing tour with an adorable man who is very passionate about stars and astronomy. I learned something new about astronomy; locations that are along the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn are known to have some of the best conditions for observing the sky. And the Atacama Desert is located directly on the Tropic of Capricorn. Fun fact: another location is along the Tropic of Capricorn is near Sossusvlei in Namibia (where we got engaged)! I’m terrible with geography and didn’t realize they were the same latitude.
The tour was really thorough with a brief overview of the history of astronomy, some snacks and warm drinks, and observation/photography. Jorge took some really great photos and helped us set up our cameras to photograph the amazing view of the Milky Way.
The first stop Saturday was to the Altiplanic lagoons. The elevation was pretty high, so we could feel it when we were walking around. The Miscanti volcano was the backdrop of some great panoramic photos. It was interesting how chilly it was to start, but then how warm it became with the sun. The area itself dates back to 4000 B.C., which is crazy to think about. We enjoyed a nice breakfast while enjoying the scenery (including scrambled eggs and coffee)!
After we finished there, we drove past the sign for the Tropic of Capricorn and made a stop for photos.
Salar de Atacama / Flamingo Reserve
We then headed to the Atacama Salt Flats and Flamingo Reserve, where we were able to see a few last flamingos! There were some other birds that we were able to observe as well, and we learned about the biodynamics of the salt and water and how the flamingos survive. We also learned that flamingos were apparently around when the dinosaurs were? Yeah. I guess their evolution dates back to 30 million years ago.
We made our way back to the van and made a quick stop at a little town on the road back to San Pedro. Our guide showed us some traditional artisan pieces and some common flavors in the north. Erin and I got some artesanal ice cream (in quince flavor) and headed back to San Pedro. But not before we saw some adorable baby llamas.
To digress a bit; Pisco is a big drink here in Chile. They even have their own verb for drinking Pisco – “piscolear”. There is an ongoing war between Peru and Chile as to whose is better. So, Pisco Sours are a big thing here. What I found interesting is every area has their own twist on it based on local ingredients. In Patagonia, there is a berry there called calafate (and if you eat it, you are destined to come back to Patagonia). So they have a version called a Calafate Sour. The north has an herb called rica rica, so they have a Rica Rica Sour, and it is tasty as well; a little more earthy. I mean, they’re all tasty – let’s be real.
After grabbing some lunch in town, we departed on our afternoon tour to Moon Valley (or Valle de Luna). It’s an other-worldy-type place, it really looks like the moon. And we were lucky, because some evaporation took place and left white stripes of salt on the rocks, contrasting with the red sand and clay. We walked up the dunes to a lookout, and our awesome guide Javier talked about all the different minerals present in the rocks. Gypsum makes these cool horizontal stripes in the rocks. Mica was along the tops of the rocks and glittered like diamonds in the sun. It was a really neat place.
We walked around some of the salt mines and ended our time in Coyote lookout to watch the sun set. The sun caused the colors on the mountains to change from orange to pink to blue; it was really beautiful.
After sunset, we grabbed dinner in town and headed back to our Airbnb to make some s’mores by the firepit (bless you, Erin and Pat, for bringing the ingredients!).
Geisers de Tatio
It had been two days of go-go-go, and today called for a 5am pickup. Oy. BUT! Chile turned back their time one hour for fall, so we gained an hour of sleep. So we are actually on the same time zone as the East Coast, which is pretty crazy.
We made our way to the Geysers of Tatio bright and early, before the sun was up. It was a bit of a drive, but when we arrived, we could see the steam clouds rising from the ground. We also saw some vicuña, which are relatives of the llama and alpaca. There are four in the camel-like family; guanacos (in Patagonia), vicuña (in the North), llamas, and alpacas. Guanacos and vicuña cannot be domesticated, so they are only found in the wild. Apparenty vicuña wool is the second most expensive wool in the world, worth upwards of $800 USD a kilo.
We walked around the geysers a bit, but then the sun came out and made the landscape truly incredible. We just walked around and you’d just see silhouettes of people and the light peaking through the steam clouds. It was very, very cool.
There are over 50 of them across the desert landscape, and they are only viewable in the early morning, because of the cool temperature (hence the early wakeup). By the time we left, they were almost all gone. After we walked around the geysers, we met back at the van for another fantastic breakfast. We then hopped in the natural hot springs for 15 minutes, which is the highest elevation hot spring/lagoon in the world.
After the hot spring, we made our way to see some more tremendous panoramas with vicuña, water birds, and flamingos.
We drove back towards San Pedro and stopped at a small town for some empanadas.
San Pedro de Atacama
After the tour, we grabbed some lunch at a place that was known for their Rica Rica Sours. We walked around a bit; San Pedro reminded me a bit of Santa Fe with adobe buildings. But we were so wiped from the early morning starts, that we just needed to sit down somewhere for a bit. We found a little cafe, had some ice cream, and played Euchre until we needed to catch a bus to the airport.
The following 8 hours included some pretty brutal travel (and sleeping in airports) to get back to the Foundation on Monday. However, it was all worth it to see some incredible landscapes with some incredible friends!
Pucon (Well, not really.)
As for this past weekend, we had planned to go to Pucon again with Juan Manuel and Mily. However, I believe they weren’t feeling well so they backed out, but Sarah and I still had every intention to head there as we wanted to try out the whitewater rafting.
Come Saturday morning, we woke up and we were just exhausted. We tried a local workout class the day before and were sore from that. I basically looked at Sarah and suggested that we give ourselves a break this weekend and just stay in Temuco. We had previously prided ourselves in not spending a single Saturday night in Temuco, but I think this was long overdue.
We ended up relaxing most of the weekend, only leaving our apartment one time to stop by the Regional Museum (where the Chol Chol store is located), to actually tour the exhibits since we hadn’t done that yet. Other than that, we were hermits and just stayed in – Nick watching much of the Masters all weekend, but then us both doing some other weekend trip planning for in the future.
And of course, it was Game of Thrones premiere weekend, so we actually started binging on Season 1 all over again. All in all – it was a much needed weekend to recover prior to the final 2.5 months down here!