I got an early flight from Santiago (06.45 in case you think i've forgotten what early is) to Calama - which is in the Atacama desert. From Calama airport it is a 90 minute drive through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama. The drive from Calama is pretty boring - it has to be said and it wasn't until i started exploring the area around San Pedro de Atacama that i started to appreciate the spectacular scenery (needless to say the drive back was amazing & i was totally absorbed in the colours, the rock formations, the views of the Andes...). Desert is desert - just sand & rocks & wind & emptiness - right? No - there really is more to it than that...
I am staying at the hotel Altiplanico - which is really nice - built in an adobe style around a large courtyard - www.altiplanico.com - but it is in Quitor rather than San Pedro itself. That's a bit like saying Bray instead of Maidenhead - except with a lot more sand & temperatures well into the 30's - it's very dry here, as you might imagine, as the Atacama desert is one of the driest regions in the world - in this area they usually get between 35 - 50mm of rain a year but the last few years have been drier than usual & they've not had that much. Above 2,800 metres (above sea level) the rainfall increases and you start seeing widespread vegetation - albeit sparse clumpy looking bushes called paja brava. There's also a bush called Pingo-Pingo :-) We did see a large area of cardon (cactus) - which are spooky looking things - and you might think well, cactus/desert - kind of obvious - but no! Step forward mankind who destroyed most of the cacti in Chile - chopping them down for fires & building material, etc. - now all species of cactus are protected in Chile and the once-thought-extinct cardon is making a comeback.... - there is also a cactus with the rather wicked name of "mother in law's pillow" :-)
In terms of wildlife i saw lots of Vicuna - the main way to tell the difference between Guanaco and Vicuna is that Guanaco have a lttle sticky-up tail & the Vicuna don't - also, Guanaco & Vicuna are wild whilst Alpaca & Llama are domesticated (in case you wondered) - and they are all members of the camel family - which explains why they can survive in such arid conditions... - also saw lots of Flamingo and various other birds such as Rhea - the big, Ostrich-sized ones, Andean Gulls, crested brown ducks, giant coots, Andean geese and Wilson's Phalarope - a curious bird of the Sandpiper family that swims round & round in circles - what it is doing is stirring up the mud to bring out tiny creatures that it then eats - intriguing to watch...
Some of the attractions around San Pedro are the Moon Valley and Valley of Death. The Moon Valley is a beautiful landscape - allegedly resembling the surface of the moon - there's a natural amphitheatre - some strange rock formations - 3 of which are called the Three Marias - and because this area is very salty - a disused salt mine. In the Valley of Death - originally called the Valley of Mars because of the red colour of the rocks - some new romantic (or marketing person) thought that Valley of Death sounded better - anyway, the landscape is beautiful with the different strata and rock formations. There's a lot of gypsum here - shame there's no water because this place could have rivalled Burton upon Trent.... - lovely though it is you don't get the colours you see in Death Valley in California. Another fabulous park to see in the USA is Bryce Canyon in Utah - where the wind & rain have eroded the red rocks into astonishing little figurine-like shapes that look for all the world like terracotta figures - you get a similar effect in the area around these two valleys in Atacama but not as intricate. Anyway, we stayed out in this area to see the sunset - the temperature starts to fall after sunset but it was still around 18 degrees by the time we got back to the hotel at 9pm - it obviously continues to fall away.....
We visited the town of Toconao - that has an old church which has an unusual feature - an image of God. Apparently it is very rare for God to be depicted in Catholic churches. It's a great shame that they got Gerry Anderson to do the artwork, however.... - anyway, near Toconao is the great Atacama salt flat and, in particular, Lake Chaxa where we saw the flamingoes - Chilean Flamingo; Andean Flamingo, (James' Flamingo was absent) Avocets and many others - you can tell i'm no ornithologist (sorry bird lovers!) - oh, and we also saw the sunset - which was lovely - our backdrop being the Andes & the lake surrounding us. The lakes & pools are quite shallow and, needless to say, the water is very salty - watching the flamingoes fly is intriguing and watching them come into land on the water was amazing - by this time (just after sunset) the wind had picked up so they were flying sideways - gauging their angles of trajectory with care - as indeed one should....
The name Atacama comes from Accathca - meaning "head of the country" in the language of the Ayllu de Quitor - the native farming people who settled here. They came under the Tiahunaro empire until around 900ad when that empire crumbled - and then they were ruled by the Inca from 1450 - then along came the Spanish in 1540 and anihilated them - it makes you wonder, doesn't it?
Near my hotel is the Pucara de Quitor - a fortress built by the Ayllu de Quitor - it has been restored - not fully but enough to get an idea of the scale & layout, etc. The fortress is about 1100 years old. The Ayllu were quite advanced in some ways - they built channels to irrigate fields and terraces to make the most of the steep slopes and poor soil. You can see various oases dotted around the area and the contrast between the lush vegetation of each oasis & the surrounding desert is stark. Without the irrigation the oases would shrink by about 80%....
We went to see the geysers at El Tatio (aren't they an Irish brand of crisps?) (actually that's Tayto - which i think is a great name) - the geysers are at 4,320 metres above sea level (San Pedro is at about 2,400) - i've never been this high without the aid of Boeing before - i got a little light headed (but not giddy, thankfully) (tee hee) as the air's a bit thin - but aside from that and the cold, i was fine - we arrived about 7am (oh yes, dear reader - a 3.30am start for this little jaunt) - so saw the sunrise and watched the geysers. The geysers stop around 9 to 9.30am as the sun warms up the area. There were 4 fields of geysers in Chile - one has already gone as the government siphons off the water for the copper mines and El Tatio - the biggest field & the big tourist attraction - will disappear sometime next year as the government needs to siphon off more water for the copper mines - a great shame that these intriguing geological features are disappearing....
The Andes is the second highest mountain range in the world, the youngest - and is growing at around 6cm a year. Chile has 20% of the world's volcanoes - several of which are active. The early tribes that settled here regarded the volcanoes as gods - giving them names and weaving stories around them - sweet, eh?
The Chilean government is building the world's largest radio telescope array (ALMA) near Chajnantor (at around 5,000m) - it is an international project with funding from the EU; the USA; Canada; Japan as well as Argentina & Brazil. With 300 clear nights a year you can see why they would site it here. It should be finished by 2013. Watch out aliens - we'll be Googling you soon - Alpha Centauri isn't as far away from our prying eyes as you might think...
Not far from San Pedro de Atacama is Aldear de Tulor - Tulor is an abandoned village dating back around 3,000 years. They have recreated two huts so that you can get an idea of how these people lived. One of the greatest archeological/anthropological mysteries is exactly what happened to the people that lived here. We know that the tribe was called the Aheya-eh. They were neolithic, and in common with other Atacaman peoples they worshipped the volcanoes - and scientists know that there was a great deal of volcanic activity around 3,000 years ago. From Tilor you have the Domeyko mountains to the west and the Andes to the right. The Andean volcanoes of Licancabur; Simbad; Lascar and Pili were held to be rivals of the volcano Llullaillaco in the Domeyko range (great name when you know that "ll" is pronounced "j" in Spanish). Anyway, after some research i have discovered what happened to the Aheya-eh and my findings have been received with great excitement by the Chilean government - so sit back, read-on and discover what happened to the Aheya-eh.
There was indeed intense volcanic activity around 3,000 years ago - Llullaillaco erupted over a fifteen-day period followed by a similar eruption from Licancabur. But - as the scientists & archeologists already know - it wasn't these eruptions that wiped out the Aheya-eh - the lava flows are too far away. What happened was this:
Elder 1: Brother - Llullaillaco is angry - we must appease him! What must we do?
Elder 2: Brother - the Shaman says we must hold a feast in his honour!
After the feast...
Elder 1: Brother - the feast failed to please the great god Llullaillaco! What must we do now?
Elder 2: Brother - the Shaman says we must kill the farmers - their maize was bad and displeased the great Llullaillaco!
Elder 1: But Brother, if we kill the farmers who will plant our crops and tend our fields?
Elder 2: Brother, we must not question the wrath of the gods or question the wisdom of our Shaman
Elder 1: Brother - we have killed all the farmers but still Llullaillaco is angry! What must we do?
Elder 2: It is true, Brother, the fire and brimstone do indeed continue and tell of the great wrath of Llullaillaco! The Shaman says we must have a great feast -
Elder 1: Sorry to interrupt, Brother, but we have already had a great feast and that did not appease the great god Llullaillaco!
Elder 2: That is correct, Brother, but the Shaman says that this feast must be the greatest feast ever and we must slaughter all our Llama - offer the blood to Llullaillaco and gorge ourselves on fine Llama steak!
The day after the greatest-ever feast:
Elder 1: Brother - the greatest feast ever was indeed the greatest feast i have ever been to - and, verily, i can hardly move for having partaken fully of fine Llama steak! But Llullaillaco is still angry - what must we do?
Elder 2: That is indeed so, Brother - and i noticed your enjoyment of the fine Llama steak - stuffing yourself in a most worshipful way, if i may add. The Shaman says, however, that the Llama - fine though they were to us mere neoliths - were not fit for the great god Llullaillaco! We must slaughter our hunters for they have displeased our god with their shoddy hunting!
Elder 1: But, Brother - who will hunt for food? Already our fields lie wasted...
Elder 2: Fear not, Brother - the Shaman says that the great god Llullaillaco will provide.
Elder 1: But, Brother - he promised us that last time. Are you sure our Shaman is all he is cracked up to be? He seems to be partaking hugely of hallucinogenic botanicals recently...
Elder 2: We must not question the great high Shaman - we must do as he says!
A few days later...
Elder 1: Brother - i am sorry i doubted our Shaman! Llullaillaco is calm and all is well. Albeit everyone's a bit hungry....
Elder 2: Brother - in life we must make sacrifice from time to time.
And then, calamity struck...
Elder 1: Brother - i see that the great god Licancabur is angry!
Elder 2: Brother - our Shaman says that in pleasing the great god Llullaillaco we have incurred the wrath of the greater god Licancabur. We must sacrifice all the maidens to appease him!
Elder 1: Brother, there seems to be much slaying. In the old days we feasted and that always worked. And was more fun, too. This slaying is unpleasant business!
Elder 2: Brother, what you say is true. However, the greater god Licancabur must be appeased as his wrath is a good 20% more wrathful than Llullaillaco. If we are to stand any chance of surviving we must kill our maidens!
Elder 1: Brother - i come to you covered in blood, sweat and tears. Our maidens - young and old, we took no chances - are all slaughtered but still Licancabur is angry! What does our great Shaman say?
Elder 2: Brother i cannot get much sense out of our Shaman for, verily, he is as high as the great Condor in the sky. That herbal remedy he takes is - he assures me - good stuff and a 100% pure. But i must say it turns him into a babbling fool....
Elder 1: Brother we must act! Licancabur gets more ferocious by the day! We must do something to appease him. Does our Shaman have anything remotely sensible to say?
Elder 2: Brother, he said something about suffer the little children - so i guess that means slaughter the children!
Elder 1: Licancabur is a cruel god!
Elder 2: Brother, wash thy mouth. We are but humble neoliths. Only our Shaman can interpret the ways of the gods - we must follow his instructions!
Elder 1: Brother, we have killed all the children and still Licancabur is wrathful. Surely his wrath is greater than 20% greater than the wrath of Llullaillaco? Surely he runs some kind of wrath promotion - one wrath free with every wrath incurred!
Elder 2: Brother, i have a plan. I say we kill the Shaman.
Elder 1: Amen to that, Brother.
At last the wrath of the greater god Licancabur abated and there was peace. The two elders met again:
Elder 1: Brother - the greater god Licancabur is restful and contented. Verily, slaying the Shaman was an smart move! However, Brother, i cannot help but notice that out of our once great tribe there is only you and me left!
Elder 2: Indeed, Brother - our goose (if we had any) would seem to be cooked and our fate sealed....
Elder 1: Oi vey.....