Our next stop, San Pedro De Atacama was a hot, dusty and unfriendly town in the desert of Northern Chile.
As we headed north from Talca on our bus, I was a little sad to be leaving the greenness of the Maipa Valley and push once again into the desert, 'cause it has to be said, I hate deserts.It is not because I associate them with some of the grimmer places I have served, I just think they are ugly.For those that have not experienced desert, my experience in Morocco, The Oman, UAE, Egypt, Iraq, and now Argentina and Chile, has taught me that the beauty of rolling sand dunes and palm filled oasis is not the norm.Deserts are more like slag heaps.Great big hot, dirty, slag heaps.I acknowledge that deserts can provide some incredible geography, spectacular sunsets and unique landscapes, but just not enough.The majority of the desert I have experienced is grey or dirty brown and bear the scares of every piece of activitythat has occurred for many many years.It is strewn with boulders and bits of dry scrub, and if it is within 100 miles of any kind of civilisation (town, village or road) it is always covered in plastic bags, old bottles and discarded tyres, and will remain so until the rubbish biodegrades in 10,000 years or so.So you can see that the 12 hours we spent driving through the desert to get to San Pedro where not the highlight of my trip to date.
The attraction of San Pedro is not the town, (which has little going for it and seems to be inhabited by people who are more than happy to take our money, as long as they do not have to be civil in return), but the natural attractions around it.In many ways it is like a French ski resort; it would not exist without tourism, it is very expensive and the service ethos is very amateur.Immediately we realised that it attracts every kind of visitor.There are the intrepid outdoorsy types, head to foot in the latest gear from North Face and Burghaus, determinedly setting out to find the remotest part of the desert, the steepest mountain and the most challenging bike ride.There are the local tourists who are even more horrified by the prices than we are, but can at least be abused in their first language.There are bus loads of American pensioners, complete with desert gear, huge cameras, name badges and hopefully onboard oxygen and defibrillators.Of course they are the gap year crowd, who are full of enthusiasm but sometimes look like they would rather be back at home with Mum and Dad.What there are also lots of are frigging hippy travellers.Young men and women in their late twenties and early thirties, who probably started out having a gap year and have never gone home.They are easily spotted.They have dreadlocks, ridiculous facial hair (the girls express this aspect of their rebellion through their armpits) and clothes that should be confined to fancy dress parties (tie died everything, hemp bags, ethnic hats and woollen products from Peru and Bolivia.They are also skint, which is fine in itself but it does mean that they can only eat the cheapest food and have little money to waste on hygiene products.In other words, they have bad skin and they smell.What would there mothers think if they could see them.………..At times like this I must acknowledge that I am yet to relax completely.
We stayed in a small hostel called Hostal Eden Atacameno which had only two things going for it - they answered our email and had a room on offer (this marked them out from the other 10 we contacted).Other than that it was terrible.It costs more than twice as much as places of a better standard further south, the staff were at best disinterested and the shower shifted so randomly and quickly from scalding hot to freezing cold it was almost un-usable.The fact that both hot and cold tap kept falling off didn't help matters. At least there are no hippies in our room.
We did go on a couple of great excursions.One of the highlights in the area is the Valle De La Lune, which is other worldly (like being on the moon for example - J).Our guide was just about perfect - a very bright, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and charming drop-out.He was in his mid forties and had spent his entire life in education, studying for PhDs he did not complete ('I decided I wanted experience more than a piece of paper') or being a guide.He was a fascinating man who took us off the beaten track.Whilst other tours where following each other on the valley bottom, we were climbing onto the ridge, which whilst tiring meant that we got the opportunity to charge down a most amazing sand dune.We also got to scrabble around incredible rock formations, largely formed in salt rocks and like a scene from Mars.At the end of the day we joined hundreds of others high on a ridge above the desert, looking down on salt lakes, sand dunes and a huge semi-circular rock known as the Amphitheatre and watched the setting sun turn the snow on the Andespink, orange and purple.
However, nothing is perfect and we shared this trip with the family from hell.Mom made Sarah Palin look liberal, Dad obviously worked out and whilst, somehow, 3 of the four children seemed ok, Malachi (the youngest) was the spawn of the devil.I am not good with names but I will not forget this little sods. Shouts of 'Malachi!' were the background track to the whole day as the snot faced toe rag ran about throwing stones off cliffsat those below, ruined virgin sand and generally whinged and whined whilst Mom and Dad made token efforts to control him.We also had to endure a French couple who were very much in love but really ought to have got a room.
The following day at 0400 (i.e. too bloody early) we set out to the Geyser de Tatio which are the highest Geysers in the worldThey sit at 4,300m asl on a plateau in the Andes, ringed by snowy peaks.The reason that the tours go up so early is to ensure that there is a large contrast between the steam coming from the geysers and the air temperature (about 2oC at that time) and it is really worth it.As dawn broke the scene was a little like a battle field obscured by smoke.They are not the most impressive Geysers in the world, but they do cover a huge area and I think it is worth the pain of the early morning.They also feature a hot water pond that the stupid can venture into.The stupid part is that it involves getting changed in the open in 2oC, before jumping in and after enjoying the warm water, getting out wet back into the cold.I don't think I stopped shivering for 4 hours.
The following day I got to swim in a salt lake for the first time, which was a great experience.I normally do not float very well, (though as muscle turns to fat I am getting better) so being able to lie on my back with both my arms and legs in the air was a weird feeling.Jodie was with me but she is an old sweat, having been to the Red Sea and also being a world class floater.
I think that the highlight of the trip was today's (20/01) visit to Termas De Puritama, which is a series of pools and waterfalls in a river fed by a warm water spring.It is 34km out into the desert from San Pedro and sits in one of those rare green canyons.The water is about 35oC, fast flowing in places and crystal clear.Tours do visit there and all arrive at 9 and leave at 1.We discovered that a taxi cost only a little more than a tour (an d would have been less if there were 4 in it), so armed with wine, beer and snacks we arrived at about 12.30 as everyone else was packing up to leave.We had the pick of the pools and for a while had the whole place to ourselves, which we certainly made the most of.We also had a lovely taxi driver, who slept in the car park whilst we where there.He was also a fan of Minis and proudly showed us every mini in the town.One was his and in need of TLC, and the other his friends, but used to be his.Not quite enough for a club yet.
We are now on a bus again, on our way to La Serena where we catch another bus to The Elqui Valley, which is where the national drink, Pisco, is made.