¡Hola a todos!
My journey north aboard the Pachamama bus was another fantastic experience. My fellow travellers were, once again, an interesting, friendly and varied bunch. Alas, my driver and guide could not match Yerson and Juan Andres - they rarely drank with us and obtaining information concerning places, peoples, history was unnecessarily difficult. Once again, I was disappointed with the rapid, at times rushed, nature of the tour, with only one and occasionally two nights spent at each destination. Furthermore, each day was long, with much driving and only a few sights to break up the hours on the road. Nevertheless, the tour was a great way to experience Chile beyond what I might have managed on my own. Ironically, travelling so quickly was beneficial in providing such a sharp contrast between the various locations along the route: in the space of under two weeks, I moved from the green, leafy, rather wet south of the country, complete with snow-capped volcanoes and large, tranquil lakes to the arid, barren north and the Atacama Desert where some meteorological stations have not registered any rain in the past fifty years!
As previously, the rushed nature of the bus is to be reflected in my writings. The first day brought the opportunity to break from the group and head one hour east of our first destination, to an observatory that Pachamama normally visits on the ninth day of the northern loop. As I was due to leave the bus in the north, at the end of day six, I was allowed the option of visiting the observatory on the first evening, as the two destinations are so close to one another. I jumped at the chance to indulge in some star-gazing and by a happy coincidence, hooked up with the Pachamama group returning from the north, led by my old friend Yerson. He was as chatty and informative as ever and the observatory experience itself was superb. We visited the day before the new moon, so the sky was almost completely clear of light pollution. The Milky Way could be seen with the naked eye and I have never before seen so many stars - it really was very humbling to imagine that ever single pin p****of light was a star, perhaps like our Sun, perhaps different, where there might be countless planetary bodies in constant orbit, where there might exist a world not dissimilar to our own, complete with beings who might also look above, to the heavens, look upon similar pin p**** of light and wonder. The universe it such a vast space and looking upon so many stars, such musings suddenly seem completely realistic, tangible.
Our first stop took us to a small room dedicated to Nicolas Copernicus, the first man to propose a solar system, whereby the planets - including Earth - orbited the Sun rather than all objects orbiting Earth itself. This room included some of Copernicus' writings in the original Latin, which provided me with some amusement. We then headed to the observatory tower and a telescope that is controlled electronically: one merely inputs coordinates into a computer and the telescope then fixes upon those coordinates in the sky, making for very easy, accurate settings. On this occasion, the telescope was fixed upon Saturn, which was viewable complete with rings - we were even able to take photos through the telescopic lens but, alas, my camera did not quite capture the planet's full glory. Afterwards, we headed outside to a smaller, manual telescope, where we viewed the Southern Cross, Scorpio, Libra and Virgo, both open and closed nebulae and some giant stars including Arcturus, roughly one hundred times the size of our Sun. I particularly liked seeking out Scorpio, as I find it quite easy to locate. The Southern Cross was also very interesting, being the closest parallel to our North or Pole Star in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere has no single star directly above the South Pole; indeed, the closest parallel is to take the Southern Cross - which is very easy to locate - and draw a line from the top of the cross to the bottom, then continue in a straight line past this lower star two and a half times the length of the cross from top to bottom and then plunge straight down to the horizon. This indicates the South Pole and has been used by sea-farers in the southern hemisphere for centuries. Our evening concluded with a short interactive presentation detailing the inevitable outcome for our solar system, once our Sun expands and then shrinks at its life's end. We also saw the size of super-massive stars in comparison to our Sun, with some up to one hundred times more massive - again, a rather humbling experience! All-in-all, the evening was yet another brilliant moment in my travels to date.
The next day I rendezvoused with my group and we headed to a camp-site on the coast, in a town of approximately five hundred people. We stayed here for two nights, relaxing; I completed a crossword (thanks Mum!), got to know my travelling companions a little better and made good use of the excellent play-area. The evenings brought with them opportunities to barbeque and build enormous bonfires that scared our guide into issued threats such as "if you burn anything - i.e. camping huts - then you pay for them"! It was during my first night in one such hut that I was bitten twice on my face by what I assumed was a mosquito. Alas, no mosquito bite ever itched or throbbed quite like these and I became quite convinced that I had been bitten by a spider. Chile is home to only two deadly spiders but, needless to say, it did not take very long for me to convince myself further that my bites were actually those of the Black Widow or Rincon. Happily, I remain living and breathing two weeks later with little more to complain of than terrible altitude sickness, so I assume that all is well.
We continued our journey north into the Atacama Desert, where sights became increasingly bizarre: a personal highlight was seeing a sofa, just a sofa, besides the road, miles from any form of civilization - I could quite easily have been looking at an old album cover for Pink Floyd! We also visited a long-abandoned cemetery that houses those who used to work in the salt mines that have subsequently closed in this area. The cemetery was poorly kept; winds had eroded the sandy floor with the result that some bodies previously buried were now once more open to the elements, an enormously sobering and horrifyingly surprising sight. We visited Baquedano, a small town near the Bolivian border that played host to the James Bond 'Quantum of Solace' film-crew when they shot scenes purporting to be in Bolivia (presumably Chile is a safer location to base such an enterprise) - I even walked over the railway tracks that the Bond girl walks over at the end of the film (no, I did not remember this bit either). It was here also that we saw a "train cemetery", where disused trains have remained for nearly fifty years, resisting the aging effects of the atmosphere due to the dryness of their surroundings - there was even an old turn-table! We lunched one day at an oasis in the middle of the desert - the town itself, ironically, seemed somewhat deserted, a feeling compounded by my exploration into the old town, long abandoned for reasons unknown. That same evening brought with it a trip to a flamingo sanctuary, supported by a network of salt pools containing small shrimp that these beautiful birds feed upon. Here we watched a glorious sunset, which heralded a mini migration of the flamingos from one feeding pool to another, taking them on a flight-path directly above our observation post, an incredible sight.
Eventually we arrived in our most northerly destination, San Pedro de Atacama, a small town very near the borders with Argentina and Bolivia and rather expensive due to its being a necessary stop-off for travellers commuting between these countries. I stayed here long enough to fulfil one final day aboard the bus, as we journeyed around the local area and visited Chile's 'Valley of the Moon'. It seems that most South American countries - certainly those with anything resembling a desert landscape - boast of scenery reminiscent to that of our nearest solar neighbour and then charge tourists for the privilege of viewing such strange sights. Despite my grumblings (please, do not take them seriously), the trip was brilliant and the rock formations especially well worth taking the time to visit - we were even able to scramble for a few hundred meters through caves, an event procuring much cursing from those of us without torches (I had left mine in my main bag back in San Pedro). The same day, earlier in the morning, some friends from the bus and I headed to a valley outside the town to indulge in sand-boarding, an increasingly popular sport, especially in places that have not the facilities or climate for more typical winter board-sports. I am told that sand-boarding is similar to, though much easier than, snow-boarding: certainly the basics were easy enough to grasp and I was soon zipping down a mound of sand at what seemed a fairly reasonable speed. The real skill came with learning to turn, an ability that eluded me for the entire two-hour lesson and led to copious sand-baths for just about everyone in the group. Still, I was quite happy with my progress and the experience was huge fun and provided much laughter for all.
After one final, lovely meal with the Pachamama group in San Pedro, we awoke the next day to go our separate ways; myself and four others to the border with Bolivia and a three-day salt flats tour in a 4x4 land-cruiser. This is certainly a blog entry in itself and so I shall sign off at this juncture.
¡Saludos a todos!