SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

A quick stop at a customs office just outside San Pedro de Atacama and we were now officially back in Chile.  I’m not entirely sure at what moment we officially left Argentina (no signs) but the scenery on the drive from Salta was beautiful.  At our highest point we reached close to 4000m before descending back down the mountain range and arriving in San Pedro de Atacama where we were still at 2,438m above sea level.
Atacama_002Atacama_015Atacama_014As we walked the dusty streets of San Pedro de Atacama the air was dry and it took a moment to catch our breath.  The Atacama Desert is considered the most arid desert in the world and we guzzled down water like it was going out of fashion.  The whole town blends in to its vast surroundings – white and sand-coloured buildings line the streets with roofs made of clay and hay.  Stepping inside the storefronts it is quite the contrast with various textiles and souvenirs of the brightest colours filling the buildings.Atacama_088Atacama_093Atacama_091We had a 4:00am start on our second morning with a visit to Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world at 4320m above sea level.  With temperatures below zero at dawn, you can see the flow of vapor from the geysers, reaching as high as 10 metres!  We had been warned of how cold it could be and dressed accordingly – I had 3 pairs of pants and about 5 layers on top however as we stepped out of the bus and began walking around the geysers we were all still frozen to the bone!Atacama_019Atacama_024We huddled around the geysers, watching them bubble away and catching just a little relief from the cold as the warm vapors sizzled out.  As the sun rose it began to get warmer and we continued exploring the geyser field.  At one stage, we decided to jump for a photo only to realize that exerting that kind of energy at over 4000m above sea level makes you all kinds of dizzy and we definitely didn’t try that again!  With the darkness fading it was time for breakfast and we enjoyed hard boiled eggs and coffee – heated straight from the geysers!  At first no one was eating their eggs, rather using them as a device to thaw out their frozen fingers.Atacama_034Atacama_040Atacama_052Atacama_042Atacama_047Atacama_057We braved the cold and stripped down to our bathers for a quick swim in a geyser fed pool before continuing to Machuca, a small, almost uninhabited town located near the geysers.   We had a quick look around and tried some llama kebabs which were surprisingly quite tasty!  The town is close to a small wetland area where families of flamingoes, ducks and seagulls live, as well as the odd llama or two who always manage to entertain me (yes, from eating them to watching them)!Atacama_067Atacama_063Atacama_076Atacama_075Atacama_083The Atacama region being a desert, has next to no rainfall (or clouds) making it great conditions for stargazing.  We went on a night trip to an observatory located out from the town where our guide showed us various constellations in the sky with his incredibly strong (and illegal) laser.  After our introduction to the millions of objects in the sky, we were left with time to view various points through a number of different telescopes.  We took photos of the moon through one telescope and through another we could see Saturn which looked amazing with its rings (I tried to get a photo of that but it wasn’t as easy)!Atacama_185Atacama_186Atacama_188Finishing off our time in the Atacama Desert we took a half day trip to another “Valle de la Luna” (Valley of the Moon).  The various rock formations date back up to 22 million years and with the absence of any animals or vegetation, it really does feel like you are on another planet.  Atacama_098Atacama_105Atacama_129Atacama_131We continued through the valley, stopping to look at rock formations such as the Three Marias and the Dinosaur head (our favourite).  We walked past the Amphitheatre rock formation before climbing a hill to watch the rocks change colours as the sun set.  Atacama_144Atacama_142Atacama_149Atacama_152Atacama_171Atacama_184We really enjoyed the little town, it’s like no town we’d ever seen before.  Not necessarily pretty, but unique – especially when compared to the many colonial cities we had visited so far.Atacama_086

You can see more photos from San Pedro de Atacama here.

SAN JUAN & VALLE DE LA LUNA

We arrived in San Juan, three hours north of Mendoza and walked the quiet streets to San Juan Hostel our base so we could spend a day exploring Parque Provincial Ischigualasto – also known as the Valley de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).  We researched available tours but upon meeting two other travellers at our hostel – Doerthe and Federico from Uruguay, the four of us decided to hire a car and drive there together the next day.

With our small map in hand and instructions from our hostel owners we set off on the 4-hour (325km) journey to Valle de la Luna.  About 40 minutes in to our trip, when we should have been arriving at our first landmark it became apparent that perhaps we weren’t heading in the right direction.  Argentinians do not really care for directional signs so we continued, waiting for some indication of the direction we were heading.  After what seemed like forever waiting for another road sign, our suspicions were confirmed and we had to turn around.  Luckily we hadn’t missed our turn by too far and we were soon back on the right course.

Valle de la Luna_006Our first stop was to Vallecito, home of the shrine of ‘Difunta Correa’.  The legend behind the shrine is that in the 1840s a lady named Deolinda Correa walked the deserts of San Juan searching for her husband’s battalion carrying food, water and their baby son but when her supplies ran out, she died of thirst, hunger and exhaustion.  Apparently when passerbys found her however, the infant was still feeding from the dead women’s breast and this was celebrated as a miracle.  The shrine is considered the location where she died and since the 1940’s has grown from a simple cross to a small village, with its own gas station, school, post office, police station and church.  There are also two hotels, as well as a number of restaurants, souvenir shops and an office for the non-profit organisation in charge of the site.  Valle de la Luna_019Valle de la Luna_014Throughout Argentina there are roadside shrines with her image along with plastic bottles of water left to quench her thirst.  Devotees leave gifts at various chapels in exchange for supernatural favours and the shrine continues to grow as belief in her miraculous powers becomes more widespread.  It was Easter Thursday and over the Easter long weekend they were expecting up to 200,000 pilgrims to descend on the site. Valle de la Luna_009Valle de la Luna_021We continued on, passing small villages and enjoying the various landscapes along the way.  There was one section of road that was highly entertaining – straight as far as the eye could see but wavy throughout, like a really hectic rollercoaster!  We dipped down and back up, feeling our stomachs move along with the car – it was absolutely bizarre to have such a road out in the middle of a flat desert!  Federico sipped his mate (pronounced mar-tay rather than “mate”) and Will and I were invited to try it for the first time.  Valle de la Luna_029Mate is almost like a religion for Argentines (and like Federico, many Uruguayans as well).  Yerba mate is a dried leaf, a relative of holly that is put into a mate gourd (I can only think to describe it as a mug but they are traditionally made out of pumpkins), mixed with hot water and drank similar to herbal tea but using a bombilla (silver straw with a filter at the end) to sip it.  Everywhere you go in Argentina you will be surrounded by Argentines drinking Mate, sharing it amongst family members, friends and even co-workers.  When the mate gourd is filled and passed to you, you must sip through the bombilla until all of the liquid is gone.  Argentina is the world’s largest producer and consumer of Mate, consuming an average of 5kg per person each year.  Most Argentines will carry a thermos with hot water, a mate gourd, a bombilla and a bag of yerba mate and they will continually fill their mate gourd throughout the day.  Restaurants, gas stations, basically anywhere you go will have hot water available so that you can fill your thermos.  Valle de la Luna_027Valle de la Luna_033We arrived at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and joined a convoy of cars that were all to be escorted by a ranger to drive through the park.  The park takes its name from an old word meaning ‘land without life’ and as we drove through the park it was easy to see why it had been called so.  The park is full of different rock formations along with dinosaur remains, with some fossils dating back to the Triassic Period (180 milion years old).Valle de la Luna_051Valle de la Luna_067Valle de la Luna_065Valle de la Luna_074We drove along, stopping at various rock formations and thankfully having Federico to act as our translator as the guide only spoke Spanish.  He could have told us anything and we would have probably believed him!  At times you really did feel like you could have been exploring the surface of the moon and we all agreed it would be the perfect place to film the next sci-fi blockbuster.  Continuing through the park it was amazing how quickly the landscapes would change and the contrasts throughout.  One minute we were “on the moon” driving past crater-like valleys and rock formations such as Cancha de Bochas (the ball court) and then as we continued, large red rock walls and cactuses surrounded us and it was like the scenery from a western film. Valle de la Luna_077Valle de la Luna_081Valle de la Lunax_010Valle de la Luna_108Valle de la Luna_104We stopped at “El Submarino” rock formation before the official tour finished at “El Hongo”.  The ranger left us with some time to continue driving on our own, taking in the landscape and having a bit of fun with our cameras.  As we drove out of the park, a small fox stood near the side of the road seeing us off (and quite frankly just scaring me) and not long after we were on our way back to San Juan.  Valle de la Luna_113Valle de la Luna_112Valle de la Luna_133Valle de la Luna_138Valle de la Luna_151On our return trip, we all had our moments of doubt as to whether we were heading in the right direction as everything seemed to look different and once again we struggled to find any signs.  It was funny because I think we were all thinking the same thing yet no one said anything and we waited nervously for an indication we were in fact on the right path.  Luckily this time we were and as we continued we watched as hundreds of Argentines walked and rode along the side path to Vallecito and the shrine of Difunta Correa – the Easter pilgrimage had begun.

Valle de la Luna_156