Part 2: The Atacama

Charlie and I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at sunset on a Tuesday night– 24 hours late, pero que importa, we finally made it to the Atacama desert!

As we walked from the bus station to the center of town, we noticed that the outskirts didn’t have any streetlights. Actually, to be more accurate, there were streetlights present, but none of them were turned on. Only the centermost streets with the restaurants and bars were lit; outside that four block radius, the town was completely dark. The sky felt so heavy over our heads– a black quilt draped over the quiet desert. We listened to the sand crunch under our feet, our breath quickened from the high altitude, and it felt very strange and special.

Even though the Atacama is allegedly the driest desert in the world, there had been an unusual amount of rain in February, so some of the excursions we wanted to go on (geysers!) weren’t possible. However, the next day, Wednesday, we took an afternoon trip to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a rock formation not far from town.

Valle de la Luna lives up to its name: it really is like stepping onto the cragged face of the moon.

It was pretty much like walking on the surface of Tatooine. There were jagged white salt formations and huge dunes made of gold and black sand:

We spent a couple of hours exploring the formations and walked up to the top of a mirador to enjoy the view.

The day had a beautiful end; we drove to the top of a mountain to watch the sun set on the desert.

The next day Charlie and I got up really early for an all-day excursion to see some salt flats. Again the terrain was cruel and strange, seemingly inhospitable to life…

Until we saw some gorgeous flamingoes!

Next we hopped into the tour van and found ourselves in a field of 400 llamas, where baby-talk ensued for the next 20 minutes.

After that we headed to some laguas cejas, or high-altitude lakes, in the hopes of swimming in the salty water. However, at 4,200 meters up (13,779 feet), it was way too cold to go swimming, even in the in the middle of a Chilean summer… in the desert.

After a fantastic day exploring the desert, the tour dropped us back in town around 3pm. We had a half day in front of us: what to do? We decided to rent bikes and ride toward the Pukara del Quitor, an ancient walled city used by the indigenous Atacameñas for 20 years to fight off invading Spaniards. The pukara was less than two miles outside of the city and the woman at the bike shop assured us that the path there was easy– what could go wrong?

We successfully rented our bikes and headed out onto the dirt path– only to find ourselves blocked by a surging river formed by the recent rainfalls in the desert. There didn’t seem to be any way to cross it without getting soaked, so we decided to head east and try to cross a road north of the river that we saw on the map.

We rode over bumpy and dusty terrain, groaning up the hills and wondering where the path would lead us when I finally saw a road going left and took it. Sure enough it led us right to the walled city, perfect! Except that, yet again, the river was between us and the Pukara. Damnit.

Charlie and I locked up our bikes and tried to find any way that would allow us to cross the river. We found an old wire crossing with a bucket seat that was out of order, but there didn’t seem to be any other way to get across. The Pukara was right there– and there were other bikers walking into it– where had we gone wrong?

We were about to give up when a man in a truck drove up and got out to make some adjustments to his truck; he was clearly planning to drive across the river. I looked at Charlie, put on my most pitiful face, and asked the man if we could throw our bikes in the back of the truck and cross the river with him. He smiled and said, “Of course!” and even helped us put our bikes in the back.  Then he opened the doors of the cab to let us sit inside– incredibly nice.

Fifteen seconds later we were across the damned river! We thanked the man profusely, unable to believe our luck. It was about 6pm, and we knew didn’t have much time before the Pukara was bound to close.

We ran inside and bought our tickets. The ranger informed us that we had 45 minutes to climb to the top– doable, but we had to hurry. Charlie and I jogged up the rock steps, taking time to admire the brick defense structures as we passed them.

Finally we reached the top of the Pukara and were rewarded a view of all of San Pedro de Atacama:

We slowly climbed down the Pukara, exhausted by the day’s efforts. We felt so lucky to have gotten to see it; it was the final adventure during two very full days in the Atacama desert.

We reached the bottom of the Pukara, unlocked our bikes, and then realized… How the heck were we going to get out of here? The river surged in front of us, blocking the trail that we had been unable to pass the first time. Where had all the other bikers come from? we wondered.

Then we came across three young travelers who were in the same situation as us– they had ridden up and down the river on their bikes, unable to get anywhere. We decided to stay together and take a dirt path into a field and see where it took us. Charlie and I followed the guys over thick mud and rocks, barbed wire fences… We got so far off any recognizable path that we encountered tiny houses in the middle of nowhere– houses with loud, aggressive dogs that scared the living hell out of us– but fortunately our companions were Spanish speakers and able to ask and understand directions better than either of us.

After half an hour of riding through the back woods of the Atacama we finally hit a major road, and I knew how to get back to town. We thanked the guys and sped off down the highway, letting momentum propel us off a large hill. Charlie and I were absolutely beat when we finally arrived in San Pedro, but we just grinned at each other– another unexpected adventure in the desert.

The next morning Charlie and I took a bus back to Jujuy and then later to Buenos Aires. I’m so grateful that he was able to join me for the last part of my trip– it was wonderful to share such a memorable adventure together, especially since he went back to the U.S. just a couple of weeks later.

Thanks for everything, my friend, I love you and miss you a lot!! xo

1 Comment

  1. Thank YOU for the invite! You are the best person to travel with–always up for an adventure, braving flood waters, flamingos, llamas, nose bleeds, and darkened streets.

    Miss you and look forward to reading about your latest adventures.

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