Atacama: The Driest Place on Earth

We were excited to arrive in Santiago.  After spending nearly 3 months in Argentina, we were ready for a change.  Although we’re not big fans of large metropolises, Santiago promised warm weather and a break for our budget.  Argentina is a beautiful country, but the accelerated inflation rate over the past few years meant it came with a high price tag.  That, and with its landmass, we spent many long days and nights on buses to get from place to place.  Our average bus ride length in Argentina was 14 hours, with the longest being 32 hours.

In Santiago, our first task was to eradicate the bed bugs Dale caught in Uspallata.  This meant a complete clean out of our luggage and clothing.  Whether it was dirty or not, every garment, except what we were wearing, went to the lavanderia (laundry) with a request for high temperature washing.  In addition, we examined all the seams in our bags, the spines of our books, and inside our electronics.  We were determined not to carry hitchhikers any further.  Several hours of scouring our belongings gave us confidence we were bug free.  Santiago’s cool night meant staying inside(we had to wear shorts),  and ordering in the best pizza so far in South America.  Finally – a vegetarian pizza that didn’t come with meat on it!  Side note:  three times in Argentina we ordered vegetarian pizza that arrived to our table loaded with ham, even though it wasn’t in the list of included toppings.

Our second day in the city was time to explore.  Staying in Barrio Brasil, we walked the 45 minutes to Bellavista in order to get to the peak of San Cristobal.  The city was busy.  School kids gathered in the squares and business people rushed down the sidewalks with their elbows wide, alongside a road jammed with buses, taxis and traffic police.  It was quite a change from small town Argentina.   In spite of the chaotic mess, locals still took the time to smile at us, and with exceeding friendliness, twice asked us if we needed help finding something.   With a little help we found our way and dropped 2000 pesos each (about $4) for the return funicular trip cutting through Metropolitan Park to get to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. 

At our first viewpoint, we were a bit taken back.  Santiago is nestled in a valley of Andean peaks; however we couldn’t see one mountain.   The smog in the city was so thick, that beyond the first few hundred meters, visibility was almost completely lost.  Sad really, the city had such potential.  We descended, feeling very different about what we thought was a beautifully clean cosmopolitan during our walk on the city streets.   We did find a cure for our somber mood.  Sushi!   It had been a long time since I’d eaten fish, and we hadn’t had or even seen sushi anywhere since our time in Rio.  Not only was it cheap, it melted in our mouths.  We revisited the same tiny eatery 3 times during our brief stay in the city.

There are mountains in the backdrop, you’ll just have to take my word for it… though they are only visible about 3 days a year when the smog lifts enough

Our second day free of new bites passed, setting our minds at ease that we had been successful in wiping out the bed bugs.  So far, Chile was scoring high points.  We were already fans after our experience in Torres del Paine and in the face of smog and busy streets, Santiago didn’t change that.  Jaded by the warm weather and the ability to wear shorts for the first time in 3 ½ months without freezing, it may even have elevated its scorecard.

My craving to see the ocean again lead us a couple of hours north to Vina del Mar.   Much smaller than Santiago, with less than 300,000 inhabitants, we were expecting something a little quieter, but that wasn’t the case.  Again, busy streets.  This time, they were loaded with vendors selling everything from socks to batteries and cell phones while minibuses whizzed by with a head out the window yelling the destination of the bus to pedestrians.  In addition to be by the ocean, we travelled to Vina as a base to visit sister-city Valparaiso and to get a couple of days practice in with a teacher.

Vina del Mar, 100m from the beach. Note the “street art”

We had two very fortunate happenings during our stay – the ability to eat amazing sushi every night during our stay and the opportunity to meet authorized Ashtanga teacher, Andres Wormull.  I hadn’t practiced with a teacher since my last trip to Thailand in October of 2011, over 7 months ago.  It’s always a humbling experience when you meet a great teacher who forces you to stop and pay attention to the details.   Andres did that for me.  It was a good ego-check and opportunity to grow.  I was also blessed to have Andres formally initiate me into the practice of Veda Adhyayana, the meditative discipline of mantra recitation.  I have been introduced to many chants throughout my yoga study, some from my initial teacher training which have become a part of my regular practice.  But what Andres taught me was very special.  He has spent much time in India studying this practice with orthodox Brahmins and has been granted the authority to initiate students into the practice.  The initiation ritual was unique and private.  Along with teaching me proper intonation, pronunciation and history of mantra, Andres adorned me with a large seed from India, thought to have healing properties, coated in ashes from the temple in Tiruvannamalai.  I thank Andres for the traditional and authentic experience, and for my mantra. I left the shala that morning (after nearly 5 hours), feeling light and free.  It was a much needed check-in that still has me smiling.

Our first attempt to visit the old hills of Valparaiso led us on a bit of a while goose chase.  Not having been to the city before and ignorant to what we were looking for, we failed to exit our bus at the right spot.  Once we discovered we were passed our stop, the bus continued along the coast, then made a sharp hairpin turn into steep streets lined with less than desired housing.   Not knowing if the area was safe to wander, we just stayed on the bus.  After nearly an hour, we ended up at the local jail and nearby bus depot.  Not good.  We caught the next bus down to sea level, and after another hour, we had seen almost the entire city – except of course the cultural gems of Cerro Concepcion and Alegre.  Tired and hungry, we decided to catch the next bus back to Vina del Mar and try again the next day.

Our next venture was successful!  Although we couldn’t find the right ascensor (elevator/ funicular) to take us up to Concepcion, we found the peak on foot.  This area captured my attention immediately.  Steep staircases and narrow cobblestone alleyways, tagged in an amusing collection of street art by the residents make the tiny homes that cling to the side of the hill a palate of colour and intrigue.  It would be easy to cover the small area in a brisk, hilly, hour walk, but not without missing the most fascinating part.  Time is better spent in a slow meander through the maze of narrow streets, allowing time to admire the talents of those who have expressed themselves in a variety of styles on every wall, building and staircase.  We took the afternoon and did just that.  Finally we found the location of the ascensor for our ride down and that steep little train was the cherry on the top of our day in Valpo.

Some of the street art in Valpo


We continued up the coast to La Serena where we found home in one of the best hostels in South America.  Hostal El Arbol  (The Tree House), was conveniently located 10 minutes from the bus station and 10 minutes from the biggest supermarket we’d seen since leaving Canada.  Our 4 am arrival forced us to hang out at a nearby gas station drinking coffee and playing cards until we were sure someone would be awake to let us in.   Blending the convenience of the supermarket and outfitting of the kitchen, I made some mean meals.  The best was the 5lbs of fresh mussels we chowed down for a mere $3.

We did take one tour from La Serena, to the nearby magical Elqui Valley.   The tour sucked (your typical stop at souvenir stalls selling stuff you don’t want to buy), but the area was incredible.  The valley has its own microclimate, surrounded by high geomagnetic mountains that have 300 sunny days per year, making it a must see for visitors.  The main crop grown here is grapes, and though they could make excellent wine, this area has been designated as the countries “pisco”producing region.  Besides the magnificent landscape, the highlight of the day was our lunch at the solar restaurant near Vicuna.

Elqui Valley

The next day, we continued to head north along the coast to break up the long journey towards our crossing into Bolivia.  We used up a couple of days in the coastal towns of Caldera and Bahia Inglesa before over-nighting to the high altitude Atacama Desert.

Caldera beachfront

Some areas of the 100,000km2 Atacama Desert have never recorded a speck of rain, officially making it the driest place in the world.  San Pedro de Atacama, our base in the area, is a small oasis that has attracted settlement for agriculture for over a thousand years.  The areas hay day was thought to be somewhere between 400-100 B.C., a thousand years before the Incas.   The Andes sit within sight to the east, the towering Licancabur Volcano, that dwarfs the many other surrounding volcanoes, looks down on the town as if to have control over it, the stunning Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is only a few kilometers away and the night sky glows like a dawn light as it showcases the milky way and the clear stars of the southern hemisphere.   

On our arrival in San Pedro, instantly Dale related the mud wall construction of the town to Afghanistan compounds.  Those structures could be viewed as ugly or beautiful, depending on your perspective.  I had nothing to compare it to; I had never seen anything like it.   Though the area was beautiful, and my tour of the Valley of the Moon was breathtaking, within a few hours our bodies displayed a little resistance to the climate and geography.  The first night was the worst.  Not only were we overtaken by the nights chill, as the temperature plummeted from the mid thirties to just above zero, sleeping in a concrete room with no heat and an outdoor toilet, but we were also 2400m above sea level.    Neither of us suffered from altitude sickness, per se, but, we we weren’t our normal energetic selves.  At different times we experienced lack of appetite due to the altitude’s slowing affect on our digestion. The combination of elevation and dry air made mild headaches something we just got used to.   It took us three days to acclimatize, which gave us time to organize our even higher altitude trip across the dessert into Bolivia.

Rock and mud walls – San Pedro

Valle De la Luna – dried lake



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