Day 29 San Pedro de Atacama
Today we're off to the driest (non-polar) region on earth, the Atacama desert in the north of the country. It has 2% humidity: my rucksack pocket with the socks in has more than that. On the flight Ruth observes that she is one of only three women on board, which seems oddly disproportionate.
We are picked up by a chap called Chris who drives us to our digs for the next few days. San Pedro, the town to the south of Atacama, sits 2,500 metres above sea level so we are warned about the effects of altitude sickness. "Your body does not process oxygen so well up here, as there is less of it. It has to work harder to do anything. I would suggest not drinking coffee (no!), eating red meat (no!) or drinking alcohol (noooo!) while you're here."
While I process this devastating news, he continues that a lot of the world's lithium comes from this region, and points to an enormous mine in the distance. That would explain the many single men on the plane.
The landscape is, as you might imagine, very dry and very vast. The road we're driving along cuts through in a line the Romans would have approved of. We see a jackknifed lorry along the way, and wonder just how he managed it on a road this straight.
Chris chatters away about the region. "It is a harsh environment. I wasn't wrinkled when I arrived here three years ago, now my face looks like this:" He raises his eyebrows to create a walnut on his forehead. Ruth and I make British sounds of disagreement.
We are dropped off at our hotel in San Pedro, which is a light, airy affair, built of adobe, the orange sandstone stuff which adorns everything here. We don't have long to enjoy it though because we are shortly picked up with a Danish couple to be shown the lunar valley. The Atacama boasts many things aside from lithium. Some of the clearest night sky in the world (and thus the immense radio telescope array ALMA), salt flats, geothermal pools of sulphur, smoking volcanoes and a landscape which looks like the surface of the moon.
It is this latter feature we are heading towards now with Maria our guide. We are dispatched into a scene which could easily have been a backdrop to Total Recall's latter scenes. That is aside from a moron walking all over a section of landscape preserved for millennia and clearly ring-fenced off, so he can take a photo. "How about I come to your country and walk all over your national monuments?" Barks Maria at him at a volume at odds with her small frame.
This aside, it is a tremendous setting. Great red sand dunes have drifted over rocks carved by the wind and the elements over millions of years. Some of the rocks have secreted salt crystals ("go on, lick it" urges Maria) giving the landscape a glittering lustre uncapturable by camera, though I try with commendable quantity.
Afterwards, we are driven through Death Valley over some decidedly lumpy terrain (in a suspensionless minibus), to set up shop overlooking the lunar valley for sunset. It is fairly busy with other tourists, but even their horizon-line of selfie sticks cannot distract from what is probably the most astonishing sky we have ever seen.
A landscape which already looks like the surface of the moon glows orange through Martian red, before fading out in a smokey purple dusk. Having exhausted about 18 camera cards, we trot back to Maria who has very patiently waited for us, and bless her heart, prepared some Pisco sours (sooo much more drinkable when it's not neat) and supper. After chewing her ear off, as everyone must every night, about how amazing it was, she drives us home.
Day 30 Salt and Archeology
We're up swiftly again (to avoid being out in the 37° midday sun, where it's too hot to do anything other than blink) to have a look at some nearby village ruins at a place called Tulor. They were discovered by an 18th century Belgian priest, whose impenetrable accent apparently led to some peculiar names in the region. These ruins are significant because they gave an insight into the way of life up here, at a time when the nearby river flowed more vigorously through the valley and made living in this vast dry pan slightly more achievable.
We are also taken to a hill fortress, called Pukara de Quitor where the local Chilean tribes repeatedly and violently repelled the Spanish invaders who tried to cross over from Bolivia. Our guide Carlos tells us, with undisguised satisfaction, how the heads of the invaders would be mounted at the walls as a warning to the next raiding party. They are both fascinating sights, and we are the only tourists around, granting us exclusive tramping of these pre-Columbian footsteps but after the magnificence of last night they are not quite as spectacular. We've been spoiled by our travelling.
Carlos points to a distinctive volcano on the horizon which apparently belongs to both Chile and Bolivia, but notes that you can't climb up the Chilean side because it's been heavily landmined, another gift from the Pinochet regime. We delicately ask what life was like here - Carlos would have been a boy in Santiago when Pinochet was ousted - and he says fairly finally, "There are three things we don't talk about around the dinner table; religion, football and the regime."
Carlos drops us in the middle of San Pedro and as part of our tour has paid for our lunch in a local cafe. "But if you want a beer, you have to pay." the ominous double-meaning of this hits me later. Sitting under a sun dappled bamboo roof, Ruth and I enjoy a Chilean salad in the fierce lunchtime heat. I courageously flout the 'no alcohol' advice given to us yesterday, reasoning intelligently that such temperatures cannot be properly enjoyed without a cold beer.
Afterwards, we walk the streets (and they just make it to plural) of San Pedro, which showcase a charming array of adobe handicraft shops, tour guides trying to get us on the lunar valley tour again, and more stray dogs gasping in the heat ("we call it San Perro de Atacama," Carlos said earlier). The early afternoon should be restful before another sunset tour this evening, but the altitude may have caught up with me, so it's anything but.
I am so used to having headaches in the heat, that the curdling guts catch me completely by surprise. I have drunk so much water to avoid being dehydrated, but my body rejects it in a distressingly vigorous manner.
It is somewhat weakened then, that we head on to Salar de Atacama, the third largest salt flat in the world, in early evening. Ruth is a little worse for wear as well, although with none of my gastro-gymnastics. Our guide whose name I didn't catch on the first, second or third attempts so will call Adam, (because he looks a lot like Adam Sandler) also has a bad cold, So we're quite the pasty triumverate heading towards the salt flats south of San Pedro.
The valley we're driving through is interesting geographically. I can't pretend that I take all of it in or am about to regurgitate it accurately, but the gist is: It is penned in by mountain ranges, Andes to the East, and the Cordillera de Domeyko to the West. Given the aforementioned altitude of 2,300m above sea level (a statistic that goes round and round in my head, while what's left of my lunch goes round and round in my guts), any rain that falls, however minimal, cannot drain away. The water slowly evaporates from the mineral-rich earth to leave vast flats of salt crystals.
It is, once again, a sight to behold. And as the sun goes down again, with flamingoes performing some aerial magic in front of volcanoes and the jagged white salt-scape, Ruth and I hug out our good fortune.
Day 31 El Tatio Geysers
We are up at 4:30am this morning to get to the El Tatio Geysers in time for sunrise. Neither of us are feeling particularly chipper given the hour and abdomen-emptying effects of the altitude. There is a ridiculously clear night sky above us though, which gives us oppurtunity to misidentify Southern constellations while we wait for Carlos.
He pulls up in a minibus and we bundle in with a German fellow called Axle whose wife is too poorly to accompany. "We're 90 minutes from the Geysers, so feel free to get some sleep while we drive there." Carlos encourages, without adding crucially that the road will be potholed to shit, so unless you're used to sleeping on a trampoline, don't bother. He also says rather ominously for Ruth and me that were going to be climbing another 2000 metres, "which is likely to amplify any effects of altitude you might be feeling." I spend the next 90 minutes picturing a brown flannel being wrung dry.
Inevitably, when we get to the summit with the light of the rising sun glowing around the mountain range, the setting is extraordinary. My appreciation for this marvellous place is ratcheted up again. We are technically on a decidedly active volcano, the subterranean temperature of which is forcing scalding, sulphurous water out of the ground from an array of vents around our feet, creating large billowing towers of steam.
Carlos points to a particularly large plume hissing away and says, "we call that one L'Assassino because every couple of years a tourist leans in too far taking a selfie and falls in."
"Do they drown?" I ask, aghast.
"No, they're fished out. It's usually the full body burns which kill them" replies Carlos in a 'tourists will be tourists' sort of way.
Talking of tourists, more are beginning to arrive, but even with their honking coaches and the -7°C temperature, it is utterly lovely. "The driver and I will prepare a small breakfast if you want to go in" says Carlos, indicating a faintly steaming geothermically heated pool.
It would be nice to be a bit warmer. A few minutes later I am paddling through the slimy, but agreeably warm pool which I have to myself (Axle is still getting changed, Ruth said there wasn't anything in the world that would compel her to get in) watching the sun emerge from behind the eastern peaks. What a place.
Of course, when I get out, the sub zero wind slaps into my exposed flesh like an icy sumo wrestler. By the time Ruth's helped change me back into my clothes, I'm shivering comically and my fingers have stopped doing anything I tell them.
"It makes you feel alive doesn't it?" Grins Axle cheerfully towelling off. I can't even mumble a reply. Fortunately, breakfast includes a cup of hot tea, which along with the already hot sun, slowly ebbs life back into my extremities before we're off again. As we drive away, the pool is crowded with other tourists."Real men get in before sunrise" says Axle satisfactorily. I agree vocally, but secretly feel I lost any available Man Points when Ruth had to pull my pants on because I couldn't feel my fingers.
Carlos takes us up another couple of hundred metres "somewhere most tourists aren't allowed" which may not be true, but makes us tourists feel appropriately privileged. However, true to his word, after driving up another unfit-for-purpose road through some shonky looking "no entry" gates, we are totally on our own. Carlos has us walk up a small looking slope where a plume of steam is rising beyond.
The 'small slope' nearly kills us. I honestly thought, being of relative youth and fitness, altitude wouldn't affect me, but this is bloody unbearable. We're at 4,500 metres high (800 metres lower than Everest Base Camp. Base Camp.) and I feel like my guts and brain have been inverted. I have to pause halfway up (it's maybe a 15 metre climb) to stop from falling over through dizziness. Ruth is doing slightly better than me, but all of us including Carlos are panting like dogs after the hunt.
At the top, is a pool which looks like the one Augustus Gloop fell into in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A bubbling pond of molten elements I've forgotten the names of. It's fascinating to watch. We're on a hillside of similar pools and other faintly steaming chimneys. All are doubtless fatal to enter but it's a charmingly picturesque scene. If only I didn't feel like a clogged U-bend I might be able to enjoy it.
After some time revelling in natural wonder, we gratefully head back down the mountain so our heads can begin to untangle.
We stop at a small village, which would be described as quaint if it were in England. A small hilltop church, surrounded by charming Chilean houses and a lake of flamingoes. What slightly sets it apart is the llama barbecue going on in the middle. Ruth and I share a kebab each (delicious), and fall into a meaty slumber for the ride home.
Back in our room we talk about our grand plans to cycle the Devil's Throat this afternoon, a nearby trail which apparently has fine views. My graphic description of what will happen to my delicate digestive system if I'm mounted on a saddle, puts paid to this idea.
Instead we go into town, load up on souvenir tat for our families, and after some more incredible star-gazing, have a night playing the charming, 'what's that sound coming from your tummy'?
Day 32 Back to Santiago
A good night's sleep has not cured my grievances, and I now have a thundering headache to add to the mix. A flight back to Santiago and the accompanying 36°C temperatures make it (and me, apparently) quite unbearable. However, this will be our last night in South America, so ibuprofened up to the eyeballs and with Ruth's motivational 'stop being such a fanny' ringing in my ears, we head out of our hotel for some early evening nightlife.
Our hotel is more central than the last one which makes the affluent-looking Italia region more walkable. We head out to Ruca Bar, a tapas (and gin) establishment which the Rough Guide has highly recommended. And with good cause, the food is top rate. After filling our faces with world-class croquettes and empanadas, the friendly bartender recommends (upsells) us both a Chilean and Peruvian Pisco Sour to see which we prefer. Both countries have a claim to inventing it, but the bartender conspiratorially whispers that the Peruvians have the edge on the recipe. Perhaps its the ibuprofen talking, and maybe our fantastic two weeks here influences our decision but it's definitely the Chilean one.
Day 33 Leave Santiago and South America
Feeling better this morning, but still not at fighting weight, breakfast is a spartan affair. We walk west across town to the Museum of Human Rights, the country's memorial for the victims of the Pinochet regime. It's pretty wrenching as you might imagine, and admirably introspective about the (many) wrongs done by the State over the years after Augusto Pinochet staged a US-backed coup and ousted the sitting government. Anecdotally, the overthrown president Salvador Allende, with troops outside his palace, shot himself with an AK47 purportedly given to him by Fidel Castro. There is a wall of portraits of the victims killed by the regime (many of whom were 'disappeared', their bodies never found), which is movingly vast. What also strikes home is the map of secret prisons where people were taken to be interrogated (usual paranoid 'enemy of the state' stuff where ludicrous confessions were tortured out of countless hopeless souls), which is a journey of everywhere we've been in the country. The expanse of the Atacama is chillingly populated by these centres.
We emerge into Chilean sunshine feeling emotionally cold. Pisco Sour (Chilean recipe), as it so often has recently, provides the solace required, back by the funicular in the middle of town. We go to the Clinic, the bar of the city's satirical newspaper, which has some amusing artwork on the wall with, coincidentally enough, some unfavourable cariactures of Pinochet amongst them.
Reanimated and refreshed, we head back to our hotel via Santa Lucía Hill which we didn't make it up last time. We have an enjoyable stroll around its large grassy hillsides towards the castle at the top. It's an odd site (the remnants of a 15 million year old volcano apparently) but gratifyingly tranquil in the sunshine, away from the chaos and skyscrapers of Santiago downtown. We spend some time looking at the clouds before trudging reluctantly back to the hotel to pick our bags up.
We cab to the airport which has managed to significantly overbook our flight if the queues are anything to go by. Fortunately ours has a connection so it's too complicated and expensive for them to shunt us until tomorrow as they are doing with others, so before Ruth melts into a little pool of rage at the terminal we are let through, and get on our plane to New Zealand.