Visiting the Atacama Desert

After leaving Argentina behind us, it was time for one last stop in Chile. This was actually one of Mathias´ must-dos on our trip: The Atacama Desert. But before we even got there, he already had an introduction of what will await us for the next few weeks – high altitude. Passing over the border from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama meant driving over a mountain pass of 4700m altitude. As we started our trip in Salta at midnight and went right to sleep, we woke up to a big surprise at 8:00 am when we reached the border.


We were both feeling unwell and had a headache. Welcome altitude sickness. We had a little bit to eat and started drinking lots of water. We hoped that we will be through border control quickly, but unfortunately this border was not well organized at all. We actually had to wait 2 hours until they asked our bus to get through the border and then it took another hour for the whole process to finish, as they checked every single bag. I laid down on the benches while everyone was waiting and took a 30 min nap. When I woke up, I was feeling totally fine and I had no problems any more. Mathias however kept feeling really bad and was almost close to throwing up.


Even when we got to San Pedro de Atacama 3 hours later, he still had a headache and felt bad. We then got told to chew coca leaves or drink coca tea and everything will be fine. So we went into town to buy the coca leaves, which are of course totally legal here, and then went on to book our tours around the desert and also decided to book a 3 day tour that would bring us to the salt lake in Bolivia and drop us in Uyuni at the end.


So, highly motivated, Mathias started chewing leaves and drinking tea and it actually help! Or so he says. We still took it slow the next day to get accustomed to the altitude and only went onto our first tour in the late afternoon. We had decided to visit the so-called Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) where we would also watch the sunset over the desert. We had read good reviews about it before and we have to agree, it was just unbelievable at times. It has various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water. Combined with an impressive range of color and texture, it makes you feel like you are walking on the moon.


We have never seen something like it and where once more impressed how many different landscapes and places this planet earth has. The valley is also considered one of the driest places on earth, as some areas have not received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years!  We spent a good few hours discovering the desert and also went to a salt cave, where the walls were covered with crystallized salt from the inside. In the end, we drove to a lookout over the valley and witnessed a stunning sunset!


The day had started with many clouds and it had actually cooled down the desert during the day, so that it was not as hot as we had expected. For the sunset it meant that we had a very dramatic and beautifully colored sky enlightened by the sun. And the evening sun turned the whole desert into a wonderful red-orange color. We very so happy! We had missed our sunsets from South Africa and finally here we were given another stunning one.


We went to bed extremely happy and very excited for the next day. We rose early and went on another tour to see the Los Flamencos national reserve and its salt flat – Salar de tara. It was a tour that would drive us 2 ½ hours into the Atacama Desert towards Bolivia and we would drive up to 4860 meters above sea level. Mathias was a bit anxious and curious at the same time. Would he experience altitude problems again, or would he survive by chewing coca leaves all day? :) But before we even got to this high point, we had an incredible drive through the desert with the Andes mountain range and its volcanoes always on our sides. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, sand and sand dunes and incredible rock formations that have been created through erosion and carved out by the wind.


We tried to capture the vastness of the place, but looking at the picture it does not do it justice. It is just endless!! And lifeless most of the time, until you pass mountain lamas that graze in areas where grass grows or live near the salt flats. One such salt flat was our first stop on the trip, where we had our breakfast. It was really strange to see water and green grass in the middle of the desert and the flamingos made it even more special. This place was however only a small salt flat and was only a preparation of what was to come later.


We drove on and then passed the so-called Pacana Monks. These are stones formations that were created by erosion over time. Apparently there is no mystic history to it, just simple science. They are called monks however, as the wind seemed to have carved faces into the stones. And it really does look like it. I just loved it! By that time we had reached the highest point (4700m altitude) and Mathias was keeping up quite well. He only had a tiny headache. I did not feel anything, so when the car stopped and the guide said we have 20 minutes to walk around, I jumped out of the car and started almost jogging to all the different stone formations to try and get the best pictures with the sun. When I turned around and saw Mathias standing close to the car, I first just thought he does not care so much about seeing all the different stones. But after the 3 stones, I could feel my heart pumping so hart it felt like it would jump out of my body. So I calmed down and walked slowly on. When I got to Mathias and smiled at me and said, he just walked a few meters and was already out of breath. How on earth was I able to run through the desert at this altitude?! Well, I did realize I went a bit too quickly, but once I slowed down all was fine again, so maybe my Colombian genes are coming through here. :)


Anyway, I really loved these stone formations. Who needs to go to the Easter Island, when you have this! Afterwards we drove on to our highlight, the salt flat called Salar de tara. We were already totally impressed by the whole scenery all day and were not quite sure what more to expect. When we arrived it almost felt like seeing a fata morgana at first. There in the middle of the desert was a big salt flat with flamingos enjoying the water, birds flying from one green plant to the other, a small hamster like rodent coming out of his whole to get some food, and everything was surrounded by snow covered mountains in the back and a massive rock formation and sand dunes to the sides.


It is impossible to describe this place properly, and again the pictures do not do it justice as even the panorama picture miss to capture the scene correctly. Believe when I tell you it felt magical. And the best thing was, it was only our group of 8 people there. Our guide prepared a delicious lunch and we just sat there enjoying the scenery and peaceful quietness of this place. I am so happy we came here!! There are so many different tours offered when you get to San Pedro de Atacama, from geysers to swimming in salt lakes or hiking up mountains. But this was really different and unique and an image we will never forget. It was a wonderful ending to our time in Chile.


When we got back to town, there was another surprise waiting for us. We met Petri and Sanna again, a Finish couple we have met for the first time in Patagonia on our hike in Torre del Paine and later again at the Perito Moreno Glacier. And now again! It made us laugh so much J. And we will probably meet them again, when we are at Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, as they are heading there for the same time. You are never alone on travel, but that is actually a nice thing sometimes.


This country really had some nice surprises waiting for us. It is definitely something special and we have only seen so little of it. We will be back! Now it is time for Bolivia. We are heading to the world´s largest salt flat – Salar de Uyuni.

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