I slept for most of the way towards San Pedro, but when I woke up the scenery had completely changed into an arid desert with strange rock formations, with volcanoes and mountains on both sides. I got off the bus at around 11am and quickly found a hostel for 12000 pesos, which seemed like a bargain after the money I’d paid so far in Chile.
I went hunting for tours I could do and ended up booking 5 in total, all with the same company. That afternoon we went to The Valley of the Moon, named as such due to the land resembling the moon’s surface in its texture and colour. The tour worked out very well, as it had a combination of stunning scenery, a friendly and fun tour guide, as well as some cool people I met on the bus. The first stop was The Three Marys, that looked slightly like 3 figures praying, although it was now 2 1/2 as some idiot tourist had decided to try and get a picture of him hugging one, at which point it crumbled and was sliced in two. We visited an old salt mine, walked near some more sheerly carved mountains and then headed to a sand dune which was really beautiful, with the wind occasionally scattering the sand across the valley and creating a picturesque scene. The last stop was the coyote valley where we joined about 300 hundred other people to watch the sunset, it was a little crowded, with 2 lines being formed to get a new Facebook cover photo with the valley behind. I didn’t join the queue as they were facing their cameras directly into the sun, so I got a shot from a different angle and got on with my life. It was a lovely sunset and on the other side of the valley we could see the colour of the mountains deepening their colours and becoming more vibrant. An afternoon very well spent.
We left at 7.30 next morning to the high planes, mirror like lakes with volcanoes surrounding the horizon. As we got close to the reserve the bus transformed itself into a pneumatic drill for 10 minutes as we felt each and every bump in the road and got thrown about.
We then went to see some flamingos that like hanging out near a sulphur rich lake, where they eat algae that grows under the water, which in turn they poop out and then the algae eat the poop, and so the cycle continues. We saw a couple fly past us and they looked very elegant as they flew overhead, reaching the pool on the other side of the trail.
We stopped in at a couple of churches and were told that they were constructed with the bell tower outside as it was easier for the natives to adjust to, as in their culture, they built little stone piles (cairns) in the shapes of mountains as a shrine to their gods. The tower was built with 3 layers, symbolising what would be in Christianity, the father, the son and the holy spirit, but to the natives signified, the mountains, the earth and water (condor, puma and snake).
In the afternoon we took a tour to some more salt lakes, but this time we were allowed to bathe in them, which turned out to be more fun than I’d expected. Being able to just effortlessly glide around in the water was a real novelty which me giggle like a little girl. By the time I came out I was 50% salt and my hair felt like I’d poured out an entire bottle of gel on top of my head. We were quickly whisked away to our next destination, named the “eyes of salt”, craters in the desert big enough for people to jump into and swim around in. I opted to stay dry this time around.
Last stop was some more lakes and some sunset nibbles, combined with a small glass of pisco sour. Unfortunately the trail was quite a long way from the lake, the reason for which I overheard when one of the guides said that a couple years ago, scientists discovered that bacteria living near the lake produces oxygen and that the same bacteria has also been found on Mars, so now they’re trying to protect it. I’m assuming our guide would have told us the same thing, but all he did was point us at the trail and tell us to meet him back at the bus in half an hour.
I had to be up for around 3.30 the next day to see the geysers of Tatio, which kept reminding me of Star Wars and the planet Tatooine. The geysers definitely seemed other worldly, as we walked amongst them, frothing up and spitting water a few metres into the air. Some parts of the ground underneath our feet were hot enough to fry an egg on and were perfect for warming our hands up, as it was around -2 when we got there. The sun peeked out and that signalled it was time for a dip in the thermal bath. The water was a lovely temperature and you could sink your feet into the heated sandy floor which felt amazing. The only problem was the heat was patchy and sometimes could burn you if you weren’t careful, but this just added to the natural vibe of the place.
The last tour I’d booked was a full day, in the Salar de Tara, the highest altitude of all the trips I’d done thus far (4900 meters above sea level). On the road to get there we stopped to take a few pictures of llamas that were grazing next to the road. As we headed back to the van, the llamas’ shepherd showed up and it was obvious he didn’t like the fact we’d taken photos without his permission. We all jumped back in the van, with the tour guide holding his hands up and apologising to the man. As we sped off, the llama man whipped our van a few times with a bit of straw, but it didn’t leave any lasting damage. The majority of the tour was offroad and we travelled for quite some time on sand dune like terrain, climbing higher into the arid wilderness. We saw a few vicuña roaming around, which were the only large animal we saw at this altitude, in this otherwise barren land. They’re a llama-like animal, which are currently protected because they were pushed to the edge of extinction, due to their wool being the finest in the world. We saw some epic rocks, towering above the desert like landscape, an indication of how difficult it would be to live in this unforgiving area of the world.
Our last stop on the tour was a lake filled with flamingos and bird life. All of the people are on tour were very respectful of the serene landscape we found ourselves in, so we just sat their observing life on the lake for about 45 minutes. On the way back I was drifting in and out of sleep, as the high altitude makes you feel very tired. In my half dream like state I thought there was a guy drumming behind us, but it was actually just the rattling of the van as we went over bumpy terrain.