With our documents in order, we headed back to Chile to visit the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on earth. NO rain is recorded in parts of desert since they’ve been tracking precipitation levels, and we read that the no-rain-streak may actually have lasted since around 1570. A long ten-hour, but beautiful, bus ride took us over a 12,000 foot pass over the Andes. The elevation affected all of us, the kids both had headaches and we were all quite thirsty. After passing rigorous passport control and customs, we arrived in the small village of San Pedro de Atacama. Customs between Chile and Argentina are quite serious. Both countries are very concerned about produce crossing the border. We read about a girl who forgot she had a banana in her backpack and it cost her a $200 fine. We also heard that there is a problem with smuggling electronics from Chile to Argentina to avoid the high Argentinian taxes.
We had to walk to our guesthouse from the bus station, there are no taxis in San Pedro, Les asked the bus driver and he just chuckled. Luckily our packs are pretty light, all together they weighing-in at a total of 45 kilograms (~100 pounds), plus our day bags. Unfortunately Alex’s bag is a small wheeled suitcase and it wasn’t easy to negotiate the dirt, sand, gravel, and cobblestone streets. Our guesthouse turned out to be on the edge of town, so it was a little further than our kids usually like to walk judging by their grumbling. While walking through town we were approached many times with people selling rooms, excursions, dinners, etc; and it became clear that San Pedro is set up for tourism. We were happy to finally arrive in our room and relax after ten hours on the bus, customs, and a long walk to our guesthouse. Our place was quiet, surrounded by a desert garden, and the room was authentic in that it was an adobe building. Adobe is good for insulation, but just the week before we heard how they don’t hold up so well in earthquakes. I secretly said, a little prayer for no earth tremors this week.
San Pedro is a small village, literally in the middle of nowhere. Because it is so remote, prices are quite steep. There are only a few streets in town but they are filled with companies that offer day trips to salt flats, geothermal lakes and many other activities and excursions. We opted for the sandboarding activity. We needed sturdy, closed-toe shoes to strap into the board; since Les and I lost our boots in the auto theft in Salta, our first order of business was to find decent quality hiking boots. Luckily we found a little shop in town that sold outdoor gear with familiar brands, and they accepted our Visa credit card without charging us an 10% for the privilege.
Sandboarding turned out to be a super-fun activity that we all enjoyed. To get there we had to drive through an area named Death Valley or Valley of the Dinosaurs, where ridges of rock rise out of the desert sands like the scaly back of dinosaurs. After a couple of miles of rough gravel road we eventually arrived at a place with a large sand dune, rising at least 300 feet. There were no ski lifts here, and after a 10 minute walk up the sand dune, I jumped on the board and spent most of the rest of the time on my bottom. One of my first turns down the hill, I twisted my ankle a bit and didn’t want that to happen again. So, anytime I felt unstable I just sat down. I had piles of sand in my pockets, socks…everywhere! The kids with their lower centers of gravity and lack of fear, took to sandboarding pretty fast and were soon surfing down the hill with ease. Les was doing really well getting the hang of it quickly, but in the end took and “epic double flip” which resulted in sand in his hair and ears, he tumbled down the hill losing his glasses and hat along the way. The kids thought this was pretty funny. As the sun began to set on the dune, we packed up our boards and ended our sandboarding outing with a stop at the Valley of Moon to watch the sunset, a beautiful spot.
We also enjoyed walking around the town, visiting the plaza, the historic adobe church, and a very interesting meteor museum. We discovered that this area of the world does not receive more meteors than other places on earth, but since there is almost no vegetation and little rain, the meteors are easy to spot on the ground.
After leaving San Pedro we spent one night in the larger city of the region, Calama because we had a morning flight to Santiago. There’s really not much to see in Calama, it is the business center for the mining industry in the area, especially copper mining. But they also mine, gold, nitrates, borax, etc. We took advantage of our afternoon in Calama to visit a mall and replace our stolen rain jackets.The docent working at the museum didn’t speak English, but he had enthusiasm and unlimited patience. But with my broken Spanish and his best efforts he was extremely helpful in teaching us about the meteors and the metals and minerals they transport to earth. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about meteors. When we were leaving, he followed us outside and pointed out several southern hemisphere constellations such as the Southern Cross. Since San Pedro is in a pretty remote spot with little light pollution, we were able to do some excellent stargazing.
Early the next day we headed to Santiago to visit the Miller’s again. (We keep turning up like a bad penny) They graciously hosted us a for a few nights. We enjoyed the luxury of staying in their lovely home and eating yummy home cooked meals. Kristy even made homemade cookies which we ate warm out of the oven. The kids enjoyed playing video games and jumping on the trampoline.
Since Santiago is a modern city with many American stores and restaurants, the kids chose Johnny Rockets for dinner on Saturday night. We all had a fun night and I especially enjoyed drinking a diet Dr. Pepper. Yum! Thanks again to Kristy and JD for making us feel so comfortable in your home. We had a great time!