Volcanoes, Sand boarding and Moon Walking.

13 11 2008

Heading back to Santiago after the amazing long weekend at Dunas, we hoped to pick up the police report and start the journey up north. We went to the central police station where we had been instructed to go, only to be told that they had no record of our report, then suddenly that we were in the wrong place for reports, then that they could find our report and could get a copy but it was currently somewhere in the postal system…. Incompetence does not do them justice. Why we couldn’t get a copy of the report at the time is beyond me. He even printed a copy off for himself yet refused us a copy, even after lots of angry imploring. Heaven forbid we fall victim to a more serious crime whilst in Chile. In the end they said they would email it to us. Unsure of what to do we also spoke to the British embassy in Chile to see if they could speed matters up, but were told there was little they could do unless we had also lost our passport along with the camera… oh the irony! Now almost three weeks later we still haven’t received a report or heard from them.

From Santiago we decided to head up the inconsequential town of Copiapo. Whilst the town itself offers little of interest, it is excellent as a springboard for excursions into the surrounding region. In our case we hoped to take an excursion to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces; home to the breathtaking Laguna Verde and Ojos de Salado. At 6893m, this is the highest peak in Chile and the highest active volcano in the world! Its last two eruptions were in 1937 and 1956. Arriving in Copiapo we headed to the tourist information office to look for someone to stay and enquire about tours to the park. It is worth noting that Copiapo is also home to one of the most helpful tourist offices in South America. They had a wealth of information on where to stay and which tour companies offered what, all with maps and info on where to locate them. With map in hand we first set about finding somewhere to stay, after looking at a few we finally settled on a small hospedaje offering a cheap and cheerful private room, complete with tv! The tv couldn’t actually pick up any stations but it was a nice aesthetic feature…

The tour companies all had tours going, but were all charging much more than we were looking at parting with. On our way back to the main square we were approached by another backpacker, fresh from the tourist office. After exchanging pleasantries, he introduced himself as Lucky (we would later find out his real name was Gerhard!) and was Swiss, conversation then turned to tours of the park. He was also hoping to go, but was similarly keen to save some pennies. We decided to try our luck at hiring a car for the day. This turned out to be massively cheaper; including petrol, it came to the same price as a tour for one person! We hired our car with Ecorentals; it was a beast of a pickup, only a couple of years old, complete with a flash stereo and lights mounted on the roof (showing off my knowledge of automobiles)! We decided to head out first thing the next day. With an afternoon to spare we decided to head to the beach.

The beaches of Bahia Inglesa are probably the most photographed in the whole of Chile. Their white powdery sands, cool turquoise waters, and curious rock formations are a huge attraction. We had seen photos prior to going and couldn’t wait to spend the afternoon soaking up some rays and paddling in the exquisitely clear sea. With towel and book in hand we caught a bus to the coast. However despite being a stunning sunny day in Copiapo, the closer we got to the beach the greyer and more overcast the sky became. Finally we arrived at the beach to one of the gloomiest days known to man. The sand looked grey, and the waters reflected the sky. True the waters were amazingly clear, but we had had sunnier days in Aberystwyth. We were hugely disappointed. We sat on the beach for a while, praying the sun would reappear and transform the scene around us into the paradise that we had seen photos off, but the weather gods were ignoring our pleas (yet again!). After only an hour we caught the bus back to Copiapo.

That night, after a mediocre dinner, where we had been stared at the whole time by everyone else in the restaurant (very strange and a tad worrying…) we headed back to get some sleep as we had an early start to get to the park. After brushing our teeth, we pulled back the covers ready for some much needed Zs… to discover that the sheet was covered in lots of long (and short) dark black hairs. There were even lots under both pillows. We headed out to speak to one of the staff, to discover the place was completely empty. Luckily we both had our sleeping bags, thus saving us from having to sleep on the floor. That night we both slept zipped up to the eyeballs, on top of both blankets. In the morning, when we had to check out and pay, there was again nobody about so I left a fraction of the money for the room and stuck out to meet Lucky and start our tour!

The total journey was a whopping 520km (260 each way), and as I was, rather embarrassingly, too young to put my name down as a driver (for some reason you had to be older than 24) I kicked back on the back seats and took in the view. The first 200 or so kilometres were interesting but nothing much to write home about. We passed some small salt flats and lots of flat dry arid land. But as we approached the furthest point on the journey, the landscape began to change. As we climbed higher, the colours of the bare mountains became increasingly vibrant, ranging from oranges to purples to even greens. In the distance we could start to make out the volcanoes. The snow-capped Volcan Tres Cruces and the monumental Ojos De Salado. Neither looked like a typical volcano, and I have to admit I was a tad disappointed as a result… but they still cut an imposing shape, rising up above everything else. At around an altitude of 4500km, we rounded a corner and caught our first sight of Laguna Verde. It was breathtaking. The intense colour of its water cuts a start contrast from the surrounding dull shades of brown. It seems to jump out at you. We continued driving down to the edge where we had decided to have lunch. It was great, sitting there staring out across the turquoise waters, backed by the Volcanoes.

At the western end of the lake lies another little treat – wonderful natural hot springs. At around 40 degrees, and deep enough to lie in and keep warm, there is a low built around that acts as a perfect windbreak. The wind had started to pick up by now and was whipping across the water, so the wall was much needed. With a small moment’s hesitation, we stripped off, and spent the next hour basking in the hot waters and taking in the amazing view immediately in front of us. When we began to turn into prunes, we quickly ran out and dressed in the cold wind; luckily surfing in the UK had turned us into pros at this! Faster than superman, we were dressed and in the car.

We decided to drive a different way back to break up the monotony. The guide said this route should take around the same time, and we aimed to get back early evening, with enough time to get some dinner before our night bus out. The road was almost impossible to decipher where it began and the desert ended. We drove in what we hoped was the right direction, as we watched darkness gradually ascend on us. At one point, in the middle of what seemed a never ending canyon, we passed a random horse, all saddled up just munching away on some grass. We didn’t see a single soul or home for the whole 260km back. We finally arrived back at gone 10pm with around 15 minutes to say our goodbyes and board our bus further north, up into the Atacama Desert.

Stretching for over 100km, all the way to the Peruvian border, the Atacama Desert stands at the North Chiles largest attraction. It is the driest desert in the whole world, with some areas never receiving a recorded drop of rain. The main tourist port of call is San Pedro de Atacama, a pleasant town just south of the Bolivian border, and our last stop in Chile before heading across. Sitting at an altitude of 2400km, this small town has been an important settlement since pre-Hispanic times, where it was originally a major stop on the trading route connecting llama herders of the these highlands with the fishing communities of the Pacific. Now it’s a friendly laid back pack, catering primarily for tourists, offering tours into the spectacular wilderness around. It is also right next to the Valle de Luna, our main reason for visiting.

The town resembles a movie set for star wars. The dusty streets are lined with small white, mud based abodes, with wood structures. Our hostel was no different, and didn’t even have a lock on the door. It constantly swung open unless a chair was placed in front of it. Security wasn’t at the top of their priorities. There is also no cash point in the whole town, so make sure you don’t do we did and turn up without sufficient moneda. We found ourselves having to exchange some of my ´emergency´ stash of US Dollars, at an absolutely abysmal rate of exchange.

We only had one whole in San Pedro so planned to cram as much as possible into one day. That night we hired our bikes in preparation to cycle the 14km to the Valle de Luna for sunrise. The Valle de Luna is a dramatic lunar landscape of wind eroded hills, surrounded by large crater ridden floors, and immense sand dunes. It is like no other place I have visited, and probably the closest I will get to seeing the surface of the moon firsthand. Through out the day it transforms through an array of colours.

The next morning we got up at 4am and quickly layered up, before getting on our bikes and started to ride. The journey there is nearly all flat, and luckily for us it was a full moon as both our torches were out of batteries. We cycled in silence, enjoying having the town to ourselves. Once we had left the town behind us, we sped along the empty road, taking in the amazing star filled sky. As the landscape was so flat, the sky was everywhere we looked. The moon lit the way perfectly. After cycling for around one and half hours we reached the start of the valley. Here we left our bikes locked up and continued the journey on foot. It was amazingly tranquil and also slightly eerie. The moon cast long shadows everywhere we looked, and there were plenty of dark nooks.

We scaled up the side of one dune, and scouted for the best place to watch the sun enter the day.We hadn’t even realised it was full moon, it was a complete divine stroke of luck The moon caused the place to look coldly beautiful and imposing. The only sound was the quiet hum as nature prepared itself for yet another day. We sat at the top, almost holding our breath so as to not too disturb the scene we held before us, and for us to perfectly capture the moment and hold on to it. We were the only souls about, and we sat and watched as the sun slowly rose on one side, and the moon bade it farewells on the other. The sun caused the scene to transform, the cold and supernatural quality being replaced with warmth and a spellbinding palate of golds and reds. It was an absolutely pure and treasured experience.

Cycling back to ´earth´ we hardly said a word, each happy reflecting on what we had just witnessed. 

After a quick lunch of empanadas (the café advertises 254 different varieties!) we headed back on our bikes for a completely different experience, we decided to head to the Valle de Muerta – the Valley of Death. Here there are massive sand dunes that you can throw yourself the slopes on sandboards (you rent them in town) as many times as you can find the energy to climb back up. It’s around 16km to get there, and make sure you take plenty of water! It’s not called the Valley of Death for no reason.

The journey there was exhausting enough as it was, especially with a sandboard strapped to your back. When you finally get there, you then have to trek up the sand dune, a feat of its own, before strapping the board to your feet and speeding back down! (If your good – or falling down repeatedly all the way to the bottom!) We went up down a number of times, It was pretty hard and tiring! Make sure you take wax for your board or you won´t go anywhere! After a while it was time to call it day, and start the cycle back, taking with us half the sand dune in our ears, nose and clothes. We decided on the way back to head back to the Valley of the Moon for sunset aswell, and complete the holy trio! However half way there, and with only 1 empanada in our stomachs, our legs and bodies gave up the go, and we could not go any further. Having dined soley on steak, wine and similar goodness, we had tried to cram two months worth of exercise into one day and at this point our bodies said enough!

We headed back, and after a quick shower to desand ourselves, we headed out for some much needed food! The restaurant we found was amazing – for just over seven pounds we had a three course meal with beer and pisco sour (his and hers) The food was amazing quality and went down very well! That night, we went to bed with full stomachs and aching legs, and dreamt of moon walking and the stars.

The next day we headed to the town of Calama, where we would catch our bus across the border into Bolivia. The town has nothing worth seeing, and a very expensive selection of accommodation. After finding the cheapest (and nicest) hotel we could, we spent the day reading in the main square, eating a number of completos! So far we had resisted… the Completo, along with Pisco Sour, is one of Chile´s Culinary ´delights´. Basically it’s very large hotdog, complete with salsa and plenty of guacamole! They love avocado in Chile, they have an addiction like no other. I actually saw billboard posters advertising the thing, with celebrities promoting the fact that they wouldn’t have got where they had without the humble avocado. Bizarre! Full of Guacamole, we went to bed for our last sleep in Chile.

The next morning we boarded the bus on to Bolivia!

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