The last part of the driest saga…
by SeenThat on May 2, 2011
There is no reason for traveling to the Atacama Desert, or to any other desert. The drier the arid region is, the less it has to offer to the traveler and Atacama is the driest desert on earth. This became evident in the first two journals dedicated to this eternally empty glass of water. Even for isolating oneself this desert is no good, supplies must be brought from far away. After seeing ochre for mile after mile, why would the traveler delay the unavoidable departure? Green pastures are elsewhere.NASA considers Atacama a Mars-analogue terrain. Reality is different. All its basic parameters – pressure, temperature, atmosphere, and many others – belong to Earth. More important, the desert has boundaries with friendlier areas. There, the ochre oxidizes into earthlier colors and the rocks rarify giving place to geysers, lakes and even manmade structures. The strangest boundary is between the desert and the Andean High Plateau, on the Bolivian department of Potosi. The last could rate by itself as one of the strangest spots on the planet. On the touch point between the two is San Pedro de Atacama, the only deep desert in this inaccurate version of Mars. For these tiny bits of color, it is worth staying a here bit more, breathing dust and longing for green.Western travelers reaching South America - or Southeast Asia - for the first time, suffer from the infamous New York Syndrome. They tend to plan every minute of the trip in advance; they book hotels, meals and trips from half a world away and are not pleased until they know the exact second everything would occur. Yet, there is no Wall Street in San Pedro de Atacama. The whole settlement wouldn’t classify even as a town in most countries; not even South American ones. The best approach is planning nothing, drop by and see what is available. That ensures flexibility in the planning of the trip in the case of unexpected events. Make no mistake, in the Fourth World – and the whole of South America is in there – unexpected events are the only certainty. Here they still believe in right and left, communism and capitalism, European empires and history books written by political policemen. Laws seem to change faster than the weather and in a similarly arbitrary fashion. Ignore all these, don’t listen to local chit-chat, pack a small backpack and drop by the driest desert. There, enjoy some of the strangest sights on our rough planet.San Pedro de Atacama lies slightly higher than Calama – the nearest town - yet, 80% of humans won’t need an altitude acclimatization period here. The situation changes once crossing over into Bolivia; roughly at four kilometers above the sea level, Potosi (the department and the city) would invariably demand an acclimatization period of all visitors. San Pedro de Atatcama is also a major crossing point from Chile to Salta in Argentina. On the edge of the fringe, San Pedro de Atacama is a transition point with a few pretty sights.What to see? It depends on the time the traveler can stop here. The Licancabur, San Pedro and San Pablo volcanoes are major – in every sense of the word – attractions. The Salar de Atacama – a major salt flat – is just north of the city. If planning visiting the larger Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, this one can be skipped. The Pukará de Quitor is a fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century and of mild interest; if having seen Inca forts elsewhere, this one has nothing new to offer. The Laguna Miscanti is similar on many aspects to the Lagunas Verde y Colorada (red and green lagoons) just on the Bolivian side, though this one is filled up with just regular blue water. The most impressive site is the called El Tatio, where eighty geysers compete for the travelers’ attention. Finally, a Valle de la Luna (Moon’s Valley) not very different from those found elsewhere on earth is available for a visit. To these, the journal is dedicated.
In the Tesseract – an enjoyable little book written by the same author of The Beach – there is an extraordinary scene in which one of the figures, who considers himself a descendant of the Spaniard Conquistadores, visits Spain and then returns terrified to his native Philippines after discovering the truth. It could have been written about South America where many still consider themselves "Españoles." Several things went very wrong in the history of the Americas. The scars can be seen from Yellowknife in the frozen north to Ushuaia in the frozen south. Even in the modern sign at the entry of Pukará de Quitor - supposedly written by direct descendants of the native inhabitants - one can spot oddities in the phrasing (see pictures). Considering the recent history of the area, one is also scared of being more specific.Some of the problems originate on the post-1648 European-style countries imposed on the area. According to these, native ethnic groups should renounce their organizations and ways of life. In the name of democratic-pluralism, everything different was suppressed. Hence, little has survived from pre-colonial times. Even Machu Picchu is nowadays a quite unimpressive site. Moreover, very little of the history and culture of the area has survived; local cultures didn’t write. Many of what is written in modern books – and is thoughtlessly repeated by guides – are just speculations; in many cases just baseless speculations. In the Machu Picchu and Tiwanaku journals I gave a few examples of these. As such, visits to archeological sites in South America are sad. Many buildings of the same age in Europe and Asia are still well and active. In most cases you stand in front of silent piles of rocks and mud posing more questions than answers. Nobody was left to tell the story.The only settlement in the Atacama Desert continuously inhabited since pre-Inca times is an odd reminder of how different is this desert from all others on earth. Most of the human settlements in the Atacama Desert are along the coast and were created only due to the exceptional natural resources of the area: saltpeter, guano, copper, and silver from nearby Potosi. Yet, it is the only area of the desert inhabited since before the Inca Empire. Even substantial trade routes didn’t develop. The reason was obvious: there wasn’t enough water along possible routes to ensure the caravans’ survival. The people living in San Pedro de Atacama developed self-sustaining settlements relying on minimal amounts of trade; as such they needed some defenses. For that, on one of the hills near the town – 3 kilometers northwest of its center – there is an old fort. It’s called using the Quechua word for "fortress," namely Pukará de Quitor. Yet, it was constructed by the Atacameño people. The Spanish "ñ" doesn’t exist in local languages, thus this cannot be the original name of the people. Nobody was left to correct the Spanish mispronunciation. Nowadays, it is possible to reach the remains by car, horse, and bicycle or simply by walking from the downtown area. The fort overlooks a bend of the San Pedro River and is quite recent, dating back just to the 12th century. The area belonged then to "Ayllu de Quitor," "ayllu" (again, Spanish "ll" doesn’t exist in local languages; also, the pronunciation is kee-tor – that Spanish "u" is mute) is an Aymara and Quechua word used for certain administrative divisions. The ruins of a stone fence enclose the equally eroded remains of the fort, which included over 150 stones structures, some of them garrisons, some supply centers, others defensive positions. Structures not made of stone didn’t survive; history books assume they didn’t exist (why? Based on what?). The complex occupies the side of the hill facing the river curve; as such everything is slanted, covering a vertical gap of almost a hundred meters.In a no so far future, what is left from the Ayllu de Quitor would be eroded back into the earth these stones was carved from and nothing would be left to tell another silent story of oppression and violence.
Every self-respecting country has a Moon Valley. China has it in Guilin; Thailand has it in northern Isaan, not far from Lom Sak and Bolivia has it in La Paz, and Chile has its own version in the Southeastern corner of the Atacama Desert. None of these is a valley brought from far above; all of them are geological formations of curious shapes. As such, maybe it should be better to call the Chilean version the Mars Valley, since the Atacama Desert is often addressed as a Mars-analogue terrain. Moreover, then it could be marketed as unique and not just one more Moon Valley.Roughly fifteen kilometers west of the town, the area can be easily reached with public and private transport, through route CH23. If traveling independently, notice that the last ten kilometers are on a dirt road. Technically, the site is part of the Cordillera de Sal (Salt Range) and of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (Flamingos National Reserve) and forms part of the basin surrounding Sierra Orbate. Roughly at 2500 above the sea level, the valley is not high enough to cause the altitude photography problems I described recently, or in fact altitude acclimatization effects to the vast majority of people; yet, the sunlight is reflected from the salt and the lighter sands, making photography difficult. If having, bring filters.A point to keep in mind is that after a while, these formations become repetitive; no matter how beautiful spending too much time in one a day turns out tiresome. Overheated earth colors, with nothing softer to break down the monotonic view. A good idea is booking a private tour at the town; planning the Moon Valley and the Laguna Miscanti (see that entry in this journal) for the same day makes sense and would properly balance the valley’s dryness.The landscape of the valley is shaped by several types of sand and rock which has been eroded into highly irregular shapes. Knife-sharp ridges, rings of dry salt, and low mounds of irregular shapes and colors create a truly outwardly landscape. Somehow, you expect seeing a dry lake here, maybe due to the thin deposits of salt that cover almost everything; actually there is one: the Salar de Atacama is not far away. The whole area is void of vegetation and life forms; considering the average annual rainfall here is just 3mm that is understandable. A drop of sweat falling on the ground can alter the annual statistics. The activities available include biking, sandboarding and visiting the salt caves; the impressive volcano Licancabur frames everything into a Fuji-style postcard.
Attractions are relative to their location. Few travelers would travel especially to Mae Hong Son to see the breathtaking pond at its center. It may be beautiful, but water in Thailand is not news. Put a slightly larger body of water at the fringe of the driest desert on Earth and its wonders would be advertised worldwide.To the pre-colonial Atacameños, the pond – the main body of water in this vast desert – was a wonder. However, to anyone having seen an ocean, a sea, or even an average lake, the pool is unimpressive, though the mountains surrounding it are pretty. Deep lakes in high locations – like Gokyo in the Everest area and Lake Titicaca on the Andean High Plateau - can offer awesome views due to their odd deep blue color. Yet shallow ponds offering dry salt rings on their fringes give a sense of standing next to a dirty bathtub. Moreover there is something eerie on a lake which is not surrounded by vegetation, where the only obvious form of life is transient travelers. Nowhere the claims of the Atacama Desert being sterile are more obvious than here. Thus the traveler in the area is advised to carefully consider this trip, especially if planning to continue the trip into Bolivia, where the Lagunas Verde y Colorada (the Red and Green Lakes) offer better views. The lakes are rather far from San Pedro de Atacama, about 115 kilometers to its southeast, and thus are best approached by tours booked at the town.Yet, if reaching them, the traveler would be rewarded by the unusual beauty of the Miscanti and Miñiques lakes. Roughly 4000 meters above the Pacific Ocean, they are surrounded by conic summits, and are visited by flamingos carried up the range by hot winds. Later on, the birds get trapped in the Bolivian lakes across the mountains. Laguna Miscanti – the largest between the two lakes – is just on the eastern border of the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat on the base of a now dried up lake. Just south of this lake – and almost part of it – is the very small Laguna Miñiques. These three should be considered as one body of water of changing shape, as so many others around the world, and a reminder that this desert was in the far past much more alive. Next to the Miscanti Lake is the perfectly shaped Miscanti Volcano; without its iconic shape, this visit couldn’t have been justified. Blue, cloudless skies are interrupted by this brownish cone, which rests atop the blue waters of a shallow lake. The last ends meters from your feet, giving room to more browns. Blue, brown, blue, brown, where were my beloved greens?
Both among the strangest spots on Earth, the collision of the Atatcama Desert with the Andean high Plateau produced the odd sites described in this journal. The El Tatio Geysers for sure enter this category of sites. Located 90 kilometers from San Pedro de Atatcama, this park offers some 80 active geysers. However, there is a catch. They are 4300 meters above sea level – meaning those who are not acclimatized would feel the altitude; moreover, the eruptions are low – just a few centimeters – except right after sunrise. That time of the day at that altitude means freezing temperatures. All this freezing sacrifice for watching just hot water? I had an electric kettle in my hotel room!Yet, the statistics of the site are impressive. The geysers originate on nine large fumaroles, and feature four major geysers, which can reach an altitude of eight meters (but only after sunrise, otherwise the average is well below the meter). The site is the largest of its type in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after Yellowstone, in the USA, and Dolina Giezerov in Russia.In this case, the best option for reaching the site is the half-day tours arranged from San Pedro de Atacama. The tours leave at the bitter cold hour of 4 AM, and return slightly after noon, with a breakfast included on the geysers field. The hours and altitude changes involved in the trip mean one should bring light and warm clothes, especially during the cold months. A small detour to the village of Machuca adds a bit of human warmth to the experience, but adds nothing tçof value to the experience. While in the geysers site, the bravest can bath in a small pool of geyser waters. However hot, they can’t protect from the cold at the exit.Columns of steam condense in the cold morning air and return to their boiling origins. Bubbling waters surrounded by bubbling mud. No less impressive than the geysers are the rock formations, the patina on them, and the sights of almost boiling mud. The last means that the marked paths are to be followed strictly; a boot crashing a thin crust of dried mud and landing on the boiling bowels of earth is not the best way of ending such a trip.
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