After moving slowly through Patagonia it feels like we have been absolutely flying through the northern section of Chile. But when we reached San Pedro (a town located in the world´s driest desert) we had to take some time, there was just so much to do. Instead of booking onto a tour, we decided to go the more adventurous route and rent a car. After some serious haggling we managed to get the car price down 40% and we got to cruise around in Big Red. This really left us feeling local as all the cars in town... well in all the towns we visited north of Santiago, are red 4X4 trucks - something to do with mining towns and visibility.
First stop a little town of Chiu Chiu where the oldest church in Chile is located. True to experience the Church was not open during the posted opening hours, but we did get to enjoy the view from outside. Crazy to think that this church was built before the USA or Australia were even close to becoming countries. Next stop Pukara de Lasana a 12th century native fortress, there were ruins and petryglyphs all through the valley but we still were not prepared for the size of this site, and we had it all to ourselves. And finally we ended the day in a tiny village of Caspana. It felt like we had been transported back in time, the villagers were still using the terraced farming sites utilized hundreds of years ago by the Incas! Plus all the houses were made of stone or mud and straw, it made for quite the cold night!
We were up before dawn to make it up to 4500 meters (close to 15,000 feet) to visit the El Tatio Geyser field. The highest geyser field in the world. Up that high, before sunrise it was freezing, literally. If the water wasn’t boling it was ice! It was a beautiful sight with all the qeysers sending up huge plumes of steam. It was a tad concerning how unregulated it was. Where ´walkways´were established they were most often pockmarked with little bubbling pots of trouble. Our interpretation of the words of advice given in Spanish when entering the area: “walk where you like, just be careful because the ground might break below you feet and you could be badly burnt.”
Once the sun rose and lit up the valley all the tourist trucks left and we were the only people in the park!!! Within 15 minutes we saw a beautiful fox, dozens of vicuna, and to top it off we spent close to 2 hours watching the antics of the viscacha. (In our Chicago days we spent a lot of time watching Planet Earth and this was where I first learned about these little creatures). They look a bit like a rabbit or a kangroo but are actually rodents! And they can only live between 3500 and 4500m in elevation, amazing little creatures. After finally tearing ourselves away from our private wildlife show we explored the surrounding area, found some flamingoes, and had lunch looking at over a dozen volcanoes, some still smoking!
As if that weren´t enough we also visited the beautiful Valley of the Dead in the Salt Mountains and found a wonderful spot to watch the sunset over the Valley of the Moon. (It sounds like we are living life in some sort of story book!)
Subsequent days were also highly enjoyable and included an early morning with more flamingoes, they are the funniest creatures when they fly, all legs and wings. An afternoon with more vicuna (Bek almost got trampled by a few) and a sunset swim in a salt lagoon (well it wasn’t so much a swim as a float since the super salty water propped us up).
Our final day we visited Chuquicamata the largest open pit copper mine in the world! 5km long, 3km wide and 1km deep. It was an impressive sight and difficult to really comprehend the size, in the photo the little toy dump trucks are actually massive – they can each hold 300 to 400 tons of rock!!!!
Overall it was an amazing few days in the desert. What struck us the most was the quantity and diversity of the wildlife in this desert. We saw more animals in one day in the desert than we had in 1 month in the forest! The world is an amazing place.