There is so much to see around San Pedro, we decide we will take a few organised tours for a change. We have not researched the tour agencies, of which there are many in town, walk into the first one we get to, Cosmo Andino, have a good feel for the owner Martin and go ahead and book 4 tours! We tend to use our gut feel a lot of the time and it usually works fine so we are happy to commit to 4 tours in one hit. The first one is an afternoon and sunset in the Valle de la Luna. We could easily go there on our bikes and on our own, but with all the recent rain, we decide it is best done on 4 wheels. The next day is the Aliplanic lagoons – a long day, at altitude. Next the El Tatio Geysers at even higher altitude with a 5am departure time, and finally the Salar de Tara. That’s the plan anyway… Very exciting! It will be something different for us.
We woke up in our ‘rustic’ cabin on the outskirts of San Pedro having been devoured by mosquitos all night! Never expected mosquitos here! Because of the recent rain and lightning, we had no electricity last night so couldn’t use our great Indian electric mosquito repellent. On top of mosquitos, the constantly barking dogs made sure we hardly got any sleep too. And no hot water this morning – or for the following 2! Our rustic cabin quickly turned out to be run-down cabin but luckily, the fabulous view made up for it. Lucky then first place we went into in San Pedro for lunch had not only fantastic food, but working internet. The internet at our cabin was set up in a tree in the middle of the property!! Not normally a problem in the driest desert on earth…
Our trip to the Valle de la Luna, with 13 other tourists started beautifully, the storm slowly growing and providing interesting lighting, then we got drenched and admired spectacular lightning strikes across the desert for a couple of hours. Truly magical.
It was decided it was too dangerous to go to our sunset viewing point because of the amount of rain, so we turned back a little earlier than scheduled. We got stopped along the way – the road is closed due to flooding, we have to leave the park another way. We turn around and find a couple of vans ahead of us, stopped at a gate. It is locked. No one has a key or knows who to contact to get it opened. The queue of vehicules behind quickly builds up. Then suddenly we hear commotion, I look outside my windown, I notice water running down the road. Flash flood!!! Looking further up the road, some have already turned back, rushing back up the mountain to safety, driving across the flooded creek bed.
We get to the original problem area: a creek has broken its banks and flooded the road which is also breaking up. The tour guide calls his manager. 2 vans will come and get us if we can wade across the creek. The original van will be left behind for now.
The tour company, guide and driver all managed the situation brilliantly. How lucky are we to have seen this part of the world under such rare conditions. According to wikipedia, evidence suggests that it hadn’t rained at all from 1570 to 1971 and while we were there, we got 7 years’ worth of rain in just 12 hours.
The second tour takes us to the Altaplino lagoons, high plains lagoons, with a pick up at 7am and breakfast planned for 8.30am. The scenery was breathtaking:
The order in which we visited the various sights was changed due to the rains the previous evening and some road closures. Unfortunately, our tour guide was not as experienced in managing change as yesterday’s guide so we had breakfast at 11am, after an unexpected 45 minute walk between lagoons (not good for Anthony’s ankle) and lunch was served at 16.45. A combination of altitude and lack of food made sure I got hit with altitude sickness, despite making sure I drank heaps of water all day (which took care of the evening, night and next morning for me). We decide that I cannot make the next two tours which go up to higher altitudes quicker than today and Anthony decides that 2 tours is more than enough for him so will cancel his spots on the next 2 also. While we have our ridiculously late lunch, we get our guide to call the manager and release our spots for other tourists. We have no idea if we will get our money back but it’s too bad. We go into the agency the next day, speak to the manager, and we are happy to report he refunded what we didn’t do without any fuss. Thank you Martin.
It was interesting talking to Martin, a Dutch man who arrived 28 years ago, and understanding why everything is so expensive in San Pedro. San Pedro is not connected to the grid (environmentalists don’t want to scar the scenery with power lines) so they have to use diesel to power electricity generators (diesel is one of the most expensive ways of providing electricity), everything has to be trucked in, and water treatment requires reverse osmosis to remove arsenic which occurs naturally, but in high levels in this area.
While it was good to go on organised tours for a change, and it was nice to meet a few travellers, we both feel that this way of travelling is not for us. We would have stopped so many more times just to admire the stunning lighting and listen to the silence…
So we spend the next couple of days recovering, going into town to use the internet at our favourite little restaurant and at a ‘French’ bakery on the main town square and doing some bike maintenance. Both motorcycle chains need tightening, but Anthony’s, which is still the original chain, a lot more than mine. Hmmm, we will have to keep an eye on that… Our bikes are completely covered in mud that has dripped down from the mud roof of our cabin but we decide there is no point in cleaning them yet. It continues to rain those next two days up to our departure.
I have to tell you that we found out that the road to Bolivia has been closed due to up to 20cm of snow and landslides. So even if we hadn’t taken the hard decision to give Bolivia a miss, we would have not been able to enter there from San Pedro as we had originally planned anyway. Amazing how things work out…
What an experience San Pedro de Atacama has been, my favourite place being the Salar de Talar – so many gentle colours and so stunning. Time to start heading north again tomorrow and sing into my helmet and Anthony’s ears 🙂