Elqui Valley is pretty dry and dusty, but seemed damper than a UK bank holiday weekend in comparison to our next destination. San Pedro is slap-bang in the middle of the Atacama Desert (the driest place on Earth) and the Atacama salt-flats. At first glance, it appears to be a rustic, wild-west type of place. But then you notice all the tourist agencies, internet cafes and the fact that the town plaza is a wi-fi hotspot. It´s quite the bustling tourist hub, but has retained it´s frontier town charm.
San Pedro is near the Bolivian border, and will be our base for organising our tour of the Bolivian salt-flats. We have heard various horror stories regarding these trips: bad food, extreme cold, altitude sickness, drunk drivers etc. So we do some research by looking at the hilarious complaints book at the tourist information office. One person complains that the driver left them behind at some geysers. With five other tourists in the 4×4, I can´t help feeling that the driver might not be entirely to blame, and maybe this guy was just unpopular.
We have banded together with a German couple and a Kiwi couple to form a full 4×4. We speak to a couple of agencies and it turns out that I am the only Spanish-speaker (using the term in the loosest possible sense) so I will be responsible for translating while we negotiate a deal and when we are on the tour. What´s the Spanish for “uh-oh“? Mr Beet keeps saying that my Spanish is really good, but since his grasp of the language consists entirely of a few foodstuffs, I´m not sure how he has reached this conclusion.
Anyway, once we´re all booked in for our Bolivian tour, we set about making the most of our final few days in Chile. We enjoyed our star-gazing trip in New Zealand so much that we have another go in San Pedro. They are building the world´s biggest set of telescopes nearby, but we are content to just look through some outdoor telescopes. Plus, all the stuff we learned in New Zealand is still fresh in our minds so we can answer the guide´s questions and look really clever! Cleverer at least than the woman who pointed excitedly at the sky and shrieked “Oh my God, what’s that?” at a plane.
Our final day in Chile is spent visiting the Salar de Tara, a little salt-flat that is tiny compared to the Bolivian ones we will see in a few days, but still very pretty and worth a visit. We get picked up early in the morning in San Pedro (2,400m above sea-level) and within an hour we are at 4,800m. It is cold, but since we don´t have much to do except stroll around taking a few pictures, we don´t feel the effects of the altitude too badly.
We see some volcanoes, vicunas (wild llamas), frozen lakes, big rock formations, the salt flat and some cute little marmot-like animals that our guide said were called “chululu” or something like that.
More pictures from San Pedro on Mr Beet’s flickr page.