The Knickers Flag

We were picked up early and headed for the Chilean/Bolivian border – there was no time for coffee, although it seemed very much like a hurry up and wait situation! We had ordered from a street vendor by Chilean customs but they seemed to be a one pot operation making the coffee production rather slow. This lead to our driver corralling us back to the bus, before our coffee was ready, sharing sips quickly with the kindly Joost and Janne who had successfully received their coffees but were not allowed to take them on the bus! The vendor of course was quite mad at bus driver, a dramatic shouting match showcasing the expressiveness the South Americans are known for!

We drove up past two volcanoes on our way to the Bolivian border. They are incredibly beautiful and next trip, I hope to be able to climb one of them. The border area….brrrr! Windy and cool! DEFINITELY wish I had packed a few more warm layers! We discovered there were banos all around, when we requested a washroom and the guides just gestured all around them. Grab a piece of tissue and help yourself! >.<

There are fees at the Bolivian border and the national park office, which are typically not covered by the tour providers, so keep some Bolivian money set aside for this.

Our guide, Nelson, was excellent. He did not speak a word of English, really, but since the only other male in our group, also named Nelson, was a native Spanish speaker, he was able to translate the important parts for us. We packed into a Toyota 4×4 that Nelson took great care in keeping neat and clean, our luggage strapped up on top and us 6 all sandwiched in cosily. Our group consisted of: me and Ellen, a pair of sisters from Ireland, Niamh and Emer, Nelson from Chile, and his friend Sandra, from Germany.

Nelson (our driver) had some excellent music on deck, mainly Bolivian folk-y type music in general, interspersed with a select few 80’s hits. Perfectly surreal to groove to with the surreal scenery around us. We started at Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, surrounded by volcanoes.  Here, we got our first taste of flamingos. WOW! They are absolutely beautiful birds.

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We continued through the moonscape-like desert to the so-called ‘Dali Rocks’. The Irish girls had the brilliant idea of doing running panoramic shots. We would start at one spot while the picture taker slowly panoramed around. As soon as we were out of the shot, we’d run around behind and pose on the other side of the shot just at the camera hit that spot. Doubled! This was super tiring in the decreased oxygen environment but fun. Shortly after this, I discovered that my fingernails looked like the red, white, and blue ice cream cones probably due to the lack of oxygenation. Yikes!

The natural hot springs were the next stop on our tour (also at an additional cost to get in). Ellen and I didn’t go in because of the cold (not wanting to get wet), and the small and crowded nature of the pools, and instead walked around looking at flamingos instead. We were able to get quite close, so surreal! Apparently the hot springs were very nice tho.

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We next took a brief visit to the Geysers, which were not as good as Yellowstone. This was also the highest point in journey (4500m), making it both very cold and tiring. I felt overall pretty good, but just slow. Others in the group were really feeling the altitude.

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We had a tasty lunch at the refugio where we were staying for the night once we got there and were then able to take a rest.  I got a headache, really my only symptom of being at altitude, apart from being stuffed up, especially when lying down. I took an ibuprofen and that seemed to fix me right up, along with a snack and some water. I was feeling quite lucky to have such mild symptoms at altitude, unlike some of the others who were very headachey, weak, and nauseous.

After a brief rest, we set off for Laguna Colorado. It. Was. Amazing. There were SO many flamingos in the waters, eating, sleeping, flying. Plus…there were llamas! Laguna Colorado, means the coloured/red lagoon and indeed, the colours = wow. We were feeling pretty good and took lots of fun photos, pretending to be flamingos, and otherwise goofing off.

Back at the refugio, we tried some coca tea, reputed to aid in altitude acclimatization. I was feeling just fine at altitude, thank goodness! We rested, chatted and then took supper, which was a pretty decent soup and spaghetti. I rallied the group for a birthday song and birthday snickers to Ellen.  She made a brief speech, we all cheers-ed her and wished less altitude sickness upon her! ha!

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The refugio eating quarters
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Our beds at the refugio

Our evening was topped off by the stars. Wow. Stupendous! So clear without any interference from city lights, we could see satellites and shooting stars.

I planned out my clothing for the next day, layering being very important. It was not too cold in the sunshine without the wind blowing, but with wind and any decrease in sun, it was quite cold. With all this planning, one of the Germans called me very German! I was touched. Haha! I wanted to do some laundry as my undies situation was starting to reach critical, but after much discussion decided that they may not dry quickly enough and a ‘knickers flag’ clothesline streaming off the car the next morning to dry, may not be appreciated by Nelson y Nelson!

An amazing first day in Bolivia!

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Really Old Things

I set off in the morning for an adventure to Rainbow Valley, while Ellen rested her sore foot. My group was quite small, just 8 of us, including a very lovely Swiss mother and her grown son. Barbara, the mother, was very talkative, describing herself as a ‘happy retired lady’. She told me that she used to help her dentist hubby when he first opened his practice, though she had no experience as a dental assistant, and she thought every day of divorce during this time, haha! She said when he got a real assistant and she could just do the books, it was much better. When I commented to her that Swiss chocolate is very delicious, she said ‘It’s ok.’!!! A real card, that one.

Our guide was rather talkative, which is always nice. When they are a hand talker and also your driver however…sometimes a bit scary! No, truth be told, I’ve had considerably scarier rides, any city bus at all that I rode in China, for instance. We also picked up a hitchhiker along the way, an older man, who it was translated to me, as an itinerant worker, had been walking for 8 hours to find work.

Yerbas Buenas

Yerbas Buenas is a 7000 year old large amalgamation of rocks/large rock formation. It was originally a place to stay for travellers and now is simply notable for its beautiful petroglyphs. There are many drawings here, many of which tell a story about the times past. They are simply fascinating to look at.

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The main face of Yerbas Buenas
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One of the mystery pieces – lizard? Rodent?

Our guide delighted in telling us about some of the local plant life as well. The ricarica, good for breastfeeding and digestion, and the pingopingo, from the Ephedrina family, known as the ‘Atacama Viagra’ but good for urinary infection too. Apparently this is no where near as strong as the Chinese strain of the plant, and you should select the fourth section up from where the leaf meets the main stem, as it has the highest concentration of the effective substance in it. He also pointed out a cactus, whose flowers are high in Vitamin C, and were therefore eaten and used to keep scurvy away. This cactus is fondly called ‘the mother-in-law cactus’!

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Mother in Law Cactus

Valle Arcoiris: Rainbow Valley

Our next stop was just a short ways down the road. Rainbow Valley, as it is known for the myriad of colour found in the rock, is an estimated 240 million yrs old. Our guide told us that it was originally formed from a magma chamber. The various colours are due to the different minerals in the rock and dirt. We also visited a rock formation that was very reminiscent of Antelope Canyon in Arizona, or the grand entrance to Petra in Jordan, albeit in miniature.

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Our Valle Arcoiris Group
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Canyon carved by spring floods

Our guide provided us with a snack and we took the opportunity to get to know our group mates a bit better and get into some deep discussion with our guide. He was telling us about how the president of Chile is really ‘just a puppet’ for the 8 families that essentially own all of Chile (business, land, etc). He said that he was originally an architect, but to practice as an architect in Santiago, he would have to work for one of the major companies and just continue to feed into the wealth of the major players. He didn’t want to do this, and so decided to move  his family to San Pedro de Atacama, and go as ‘off the grid’ as he could. He said that they power their home with solar panels, don’t have a tv, buy local/organic, send their daughter to an alternate playgroup rather than a government run preschool, and do whatever else they can to make their money count as their vote. I loved this, as it is how I want to live and try to live, and it’s fascinating to see this feeling mirrored on the other side of the world.

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Gesturing hand, telling us about the rock formation and colouring 😉

Afternoon: Moon Valley

Our afternoon tour was considerably bigger with a whole busload of people, though we did get to know a lovely Irish couple, who had lived in Vancouver for a few months. It’s truly a small world.

Our first stop was the 3 Marias, although now technically known as the 2 1/2 Marias. It was originally also used as a resting place. The reason they are now the 2 1/2 Marias is because a few years back a tourist stood on one of them and broke it off. We asked what had happened to the tourist who broke it, thinking it would have been a huge fine and deportation for sure, but he received only a 100 dollar fine!

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I’m the 3rd Maria/Death glare at the people encroaching on my photo.

We climbed up a steep slope to the to top of Achachas, a sand dune/rock formation. What a beautiful 360 view! Our very funny guide Simon told us volcano story about the two brother volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques, who stand side by side. Licancabur is the ‘perfect’ volcano, with symmetrically sloped conical sides. Juriques, on the other hand, appears to have been lopped off in the middle, and to the other side of Juriques is an empty spot, exactly mirrored across the valley with a ‘female’ volcano, Quimal. Quimal was supposedly Licancabur’s girlfriend/fiancee, originally located on the same side of the valley as the other two. When Juriques began flirting with her, the father volcano down the valley, Laskar, erupted in anger and chopped Juriques’ head off and moved Quimal across the valley from the boys. A cautionary tale on the dangers of promiscuity to be sure!

After a quick exploration of a cave, studded with mineral crystals, we headed back to town for a well deserved rest!

Tips for exploring San Pedro de Atacama region:

1. Light layers.
2. Good footwear.
3. Water. Lots.
4. SPF 60.
5. Headlamp for exploring caves.
6. Scarf for when the wind is throwing sand in your hair and eyes and also for when it gets cold at sunset.
7. Snack although there are empanadas and water at the main entrance of Moon Valley if needed. I don’t think other destinations like the lagunas and Valle Arcoiris have snacks though.
8. Travel with a locally owned/eco-conscious tour company