The Driest Place in the World

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Ancient titans awoke high above.  Blazing spheres pulsating and spinning a millennium away, their burning might reduced to specks of light that began to shine through the receding daylight.  A soft pink glow began to devour the valley, replacing the brilliance of the sun that beat upon the dust mercilessly, the sun that shone so bright it burned, burned so bright it consumed.  The hot dry air that swallowed the moisture out of the ground, leaving the parched land writhing in swirling clouds of dust, was replaced by a cold desert breeze that flowed over the mountains and volcanoes that dotted the horizon.  Shadows began to reach across the valley, adding themselves to the growing darkness.  We took our places along peaks and cliffs, passing around cups filled with the sweet piscosour.  No longer choked by the city’s breath, we stood under the same sky that two days ago had hidden the stars with a blanket of smog and noise.  In the cold dead of night we left, waving at traffic, throttling forward through streets, receding lights of the city, bright whiteness of the building, sanitized smell of the security gate, tearing of tickets, taking of seats, roaring of engines, bodies hurtling forward, land lurching away beneath, pressure building, descending, land rushing up to meet wheels, stop, exit, San Pedro de Atacama.  Driest desert in the world, end of the Incan empire, land devoid of water, sky overflowing with stars.  Under the infinity of those stars, standing in the Valley of the Moon, drinking piscosour and desert air, we were eternal.

During my first semester, myself and some of my friends were lucky enough not to have any midterms, giving us about a week that we immediately devoted to travelling.  We all piled into the school library to look up places to go, and tickets, we decided on San Pedro de Atacama, a popular destination for travellers.  In the north of Chile, San Pedro is the driest desert in the world, some areas have not seen water in 20 years, however the town is situated around an oasis and is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking landscapes and attractions I have ever seen.  We left early in the morning in a hired van to the airport, our group comprised of 2 canadians, 2 Belgians, 2 Americans, and one dirty little Russian.  We landed in the town of Calama to freezing temperatures and headed towards the bus station to catch a bus into San Pedro.

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We walked around and found a cool hostel that consisted of a few huts (dormitory, kitchen, office) all surrounding a common open air area filled with hammocks and a ping pong table.

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We stashed our backpacks away and headed to Pukara de Quitor, and ancient native fortress situated on the side of a steep hill, it was used to fight off the Incan invaders to this area.  After admiring the landscape and trekking through a mini sand storm, we headed back to the hostel to plan the next day and enjoy some Chilean beer and food.

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The next day we planned to take a trip to the salt flats where the flocks of flamingos feed, up to one of the highest lakes in the world nestled between snow capped peaks and through various small villages.  Sounds great, except the high altitude of San Pedro de Atacama can do a number on the body not used to being up so high, and the effects are only compounded if you spend the night drinking beer and boxed wine with other travellers at the hostel, which I did.  Needless to say the 5am wake up call and 2 hour bus ride out into the desert was not the funnest of my life, but once we were off the bus no hangover could keep me down.  The salt flats were incredible, I admit I even picked up some salt and ate it, the flamingos grazing through the water looking for food and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes were mind blowing.  After eating a breakfast of coffee and toast with manjar/dulce de leche (a delicious caramel spread), we headed even higher up towards the crystal blue lakes caught between mountains.  Again the bus ride to even higher altitudes was rough but the result was some unreal vistas and on the way back down we stopped at a few villages for food and a llama wool sweater.

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We returned to town and spent another night cooking, drinking and talking, this time I decided to get an early night as we were planning on visiting the Geysers del Tatio early the next morning.  Again we woke up at 5am and walked to meet the bus to take us to the geysers.  Now I am a Canadian, half my life has been spent shoveling my driveway and weathering through -30 degrees C, but I have never been so cold as I was at the geysers, so cold that I retreated to the bus after 45 minutes of walking around the geysers.  Despite the cold the geysers were awesome, some spouting water periodically, some continually steaming, some laying dormant.  We were able to get some cool pictures and I was told of by the guide when I asked what would happen if I touched the water coming out of the geysers, apparently the closest hospital was three hours away so not the greatest idea.  Afterwards we relaxed in one of the hot springs, which deteriorated into a mud throwing battle between the guys, and which was extremely painful to get out and dry off in the freezing cold.

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We were lucky enough to see a group of Vicunas, kind of a mix between a llama and a deer, near the geysers and my friend Megan and I crept up to get closer look, Megan making it right into the group.

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After returning from the geysers we set out to do some sandboarding in the Valle de la Muerte.  I thought being a pretty avid snowboarder I would rip the sand dunes apart like a Spanish Shaun White, but sandboarding was way different and felt a lot worse when you bailed.  Not to mention the grueling trek up the dunes each time.  Despite the sweat and scrapes it was pretty unreal.

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After returning to town, returning our boards and grabbing some food, we set out to the Valle de la Luna to drink some piscosour while watching the sun set.  There are no words in any language that could accurately describe the sheer beauty and immensity of watching the sun go down on the valley of the moon, the change of colours across the mountains and the slow explosion of stars above will forever be etched into my memory.  We yelled ¡SALUD! drinking the delicious pisco and waited until dark before setting off for a tour of the valley that lasted until 4 in the morning gazing up at more stars than there are grains of sand in the world.

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The next day we hitch hiked out into the valley to trek around and explore.  Accompanied by a white stray who followed us from the town, and continued to sprint after the truck until we disappeared over a ridge, only to appear 10 minutes later running towards us.  We had a blast climbing around the valley, taking photos, and just soaking it all in.  We then set off to to the Cejar Lagoon, a small body of water nestled in the mountains which was the remnants of an ancient sea, and much like the Dead Sea its salt content caused you to float effortlessly.  After getting out and scraping the drying salt from our bodies we watched the sun go down once again with cups of piscosour before heading back into town to get a few hours of sleep before our bus and plane back to Santiago.

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My trip to San Pedro de Atacama was hands down one of my favourite memories from my year abroad, I did some amazing things with some of the most unreal people I met during my exchange.

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I have to take this chance to give photo cred to my amazingly talented friend Megan Smith, whose pictures are in this post and some of my others.

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2 thoughts on “The Driest Place in the World

  1. Pingback: Nuestra Señora de La Paz | thewanderlustking

  2. Pingback: Crossing a continent in a pair of Vans | thewanderlustking

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