We knew that traveling south in South America would be cold…it’s winter here right now…but we hadn’t expected it to be this cold. San Pedro de Atacama is inland a bit and, at 2500 meters, is the chilliest place we’ve visited yet.
We got off the bus after dark and set about to look for a room. I’d heard it was expensive here but was still feeling burned when we finally settled on a room with a private bath that cost us 35,000 CH pesos – that’s $70CAD!!! Sure, a lesser room could be had but that included a shared bath that was to be reached by going outside and crossing the courtyard…it’s around –5 here at night!!
Tours are also expensive, but we found one for the next morning at about $50CAD each. The girl explained all that we would do on the tour…but it was in spanish. I heard ‘Salar de Atacama’ and ‘flamingos’ and that was enough for me…I should have listened more closely.
The van picked us up promptly at 8am, which was good as I had also read that sometimes people just don’t get picked up so I was happy that they showed up. We drove the hour or so through the desert to get to the Salar de Atacama.
It was pretty cool. A huge basin, hemmed in by two mountain ranges, filled with salt flats and briny lagoons. We walked along the salt paths with our group as our guide as he explained about the area…in spanish (I forgot to ask about the English guide). Oh well, we understood what we could and made up the rest.
The salt paths through the area were so white it looked as if we were making our way along snow paths in Montreal – and it was cold enough to imagine it too. The briny, mineral filled lagoons were even slushy with ice! But the flamingos didn’t seem to mind and I was happy to see them (I was worried there wouldn’t be any in winter).
We all climbed back into the van and the guide/driver explained where we were headed to. We didn’t understand a word so just looked out the window as we drove along wondering where we were going.
It appeared as though we were skirting one of the mountain ranges, and we got some terrific views of the snow-capped mountains that make up the border between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Then we took a left turn and started to head toward the mountains. Jason started to comment when he could see that the snow line was getting closer and closer…I thought that a picture in the snow might be cool and so wasn’t too upset.
The road continued to twist and climb through the foothills and, eventually, snow started to show itself on the road. The van pushed on although it was getting more and more difficult. We continued to wonder where the heck we were going.
Soon enough there was too much snow on the road and the van couldn’t make it any further. The driver got out, shored up the tires with big stones and explained to us that that was it for the van so we’d have to walk up and over the crest of the hill – at least that’s what we got out of the spanish and arm waving that went along with it. The crest wasn’t too far and, thinking there would be a great view on the other side, we geared up with all the hats and mitts and scarves we had and set out walking up the hill.
It was cold, and windy, and icy…but we were up for the adventure. We plodded up the hill to find a park ranger hut. We forked over the 2500 CH pesos each still not sure what for. Just on the other side was a spectacular view of Lake Miniques ringed by spectacular, snow-capped mountains. We headed down to the refuge hut on the shore for a closer look.
As we got further down we could see that there was a trail in the snow that led off into the distance, presumably to another viewpoint. We looked at each other and agreed that there was absolutely no need to see any further viewpoints in this snowy, cold, windy weather – we would be quite happy to take pictures from where we were, thank you very much.
The guide, however, had other plans and explained that it was two kilometers along the path to Lake Miscanti and that the local guide would accompany us to explain all the flora and fauna. He would go back to the van, turn it around and meet us at the other end. At least that’s what I heard.
And so we wrapped our scarves a little tighter, pulled our toques down lower and tightened our jackets to start the walk to Lake Miscanti. The walk wasn’t entirely unpleasant – sure it was cold and the wind was whipping, but the views were spectacular and we were doing something unexpected. All the way though I kept thinking that the walk back up the slope would be a bitch with the wind in our face and the soft snow making uphill progress more difficult…was he really going to meet us at the other end?
As soon as we reached the second lake it was clear that there would be no van awaiting us. The small lake sat in a basin surrounded, on one side, by more snowy mountains and, on the other side, by wind swept snow drifts. There was no road, no van, no easy way out.
The path back was just as hard as I’d predicted. The wind was now against us, the path was uphill, and the soft snow made it more difficult to walk. We put our heads down against the wind and trudged slowly upwards, lifting only to see how much farther was had to go.
We finally crested and were able to head downhill towards the van. Sweet relief it would seem except that the wind on this side of the hill was even worse. It blew at an unrelentingly steady force that sometimes made standing upright difficult, and it was bitingly cold making me think more than once that my right cheek might suffer a little frost bite.
Back in the van we did manage to laugh a bit and vowed to listen more closely to tour descriptions before saying yes and, although I never thought I’d be warm again, I’m glad that we did it.
That wasn’t it for the tour though – these people pack a lot into a day! We stopped for lunch before heading onto a canyon/valley of note and another small town before heading home at sunset. Quite frankly though, we were done and only half-heartedly participated.
When we got back to San Pedro de Atacama we wandered the streets of the small town looking for a restaurant with a fireplace where we settled in for a great dinner and a bottle of wine. Finally warm again we relaxed an enjoyed the evening.