Now we had a working Steve we could finally make our planned trip north, only 6 weeks later than planned. This was going to have to be an express trip round Bolivia and Peru as the snow had started falling, Chillan had recieved a meter of the white stuff the week we left. A bit of Lonely Planet consulting and a few recommendations saw us head to La Serena, the Lonely Planet paints a picture of a quaint seaside town with old colonial buildings. What you get is a big city by the sea and perhaps the worlds most expensive, and not very good, toasted sandwich! Fortunately one of the Sprinter drivers from the mechanics’ yard had recommended going to the nearby Elqui Valley, home to many Pisco distillaries, observatories and hippies. Elqui did indeed live up to its reputation, being beautiful and the first time we’d seen green landscapes in a long time. Our visit to one of the observatories was also really worth while giving very clear view of Uranus and Saturn’s rings!
It was then a long drive to get to San Pedro De Atacama, a small town in the Atacama desert surrounded by salt flats and valconoes. although we couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to go and see penguins at the Humbolt Pinguino Reserve. This was a 160km detour on dirt roads only to find the jetty were the tour boats leave from deserted with just a few pelicans for company, maybe the Loney Planet forgot to mention penguins nesting might be seasonal.
Oh well back to heading north, and there was still a lot of heading north to do. The amount of nothing in the north of Chile is quite impressive, there is just mile after mile of arrid stoney landscape. The desolate plains of the Atacama seem to support little or no life and are only punctuted by occasional small settlement.
On the way to San Pedro we were keen to drive through the salt flats, rather than via the normal highway route. The National Geographic map showed a minor road crossing the Salt flats although the GPS was not so sure it existed, it took some effort to find the right turn. However, find it we did even though according to the GPS we had driven off the edge of the world. Old school:1, technology:0. You just can’t beat a paper map! All the same, the road wasn’t the greatest so we elected to stop in the middle of the salt flats for the night and negotiate the rest of the way with the benefit of daylight – van living is just ace!
However the van toilet (a small folding shovel with pick axe) was not woking so well on the vast flat plain of the salt flats with its impenitrable crust!
There was a small detour to the salt water lagoons where the flamingos feed on the shrimp that live there. It was just the most gorgeous place without a breath of wind to stir the mirror surface of the water, and due to the request for silence at the entrance it made it one of the most tranquil, peaceful places we have ever visited. Arriving with the music blaring probably wasn’t appreciated, in retrospect…
We arrived in San Pedro in good time to get to Valle de La Luna in time for sunset. We booked a tour to the El Tatio geysers as you need to make a 4am start if you want to catch them at sunrise, the best time to visit as the steam hangs in the cool air.
The Geysers really are an amazing sight. It is just a shame you have to share the experience with so many other people. After seeing the geysers we were taken off to some hot springs, these were the best I have ever been to as it was really a hot stream in the mountains that you could luxuriate in, awesome!
We had got the touristy stuff out the way in fairly short order so we could then get out climbing at Socaire!