San Pedro: Leaps of Faith and Walking on Water

Every adventure has an end, and Sunday was the end of our adventures in the desert. But we went out with a bang, or more accurately a splash. I had a bad case of the sniffles for a week afterwards, but boy was it worth it! If you missed the beginning of my adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, you can click here to read from the start.

Once again, we set out for the day wearing bathing suits under our clothes. Our first destination was a salt laguna like the ones we visited on Saturday, except this one was much smaller and much, much deeper. The salt level in the water was around 30%, around the same concentration as the Dead Sea, and absolutely frigid. Why would anyone in their right mind decide to immerse themselves in a freezing, super salty laguna in the middle of the desert? Why, to float of course!

Because of the high salt content, the water in the laguna is denser than regular water, and much denser than the human body. I had heard about people floating with ease in very salty water, but I was still surprised when I got in and found that I didn’t have to swim at all. Once I got used to the freezing temperature, it was an extremely bizarre sensation to float effortlessly supported completely by the water. I could orient myself into a standing position and put both hands over my head and barely get my chin wet.

When we hauled ourselves out, teeth chattering and gasping from cold, we were all covered with a thin crust of salt. Our guide had brought a jug of lukewarm water to rinse off with, and we wrapped ourselves in our towels and headed out again.

Our next stop was called Los Ojos del Salar, or the Eyes of the Salt Flat. These were two lagunas, almost perfectly round, in the middle of the desert. The water level was about ten feet below the ground level above. The mystery of the Ojos de Salar is that they are not as salty as all of the other lagunas, and the source of their water puzzles geologists. I believe that empirical evidence is the best evidence, so I took a hands-on approach to the investigation. By hands-on, I mean we took turns making a running leap off the edge of the desert into the water below. It was cold, as cold as the salt laguna before, but much less salty.

Our final destination was a laguna where our guide assured us we would be able to walk on water. There is a legend that the local Atacameños, warned that the conquistadors were stealing gold from native tribes, buried all of their gold under this laguna. We got out of the van and, with bare feet and rolled up pants, tentatively stepped out onto the laguna. We found we were indeed able to walk easily, supported by the salt in the water.

I may be exaggerating the truth a bit. Shame on you for believing everything on the internet! The truth is that the laguna was only about a half inch deep all the way across, and instead of sand the bottom was made of white salt. The effect was stunning, the shallow water and the pure white bottom reflected the mountains and gave the illusion of walking on water. We had fun in the pleasantly warm water, taking pictures and goofing around.

Back at the hostel, we sadly packed up and headed out to catch our flight back to the hustle, bustle, noise and smog of Santiago. I wanted to breathe in the tranquility and serenity of the desert, absorb it like a sponge for when I feel the stress and anxiety of the world start to overwhelm me. Before I thought the desert was just emptiness and blank sands, I had no idea how refreshing  a little emptiness could be!



Saturday in San Pedro part 2: Thoughts from a Desert Cemetery

Now I will continue my recounting of our Saturday in San Pedro de Atacama from where we left off, which is hauling ourselves, dripping and shivering, from the hot spring and back to Incahuasi B&B. After some welcome hot showers and lunch, we went exploring in downtown San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re new here, you can click here to start reading my adventure from the beginning.

As I’ve mentioned before, the town is adorably small. We went for a guided tour in the local arqueological museum, called the Museo Arqueológico R. P. Gustavo Le Paige for the founder of the museum. It is dedicated to preserving and educating visitors about the pre-colombian Atacamaño culture and so we saw some interesting artifacts that were explained to us by our very knowledgeable guide.

After the museum we went for a stroll through the local cemetery. It is the only cemetery in town, and has been serving the population for at least a hundred years based on the dates I saw on grave markers although many of the older graves were marked only with plain wooden crosses so it could be much older.

This cemetery is a bit different from any others I’ve visited, and much different from others in Chile (click here to see my Cementerio General de Santiago post). For one, as I’ve mentioned, many graves did not bear any identifying information, just simple painted crosses of various sizes. Isa, our program director, pointed out that in a town this small, you know exactly where your loved ones are laid to rest. For another, this cemetery follows an ancient Atacamenian tradition of also marking the graves with a small mound of earth. Besides the ground burials there were several above-ground mausoleums, a few of which were modeled after the style of homes in the pueblo.

Walking around the cemetery as the setting sun cast long orange rays of light over the little mounds and cement slabs, I considered, as I had in the Cementerio General, how the way we treat our dead reflects many of the attitudes, values, and culture of the living. I have long held the opinion that death rituals are not for the dead but for the living; we make sense of the terrible but necessary phenomenon of death through the lens of traditions.

Here in this little cemetery the dead were surrounded by obvious signs of care from the living they had left behind. Almost all of the plaques and crosses were obviously handmade, the same hands that once held and hugged the deceased carefully etched the letters of their names into wood or concrete or clay. There were some with spelling errors in the names of the months, evidence of poor rural education in decades past. All of the graves were carefully maintained, even the anonymous ones were free of debris.

Many of the graves had these little glass-fronted cubbies filled with photos, souvenirs, candles, and other mementos of the things that the deceased had enjoyed in life. Even graves from decades ago had recent offerings, I saw a family lovingly reorganizing the cubby of a deceased family member which laughing and sharing stories. We heard an 8-bit rendition of Fleur de Lis repeating over and over again from a musical mother’s day card propped open to show a message of love. On one grave, weighed down with a pebble, was a carefully folded note written on notebook paper in what seemed to be a teenage girl’s handwriting that read “For you because I miss you Uncle” on the front. I was curious but I didn’t pick it up, the words inside were clearly not meant for any eyes on this earth.

This cemetery spoke volumes of the love of a community for its members that had been whisked away into the arms of oblivion, expressed through handmade gifts and remembrances and care. I think there is something extremely healthy about this practice for a society. In realizing these works of love the living are able to open conversations about death, ask questions of themselves and others, accept and demystify the cultural and social processes of death.

In our culture, that is to say the United States culture, I think that we have put an unhealthy distance between death and ourselves. I am not by any means trying to say that we do not grieve the loss of our loved ones any less, that the sting of having someone you cared about wrenched from our loving embrace is any less terrible, or that we love those who have left us any less. However, I do think that in our industrialization of death we deny ourselves the opportunity to openly converse about death, to accept it and understand it as best as we can. In the United States, we pay an average of about $6,500 for strangers to wash, dress, embalm, layout, and bury our loved ones (NFDA). We then pay for their graves to be maintained, the grass cut and fertilized and the trash and dead leaves kept clear. We pay for laser-cut headstones and etched cremation urns and factory made stainless steel caskets.

We pay through the nose to keep our hands off because we are afraid of death, and I would propose that we are afraid of death BECAUSE we keep our hands off. In the San Pedro de Atacama cemetery, there is evidence all around of the loving hands that have worked to keep the memory and respect of the dead alive, and in my opinion evidence of a healthy understanding and acceptance of death. I believe we have much to learn, and I hope to see more hands-on funeral practices in the future in the US as we move toward a healthier mentality about the Great Unknown.

Saturday in San Pedro

Continuamos with my adventures in San Pedro de Atacama! To start reading my San Pedro de Atacama adventures from the beginning, click here.

Saturday started at 4:30 am when we rolled out of bed, pulled on thermals and winter gear over our bathing suits, grabbed our towels and cameras, and bundled into the van to sleep through a two hour ride to the first attraction of the day: El Tatio geyser field!

El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere, and the third largest in the world behind Yellowstone and one in Russia. The geysers form when deep groundwater is superheated by the magma core of the earth and rises rapidly to the surface, bursting through cracks in the crust at amazing temperatures.

I’m not typically impressed by sunrises, usually being too groggy to appreciate them. But the bitter cold (about 20F/-7C) and the otherworldly beauty of the place woke me up quickly. The 80+ geysers range from tiny feeble wisps of steam issuing from cracks in the mud to huge mounds that spew boiling water and great clouds of steam. All around is a gurgling, bubbling, hissing as the water seeks to release its pressure. The geysers are not static either but change as the water seeks out the path of least resistance through the miles of crust under our feet. The air had an odor of bad eggs from the sulfur in the water, but not bad enough to distract us from the beauty of the clouds rising against the pale dawn sky. I can’t help but imagine that this place was very spiritually important to the indigenous people, with the raw power of the earth literally seeping and spewing out of the ground. I also like to imagine what the first conquistadors must have thought when they came across it, did they think the great domed ceiling of Hell must be just below their boots?

El Titio geyser

A geyser at El Titio. Also now I know how to make gifs!

We ate breakfast outside in the cold, our numb fingers gripping Styrofoam cups of hot tea and warm grilled cheese quesadillas,  and then we drove off into the gathering sunlight to our next adventure: swimming in a geothermal hot spring!

Although the sun had risen, the heat had not yet reached the desert so we shivered violently as we peeled off our layers of winter gear. My feet quickly lost feeling as they slapped across the frigid stone to the edge of the pool. Once I slipped in, however, it was blessed relief. The water at one end was deep enough that my toes barely skimmed the muddy bottom, and it was blissfully warm after the freezing morning air.

As we got used to the water, we moved into the shallows in search of warmer water. We crouched down so that we were submerged up to our necks in the three feet deep water. The best way I can describe it is when you can’t find the happy medium of water temperature in the shower. We would be shivering in the water, and then from the muddy bottom scalding hot water would seep up, and if your hand or bum were there it actually hurt. In a bug huddle we would crowd around the source and try to mix the water with our hands to enjoy the perfect warm water, but then the hot water would stop and we would shiver some more.

Still, it was an amazing experience. We laughed at each other through the steam rising off the surface, and put mud from the bottom on our faces because someone said it was good for your skin but it might have just been fun and silly. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay all day, and one by one we hauled ourselves out of the water and, shivering violently, hurried into the changing stalls to peel off our wet suits and pull on sweaters and coats and shove hats onto our dripping hair.

We went back to Incahuasi for lunch, but our day was not yet over. This post is already too long, though, so I will share the rest of Sunday another time. Until then, here are my pictures! Enjoy!

Friday in San Pedro-pueblitos, lagunas, and flamingos

Continuing my stories from the desert of San Pedro de Atacama! This is what we did on Friday, our first full day in the desert. Click here to start reading about my San Pedro de Atacama adventure from the start.

After an excellent homemade breakfast courtesy of Incahuasi B&B staff, we piled into the van for a tour of some neighboring pueblitos or tiny towns. First we visited the teensy main plaza of the teensy town Toconao. We visited the teeny church, and I bought an alpaca wool hat from an adorable little old lady in an adorable little shop. Next stop was Socaire, a town of 128 inhabitants. We also visited their church, but it was locked so we could only see the outside and the steeple. We had lunch at the local restaurant; I don’t think it had a name because being the only restaurant it didn’t need a name. Lunch was a yummy chicken and veggie soup and then a main course of beef with rice and carrots with canned peaches for dessert. My favorite was the warm freshly made bread, que rico! As our program director likes to say, guatita llena, corazón contento (full tummy, happy heart).

Our next destination was to visit some high-altitude lagunas, which are extremely salty lakes high in the mountains. Our ears popped as the bus bumped up the steep road until we reached 4,200 meters above sea level. That’s 2.6 miles! It was beautiful, standing on top of the world at the feet of the powerful and majestic mountains while the wild and unbroken wind whipped around us. It was very cold up there, and very quiet but in a forlorn sort of way. The colors were stunning; the lagunas were a vibrant and profound blue that stood out against the marbled reds of the mountains and the yellow tufts of grass. The lagunas are called Miscanti and Miñiques.

It was breathtaking, but not only because of the view. Even just walking a short way between the two lagunas I began to feel the altitude in my chest and in my head. It felt like there was a great weight on my chest, and I couldn’t get my lungs to expand all the way. Imagine putting a really thick rubber band around your chest and then running up and down stairs. I said imagine, don’t try that at home kids! At its worst I started to get that dizzy feeling when you stand up too fast, but by then we had gotten back to the van and once I sat down for a while I felt much better. I can’t imagine how the Incans and Atacameños used to trudge up and down these mountains all the time, often carrying heavy loads!

Our last stop of the day was the Atacamanian Salt Flats. This place was bizarre. The ground all around for miles was encrusted in salt, big thick crystals. The water was very salty and the shallow water was also incrusted with salt as if it were frozen. There were adorable tiny birds skittering around, and flamingos feeding in the shallows. It was an extremely still and peaceful place, with only the gentle splashing of the flamingos feeding and cooing to each other, the crunch of salt underfoot, and the soft breeze.

We had a snack at the visitor’s center and then headed back to Incahuasi for a self-serve dinner and an early bedtime because the next morning we had to get up at 4:30 am.


Day 1: In Which I Hike Through the Shadow of the Valley of Death, and Walk on the Moon

Here is our first day in San Pedro de Atacama, which was last Thursday the 9th of May. Click here to read my first post about San Pedro, explaining more about the town and where I was in it.

We last left our intrepid traveler heroine in the Incahuasi Bed and Breakfast after an early wake up call and a short plane ride from Santiago. Little does she know she is about to come face to face with death in an experience that is out of this world!

No sooner had we picked roommates and deposited our suitcases we were back in the van. We passed through the Valley of the Dinosaurs, so named for the huge rock formations that look like the backs of slumbering stegosauruses. We drove for a while on a desolate highway, admiring the far off mountains when our van turned off the road and we bumped along for a while along a rough trail. Although everything pretty much looked the same our guide said we had reached our destination so we grabbed our cameras and water bottles and hopped out.

We started to hike, panting uphill for a while until the path evened out and we found ourselves on the top of a cliff overlooking a huge valley. There were great sand dunes and very pointy rock formations. Our guide explained that this valley was originally called Valley of Mars by French explorers, but the Spanish misheard it as Valle de Muerte, or Valley of death. They were both excellent names. The valley certainly looked like Mars with its red pointy formations and cratered landscape, and nothing can live there safe for a few lizards and beetles because everything else dies of dehydration.

The funnest part of this valley was running down the side of a great steep sand dune. The way to do it is to take off your shoes and socks so you can feel the sand, as soft as baby powder, between your toes. Then you run as fast as you can down because once you have momentum if you don’t keep up then you will fall spectacularly and roll down. Although this doesn’t hurt at all because the sand cushions the fall. We had tons of fun throwing ourselves into the sand and making sand angels and taking goofy pictures.

After the Valley of Death, we got into the van again and blasted off to the Valle de la Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. Again, the great pointed rock formations made the name apparent. When we had all hiked to the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set behind the mountains, we all fell silent and experienced the reverent stillness of the world’s driest desert. It was eerie: there was no wind rustling through leaves, no singing of birds, no running water or hum of machines, nothing but a stillness that envelops you and holds you captive in its immensity. We watched the palette of the mountains fade from browns and reds to purples and greys, and we watched the life giving disk of plasma that is our sun slip away behind the topography of the earth. As we walked back down to the van, now in the deepening shadow of twilight, we could feel the temperature slipping from around 75F down down down to close to 30F.

Back at the Incahuasi B&B we had a welcome barbecue dinner with chicken, pork, sausage, and steak. Being a Chilean meal there was tons of good bread, too. Exhausted and encrusted with sand, we showered and crawled gratefully under our down comforters for our first sleep in the desert. Tucked into warm beds after the frigid air of the night desert air was bliss and we all slept deeply, which was good because we had much to do the next day!

To be continued…

Here are pictures from the Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna.

¡Vamanos al Desierto!

Hello everyone! I’m a little sunburned and I have a cold but I had a blast in the desert! We spent four days in the Atacama desert in the north of Chile, only about three hours from the Bolivian border. It is the world’s driest desert, with some parts only receiving an average of about 4 inches of rain EVERY THOUSAND YEARS. Wow.

We did tons of awesome stuff in Atacama, so I’m going to have to split it up into several posts and I have tons of bacán (awesome) pictures. Good things come to those who wait! So this post is going to just talk about the town where we stayed so that you can have some context! Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about the altitude sickness and salt lagoons and flamingos and such soon.

My adventure started at 5 am on Thursday, May 9th, when a van came to pick us up and take us to the airport. I slept over my friend Rebecca’s house the night before to make it easier to gather us all up. Our flight from Santiago left at about 8am and we landed about 2 hours later in Calama, a desert city. After a pit stop in the local UniMarc (Chilean supermarket chain) we piled into another van and drove for an hour and a half to San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny desert town of about 2,500 inhabitants but it has a long history and a huge historical and archeological significance. Well over 11,000 years ago the area was a cultural center for the Atacameños, a pre-Colombian culture that at its height had advanced trade relations with the Incans and Mapuche cultures. Pedro de Valdivia brought Spanish conquistadors with him in the middle of the 16th century.

We settled into a beautiful bed and breakfast called Incahuasi (House of the Inca). It was small, with three separate sections with their own kitchens, bedrooms with bunk beds for four, and bathroom. Every morning the family who own the place would make us breakfast, with coffee, tea, milk, butter, jam, granola and raisins with yogurt, home-made integral bread with seeds, cheese and ham. Across the street there was a minimart owned by an adorable old couple where we could buy bread and fruit; they would always say “sí mi hijita” (yes my little daughter). There were bikes that we could use whenever we wanted, or we could make the ten minute walk downtown.

Downtown San Pedro was tiny and often full of tourists, but with a very laid back and relaxed atmosphere. Local parents had no problem letting their children play while they tended their little shops, even toddlers were perfectly safe in the plaza. The town was never in any rush, so it seemed that even the dogs were just strolling around at their leisure. The plaza and the streets around hosted an artisan fair every day where you could buy homemade jewelery, soaps, honey, leather works, alpaca wool hats and scarves, and of course the usual tourist trinkets. I bought myself an alpaca sweater because at night boy oh boy was it chilly! About a two block radius around the central plaza were many more shops, bars, restaurants, adventure tour businesses, hostals, hotels, bike rentals, anything a tourist might want to enjoy the desert. Everyone was in a great mood, and at any given moment one could hear Spanish, English, French, German, Chinese, and many other language being spoken.

The other main attractions of downtown is the church, with its ceiling made entirely of cactus wood, and the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archeological Museum that features many artifacts of the Atacameño culture. In the past it also showcased a few mummies that were discovered, but as a result of an ongoing struggle between archeologists and surviving atacameños they are not available for public viewing out of respect but are in climate controlled storage for preservation and study.

There is also the local cemetery, which deserves its own post just because I like cemeteries and I have a ton of pictures!

Here is a slide show of my pictures of the town and Incahuasi, and below are links for web pages with more info and better pictures. The Incahuasi one sadly isn’t in English, but they do have a French page! Tomorrow I will tell you all about the Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna (Valley of Death and Valley of the Moon). Remember to click the full screen button in the top corner of the slide show so you can see my descriptions!

Links! For the technologically impaired, just click the blue text!

Wikipedia article about the Atacamena Desert

San Pedro de Atacama Tourist Site

Incahuasi Bed and Breakfast (Sorry it’s only in Spanish and French, but there are great pictures!