From Puerto Varas I took an 11-hour night bus to Santiago. It was the nicest bus I’d ever been on in my life, with a wi-fi connection, a power outlet for my laptop, and seats comfortable enough that I actually slept soundly. When we pulled into the Santiago bus station I didn’t want to get out.
I spent the next day wandering around Santiago, and on Friday morning I went to meet Marie at the floridly-named Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. It was great to see Marie again, and her arrival immediately put the kibosh on any lingering traces of the travel burnout that ambushed me in Puerto Varas.
Marie only had 10 days in Chile and there wasn’t much in Santiago that interested us. So we left right away for San Pedro de Atacama, a town on the edge of one of the driest deserts in the world. The Atacama Desert made international news recently because of a copper mine about 150 miles south of San Pedro that collapsed on 33 Chilean workers. The story ended happily in mid-October 2010 when, after a record-setting 69 days underground, all of the miners were successfully rescued.
If Marie had more time we would have braved the 23-hour bus ride from Santiago to San Pedro in order to see the countryside in northern Chile, but under the circumstances flying made more sense. San Pedro is too small to have a major airport so we landed in the nearby town of Calama and took a shuttle bus the rest of the way.
It was late afternoon on Saturday when we rolled into San Pedro. Aside from a couple of snow-capped volcanoes in the distance, the stark landscape strongly resembled California’s Death Valley National Park, one of my favorite places. San Pedro itself was a strange mix of old and new – primitive adobe huts flanked by tour agencies, Internet cafes, and recently-constructed luxury hotels, everything the same sun-baked shade of pale brown.
That night in San Pedro we booked a series of tours to the area’s most popular attractions, starting with the lower-altitude destinations and gradually working our way up. The next day we headed out on our first trip: an afternoon visit to the desolate rock and sand formations of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), with a few other stops along the way.
The next morning we left on a full-day altiplano (high plateau) lakes tour. We stopped briefly at a small town called Socaire before arriving at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama, one of the largest salt flats in the world. Both Chilean and Andean Flamingos feed on tiny brine shrimp that thrive in Laguna Chaxa’s highly saline water.
From Laguna Chaxa we began a long climb through a barren stretch of rocky desert. The engine of our mini-bus rumbled ominously as it struggled up a relatively steep incline, and our driver pulled over to make some adjustments. His tinkering didn’t help, however, and eventually the engine decided it had gone far enough. Our guide, unfazed, simply led us off on an hour-long “bonus” hike up a nearby mountain. Minutes after we returned to the road a replacement mini-bus arrived and we continued on our way.
We soon reached Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques, about 4,100 meters above sea level – the highest Marie had ever been. Neither Marie nor I had a heavy jacket, and before too long we were shivering in the cold, thin air. Herds of vicuña, a wild, high-altitude cousin of the alpaca, wandered around the edges of the lakes. The colors in that harsh, arid environment were intense but strangely desaturated, oddly reminiscent of the red-tinted Mars scenes in Brian de Palma’s awful movie Mission to Mars.
Back in San Pedro that night Marie and I tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the fact that our tour the next morning started at the ridiculously early hour of 4am.