San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (Second Visit)

Freezing in the thin, cold air at the El Tatio geyser field made it clear that I needed to adjust my wardrobe.  Up until that point I’d been fine with mostly T-shirts and shorts, but I definitely needed warmer clothes as I moved into the Bolivian Andes.  So before leaving Santiago I rode the metro to a big shopping mall (as nice as most malls in the U.S., with many of the same stores) and bought a lightweight down jacket, long underwear, gloves, and another pair of jeans.

I was also overdue for a haircut.  The last one I had was in Moshi, Tanzania, more than three months ago, and things were looking pretty shaggy up there.  The barber I found was a friendly, talkative woman who spoke no English.  With my limited Spanish the best guidance I could provide was, “No largo, no corto.  Medio.”  (Not long, not short.  Medium.)

My barber was eager to talk about the morning’s big news:  Osama bin Laden had been killed.  She asked why the U.S. buried him at sea and why it had been done so quickly.  As we talked, several other women gathered around to hear the Americano clarify his country’s strange behavior.  If you ever want a good reminder that you lack a solid command of the Spanish language, try using it to explain the likely thought process behind Osama bin Laden’s burial to a group of women in a Santiago barber shop.

I decided that from Santiago I would return to San Pedro de Atacama and then cross over to Bolivia on a three-day tour of Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat) and the surrounding altiplano.  It had taken Marie and me just a couple of hours to fly to San Pedro, but this time I chose to endure the 23-hour bus ride so I could check out the countryside in northern Chile.

It was the longest bus ride of my life, but the time passed quickly and on Wednesday afternoon I found myself in the Atacama Desert again.  San Pedro wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without Marie, but I didn’t plan to stay long.  After finding a hotel I went right to a tour agency and booked an Uyuni trip that started in two days.

That still left me with some time in San Pedro and I couldn’t resist repeating the tour Marie and I had enjoyed most:  an afternoon visit to Laguna Cejar, Los Ojos de Salar, and Laguna Tebenquiche.  The only other people in my group were a friendly but quiet Swiss husband and wife, and our guide was a Bolivian named Hernán.  “¿Como el conquistador?” I asked.

Hernán made a face and waved his hands.  “It is not a good name,” he said in Spanish.  “I like my nickname better.  My friends call me ‘Chino’ because I look Chinese.”

Laguna Cejar was colder than I remembered.  But what a unique feeling to be suspended, effortlessly, in the highly saline water.  I imagined I was in space, weightless in zero gravity.  After floating happily for a half hour I walked over to nearby Laguna Piedra for some photos.

 

Laguna Piedra

 

Laguna Cejar left me coated with salt, and once again I washed it off in the fresh water of Los Ojos de Salar, although this time instead of wading in I took a running leap off the raised edge of the sinkhole.  The water was too cold for a long swim, so the Swiss couple and I asked Hernán to take us to our last stop, Laguna Tebenquiche, a little early.  We had nice clouds that evening and I spent over an hour photographing the unearthly lake as the sun set.

 

Photo-taking Antics on Laguna Tebenquiche

 

Portrait of Laguna Tebenquiche at Sunset

 

Our Mini-bus at Laguna Tebenquiche

 

Sunset Over Laguna Tebenquiche

 

Sunset Reflection at Laguna Tebenquiche

 

Pink Clouds Over Laguna Tebenquiche

 

Laguna Tebenquiche Reflection at Sunset

 

Sunset Clouds Reflecting on Laguna Tebenquiche

 

On the way back to San Pedro, Hernán sang a Quechuan love song that sounded surprisingly forlorn and appropriate as we rolled through the dark desert.  That night I loaded up on bottled water and Diet Coke and prepared myself to say goodbye to Chile.