So, the weekend was spent in the backyard of the wicked house camping in a broken Ramone. What to do? There’s not much to do in San Pedro it self, other than planning excursions and tours, and eating at cafés (most places won’t serve you alcohol without you eating as well, due to a regulation to combat drunken disorderliness). We walked around window shopping for ideas on what to do, and as mentioned in a previous post, there is no shortage in tour agencies. They all offer pretty much the same though, and there isn’t much to go on in terms of differing one to another. Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet can be of some help, and most of the agencies mentioned in the 2012 edition still existed as of this post (which is pretty rare!).
I have a tendency to spend nights pondering problems I have no possibility to fix (during the night atleast). So the forced camping in the mud was pretty sleepless. Lars of course slept like a baby, except when I had to crawl over him to get out and pee during the night (like, 3 times). My side door led to an ocean of brownie dough (or was that a dream?).
Finally, morning arrived. We packed some lunch, filled our hydration bladders and put on our running shoes. Sheeet, the first few kilometers was grueling (not exactly in top shape after 6000 km of driving). And there is something incredibly demoralizing in knowing that there’s 15 more to go. But, lo, is that a pick up truck in the horizon?! The first car we had seen since leaving the main road yesterday, could we be so lucky?
It turned out to be a group of Atacameñans, the indigenous people of San Pedro, and in my very broken spanish I managed to ask if they would mind turning around and giving us a lift a few kilometers (I pulled the number 5 out of my ass) until we could get cell signal and call for help (the word “barro”, spanish for mud, was very useful here). They were incredibly kind to oblige, and sure enough, after about 5 kilometers (I know!) on road that was in much worse condition than I remembered last night, we had signal. We called Nico at the office in San Pedro and his reply when I explained that we were stuck in mud, and we needed towing back to town because of a burned clutch, was along the line of “oh, FUCK!”, very reassuring, let me tell you.
But it didn’t take more than about 20 minutes before Esteban, the other Wicked employee in San Pedro showed up in a tiny Subaru Jimny, with a tow bar sticking out the side window (with it’s 1.2 meters it was too long to fit inside the car). I was mildly skeptical, but Esteban simply smiled and nodded, and seemed completely confident that this little car would definitely save the day. And it did! It took some digging, tugging, pushing, and more digging, but finally Ramone was loose! Then commenced the some 30 km towing of shame back to “the Wicked house”, which I guess is just the house were Esteban lives.
Of course, it was a Saturday, and a new clutch disc had to be ordered, so all we could do was scrap all our plans and settle in for the weekend in San Pedro. Not exactly as planned… (but when is it ever?) Still, pretty nice to have stable sand beneath our wheels, even if they aren’t moving for the foreseeable future.
Finally we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is the textbook example of tourist town; with a population of around 2500 people, and an influx of who knows how many tourists annually, the commercial focus in town is pretty clear; the main street, Caracoles, is lined by three types of stores. The tour agencies, the cafés and the thrift shops, which all carry the same sweaters and mittens. Oh, and the Wicked office of course, with Nico, sunglasses and straw hat, pumping rock music on to the street (more on this guy later).
We picked up a few maps of the region at the tourist office, and decided to check out the sunset in the Valle de la Luna, valley of the moon, an excursion pretty much mandatory in San Pedro. With the not too detailed tourist map, and a vague idea of having passed a relevant sign on the main road we headed out, about an hour before sunset.
We could see some signs of the flooding, with ponds a few places along the main road, but the dirt road heading out to Valle de la Luna seemed to be okay, in any case, not nearly as bad as the ripio in Argentinian Patagonia, instead a good, packed, dirt road. After a few kilometers though, there were clear signs of damage where small rivers had gouged the road, but still quite passable. 18 km later, we were kind of wondering where all the tourists were. There should be busloads of them, plus hordes of cyclists. Were we even on the right road? Shouldn’t there be some signage at least? Contemplating whether we should turn around (the sun was setting, and we couldn’t really see any thing remotely resembling a tourist trap), suddenly Ramone lost all traction and we were floating in the most perfect brownie-crust like mud. Lacking modern base line safety measures, like anti lock brakes, there was nothing to do but sit still for the ride. It ended after about 40 meters in mud at least 20 cm deep. Shit. Sheeet. The next 20 minutes can be summed up as Lars digging mud and pushing Ramone, while yelling “more gas, more gaaaas, don’t kill it!” (which I did, and didn’t). However, Ramone was going nowhere, and neither were we. Again the thought emerged; where are the tour buses? Where *are* we? Or, I knew exactly where we were, just not the position of any relevant landmarks. Also, I was pretty sure we had lost cellular coverage about 11 km back.
There wasn’t much to do then but go to bed and plan for an early start tomorrow; jogging back to cell signal to call the Wicked office for help. And the irony is just a few hours earlier that day I had complained about too much sitting still in the car and how it’s time to get some exercise (a half marathon in the desert was not what I was picturing). Oh, and the sunset? Was too preoccupied with mud to pay attention to it.
(sorry, titles are hard sometimes)
Here’s one thing I find to be weird; the Atacama desert (which is huge), stretches all the way down to the coast. How can there be like, the entire Pacific oceans’ worth of water just sitting *there*, and then dry, empty of vegetation, coastal hills right next to it?
We took an exit off route 5 on the way to Antofagasta (chile’s second largest city, population of only 300 000), just to go up to the Observatorio Paranal, which houses the Very Large Telescope. Of course, you can go on a tour if you book like 3 months in advance, and that’s only for saturdays, but we still wanted to stop by and ogle the area. While having a quick lunch in the parking lot, we were approached by a german guy who was curious about our camper and wanted to donate a few beers (it’s actually really cool how many people are waving and giving us thumbs up when we drive Ramone along the road!)
The german had some curious news; it’s been raining dogs and cats in the San Pedro de Atacama area, flooding a lot of the roads and in general, giving astronomers a head ache with the high air humidity. Oookay, that was unexpected; that area is like supposed to be some of the driest in the planet. So, now we have volcano eruptions and flooding where there’s an annual amount of a few millimeters of rain.
We pushed on past Antofagasta, and Calama (trying cheekily to go to the visitors center of the huge open copper mine Chuquicamata (only for official tour buses)), and finally arrived in San Pedro. The plan is to spend the last two weeks of our trip in this area, checking out the altiplano, hiking a volcano or two, and in general enjoy life in low oxygen environments.
We are getting closer now to the Atacaman desert, we can practically smell the sand already in anticipation (or is that only sand residue in Ramone’s not exactly airtight ventilation system?)
La Serena was the next big circle on the map. We didn’t really know what to expect, other than it being a gateway to the Elqui Valley, and a bunch of small observatories we’ve never heard of (except reading about them in the Lonely Planet book, which every tourist travelling here is using). We ended up speeding through the city, except for stopping at the ginormous concrete cross dedicated to the late pope John Paul II. I guess every country in South America has to have one.
The next day we went to the small fishing village of Punta Choros to go on a boat tour to the national reserve Pinguino de Humboldt. Medio march is the low season, but we were still surprised as to how few tourists there were. Anyways, in our bareley sufficiente spanish, we managed to understand that there was 1) a 7 person minimum, and 2) a bus full of tourists was on the way.
Three hours later we realize that some of the finer nuances in the communication apparently had been lost; we were all just doing the “palms up, lifting of the shoulders”-gesture. Finally, when the boat-guy realized we weren’t going to cough up the full minimum price (70,000 pesos), they relented and, with the help of google translate voice-recognition (which is like magic!), sent us to the other part of town, literally, 500 meters, where all the tourists apparently had been hiding. We were ushered onto a small, open boat with 10 other people and off we were.
The goal was two of three islands that form the reserve, Isla Damas and Isla Choros. The reserve is named for a tiny type of penguin found only here (as far as I know), the Humboldt penguin. But in addition the islands are important habitats for birds, more birds than you could count; pelicans, cormorants, boobies (which we didn’t see), and of course seagulls. It’s kind of cool to see exotic big birds like flamingos and pelicans, but in general they are disgusting creatures who literally live in their on shit; shit that is so extreme it needs it’s own name (guano). When the guide steered the boat close to the cliffs, covered centimeters thick with guano, I almost got an acute asthma attack; the ammonia stench was so incredibly strong. Yuck!
Luckily, we didn’t bird watch for too much of the trip; next up was sea lions, a few penguins staring dumbly back at us, a few sleek sea otters, and the main attraction; dolphins! The guide steered us a bit away from the islands, into the stronger current. He turned off the engine, tapped the side of the boat a few times, and suddenly we were surrounded by dolphins! Incredibly elegant and powerful, and curious (yes, I know, these guys has to shit as well (or do they?). After a few minutes of them chasing and overtaking our small boat, even the sea lions joined in in the game. Totally worth waiting 3 hours for!
Our journey continued northwards. Several nights of camping along the coast, with serene, tinkle-inducing sounds of waves crashing. This thing with rough camping in a camper van was totally as good as hoped for!