Things to do when stranded in San Pedro

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!).

Since we basically missed out on this winter season back home, we decided to try out sandboarding. My snowboard has been in storage since about 2008, when i switched to telemark skiing, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect putting on a pair of burton boots full of sand and strapping on a beat up Elan board on the top of a sand dune in the Valle de la Muerte. I learned two things the next two hours; 1) snowboarding is kind of like riding a bike; once you know it, you won’t forget it, and 2)sandboarding is nothing like snowboarding. Sure, the equipment is the same, but it’s much much harder (because of the friction of the sand) and to be honest, a lot less fun. Call me old fashioned, but i’ll take the snow any day.

By the way, we went with the Sandboarding San Pedro agency, which was a fairly professional bunch. Of course, like all others, they only take cash, and a week later they were closed by the government due to tax irregularities (but our experience with these guys were excellent!).

Another main tour to do in San Pedro, and in Atacama in general, is an “astronomy” tour. These will wary wildly in quality. We were patient and waited for availability at SPACE, an outfit that’s evolved from an enthusiastic french planetologist with a couple of telescopes, to a small estate with ten telescopes up to 60 cm, with lodging and an “astro-farm”, where well off people hire a square meter of land to place a privately owned telescopes, for they’re own remotely controlled perusal of the night sky. Unfortunately the timing for us meant that the moon was half full (or empty if you’re that kind of person), but it was still a very cool experience. Our guide spoke very good english (incredibly rare), and even taught me a thing or two about stargazing, mostly stuff I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t connect, even with all my courses in astrophysics and cosmology. Like for instance, Venus is physically close to the sun, which is why it’s always seen near it; like at sunrise or sunset. Or that since all the planets move in the same plane, they of course follow the same line (trajectory) across the sky. Doh!

Then we got to see in the telescopes; Saturn with it’s rings, Jupiter with three of it’s largest satellites, the moon up close, and a bunch of other cool stuff which I almost instantly forgot the name of.

As a measure of the professionalism of these guys, they didn’t even outwardly groan in exasperation at the following questions: “why don’t the planets stop rotating around the sun?”, “how come we can sometimes see the moon during the day?” and my personal favourite: “if all the stars in the Milky Way are moving, when will they crash into us?”. Of course, there’s no such thing as stupid questions, just stupid people asking them. (seriously though, something is lacking in this individuals education).

Another highlight of San Pedro is of course the stately Andes mountain range to the east of the Atacaman salt flats (at 2400 meters above sea level), marking border to Bolivia and Argentina. Here you’ll find more vulcanoes than you care to count, the cartoonish stratovolcano type mainly, and the altiplano; the highlands between them. While the altiplano lies around 4300-4800 m.a.s., most of the peaks are around 6000 meters, give or take. The crown jewel is Vulcan Llicancabur, at just under 6000, where it towers majestically over San Pedro. The sheer scale is just not something my humble norwegian mind can get used to; Llicancabur and all its neighbours seem close enough to touch almost, but in reality they are 3600 vertical meters away. I guess, one problem is a lack of trees or other “normalish” features that would properly imprint the proper scale of the mountain slopes.

The smaller sibling of Llicancabur, Volcan Lascar is not quite as tall (5500 m.a.s.), but it makes up for lack of size in activity. It’s northern Chile’s most active volcano, with a slightly toxic fumarole rising out of the crater. Actually, it has five craters, only one of which is considered active, making it a very wide cone, and not so easily identified as Volcan Llicancabur, Volcan Pili, or Volcan Sinbad, for instance. We couldn’t resist; we decided to summit Volcan Lascar. We missed the chance at Villarrica and we are not letting this one slip too. First though, acclimatization to the immense alltitudes and definite lack of oxygen, is much needed!

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