Posts Tagged With: Atacama

Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

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I’ll Have a Trillion Margaritas…with Salt, Please


I mentioned earlier that San Pedro de Atacama is very tiny; the population is about 7,000 (not the 1,400 I mentioned earlier). This is to be compared with the number of tourists who visit here, which is 150,000 annually. So it is fair to say that tourism is kind of important here. “Here” being a somewhat wishful term, there not being a whole lot of here here (so to speak).

Those 150,000 tourists include a whole lot of ridiculously fit people, judging by the number of spandexed legs pumping bicycles. You know the demographic: skintight outfit, neon-colored helmet, scraggly hair, 40 lb backpack strapped to the bike. They’re everywhere in town, and I can only assume that they are all googly-eyes crazy, because we are at 8,000 feet elevation in the driest desert in the world, and practically every direction out of town is UP, steeply, into the Andes. Long distance biking around here is about the least fun thing that I can imagine. But bike they do: every single business establishment in town is a craft store, restaurant, or tourist lodging, and I am not exaggerating.

To give you a flavor of the place, here is one of the major intersections:

Rush hour in San Pedro. The guy in green is our local guide Camillo, warning Alice about the heavy traffic.

Our local guide Camillo has lived here for 22 years, on the outskirts of town. (How a town of 7,000 in the middle of a desert has outskirts is not clear to me.) Needless to say, he knows everyone. About 30 seconds after I took this picture he chatted with a local woman who was walking by with some shopping bags. Turns out that was the mayor.

Your go-to place for blankets and herbal Viagra

There is a central square, off of which radiate the Big Four of every small town in this region: a church, a small anthropological museum, a police station, and a craft market.  The craft market was small, crowded, and lively, as you can see at left. The collection of goods for sale had its idiosyncrasies, to say the least. Along with the expected good quality woolen hats and blankets, and the kitchshy stuffed llamas and refrigerator magnets, you can also purchase (1) crystalline salt in lumps the size of grapefruits (“Care for some salt on your food?” CLUNK); (2) coca tea and hard candies; and (3) brightly-colored packs containing extremely sketchy herbal remedies allegedly for high cholesterol, diabetes, and, um, inadequate bedroom performance. The first two featured pictures of busty girls in microscopic bikinis, which of course is the image that springs to mind when you think of cholesterol or diabetes. The third featured a poorly-lit sweaty couple demonstrating the efficacy of the product.  OK then, I’m convinced!

We had an excellent lunch (a local corn and lamb stew) at another off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Camillo inevitably knew the owner. It included a new (to us) culinary discovery: merken, a wonderfully smoky —  and very hot — spice made from dried smoked chili peppers. (We’re bringing some back for you, Jon H, and we expect to sample however you use it.) Later that afternoon we were off to the Atacama salt flats. You knew that salt was going to show up again, didn’t you?

Margaritas, anyone?

The salt flats are about two hours from San Pedro and occupy an enormous area: about 1200 square miles. They are spectacular, ringed by the mountains and surrounding a shallow briny (very briny) lake. But they did not comport with my mental image of a salt flat, which is the highway-smooth Bonneville flats in the US. These are anything but smooth: the crystallized salts are in rough flaky lumps about the size of oranges or as big as footballs, thrown together and stuck to and on top of each other to a height of about a foot and a half. You could not drive on this salt flat; were it not for the prepared path, you could not even walk on it. You wouldn’t make it six feet before falling and/or twisting an ankle. Here is Alice at right, contemplating how many Margaritas you could make out of 100 million tons of salt.

But here’s the thing. The salt flats encompass a number of briny lagoons, wherein live lots of very hardy brine shrimp, who in turn are the favorite food of (drum roll) flamingos! Yes! This seemingly inhospitable place is home to large numbers of pink flamingos, and we saw them strutting, preening, and even flying around in large kitschy numbers. It was a spectacular, memorable sight, and became more so as the sun went down, bathing the surrounding mountains in orange and exaggerating the flamingos’ natural color. We stayed for hours until shortly after sunset, wandering among the salt formations and ogling the flamingos parading around the lagoon. It was otherworldly, a real gift.

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Atacama Llamas

We had been warned that Santiago’s weekday morning traffic combined with Byzantine procedures at the airport would conspire to make our departure from Santiago to the Atacama desert a major headache. This proved not to be so: 50 minutes after the van pulled away from our hotel (admittedly in very heavy traffic) we were sitting at the gate waiting to board.

Nothing to see here, folks. Welcome to the Atacama.

We flew two hours northward over featureless dun-colored desert, with no obvious vegetation and the bleakness broken only by the snow capped Andes in the distance (photo at left). It resembled more the most desolate parts of the American desert than the Australian outback, the latter being far more generously vegetated and famously red in color. Not this place: it was big and hostile looking, like Death Valley with the color saturation slider turned way down.

We landed in the copper mining town of Calama, which is very much the image of a 21st century company mining town, which is to say spare and blocky-looking, comprising large blocks of prefab company-owned houses that the employees can buy for themselves. And that is what they do, since there is no place to commute from. Calama has a population of 200,000, virtually all of them mine employees and their families.

At this point you may have done a quick mental calculation along the lines of, let’s see, if every mine employee is married and has 2 children, that means that 50,000 work at the mine. How the hell can 50,000 people work at one mine? And the answer is: it’s one flabbergastingly big mine. Calama is the home of the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine on the planet, an open-pit mine that you could probably see from the Moon if you squinted real hard. Escondida processes 40,000 tons of ore into 1,000 tons of copper per day. That’s a whole lot of digging and refining.

And it uses a whole lot of power. Calama is adjacent to a field of 43 wind power stations, insectoid behemoths pretty much identical to the ones you see in California and the American southwest. Each unit produces 2.5 megawatts, for a total of about 100 MW, all of which is for the mine. Which sounds like a lot until you learn that it’s barely a marginal help, providing only 5% of the mine’s energy needs. In other words, Escondida gulps 2 gigawatts of power, about the same as — wait for it — San Francisco. Urp.

If you’re not employed at the mine then there really is no earthly reason to remain in Calama, and we didn’t. We were met at the airport by our local guide, Camillo, and our driver, Mario. The eight of us plus tour leader Julio climbed into the van and we trundled off into the wasteland, driving past the wind farm and for mile after miles seeing not much of anything at all, not even a blade of scrub vegetation. Just brownish rocks and dirt, and the ubiquitous Andes in the distance.

The guanaco, when you’re too hip for llama and can’t afford vicuña

We did, however, encounter an animal that we had never seen or even heard of before, three of them in fact. That would be the guanaco, and you can see my shot of it at right. It is one of four members of the camelid family (or genus, or whatever it is) that are found in Chile, the four being the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco, and the vicuña, in increasing order of how expensive their wool is. Guanacos are found mostly in the southern part of the country, down in Patagonia, and it is unusual to see them here, so we were lucky. The other important fact that I can tell you about them is that they are delicious. More on that shortly.

After an hour and a half we stopped at an outdoor museum featuring a short walking trail past some rock formations decorated with quite ancient petroglyphs. The original inhabitants, the Atacameños, were nomadic and moved around here some 5000 years ago. Eventually they figured out how to domesticate llamas, which enabled them to eventually transform into first a semi-nomadic and later sedentary culture. So llamas were a real big deal to them, and depictions of them account for a good half of the petroglyphs. As the Atacameños settled down their petroglyphic subject matter became more diverse: we saw depictions of people, foxes, and even a flamingo. (I am guessing that the flamingos marked their final steps into a sedentary culture: “Hey, why don’t we stand up this dead flamingo in front of the hut? It’ll really add some class to the neighborhood.”)

We climbed in elevation after that stop, and our next destination, at 10,000 ft elevation, was the aptly-named Rainbow Valley. Paradoxically, as we approached it the terrain, while hardly more inviting, became incrementally less bleak as some spare sage-like vegetation appeared, fed by underground springs. Adjacent to the Rainbow Valley, in fact, was an anemic little river. You would not want to drink the water or bathe in it though: the source spring waters percolate through all the volcanic rock, causing the mineral content of the water to be spectacularly high. So high, in fact, that the rocks in and around the stream, and even the soil, are limned in white salt and gypsum deposits.

The Rainbow Valley gets its name from the deposits of assorted reddish, green, and white minerals that color the rocks. (The “Italian Flag Valley” would also be an apt name. )

Rainbow Valley, molto bella!

The reddish stuff is clay, the white primarily gypsum as I mentioned, and the green stuff some mineral I had never heard of. (I was guessing olivine, which turned out to be wrong.)

We lingered and walked around for perhaps 45 minutes, pausing for a moment at Julio’s suggestion to savor the silence, which but for the wind was total. No cars or industrial sounds, not even any birds or insects… Literally just the wind. It was an odd and unexpectedly satisfying sensation.

Another hour or so of driving brought us past a few scenic viewpoints (“Look! More blasted wasteland!” Good thing we like deserts.) and a steep downhill drive to about 8000′ elevation. By now we were approaching the small town of San Pedro, and about 20 minutes outside it we stopped for dinner at a beautiful rustic family restaurant that was about as far off the beaten path as any restaurant could be and still exist. It was situated literally at an oasis, with a small green vegetable and livestock farm out back among the trees. The dining room had a high ceiling made of woven bamboo, secured to rough word cross beams with leather straps, some of them with the original owners’ fur still attached.

The menu was genuine local family fare, meaning that at least some of the ingredients were unfamiliar to us, and others presented in unusual form. For starters we were served some kind of sweet biscuit made from the flour of a locust-like nut; then a fresh tomato, onion, and quinoa salad, followed by a main course of guanaco and rice. Guanaco, it turns out, must be slow cooked for 4-6 hours in order to not taste like leather, but the result is a lot like good brisket. (The universe will now pause for a moment while my mother reads that last sentence and comments, “It’s not as good as MY brisket!” You’re right, Mom, it wasn’t. But it was really good.)

I do not even have the vocabulary to describe desert. At first glance it appeared to be chocolate mousse with chopped nuts on top. Wrong on both counts. The “mousse” was actually a mousse-like purée of a seed called chañar, which I have never heard of but which I can report does taste sort of chocolatey; the topping was not chopped nuts but rather puffed quinoa. They were like little tiny popcorn pieces, crunchy and fluffy. I’d buy a bag to snack on if that were possible. (And now that we’re in San Pedro, maybe it is.) Anyway, it was a wonderful meal, and afterwards we went back into the kitchen to chat with the family members — mother and two daughters — who made it.

San Pedro is quite small, with a population of about 1500 who make their living off tourism. The town itself is a several-block maze of narrow, winding streets between high red adobe walls, each one of which appears to sequester some kind of tourist lodging. Everything is only a single story tall, and the most striking thing about the town is that it is overlooked — from what one hopes is a safe distance — by a very tall, snow capped Andean volcano, quite perfect in its classic conical symmetry. (If you ask an artistically inept person like myself, or a 7 year old, to draw a volcano, this is the one they would draw. I will try and get a photo tomorrow.)

Our hotel is basic but attractive and comfortable, equipped with a swimming pool and (as you know since you are reading this) wifi. Tomorrow, more exploration of the Atacama.

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Heading to the Deep South – the REALLY Deep South

We never do things simply.

We never do things simply.

It’s time to hit the road again, and by “road” I mean “about ten different airline flights to get someplace really really far away.” Our destination is Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, named after a line of expensive thermal underwear (or possibly vice versa).

Our route is shown in red on the image above, which in case you are disoriented is the southern part of South America, tilted 45 degrees clockwise to fit in the frame. We leave on Sept 27, starting in Santiago, Chile, and our route follows the red line in a sort-of-clockwise way, with the following high points:

  • Santiago
  • Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest in the world
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Our tour includes a tango lesson, which I look forward to not participating in.)
  • Tierra del Fuego
  • Cape Horn
  • 5 days on a boat through the Beagle Passage from Cape Horn to the southern Patagonia ice fields (seasickness alert!)
  • Iguassu Falls (highest volume waterfalls in the Western Hemisphere – about twice the size of Niagara)

Cape Horn, of course, is the southernmost point in the world outside of Antarctica itself. At just shy of 56 degrees south latitude, it is by a wide margin the furthest south we will ever have been. (Our current record is Lake Manipouri, New Zealand, at 45.5 degrees south.)

We return home on October 19.

Packing for this trip is proving to be a challenge for much the same reason that our Australia/New Zealand trip was a year ago: we will be experiencing a ridiculously wide range of climates. The Atacama Desert will by dry with moderate temperatures during the day and chilly at night; Buenos Aires will be warm and humid; Cape Horn and the boat ride will likely be cold, rainy, and very windy; and Iguassu Falls will be a tropical rainforest with temperatures in the 90’s. And so of course we are allowed only one suitcase, which just about holds my camera equipment.

We will be off the grid for at least part of the trip, but when we are blessed with Internet connectivity I will try and keep the blog updated.

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