Saturday we once again started late. This time, our tour started at 2:30pm and we headed to the salt flats about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro. Our first stop was Laguna Cejar, a saltwater pond. The name laguna translates to lagoon, which to me (and Merriam Webster), is “a shallow sound, channel, or pond near or communicating with a larger body of water.” This was a small body of water, not near or connecting to anything else and fed by underground springs. [Late update – I asked my Spanish teacher how you would say small lake (and showed her the picture). She said laguna. So, I am shocked to tell you that google translate, may be wrong!] We arrived at the laguna and changed into our bathing suits, because, like the Dead Sea, you when you get in the water, you float. The temperature was hovering in the low 30s Celsius (about 90˚F) and so the cool water felt wonderful. Sue and I both kept our hats (and sunglasses) on for the dip and we all (us, hats and sunglasses) came out encrusted with salt. The park had showers (no soap or shampoo allowed) so we had a quick rinse and got changed back into our clothes.
After Laguna Cejar, we visited Laguna Tebinquiche, a small, very salty lake with a very unique ecosystem. The hard environmental conditions including high solar irradiation, extreme temperature differences between day and night, high salt, and arsenic content (related to the volcanic activity nearby), make the lagoon a very difficult place to live. Some of the things that live in the lake are closely related to the earliest types of single and multicellular organisms that lived on Earth. Flamingos are often found at the lake feeding on brine shrimp, but when we were there where none. (Our guide said that most of the brine shrimp were gone and the flamingos had moved on in search of nourishment.)
We returned to the hotel at about 7:30, had a quick meal and got ready for our “evening” activities. The Atacama Desert is very high and the thin air, lack of light pollution and clear skies make it ideal for observing the sky. Overlooking Laguna Tebinquiche is the Atacama Large Millimeter Array observatory. We did not go there. Instead, we booked a 10pm to midnight star gazing tour that was about 30 minutes outside of town. However, this tour, like so many other things in Chile work on Standard Chilean time. So, our scheduled 9:30 pick up was actually closer to 10:15 and our 10 p.m. start turned out to be just about 11 p.m. The “tour” consisted of three parts. First, a 30-minute introduction to stars, how they form, live and die. René, the “tour guide” described nebulas (nebulae?), various types of stars and some of the things we needed to look for in the night sky. It was quite interesting and tied in nicely to what we were going to see both with naked eyes and with the telescopes. Next, he pointed out various stars, constellations, and described how the path of the sun is tracked against the arc of the planets across the sky. (He also talked about the difference between navigating in the northern and southern hemispheres and how it was done. PLUS, we got to see the best constellation: Gemini!) To me, this was the most beautiful part of the evening as we able to see the entirety of the sky. It was simply amazing, and I cannot adequately describe (how often do I say this or something like this) how awe inspiring it is. For the third part, they had two telescopes set up and we were able to see nebulae (I am pretty sure it is nebulae, but maybe not, in which case just pretend that I wrote nebulas), a binary star, stars from various constellations and Mars (Yes, I know it is a planet). (The nebula looked like a tarantula – if you used your imagination, which all sky gazing requires.) All in, it was an amazing evening that ended at just about 2 a.m.
Luckily for us, we had decided that we would take it easy on Sunday and hang out at the hotel pool.
Only kidding, if you don’t know us already, we don’t do lounging very well, so when we planned this weekend, we scheduled a morning tour of the El Tatio geysers. The pickup time for the tour was 5:30 a.m. Just about 3 hours after we put our heads down, the F#%$^@$# alarm told us to get our ancient carcasses out of bed and find the nearest coffee. Not our happiest moment. The geysers (which in Spanish is spelled géisers and pronounced geezers, which is an English term for old people), are about 90 minutes directly north of San Pedro on a series of small, mostly (well, at least somewhat) paved roads. They are also at about 4,320 meters (14,170 feet) above sea level. Have we mentioned that Sue gets altitude sickness? I attribute it to the fact that her brain, unlike mine, needs oxygen to function (mine simply bypasses the need to function). She wears a patch that contains scopolamine and it generally works really well. However at this altitude, it seemed be losing the battle even after augmenting it with chewed coca leaves and some coca tea (I think these helped, because I started to feel better afterwards). Like always she was a trooper, even when she turned many different shades of gray. The area is a field of geysers, some of which run continuously like a fountain and others are intermittent. Sorry, but once again, like I seem to say so often, nature is just unbelievable.
After wandering through the geyser fields for an hour or so, we piled back in the van and started the return trip. Along the way we saw various types of waterfowl, vicuña (which are related to guanacos, our favorite from Patagonia) and wild donkeys. We stopped at a small lake and saw lots of flamingos, which are actually animals, not just plastic lawn ornaments for Florida homeowners. At one point I asked our tour guide about the weather and he mentioned that they were just about to enter the rainy season. The season lasted from the last week of January until mid-February and they might get rain. Wow.
We returned to the hotel just after 1 p.m. had some lunch (I tried cochayuyo, which we mentioned in an earlier blog and it was delicious! It tasted of the sea) and waited for transport back to the airport in Calama (about 75 minutes away), then after a couple of hours wait, our flight back to Santiago and onward to our AirBnB. We arrived home just after 11 p.m., the end of an amazing and wondrous weekend. We were, to put it kindly, just a bit tired. 😉
Before I finish: This is a naked and unabashed plug for Wikipedia. For those of you who regularly read our scrawls, you know that we often link to Wikipedia articles. It is a free, non-profit encyclopedia that is entirely funded by donations. There are no advertisements or paywalls and while it isn’t a research tool (yes, kids in high school and college, I am looking at you), it does have a massive amount of information for those of us who just like to learn stuff. If you can manage, please help them.