Géisers for Geezers

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.)

Ignore us and look at the stars. That is the milky way on the top left with the southern cross at the bottom of the milky way

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.

Dead Person Bingo sin Steven

Plus: Decent pizza and an intro to the Atacama Desert

Wednesday I signed up for one of the cultural activities my Spanish school offers because it was tour of Cementario General. My classmates, Rania and James also signed up, but warned me that the tour guide was a bit, how shall we say? … scattered. They were right! We Americans (and apparently Brits, too) find the laissez faire scheduling and organization in South American to be a bit challenging.

The tour allegedly began at 1:30 p.m., but classes end at 1:30, so, yeah, I was thinking not. At a bit before 2 we walked to the Metro (where not everyone had a BIP card for the train so we waited for everyone to pay), took it one stop, changed trains, took it one more stop and walked to a buffet restaurant. We didn’t have reservations and there were about 20 of us, so we waited. Did I mention that we could easily have walked there or perhaps gone to a restaurant somewhere near the cemetery? But, no. Rania and I had brought our own food, so after warnings about the dangers of the neighborhood (OK, then why did you bring us there???), we walked about two blocks to the central fruit and veg market (Vega Central Santiago). Think many fruit and veggie stands at good prices. The surrounding area is not pleasant. It’s dirty and smelly. Once inside, we found excellent produce, but I wouldn’t recommend going there alone even though we didn’t see anything bad happen.

After everyone ate and paid one at a time with the portable credit card machine, we finally headed over to the cemetery, which took another train ride. The cemetery was reminiscent of the ones in Paris — a little overgrown, but beautiful. Our guide did know a lot, but she also uses the random approach to showing people around. Different nationalities had different areas of the cemetery, there were many mausoleums and tributes to freedom fighters plus a very icky mausoleum dedicated to Pinochet’s henchmen. It was the only place where I thought the graffiti was warranted.

Speaking of Pinochet: Allegedly the unmarked mausoleum in the cemetery is where his parents are buried. It is unmarked for obvious reasons. I think I believe that, but if everyone knows it is unmarked and really a Pinochet grave, why isn’t it defaced? We also saw Salvador Allende and Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by Pinochet’s order (and perhaps with the help of the CIA). Letelier was part of Allende’s government and was in exile in the United States.

The cemetery technically closed at 6, but our guide was still talking as students peeled off to go home. It’s hot in midday in Santiago and there’s no shade. We were done, but she wasn’t. She did tell a fun ghost story about a widower who appears near his wife’s grave whenever there is a storm. Of course, she also claimed she did not know the story when she saw him on a different tour. What do I know. Maybe ghosts do exist.

Thursday, Rania, James and I had lunch together since James was headed to Colombia. He had said he found good pizza and I was game to try. My hopes were not high, but the pizza was pretty good and the company even better. Steven and I had a flight to Calama, the airport closest to San Pedro de Atacama, at 6:30 that evening, so I expediently returned home to pack at 3:40 so we could leave by 4 (did she mention that she had not yet packed?). We got to the airport in plenty of time and had an uneventful 2-hour flight. Our driver picked us up for the hour long drive to our hotel, Noi Casa Atacama, and we marveled at the number of stars we could see on the drive. By the time we checked in and got settled, we were tired and just relaxed on our terrace.

The Atacama Desert is the highest (non-polar) and driest desert in the world with an average rainfall of 0.004 inches a year. Measurable rain falls only once a century. No significant amount of rain has fallen in 500 years. It’s dry. Beautiful, strange, and very, very, dry. The driest place on Earth. Bring your eye drops and water bottles (and lip balm) everywhere. Low- sodium salt is abundant and one of the tourist attractions are the salt flats. Salt mining had been big business since it was used in the copper purification process (along with sulfur). Salt is still mined using electrolysis, but you can’t buy it in the store to sprinkle on your papas fritas.

The town of San Pedro sits at 7,900 feet above sea level. It’s a dusty little tourist town of about four blocks full of artisan markets, restaurants, lodging and tour services. None of the roads are paved and the buildings are mostly adobe. Bring a hat and lots of sunscreen.

Friday, we had a morning massage (included in our hotel package). The massage therapist was very kind with our poor Spanish and told me that she loved living in a tranquilo town where she could bike everywhere she needed to go (I have no idea what she was saying to me). After our massages, we had our first tour of the weekend: Valle de la Luna, which you may have guessed, looks like a lunar landscape. Our perspective is skewed, because we thought there were a lot of tourists there, but in reality, compared to a weekend at Yosemite, we had the place to ourselves. We have also noticed that the Chileans haven’t quite figured out that a snack bar and souvenir shop at every tourist spot would net them mucho dinero.

The landscape can’t be described and I doubt pictures will do it justice, but if you don’t realize how small we are when you see the formations created by winds and blowing sand, the sun glinting off the mountains and salt, and the natural amphitheater, nothing will. At the end of the tour, we sat and waited for the sunset. Steven and I would have prefer to forgo that, mostly because it is summer and we had almost 45 minutes of sitting around in a spot with a steep drop-off that he wasn’t going to go anywhere near, before the sun slipped behind the mountains. We all know that the sun’s fall below the horizon is not the peak of the sunset, which we saw later on our drive back. It’s almost as though you cranked up the saturation on your photos, only you don’t need to because it’s real.

Steven is going to take over and describe our weekend, but like many of the other places we have been fortunate enough to visit, the Atacama will stay with us. I hope someday we will be able to return.