Friday, August 28, 2009

A surrel landscape

The last one week has been something else as we have learnt the meaning of roughing it out while traveling, been involved in a Bond like chase of a bus and been rescued from the middle of Lake Titicaca in a motorboat. These incidents have come in the middle of the most enchanting landscape that i have been lucky to capture on camera, with a point and shoot digital camera, given that my Nikon conked out a week back. It would be doing great injustice to the last week if i try and recap it in a single post, so i will begin by using a combination of pictures along with descriptions to speed up the updates.

19th Aug

We spent the 19th loitering around Santiago before our flight to San Pedro de Atacama in the evening. When i think back to the day today after almost a week, there is nothing that stands out about Santiago except for the views of the city with the towering Andes in the background from Cerro San Cristobal, a 200m high hill in the middle of the town. Santiago though captured a bit of the US, Europe and Asia for me; the skyscrapers of a mid-sized US city, some colonial architecture around the central area that reminded me of Europe and the smog & pollution that characterizes big Asian cities such as Delhi, Beijing or Bangkok.

We took the evening flight at 7pm to a town called Calama, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from San Pedro and the nearest airport. The Lonely Planet Chile guide describes Calama sensitively as a "shithole" and we had no inclination to take a taxi to the bus station in such town in the middle of the night to get onto a bus to San Pedro. I had booked a transfer with Transfer Licancabur for about 10,000 CLP ($20) per person to San Pedro in advance. There were a few false alarms as the desk was empty when our flight landed at 940pm and continued to remain empty post 10pm. The doorman at the airport however assured us that the person manning the desk would be back and we need not have worried as there were another 10-12 travellers waiting for the same guy. We were all bundled into the mini bus once the person re-appeared and we reached our hostel in San Pedro at around 1230am. At this point we decided to venture out for some food and water and luckily our hostel (Hostal Sonchek) was right next to the central square so we did not have to venture out for too long in the cold to find a nice place to eat.

20th Aug

The next morning dawned bright and clear and we were astounded by the bright blue sky without a cloud in sight for as far as you can see. While i had known that parts of the Atacama deserts have not seen rain for a long time and are among the driest areas on earth, i did not know that for more than 350 days in a year, San Pedro remains absolutely clear without a cloud in sight, and when i say cloud i include those harmless white fluffy ones.

San Pedro was full of tourists enjoying the various tours of the desert and had a nice frontier town feel to it. After breakfast we started checking out the various agencies offering tours for the two tours we were interested in: a day trip into the Moon and Death Valley just outside of San Pedro and the 3 days trip in a 4 WD that would take us to Uyuni in Bolivia through the Atacama desert. It pays to shop around for bargains since there is a lot of competition between agencies and i had done some research on the better agencies that offer the trip to Uyuni. From among those Cordillera Traveller was the most expensive one offering the tour for $130 per person. We finally had to choose between Estrella Del Sur, who were offering the tour for $110 per person and Tierra Mystica, who were offering it for $115 per person. The tours and the kind of places that you stay in were very similar between the two but Tierra Mystica was offering the tour with only 4 tourists in the 4WD as compared to 6 tourists in the Estrella del Sur vehicle. It made more sense to go with Tierra Mystica since we would have got much more space for 3 entire days in the 4WD but the rude sales lady at Tierra Mystica was curt with us when we enquired (ok all right, not really enquired but pestered) her for a discount and so we decided to go with Estrella and their cheerful staff.

In the afternoon we went for the Moon Valley and Death Valley tour, which was simply astounding. The landscape seemed from another planet and cannot really been described in words, so i wont even try. The tour rated extremely high in the wow factor for me.

It was somewhere in the middle of taking all these pictures and playing in the sand that my Nikon conked out and has been out of circulation since. Hopefully i can get it repaired in Cusco (our next destination) which is the tourist center here in Peru and the launch pad for treks and trips to Machhu Pichu.


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