The Atacama Desert

January, 23, 2023

On our last full day in Atacama, we're spending some time relaxing, packing again, and getting ready for our next segment in Vina del Mar.  Overall we really enjoyed what we did here.  The activities we did were surprisingly accessible for people at varying levels of interest in "off the beaten track" experiences.  Most places we went were mostly car accessible (if on not great condition roads) and therefore could be viewed by those who can't handle hiking.  For us, it allowed us to hike as much or as little as we wanted to without feeling like we were missing anything.  We can imagine, though, that going like we did and just renting a car (without a tour) might be more difficult for those who don't speak Spanish.  English was not often heard much outside of the tour guides.  They've also started to develop some high-end lodging here as well, for those that appreciate a more well-heeled experience (we got to see some of those as our stargazing guide picked up our fellow participants).  Although we were here for about 10 days, we could imagine you could get most stuff done in 5-6 days if, on a couple days, you did two.  As we depart, we thought we'd give you one last shot of the Atacama from our AirBnB porch.

January 22, 2023

Today we headed to Valle de la Luna, which is only about a 10-15 minute drive from town, and at about this same elevation, so it was hotter earlier in the day.  Like Arco Iris, you can drive through but also stop at various points to do some short hiking (ranging from trails of about 15-20 minutes to 2 and a half hours).  We did a mix of driving and hiking again also.  The landscape isn't as colorful as Arco Iris, but it is varied and interesting.  Some of it is difficult to see in the photos as the light is captured differently by the camera sometimes and you lose some of the detail that you can see with the eye.  One of the more interesting things that's hard to view in the photos is how much of the material in the valley is made of of salt crystals... and giant ones at that.  It just doesn't read when you shoot with the camera.  Eli had to discourage Stephen from licking his finger and trying to taste it.  In addition to the valley, there is another mirador included in admission which is about 11 km up the road toward Calama.  We got some amazing shots from there as well, so definitely don't skip it.

Since we didn't want to make any more leftovers as we're leaving soon, we decided to venture into town for a meal.  We'll see if we can find something cheap.

January 21, 2023

Today we headed to Flamingo National Reserve in search of the namesake of the park.  There are apparently two entrances to the park; we went in via route 27 but there is another way in on the south side.  The route 27 route is mostly driving (and luckily all paved road); you gain about an additional 7,000 feet of elevation really quickly (you don't notice it much on the way up but you do on the way down).  There also isn't much hiking on this route either.  We went from mirador to mirador (lookout to lookout) almost all the way to the Argentinian border.  At a couple places where there were flamingos or guanacos/llamas/vicunas to see, we walked down from the mirador to get a closer look.  For some reason the view driving back was more interesting than the drive on the way up.  For us, the reserve definitely lived up to its name, but we could imagine having an adventure when you don't luck out at all and see any flamingos.  As an example, we stopped at one mirador on the way up to look at a salt lake and, at the time, there were not flamingos there.  On the way back down, we stopped by that same mirador and the salt lake was teeming with them.  Definitely bring your binoculars or your telephoto lens; the flamingos won't let you get closer than about 1000 feet without moving away.  The guanacos/llamas/vicunas are a lot more friendly.  It's 133 km up and the same back, so make sure you have almost a full tank if you're going to go.

January 20, 2023

We took yesterday off and did some work, as it was about 1:30am by the time we got back from the stargazing experience and what we did today was going to require an early morning (4am) wake-up.  We drove up to Tatio Geysers.  Tatio is the largest and highest (15,000 ft. elevation) geyser field in the world.

The drive up (and back) was quite harrowing, though.  Eli elected (or was selected) to drive up.  It was a challenge driving up in the dark, but on reflection, as Stephen was driving down, Eli decided he had the better deal because on the drive down it was daylight and we could see how steep some of the dropoffs were.  Both ways, though, we delt with some really bumpy spots in the road, the most challenging we've been on so far.  We're not sure our car's suspension will ever be the same.  You can go to Tatio with a tour company; the rate at which the tour vans were passing us on those sections makes us think that their tour vans are better at handling the bumpy road.  

Because it's at such a high elevation, at sunrise, the temperature is at freezing, so we busted out our winter coats.  When you get there, it really does look like something primordial.  The geysers here are not like Old Faithful with a regular schedule of "eruption."  They slowly "simmer" and then every so often might have more flow.  Just watching the steam all around you, though, is something else.

On our way down, it was great to see all the scenery that we missed in the dark on the way up.  More generally as we've been traveling around, every valley here has it's on micro-geology which is so interesting to see.  We saw some more guanaco, who were actually probably vicuna or llamas (we were corrected by our AirBnB host), as vicuna and llama live at the higher elevations.  Probably some of the animals we had photos of from our trip to Arco Iris are also misidentified as guanaco.  We also got to see tons of flamingos on our way down as well.  Both of us remarked at what a strange environment the desert mountains are for such a pink bird like the flamingo. 

Before heading back to our place to get some rest, we stopped at Puritama Thermal Springs.  It's a short 20 minute detour of the road straight back to town.  It's about $35 per person, but the scenery while you are soaking is really beautiful.  They have 8 different pools of various temperatures (none of which were probably more than 91F), changing rooms, bathrooms, and picnic tables.  It's about a 500m hike down (and back up again) to get to the springs from the parking lot.  It felt really nice to soak, and it wasn't too crowded overall.

January 18, 2023

After doing our little informal stargazing the other night, we decided it might be nice to book an experience with a local "star guide" who has a number of telescopes set up to do some more in-dept viewing and get an understanding of what we saw.  We ended up booking with Atacama Stargazing.  While not the cheapest in the area (at $100 each), it is the most comprehensive.  Jorge is very passionate about stargazing and was very animated as he shared all his knowledge, running back and forth between the 8 different telescopes he had set up for us.  We ended up spending a good 3.5 hours in total engaged in learning about and viewing the stars, plus an awesome food spread with alcoholic beverages and home-cooked food (great asparagus soup) included.  And it really is incredible.  We can't show you photos of what we saw in the telescopes, but we were able to see the rings on Jupiter, clear and bright stars and planets, and a great view of the Milky Way (which you can't really see much of from the northern hemisphere).  The photos we included here of the group and of us were taking with a long-exposure camera the Jorge, the guide uses to create the suvenier after the experience.  We'd highly recommend it.

January 17, 2023

We drove about an hour and a half to Valle del Arco Iris.  It's mostly paved roads until the last 30 minutes to the entry.  On our way, we ended up following a couple of tour vans, which was helpful in safely navigating some of the dirt road that crossed the creek at points; Stephen was driving and worried about getting stuck.  We also ran into some guanaco and wild donkeys on the way.  Arco iris is the Spanish word for rainbow, and the valley lived up to that name.. really striking red, green, and white colors.  The colors come from oxidized minerals in the soil in various layers and stages.  We thought it was just as visually remarkable as when we were at Wadi Rum in Jordan (although you can't camp at Arco Iris, and it's not as vast overall).  Hiking is relatively easy and flat here, with only slight and gentle elevation changes; you can also drive through some sections.  We did a combination of both, and ended up spending about two hours at the valley.

On our way back to town, we stopped by Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs.  The glyphs here date to around the same time as the Tulor ruins we saw the day before (800 BCE to 400CE).

We got back to our place, had a late snack, and napped for a while.  We had thought we might try and make it to Valle de la Luna for sunset today, but instead decided to work on arranging for a formal stargazing tour for sometime in the next few days.  We were pretty beat after the visit to Arco Iris.  Stephen cooked dinner.  We decided to avoid the grill tonight and we used the gas burners, but it was still a little bit of a challenge.  You can only have one burner going at a time, so he did the meal in stages.  We chilled and caught up on blogging, work, etc.

January 16, 2023

We started today at the ruins of Tulor.  The ruins were inhabited from the 8th century BCE through to the 5th century CE.  Google Maps gave us a wrong turn, but we eventually found it by backtracking a bit.  They have park rangers who will interpret the ruins for you, but they only speak Spanish.  Our tour guide was a local woman of indigenous heritage.  She explained about how people lived in the area with such a harsh environment.  We talked a lot about local plants.  Yesterday before we went shopping we had sampled some of the plants in the garden at our Air BnB since there was a rosemary plant.  We didn't taste, but smelled.  Not much there other than the rosemary signaled edible to us.  One of the plants our guide showed us, though, while not fragrant, had this amazing salty taste... and that we do have in our garden.  We'll have to figure out how to use it.  We also talked a lot about the way current people of indigenous background relate to the site and how it was a revered location, even before the discovery of the ruins, even though the reason why had not really been understood.   

From there, we decided to head to something else in the southern area of the valley.  Actually, though, it really doesn't often matter when planning like this.  Many of the sites you need to backtrack practically to the town to move between them.  We headed to some of the salt lakes.  We first went to Cejar, which was the closest, but the entrance fee there was 20 bucks a person (they allow swimming in the lake) and since we hadn't brought our swimsuits, we decided to just head past this lake and head to Tebenquiche instead.  Entrance fee here was only 6 bucks and, minus the swimming, a more interesting site.  The pictures don't do the site justice as it's hard to understand the vastness of the lake as the photos tend to flatten everything out.  We headed back to the car to snack before heading home, and then saw a flamingo land in the lake.  We dropped our food and ran back to the lake, but the bird had flown away by the time we got there.

For dinner, we had picked up some steaks and charcoal, since our place has a grill.  However, we couldn't find any lighter fluid (and we later confirmed that no one uses it here).   When we were in Tulum with our friends Ken and Michael, we ran into a similar problem and improvised a solution using a camping sterno to get the coals.  That wasn't an option here.  We tried using paper towels and the bag from the charcoal, but we couldn't get it to get going enough.  Eli went back into town and got some cardboard from one of the markets, and that did the trick.  They weren't the most seared steaks we'd ever had, but they were pretty good, none the less.... especially after all the effort to get the grill going.  

We wanted to go stargazing tonight to see what we could see with the naked eye.  Our place is fairly dark, but we thought we might take the provided collapsible chairs out of the gated area to a large empty zone away from the houses here.  We were getting stuff set up and heard some very aggressive barking from pretty near.  We couldn't see much since it was so dark, so we quickly took our chairs that we had barely gotten out and hightailed it back the 200 yards to the safety of our gated place.  We just set up the chairs in the yard and stargazed for a while.  The light pollution wasn't terrible, and we got to see a nice sky full of stars (which pictures don't do justice to).

January 15, 2023

It was Eli's birthday today, but we spent most of it driving from Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama.  We are staying in an Air BnB here a little out of town.  That has it's pluses and minuses.  We will hopefully get some good stargazing by just walking outside our door, but it means a trek into town to get supplies.  We did some supply shopping, but had to visit every market in town to get what we needed.  The town is all dirt roads, and definitely has a hippie vibe (apart from the residents).  We are some of the older visitors to the area; it is mostly 20 and 30 something travelers. 

For dinner, Stephen booked a special birthday meal for Eli at Baltinache.  They do a fixed price dinner of 3 courses for about $36 per person.  We ended up both having the jamon serrano salad and the skewer of guanaco, which is kind of like a llama or a vicuna, but is a resident of this area of Chile.  The dessert was also great... kind of like a tres leches but not as soaked in milk.

January 14, 2023

Today was our big trip to the Paranal Observatory.  The observatory does tours on Saturdays only at 10am and 2pm.  We spent about 3 hours there.  You must reserve in advance.   It was dry, cold, and windy even though it was sunny and in the middle of the summer.  Apparently the wind was unusual, but not the temperature.

Paranal is the largest visible light observatory in the world, although until the new Very Large Telescope is built, it does not have the telescope with the largest mirror.  The four telescopes at the observatory can work together through interferometry to increase the resolution of the overall picture; it basically creates a virtual mirror with a diameter the distance between the telescopes in operation.  We got to see the habitat area where the staff and visiting astronomers live.  Since we were there in the day, and all the astronomy has to happen at night, it was pretty quiet.  It was a beautiful space, though.  The climate is completely natural as it is built into the ground... no air conditioning or heating ever needed.  The humidity in the space was also more natural (probably from the indoor swimming pool in the lobby).  

From there we went up to the telescopes.  There are the 4 main telescopes and then 4 additional "scoping" telescopes that work in tandem with the large ones.  We walked around the top and the guide explained why this site is great for viewing (the temperature inversion caused by the dry mountain and the wet coast cause a clear and low-turbulence atmosphere above the site).   We then got to to in and see one of the four telescopes.  The are very impressive.  The basic geometry of creating a telescope hasn't really changed since Galileo's time, but technology has certainly made it more refined (and larger). 

We wanted to come see the telescope because it is something that is unique to the region here in Chile.  It was cool, but it might not be the thing for everyone, and there isn't much else in the Antofagasta area otherwise.  On our way back, we stopped to check out a desert art installation called the Hand.  It was a cool instagram shot.

For dinner, we decided to do typical Chilean and got a "completo."  A completo is a hot dog served with a combination of tomatoes, avocados, mayonnaise, sauerkraut and salsa Americana.  Apparently the best in Antofagasta is at La Maestra.  The thing is HUGE!  We could have split one and havea fries and been all good.  But.... we also tried one of their sandwiches and had some loaded fries (ours came with sauteed onions, stewed beef, and cheese sauce).  It was SO MUCH FOOD, but of course, we finished it all.

January 13, 2023

We went out today exploring to see what Antofagasta was all about.  The Lonely Planet Guide says that most people tend to skip here (which we get), but since we had a day to spend before heading to the Observatory, we figured we'd do something other than sit in the hotel.  Why Antofagasta is so important can be summed up by.... bat and bird sh*t.  Really..... The area's early inhabitants recognized the value of bat and bird guano as a fertilizer, and so exported it to areas that were better for cultivation.  And then. large deposits of sodium nitrate (aka saltpeter) were found in the area, leading to the first big boom around 1810.  Then silver was found in 1840, and then copper in 1870.  What is left of that "frontier" style architecture looks very much like what you'd imagine from the "old west" in the US.  There isn't much left of that, though.  We went to theHhistorical Museum of Antofagasta, which is housed in one of those historic buildings around the former rail yard.  It was helpful with a lot of explanation of the history, but was light on actual artifacts. We did learn that the indigenous civilization here created boats from sewing the hide of sea lions together and filling them with blubber so they'd float.  Pretty cool!

We then Ubered down to the ruins of Huanchaca.  Although they are "ruins" they are not old at all.  It was the former site of a saltpeter plant from the turn of the 20th century.  It exploded in an industrial accident.  It also has a small museum, which focused on the historical period of saltpeter mining in the late 19th century, but also had information about the region's role in astronomy.  Both of us took note of the section that talked about the "fichas" miners would be issued as salary, that were specific to their employer's operation and had to be used in their "company store."  As we left the site, we both walked down the hill singing... "Sixteen miles, and what do you get..... another year older and deeper in debt..." and then we muddled the lyrics in the middle but had the big finish with "... and I owe my soul to the company store...."

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the supermarket to pick up some staples and food for our trip to the observatory tomorrow, then came back to nap before dinner tonight, which is at Tio Jacinto, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide.  Tio Jacinto focuses on fresh seafood.  The waiter there broke our string of uninspired service.  He was friendly, fun, informal, and it made the meal all the more enjoyable.  We also got a tip on a Chilean digestive from the table next to us, which is akin to Jaegermister.  We started with a mixed ceviche with seabass, swordfish, and crab, Eli had a local fish lightly fried, and Stephen had a Chupe, which is basically a seafood stew in a tomato bechamel sauce with cheese on top.  When the waiter described it, he mentioned the tomato sauce but failed to mention the bechamel, but Stephen took lots of Lactaid and ended up being okay.  Well worth the 70 bucks.

January 12, 2023

Happy New Year, Everyone!  We're not yet in San Pedro de Atacama, actually.  We are making a pit-stop in Antofagasta in order to check out the Paranal Observatory on Saturday.  The Observatory is about an hour and a half south of here.  We'll give you a recap in our next post.

We spent some time reassessing our packing strategy for this six month segment.  We decided to go with just a carry-on sized bag (that we are checking through) and then we each got a carry-on sized backpack that we will be taking in the cabin with us.  When filled with stuff (and trust us, we've filled it to the brim), it fits in the overhead compartment just like a carry-on bag does.  We found this one at Target, and it was about $70 bucks.  It has enough internal and external nooks and pockets to separate stuff like our electronic cords, documents, glasses, clear liquids case, and other random items; it has a padded section for our laptops; it has an external pocket for our water bottles; and it's got storage enough that we can put a whole bunch of clothes in it that we couldn't fit in our carry-on sized suitcase.  It opens like a clamshell for easy access to the interior.  

Our flight from Miami to Antofagasta took us through Santiago.  We booked our flight on LATAM in business class from Miami to Santiago using the last little bit of Delta Airlines miles we both had.  In fact, Stephen had to transfer some Marriott Bonvoy points to Delta in order to get his ticket.  We don't really recommend accumulating Delta Skymiles.... Lucky, a blogger in the points and miles space, deems them "skypesos."  We were, though, able to get 2 tickets at the saver level for this flight, which ended up being 95,000 a piece.  Delta also just did away with fixed pricing on even their partner awards, so the likelihood that we'll find another deal like that using Delta miles is not good.  We're now starting to accumulate our Skyteam points in KLM/AirFrance's FlyingBlue program.  FlyingBlue is a transfer partner of our Chase, Citi, and Capital One cards, so at least we can add a points transfer to anything we earn by flying so we can get some use out of the miles.  We'll see how that goes.

We got to the airport a little early because we wanted to check out the lounges in MIA's south terminal before we flew.  We have access to the Turkish lounge through Priority Pass, which comes with our Chase Sapphire Reserve and Capital One Venture X cards,  and the LATAM salon VIP because we were in business class on the flight.  The Turkish lounge had gotten a bunch of good reviews (prior to the pandemic), especially for the food.  We were not impressed.  It still may be a leftover from the pandemic times, but there was just a bunch of sandwiches of middling quality plus some cold couscous salad, olives, cheese, and that kind of thing (all shrinkwrapped).  Only when we were about to leave did we find that you could order hot plates via a QR code on the table.  It was mostly falafel with a variety of accompaniments on the menu, and we just decided to skip that and head to the LATAM Salon VIP.  This space was much quieter (because there was no Priority Pass access).  This lounge was lacking in easy access to plugs to charge mobile devices as well.  The hot food here, though, was a little more extensive.  There was a nice cheese stuffed ravioli and an orange chicken that, while a little dry, had nice flavor.  The American Airlines Flagship Lounge has been the best that we've been to in MIA by far.

LATAM's 787-8 business class is nothing special.  It's in a 2-2-2 setup and the seats are kind of worn.  Stephen's seat was malfunctioning, but it at least was able to go down into flat bed mode and back up again.  We arrived in Santiago with little drama, and had a 3 hour layover before our flight to Antofagasta, which we spent in one of the lounges that allows Priority Pass access.

When we arrived in Antofagasta, we had to pick up a rental car because we're going to drive down to the observatory and then up to San Pedro.  The attendant took his sweet time helping the person in front of us, dissapeared for 15 minutes, and then took his time helping us as well.  In total, it took about an hour and 20 minutes before we were able to get in our car and get on the way.  We elected to skip getting cash at the airport, thinking we'd just get cash when we got to our hotel since we didn't have to worry about tipping a driver.  We didn't realize that we'd be passing a toll booth, though, and the toll booths don't take credit cards here.  We discussed with the attendant what the problem was and she took down our license plate number and sent us through.  We'll see what ends up happening with that.

We found a parking garage to hold the car and then we went to check in at the hotel.  Again, the staff moved exceedingly slowly, without much animation or expression at all.  When we went to go pay the parking garage charge to move our car to the free parking at the hotel, the system requires a PIN for credit cards.  None of our cards use PINs.  We even tried using our ATM cards, and none of those worked either.  We found a staffed payment station, and they took pity on us there and just validated our ticket so we could get out (because they can't take credit cards behind the window... only cash).

We napped for a bit and then headed out to dinner.  We walked through town to get to our restaurant; while Antofagasta is the second largest city of Chile, it is rather plain and non-descript with a general vibe of being run-down.  We didn't see many people on the streets at all, save a small group doing dance lessons in a linear park between two boulevards.  There is a lot of great cycle infrastructure, but nobody really seemed to be using it.  We went to La Maison Antofagasta.  While nominally French, it had a menu with quite a variety of styles of food.  We did three plates to share and thought we would get dessert, but were too full by the end to order the banana bread.  The food was great, especially the plate with mushrooms in 3 different styles, and the mashed choclo which was served with the ribs, but again the service seemed unanimated.  We had a problem with our credit card here as well.  We tried tapping first, and it didn't go through, but when we stuck the card in the reader, the server was able to get it to work.  It was about $70 for the meal.