Travel Website Logo
Travel Journal
Dan Walker’s Travel Website
Travel Photos

Travel Journal

Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Thursday, February 24, 2005 16:22:40

Chile 2005: 2

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The hotel was supposed to have just coffee and tea for us at 6:15, as breakfast did not begin until 7, but they went all out and we had a full cold breakfast. Rodolfo was early as usual, so we loaded up and headed for the airport. Along the route he pointed out landmarks that would help when I would have to drive from city centre to the airport on my own.

Marilynn handled check in and got exit row seats for Simon and I for the 3 hour flight Calama, which included a 20 minute stop at Antofagasta. Simon is the same height as I am, and has the same difficulty fitting his legs into aeroplane seats.

We arrived on time at Calama and were met by Desert Adventure, sub-contractors to TravelArt for the north of Chile. Several others from the flight were on the same Mercedes mid-size bus. A guide on the bus pointed out the largest copper mine in the world at Calama, where the altitude in 2,350 meters (7,710 ft). On the drive we climbed to over 3,500 meters (11,480 ft.) then back down to 2,350 meters at our destination, San Pedro, a town of 2,500 people with a trading area of about 5,000.

The drive was through pure gravel desert, with no sign of vegetation anywhere. Shortly before we reached San Pedro we stopped at a viewpoint to have a look at an area they call the Valley of the Moon, named for it's lunar like landscape. Our first stop in town was at the Desert Adventures office where pick up times for tours were arranged, then the hotel drop offs began. We were the last to be delivered, so had a good look at the town where construction is one story adobe (mud brick) buildings. It is quite an amazing place!

We were not very enthused to find our hotel was about a 20 minute walk out of town in this large oasis, and even less enthused to find the rooms were so small one regular size double bed filled them. The only way Simon or I could fit into this sort of bed would be diagonally, making space a bit restricted for our wives. After threatening, badgering and cajoling the desk clerk, she assigned Simon and I rooms with 2 beds, but only for the one night as they were to be full for the following two nights. Finally, after making it clear we were headed for another hotel if something wasn't done, the desk clerk promised cots would be put into our rooms for the other two nights.

Originally we had planned to have lunch in town, but due to the distance and the time taken for the battle of the beds; we decided to eat at the hotel. After a not bad lunch with beer and wine we gathered outside for our 3:30 PM pickup, which didn't show up until 4:40. Needless to say the driver got it from all sides, although it was partly the companies fault, as they told him the pick up was to be 4:20.

After this chancy beginning, we headed off into the Valley of the Moon where we drove through the surreal landscape. Our first stop was in a rugged valley where the van could not drive because of an enormous sand dune. We were well above the valley, so decided to walk down. The driver took another route to pick us up at the bottom. It was fascinating to watch the very fit locals climbing the high, steep dune and then snow boarding back down. There were some dandy wipe outs, which must have rubbed off a layer or two of skin.

My knees gave out on me before I got to the van, so the last part of the hike was slow and tedious. Simon, who is plagued with knee problems as well, showed me up very badly! Finally I made it, and we continued to explore the area, which included a lot of strange rock shapes caused by erosion, the Salt Mountains which look like they are covered by snow - but it is salt, and we drove across the north end of Atacama Salt Lake. There was no water in the lake. The road was made by ploughing the salt to either side. Atacama is the third largest salt lake in the world.

Some our crowd headed off to see a salt mine, which I passed on due to the condition of my knees, and then we were offered the opportunity to climb a huge sand dune to watch what was billed as a spectacular sunset. We drove to the bottom of the dune, and after watching the tiny figures of people struggling upwards, voted to pass on the sunset and head for a pub!

Our driver, Sergio, dropped us in town were Marilynn picked the La Estaka Restaurant. It was a great choice, with cold beer, a good wine list and superb food at reasonable prices. After being well fed and refreshed, Roger and I took the local taxi back to the hotel and the rest walked. We were not long heading for bed!

In the morning Sergio arrived 15 minutes early for our 8:30 AM pickup, no doubt remembering the chastisement he got the day before. Our tour yesterday was a private one, but today's was a group tour. As we were picked up first we had our choice of seats! We learned that of Chile's 1,500 volcanoes, 1.300 are in this area. Two of these are active. The 6,900 meter (22,640 ft.) "Volcano of the People", a classical cone shaped volcano, has figured in folk lore and native religion for centuries. It can be seen from most places in the valley.

We drove around 350 km in today's explorations. Early on we passed the site of what will be the largest observatory in the world, an international venture being headed up by Japan. The main roads we have seen in Chile are paved and in excellent condition, so we made good time between destinations.

Shortly after passing Chile's largest lithium mine (Chile produces 40% of the world's lithium according to the guide) we arrived at the central part of the Atacama Salt Lake. Here ponds of water, fed through underground streams from the surrounding mountains, support a large population of pink and white flamingos, plus other bird species. Large numbers of birds could be seen from the trails on the salt surface. All species except the little sandpipers are resident there year round. The gutsy sandpiper flies to the US and Canada, then back again seasonally.

We climbed to 4,300 meters (14,170 ft) to see the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, only 15 km from the Bolivian border. It is also quite close to where Argentina joins Bolivia and Chile to form a three country boarder. It was freezing cold, and everyone felt the altitude to some degree when walking around. Marilynn and I were both pleased that she handled the altitude well - a good sign for the upcoming Himalayan trip in September. There was only scrub vegetation in the area, and the lakes were rimmed with white sulphur. There was a public toilet, which to everyone's surprise, was spotlessly clean and odourless. We have yet to come across a restroom that was not clean in Chile!

On the way back we stopped at a tiny restaurant in the Village of Socaire for a typical lunch. After exploring the little village we headed back to San Pedro. Meals in Chile are later than most of us are used to - lunch can be as late as 3 PM, and dinner is around 10 PM.

A swim seemed a good idea when we arrived back at the hotel, but once the water was determined to be near freezing all but Marilynn decided to give it a miss. Instead we gathered in the bar to use up our free pisco sour drink tickets. After some discussion, it was decided to have dinner at the hotel, as tomorrow we start very early. Dinner was not spectacular, but adequate, and the beer and wine were excellent.

We greeted Tuesday well before dawn with a 4:30 AM departure. The hotel had made up a small lunch in place of breakfast, which some of us ate en route. The drive was on dirt roads all the way. The road was in bad condition, and we bumped along through pot holes and over washboard in the less than comfortable bus for around 100 km. Fortunately there had been some rain during the night, which held the dust down. The scenery was inpossible to see, even with a full moon.

We arrived at the 4,321 meter (14,176 ft) altitude Geysers del Tatio about 20 minutes before sunrise. There were a number of tourist vehicles already there, and in the dim pre-dawn light they looked like ghosts moving through the plumes of steam which shot up from dozens of geysers. The sources of steam varied from dry holes in the ground to boiling cauldrons. The most dramatic were those that belched up quantities of boiling water.

After wandering around the area we returned to the van where our guide was boiling up eggs for breakfast in one of the geysers. After eating we drove a short distance to another set of geysers where the discharge of water was greater, and where a pool had been created by workers who were building a geyser powered electric generating station. The generating plant was shut down when the mine it was designed to power closed.

Marilynn and I both went in to enjoy the 30 degree water, but the air temperature at a chilly 5 degrees below zero made getting out a bit daunting. We headed back on a different route through ever changing landscape. There was an area covered in pipe stem cactus - a species common in Arizona but that I didn't think existed in South America. The variety of desert in the Atacama is amazing - valleys covered in dry clumps of grass, sand dunes, moonscapes, dry mountains and flat, barren plains with no growth whatsoever. From everywhere it is possible to see the high, snow capped Andes looking down on the barren landscape. The valleys are huge; one we went through today was 100 km long by 40 km wide.

On the way back we travelled over a 4,500 meter (14,764 ft) pass, then down a narrow canyon to an area that had been inhabited since 500 AD. The stone houses on the hillside were in use until the Spanish wiped out the inhabitants in the 1500s. There is evidence of habitation in this area since 11,000 BC.

Once back at the hotel we cleaned up and headed into town, where all but Roger and I went to check out the shops. We took on the task of checking out the pubs, so started at one end of the main street and moved gradually along, having a beer in each place. Simon caught up with us after a couple of stops, and we continued on for a bit before returning to the hotel.

After another good dinner with drinks at La Estaka, we all did the 15 minute trek back to the hotel where we went to bed to the accompaniment of barking dogs, braying mules and mooing cows. Roger and Sally had an additional chorus of drunken Swiss wine merchants in the next room. There hadn't been a lot of sleeping when we were picked up by Sergio for our airport transfer at 7:30 AM.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

After picking up people at other hotels, which filled every seat in the van, we headed out on the highway. About half way to Calama the van started acting up, getting worse and worse as we went along. When it finally wheezed to a halt in front of the airport there was a combined sigh of relief! Sergio had phoned for a replacement van to pick up the arriving passengers.

Check in and security was efficient and painless, and the flight was on time. Long geared Simon and I were assigned a bulkhead seat, and by pure luck had no one in the centre seat. The plane was full with the exception of the seat between us after the 20 minute stop at Antofagasta. We arrived in Santiago to pick up our rented van about half an hour ahead of schedule. Budget supplied a new Chev Astro Van, which was very comfortable for the six of us.

The trip to Santa Cruz, in the centre of the famous Colchagua Valley, one of the best wine producing areas, was uneventful. We managed to navigate the highways flawlessly, not getting lost once, thanks to a combined navigational effort. The freeways are great, with a speed limit of 120 kph, so the trip was completed in the two hours anticipated. Along the way we were driving through broad agricultural valleys growing grapes, corn and fruit between the separating ranges of low mountains.

On arrival in Santa Cruz we had no problem locating the beautiful Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza. Once we informed the attendants we had reservations we were directed into the interior courtyard where the van was unloaded. An attendant took the keys and parked the vehicle while the rest of us were efficiently checked into our rooms. It was very interesting to visit the back country in the north, but it was truly wonderful to be in a well run hotel with luxurious rooms, king size beds and all the other comforts. TravelArt had done well - all our rooms overlooked the town square in front of the hotel.

We celebrated our great accommodation with drinks in a gazebo overlooking the swimming pool, in a tropical garden setting. Everyone else went for a swim, but I went for a walk to explore this quite but complete small city. Everyone here is friendly and helpful; strangers are made to feel very welcome.

We had a great dinner in the hotel, but one by one our party are succumbing to what is called in Mexico, Montezuma's revenge. It was a fairly early night after a long day. Tomorrow we are on our own to explore the vineyards and wineries of the area, so a late start was chosen. Crawling into comfortable king sized beds was a true treat for us all!