One of the best weeks of my life thus far was spent in Iquique and San Pedro de Atacama. The north of Chile proved to be the perfect mixture of relaxation and adventure. In the middle of a long, long winter we happily traded the 40 degree thunder storms of Rancagua for the 70 degree ocean breeze in Iquique.
The next morning we awoke to sun streaming through the windows. We walked out to our balcony to see a yawning mouth of the Pacific ocean and the coastline stretching its stiff limbs in the early morning.
While the climate was much more to our liking, Iquique didn’t only offer incredible beach time (although we did spend two solid afternoons working on our tans). In Iquique, we stayed at the most incredible hostel where we instantly made fifteen new friends from all over the world, traveling for various reasons. It was great to swap stories with other vagabonds and pick their minds of travel advice and ideas during big hostel barbeques where everyone gathered around picnic tables covered with choripan, steaks, chilean salads, and of course, lots of vino.
We spent most nights at the hostel or at local pirate-themed watering holes, but during the day we had the most fun. Iquique can only, or at least most accurately, be described as a an old western beach town. The streets are lined with colorful houses, but there are train tracks stretching across boardwalks towards the city center where a rolling tumbleweed would fit perfectly. The whole city could have just as easily been found in a Disney World theme park, but alas, there were no cowboys in Iquique, only surfers.
During our strolls through the city center we stopped at many artisan markets and bought brightly colored macrame jewelery, alpaca everything, and even a cowgirl hat for me (which would coincidentally come in handy later). When we had easily spent our monthly stipend on presents for our families, friends, and ourselves, we decided to remove ourselves from the aggressive sales people by fleeing the city center.
Through a hostel arranged trip, we hopped on a bus toward the sand dunes and took our chances with the provided snow boards. We drove about thirty minutes outside of the city and then climbed up massive sand dunes, legs aching and lenguas afuera. Despite the hike to the top, the view from the sand dunes was worth breaking a sweat.
At the top of these sand dunes we had to stop and admire the view before getting up the nerve, and the energy, to go back down. With a breeze on our backs, we summed to courage to stand on the boards, but less frightening than I imagined. Unlike snowboarding, the sand had too much friction to cause a icy plummet to the bottom. That said, sand boarding consisted of more stopping and starting than I’d like to admit. After failing to invoke any adrenaline from standing on the board, I proceeded to sand sled which was much more fun.
On our last day in Iquique, the festival of La Tirana began. The festival is deeply religious celebration in honor of the Virgin Carmel with around 40,000 people gathering to celebrate the patron saint for six days through music, food, dance, and beautiful costumes. Unfortunately, we only caught one day of the festivities, but we had to make our way to San Pedro de Atacama.
After a long night on three separate buses with a random search at 3 am, we finally arrived in San Pedro at 8 am, watching our breathe form in the air. At first we were less than enthusiastic to return to winter temperatures, but the incredible elements of the Atacama desert would charm us in the end.
Since we couldn’t check into our hostel until 11 am, we spent the chilly morning roaming through the dirt streets of San Pedro. There were clay edifices lining the streets and seemingly more hostels than homes. In the center of the pueblo we found the Iglesia de San Pedro (below) and a plaza surrounded by white stucco walls. In one corner of the bright white walls there were artisans setting up their stands and already beckoning us over towards them. If I hadn’t packed for the beach I would have resisted, but I was in need of a sweater and some gloves if I was going to survive the early mornings and late nights in San Pedro.
After a warm meal and unpacking, we set off on our first tour: La Valle de la Muerte, Las Tres Marias, y La Valle de la Luna. While Kelly found a place to horseback ride, Laurel and I put on our hiking shoes (and by hiking shoes, I mean sneakers), bundled up, and set off to see the famous valleys of the Atacama.
Our first stop was La Valle de la Muerte (above). It was like walking on the moon. Due to the large percentage of Lime in the earth, Valle de la Muerte is completely uninhabitable. Nothing can grow or live there, so only the unforgiving winds that sweep through it (and tourists) affect the barren land.
Our second stop was “Las Tres Marias” (above). This plateau in the Andes mountains of land covered in salt and surrounded by three volcanoes hosts this National Landmark of Chile. The salt sculptures mark the entrance to the salt caves and geysers that lie below.
As dusk approached, our van hurried to the highlight of the tour: sunset of la Valle de La Luna. We hike up a sand dune and walked about a half mile along a ridge about two body lengths wide with hundred of feet to fall. Being as clumsy as I am, I held tight to Laurel and hoped for the best.
As the sun began to set, we found stones to sit on and watch as rosy colors brought the sky to life, glowing above the sandy cliffs. Like sorbet on a cone, the colors melted and swirled into the horizon and we could do nothing but sit and stare. On our walk back to the van, we didn’t speak to each other.
Two terribly loquacious girls were completely upstaged by this voice of nature. We were humbled and charmed, unable to articulate what we had just seen and felt. With the sun sunken into the sand dunes, the temperature followed suit. Shivering and sobered, we returned to the pueblo to get a good night sleep before a 4 am wake up call.
The next morning we set off at 4 am for El Tatio del Geysers, a hot spot for tourists in the Atacama desert. The spot is about an hour and a half away, so we arrived just in time to see hundreds of geysers of all sizes erupt into the sunrise.
Over hot chocolate and coca tea, we admired the geysers at 15,000 feet above sea level. As we walked through the vapor, we felt light headed and tired from the altitude adjustment. The coca tea helped ease the developing head aches, but returning to lower ground was welcomed after an hour among the mountain peaks.
As we drove through the Atacama desert, we stopped many times to admire the landscape. With the Andes by our side every inch of the drive, there was much unexpected life in the middle of the desert.
Between sloping valleys there were lakes and ponds (which I am almost certain weren’t mirages), that were filled with birds, fish, and plants. The mirror-like quality of the lakes made the hills multiply seemingly infinitely.
As we continued on the road through the Atacama, we also came across alpaca that were grazing in the hills or sipping from the fresh river water. They did not jump or run when the vans approached, which made me feel a little uneasy about how accustomed they must be to tourists trekking through their natural habitat.
The desert was not only home to Alpaca and birds, however, but also people. We stopped in a village where clay houses almost blended into the sand dunes undetectably. The huts may have been hardly visible, but the bright turquoise cross on the pueblo’s church stood out proudly.
The houses may have been modest, but the sopaipillas deserved bragging rights. The baked and breaded squash pastries were the size of my head and very popular among the tourists.