Friday, October 30, 2015

The Atacama Desert is “Awesome!”


Map picture

The Atacama Desert is “Awesome!”

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the most amazing places we have ever visited even though it took 16.5 hours to go there and back by bus. Yes, you read correctly, yesterday was one of the longest day trips we have ever made, if not THE longest. We departed the ship at 7am yesterday morning and returned around 11:30 pm.

So what in the world would ever be worth such a commitment? Well, the Atacama Desert is without question the driest non-polar place on Earth. It is a plateau which covers over a 650 mile strip of land along the coast of Chile just west of the Andes. It lies at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, and has an otherworldly appearance which has been compared to that of Mars. In fact, several movies have been filmed in that location, but of greater interest is that NASA has used this huge valley to test out its lunar equipment.

We drove 4.5 hours to the small town of San Pedro de Atacama with only one stop along the way. Along the way, we were witness to the most amazing scenery, however, taking pictures from a moving bus does not really do justice to what we saw. When we arrived, we expected to find a local village which was largely unknown, but boy were we wrong! The little town was jammed with some tours, but mostly young people who had come there to enjoy the many outdoor experiences offered in the surrounding areas. It was full of hostels, hotels, cafes and little restaurants. On literally every corner was located a small travel agency hawking tours to the surrounding areas.

Our free time was limited by our tight schedule, and right after lunch, we left for another hour long ride into the high desert; much of the drive being on dirt road. Our first stop was to visit a nature reserve which is attempting to protect the surviving flamingoes that at one time existed in large number around the salty Lake Miscanti. Two things struck us in this environment. First with the cloudless sky and a burning sun directly above, the white salt flats created a situation in which the UV index was off the scale. It felt somewhat like being in a microwave oven. The second thing which caught our breath, was that at any point on this plateau is that just to the West are the high mountains and volcanoes of the Andes, many of them snowcapped, and that vista literally stretches from horizon to horizon.

All along our little walk were huge salt crystals, and salt flats which stretched to the horizon. In fact, one of our guest pointed to what I took to be a large rock on our path and it turned out to be a single salt crystal that looked to be the size of a cinder block. We did get some wonderful photographs of the surrounding mountains and the huge salt flats, along with seeing some of the surviving flamingoes. No one could stay out very long in the searing sunlight, and so before long the bus was headed back the way we had come. Upon reaching the little town of San Pedro de Atacama, we turned back onto the highway home, but the day was far from over.

Before long, we once again departed the main highway for a dirt road which brought us to the ranger station for “The Valley De La Luna.” After stopping to pay the entrance fees and to take a quick break from the bus, we were soon bumping along a small dirt road which was taking us deeper into the beautiful valley. Everyone in the bus was now fully awake and all were equally awed by the surrounding beauty. There was one fantastic picture after another except we were still on the bus, and I was chaffing to stop and take photographs which we did soon enough. The bus had driven to the end of the long road and then on the way back made several photo stops. The Valley which is famous for its resemblance to the surface of the moon is perhaps even more famous for the truly magnificent vista over the valley which occurs at sunset. When we first entered the Park, it was mostly devoid of people, but as time passed I noticed a huge influx of cars and small vans loaded with people. Like little ants they started to climb the hills in order to be at the top for the “big event,” sunset. At about this time, our bus departed the Valley, and once again entered the highway for our long ride home. Even though we were running late, surely we could have stayed just a little longer!

Surprise! About two miles or so up the road, our bus turned onto a small and from the look of it little used road which headed into the hills. There had been no announcement of another stop, so I could not imagine what this was about until we pulled onto a plateau which looked over the entire Valley and surrounding mountains and parked all alone beyond the crowds. Not only was the view out of this world, but the tour operator had setup a large wine and cheese event complete with local natives demonstrating their sunset ceremony. OK, we were impressed! In fact, there were actually little rock seats that were created for our use.

At one point, I moved away from our little group and sat by myself in relative silence, looking over a truly awe inspiring vista as the sun was setting. Quietly in my mind I heard the words: “Be still, and know that I AM God.”


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