Chile: Valle de la Luna

Day 5/Part 5–

After seeing the flamingos, we headed to the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), which is a short drive from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The park is well named, because we definitely felt like we had been transported to the surface of the moon as we traveled among the rock formations, sand dunes, and salt deposits.

Although seemingly barren at first glance, the landscape showcased rich earth tones that ebbed and flowed from one moon-like formation to the next. Most intriguing however, were the huge sand dunes. Unfortunately, their scope and magnitude just can’t be captured by a cellphone camera. The scene was blanketed by a very blue sky, which was the “cherry” on the top of a very special cake.

Huge Sand Dunes
Tres Marias: These formations are believed to be approximately 1 million years old.
“Hello…it’s me!”
Bird poop or salt?
Volcán Licancabur (Pierre’s Mountain) in the distance!

Chile: Llamas and Alpacas, and Goats…Oh My!

Chile: Day 5/Part 4–
We were driving back from seeing the flamingos, and were almost back to town when I yelled, “Stop! Stop! Pull over!” Pierre is used to me yelling things out like that, so with cat-like reflexes, he pulled the camper over to the side of the road in a flash. I was so glad that he had listened, because I really wanted him to see the animal menagerie that was walking by! A man on horseback was leading llamas, alpacas, goats, and sheep. Several dogs ran around the animals keeping them all in place and moving forward—it was quite a scene!

P.S. Pierre—do you remember the sunflower field in France? LOL! ?

Llamas and alpacas, and goats…oh my!

Chile: Pink was the Color of the Day!

Chile: Day 5/Part 2–

After getting ready for the day, we headed back down the road toward Laguna de Chaxa: Reserva Nacional “Los Flamencos’–we wanted to see some flamingos!

We weren’t sure if the park was going to be open to private vehicles, because last night we had learned that the 10 km. long dirt road leading to the lake was under construction. When we got to the turn, we saw that the road was clogged with construction vehicles. We pulled to the side of the road unsure of what to do. I was SURE that I had understood that the park would be open during the day, but keep in mind that the man last night was speaking in Spanish, and I don’t speak or understand Spanish. Okay, I know a small handful of words, but that’s about it.

We had just decided to turn around, when a van pulled up next to us and beeped. The driver rolled down the passenger window, and was trying to tell us something. I was too far away to hear or understand, so I got out of the camper and approached his van.

He smiled while pointing to the turn, “Laguna?”

“Sí, Laguna,” I replied. I told you my Spanish was limited!

He spoke for what felt like a minute, but it was probably more like ten seconds. I heard a definite, “Sí,” as he motioned down the road. “Sí…flemencos.”

I took a shot, “It’s okay to drive down the road to see the flamingos?”

He answered in another long string of Spanish words, but once again I heard, “Sí.”

I thanked him and got back into the car. I turned to Pierre and said something like, “It’s okay for us to drive down the road. The park is open and we can see the flamingos.”

Pierre gave me a look that said—Yeah, right

Visibility was low because every vehicle was kicking up a lot of sand and dirt. We already knew from last night, that the road was going to be narrow and tight, but it was even worse during the day because of the construction vehicles moving about.

Oh yeah, this is fun!

It was slow going, but we finally got past the construction as we entered the Nature Reserve. We saw a visitor center in the foreground, two lakes surrounded by salt flats, and the whole scene was framed by snow-covered mountains in the distance. Three types of flamingos makes their home on the lakes here–Chilean, Andean, & James. The area was beautiful. It almost had a mystical feel to it, except for the presence of the tourists who were dotted along the walking trail in the distance.

We barely squeezed past the construction vehicles–how in the world did this bus do it? Tune in to Unsolved Mysteries of the Atacama Desert at 7:00 p.m. tognight!

After paying a very small entrance fee, Pierre and I walked down a trail that was carved through the salt flats. It lead out to a viewing area by the lake. Pink was certainly the color of the day–we saw lots of flamingos!

Requesting Permission to Land!!
Salt! This was our 2nd salt flat in a year–the 1st was Death Valley in January!
Mirror Image
Flamingo Food!

Chile: Digging Holes in the Desert

Day 5/Part 1–

We found the perfect spot to park last night after we had been turned away from the Flamingo Lagoon and the construction area. Pierre had backed into the desert, on a flat spot, so that the front of the camper was facing the road. Before we went to bed, we stood behind the camper and looked up at the pitch dark sky sparkling with stars. We couldn’t see a single artificial light anywhere. The night sky was breathtaking!

When we woke up this morning, the first thing I said to Pierre was, “I’m going to have use the toilet.” We had decided earlier in the trip not use the toilet or shower in the camper. It had to be emptied and cleaned before we returned the vehicle, and we were hoping to avoid that dirty chore at all costs. Neither of us have issues using the outside facilities, but pooping in the desert has it’s drawbacks–there’s nothing to hid behind!

“I have to go, too,” so I already dug a hole behind the camper while you were sleeping. You can use that one, and I’ll dig another hole when you’re finished,” Pierre explained.

Nothing to hide behind? Nothing but a big camper!

I thanked him and headed outside. I looked to the left, and then to the right, and saw that I could probably see two miles down the road on either side of the camper. Perfect! Just as I had finished, Pierre opened the back door of the camper and yelled, “After you fill the hole back in, put a rock on it to mark it!”

“Mark it? Mark it for what?” I yelled back.

“Just do it!”

I burst out laughing. I realized that he probably didn’t want to re-dig the next hole in the same place. THAT would be awful!

I was still laughing, as I climbed back up into the camper, “Your turn!”

Chile: “No, You Can’t Park Here!”

Day 4/Part 5–

It was approaching sunset by the time that we were ready to find a place to park the camper for the night.  Since we had decided to go to out to one of the lagoons to see the flamingos the next day, we figured that we could drive out there in the evening, so we would be well-positioned in the morning.  There are many lagoons to pick from, but we opted for Laguna Chaxta, because it was a bit bigger than the two closest lagoons, but it was much closer than a few of the others.  In other words, we thought that our plan was perfect!

We left the activity of San Pedro de Atacama and headed south on Route 23, and only we passed only one or two cars along the way.  As the sun was starting to set, we pulled over and took a few photos of the mountains in the distance.

The “Main Road”

We drove about an hour, and we easily found our turn off to the right. We left the “main” road and began traveling on a sandy, dirt road.  Almost instantly, we saw a sign that indicated that our target was 10 kms further, and that we were in the middle of construction zone.  As we continued to travel, sand piled increasingly higher and higher on either side of us, making it feel like we were traveling down a chute, rather than a road. 

We passed many construction vehicles, abandoned for the night, and silhouetted against the night sky which was glowing with stars.  All-in-all, it was a neat experience, until…we saw a set of headlights coming towards us in the distance.

As the distance between us diminished, I wondered how we would pass each other. Fortunately, the construction “gods” prevailed, and the road slightly widened as we met.  The car pulled up next to us, and the driver rolled down his window.  A man with a heavy black beard and a construction hat, told us (in Spanish) that the road was closed for the night, and that we would have to turn around.  We understood one or two words, but his hand motions were clear—turn around—now! 

Of course, we listened to his directive and we backed up until we found a little place where we could turn around.  He followed us out, making sure that we left the area.  When we reached the end of the road, we turned right on the main road, and we saw that he had turned left.  We drove for a minute or two, not seeing anyplace that we could pull over, so Pierre turned around and started heading back.  We arrived at the turn off (this time to our left), and like a moth to a flame, Pierre turned in again.

“What are you doing?” I wailed. “He told us we had to turn around!”

“He’s gone,” Pierre answered with a devilish smile.

“You’re going back in?” I asked, feeling very unsure for the first time on this adventure.

Pierre aimed the car back down the road and within a few moments, we saw a light bobbing off to our left.  “Someone is riding a bike out here,” Pierre declared with astonishment.

“No, it’s a guy walking.”  I answered. 

We watched his headlight bob toward us, and when he got close enough, he motioned for us to stop.  Pierre rolled down the window and the man pointed his flashlight into the car. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that it wasn’t the bearded man who had just told us to turn around.

This man, much older than the first, leaned his head in the window and began talking.  His tone was friendly, and of course he was speaking in Spanish.  The gist of what he was saying was—

No, you can’t drive down here.  It’s closed until morning.  You can go that way (he pointed with his flashlight in the direction of San Pedro de Atacama), or that way (pointing his flashlight the other way), but not this way (pointing his flashlight toward the lagoon).  He talked, and he talked, and he talked.  Finally, I told him (in Spanish) that we didn’t understand Spanish. He kept talking and waving his flashlight around.

At one point, I had to turn my head toward my window, to keep myself from laughing.  Every time the man said something in Spanish, Pierre answered him in English out of desperation.  I don’t think it ever occurred to the man that we didn’t understand him, and that we didn’t speak Spanish.

Not knowing how to extract ourselves from the situation, I repeated in English, everything I thought he had said to us in Spanish. “Okay, the road is closed tonight because of construction. We have two options. We can go that way,” I pointed to the left.  “Or we can go that way,” pointing to the right. “I think we’ll head back to San Pedro de Atacama.”

He smiled and seemed satisfied. He waved at us with his flashlight as we backed out and began to head down the main road.  I finally burst out laughing, because I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. 

“He was so sweet, but I don’t think he understood that we didn’t know what he was talking about!”

We had to backtrack about twenty minutes before we finally found a suitable place to pull over for the night.  As we pulled in, Pierre muttered, “Those flamingos better be worth it!”

I burst out laughing again—what an adventure! Like Pierre, I hoped that we wouldn’t be disappointed in the morning.

Chile: The Beast!

Day 4/Part 4–

We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama late in the afternoon and we were greeted by hordes of tourists, backpackers, vagabonds, and stray dogs. Of course, there were lots of locals, too, especially young children. The kids were playing on the playground, riding their bikes, and skateboarding.  The town itself was made up of a series of narrow roads, that seemingly had no discernible pattern or structure.  Humble homes and businesses, most in need of serious repair and paint, lined the road on both sides.  Adobe walls topped with straw and shards of glass created boarders between the houses, and along the roads where there were no structures.

We needed to fill up the tank with gas, and we were grateful that Pierre was able to get the GPS on his phone to work.  We typed in ‘gas station’ and the device indicated that there were two nearby.  One appeared to be smack dab in the center of town, the other was situated on the outskirts. We opted for the later, and we followed the directions on the screen, which was weaving us up and down narrow, dusty streets.  Dogs zipped across the street almost non-stop, and it appeared that school was also letting out.  To put it mildly—it was pure chaos!

We looped around the edge of the town and finally saw the gas station in the distance.  As we approached, we saw that it was under construction.  Frustrated, we reprogramed the device and headed off again.  As we approached our target the roads narrowed (if that was even possible), and Pierre was on high alert for dogs and people, because both repeatedly darted across the road without warning.

‘The Bitch’ (our nickname for the GPS) announced, “You’ve arrived.”

We looked from side-to-side and saw a mud wall to our left, and the entrance to a hotel on our right.  We had no other choice but to keep going straight, which landed us in the middle of the tourist area.  We drove down the little street lined with merchant stalls on both sides and clogged with pedestrian traffic.  We were kicking up a huge cloud of dust behind our camper, and one of the shop keeper’s shook his fist at us and yelled something in Spanish. It was so tight that I could have helped a passerby blow their nose, if I had held a tissue out the window at just the right moment.

We finally made it down to the end of the street, and Pierre pulled over to the side of the road.  We were hot, tired, and frustrated.  We decided that we would try to go to another town to find gas, but it appeared that there weren’t any other options within at least a one-hundred-mile radius in any direction.  We reprogramed the GPS, and once again followed the directions down the narrow streets.  We hit the same location, and she announced, “You’ve arrived.”

To the left we saw the mud wall, and to the right, we saw the entrance to the hotel.  We looked again, and this time, we noticed a tiny sign on the wall that said, ‘gas station’ in Spanish.  The arrow was pointing toward the gate that was labeled, ‘hotel.’  We followed a small road around the bend, and there, hidden from view, was a tiny gas station.  We got in line behind a row of cars, and we quickly discovered that the little dirt road was the entrance, but also the exit.  Pierre maneuvered the camper through the small area, and then up to the pump when it was our turn. 

As we were pumping gas, we looked up and saw a huge truck squeeze down the road.  Everyone had to pull over tight to the wall, to allow them to pass.  When the driver got out of the truck, he immediately started talking to us, and we discovered that he was from Germany. In fact, he was born a short distance from Pierre’s home town.

He and his wife had bought and refurbished a military truck in Germany, and then had it shipped over to South America.  The truck was a beast! They were driving through South America and had already covered 40,000+ kms.   It was fun talking to them, and we expressed amazement at how easily he seemed to be able to get his big truck into such a tiny space.  His answer was simple, “After driving so many miles, I know exactly how much space I take up, and most people just get out of my way!”

Words to live by! 

We followed him out of the station, and it was so easy to follow in his wake—everyone DID get out of his way!

After getting gas we parked the camper in a parking lot and walked into town for dinner. We found a cute little place with delicious food. One of our favorite things about the meals in Chile is the “sauce” and bread that is brought out as a starter. Each restaurant puts their own twist on their sauce, but all of them were so tasty!

Plenty of Outdoor Seating
Delicious Sauce!
Huge Portions!
This meal taught us that we needed to split all future meals while we were in Chile!

Chile: Betting on Alpacas

Day 4/Part 3–

After shopping, we continued through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, which would be our final stop for the day. Earlier in the trip, I had joked with Pierre and said that whoever saw the first alpaca would win a one- dollar finder’s fee.  We had pulled over to look at the snow-covered mountains in the distance, and I heard Pierre say, “You owe me a dollar.”

I rushed over to where he was standing and could see a pack of alpacas in the distance.  We watched them for a few minutes, and I said, “It’s a shame that they aren’t closer, so we could see them better.” I counted eighteen, but it’s quite possible that there were even more.  We got in the camper and drove for less than ten minutes, when I spotted a lone alpaca standing on a ridge off to the side of the road.  He looked like he was modeling just for us, making my wish come true.  It was a terrific anniversary gift!

A Long, Straight Road

Happy Anniversary, Pierre!  What are you planning to do with your prize money?

Chile: Baby Wipes!

Day 4/Part 2–

We headed into the city of Calama to find a grocery store, and we were pleased to find a Lider, which is the South American version owned and operated by Wal-Mart.  In other words, it was a smaller version of the North American Wal-Mart Super Stores.  The store had everything from automotive, groceries, clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, and household supplies. We felt like we had struck gold! 

A Great Place to Stock Up

We stocked up on food and drinks, and our most important purchase—baby wipes!  If you’ve ever traveled through a desert environment before, you understand their value.  We have used them for every imaginable purpose—bathroom pit stops, grooming, wiping up small spills, ridding the interior of the car of dust and grime, etc.

Chile: A Bit of Mystery

Day 4/Part 1–

When we woke up in the morning, we were excited to see what the ruins looked like in the daylight. We could see that they were old, but we have no way of telling how old because there weren’t any informational signs, and I haven’t been able to find anything about them on the internet.  It was clear from what we could see, that there were a series of small rooms, each having a single door, and most had a small window.

The structures were made of what appeared to be an adobe-style mud.  There was nothing left of the roof, and most of the walls were crumbling and falling apart.  Large chucks of the walls were laying on the ground, and garbage was strewn about everywhere.

Bird’s Eye View

Pierre decided to fly his drone, so we could get a view from above.  When we looked at the drone pictures, we were surprised to discover that buildings stretched out for a considerable distance.  The ruins will remain a mystery for now, but I’m going to try to find out more about them when I get home.

Desert Art