OK, so the problem with a blog is that you have to keep it up to date – not so easy when one is either totally chilled out, or busy preparing for the next adventure.
Saturday morning was spent trekking (no, let’s be honest, it was walking with a little purpose) down an inspiring gorge, full of tall and aged cacti (apparently they only grow c.1cm a year and most were well over 2 –3 m in height). What was even more amazing was that a lot of water was flowing in the stream, which goes on to feed San Pedro, making for a wonderfully green paradise of cacti and pampas grass deep in a gorge often 20-40m deep and frequently only a few metres wide. One thing is for certain that we would have not been likely to have found it if we had been on our own and even if we had, there would have been no vehicle out in the middle of the desert to collect us after a 2-hour walk. The cacti only grow at a certain altitude and it was telling that we were not really acclimatised to the height above sea level, starting at 3000m ASL we were all a little light-headed (and not just from the wine the night before).
In the afternoon we gained something of an impression of the vastness of the salt flats, at the north end of which San Pedro sits by driving south to Laguna Chaxa, which is sat somewhere towards the centre and which took an hour’s (rapid) driving to reach. Don’t think Utah salt flats and precision-smooth surfaces for land speed records, the centre of this place resembles more of a ploughed field. Close examination reveals that the clods of earth are, in fact, salt crystals – extremely big and extremely hard and the upper manifestation of salt deposits that are almost 1.5km thick! The lagunas themselves are the places where underground rivers reach the surface and feed these intensely saline lakes which, incredibly, support flocks of flamingos – most of which stayed sensibly away from the tourists, preferring to send one or two single ambassadors to preen and strut in front of the crowds. The colours generated by the setting sun were truly spectacular, set off by thousands of acres of yellowish salt flats.
Perhaps predictably having come to one of the areas of clearest sky in the world, our attempt to go star-gazing at a local observatory was cancelled on account of a big cloud bank sitting over San Pedro all afternoon. Naturally enough, the cloud had gone by evening!
Summer arrived in Chile on Sunday morning – at least according to the Government who instituted an early move to Summer Time, at least putting us back onto Falklands Time. Correctly judging our propensity for action, Marketa our guide and hotel owner sensibly suggested a 10am start. Our Sunday morning stroll took us down through ‘ Death Valley’ (or more aptly named by the Belgian priest who really established San Pedro: the Valley of Mars, which it resembles more than the Valley of the Moon might have lunar pretensions). This awe-inspiring rift in the ground literally opened at our feet to reveal jagged rock formations and vast sand dunes. The slide/surf/slip down the dunes to the bottom of the valley was not so much a method of transport as the means of moving huge quantities of sand from the top to the bottom; largely by means of filling our boots.
The second compulsory tourist activity of the day was a gentle horse trek (always a good idea when one’s daughter is allergic to things-equine). Anyhow, Chilean Health & Safety kicked in again and Phoebe, who has never really ridden, was hoist up onto an, albeit docile, animal and expected to follow everyone else (helmets and back-protectors: what are they???). As might be expected, she coped admirably and we enjoyed a gentle plod through some of the back streets and a neighbouring village, before cutting back across the desert in a serious series of minor sand storms, all very unusual for this time of year and blotting out the mountains all around us. If anything, it made the undertaking that bit more ‘adventurous’, and us even more grateful that we are staying somewhere with a shower. Of course, it also blotted out the next attempt to go star-gazing.