Monday saw us, well Marketa actually, load up the 4x4 to take us to the Altiplano lakes. A 125 km drive south gave us yet another appreciation of the scale of the salt flats and, as we climbed the mountains (still in the vehicle – you will be getting the sense of our level of adventure) in the south east we could also get a sense of the scale of the lithium extraction plants at the southern end of the flats. These facilities occupy a huge area – from a distance of 100km at the same level (i.e. from San Pedro) they appear as a white smudge on the horizon, which are actually the vast evaporation areas (apologies to readers for my limited span of adjectives in conveying the scale of everything in the Atacama). It seems that (in this, one of the most arid regions of the world) lithium (and other minerals) is extracted through dissolution in water and recovered after evaporation in giant evaporation flats (scores of acres large). [All this occurs in an area in which 96% of the natural water flowing off the mountains evaporates; it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that it is an environment very much on the edge.]
The Altiplanic lakes are at some 4, 300m ASL and, boy, could we tell. Maybe it was due to the intense cold (wind chill taking the temp to significantly below Zero despite the bright sun) and wind but one rapidly became light-headed if doing anything other than walk steadily. As ever, the scenery was astounding: bright lakes glistening in the sun and wind, surrounded by towering peaks, but set off by a very heavy covering of drifted snow, although now mostly ice this had drifted up to 2m in places.
At this altitude there were small herds of vicuna – one can only imagine that their wool is a good insulator and wind break! Lunch was an ‘interesting affair’: a delicious picnic, complete with tables, chairs, wine glasses etc – and all perched on the edge of a 30m gorge and in a strong wind; one was not tempted to lean too far back in one’s chair in case of distracting the rock climbers below by falling past them!
The High Andes theme continued on Tuesday with a visit to the geysers at Taitio – the highest geyser field in the world at some 4,200m. The particular highlight of the day was the excessively early start (0530 hr departure) but we revelled in the fact that with our own guide we did not have to join the larger tourist tours which start at 0400 hrs. An ‘interesting’ drive for some 1½ hours through the dark, debating which is the worst: Chilean or
Falklands roads (there is little in it) and attempting to avoid frozen snow drifts (in the middle of the high desert) brought us to Taitio just before dawn.
The temperature was –11oC (and this with no wind) but that did little to detract from the impact of the place: dozens of fumaroles in a vast caldera, all producing differing quantities of steam, making the place positively Dante-like. (The best time to appreciate the spectacle is at dawn when the temperature differential allows the steam to be seen at its best – obviously as it is getting light, too! – and before the sun rapidly warms the air to lose the effect.) The 3 of us must have spent over 1½ hours admiring the pools of boiling water (another physics lesson here: altitude = low pressure = low boiling point; more groans from Phoebe as she desperately tried to avoid thinking about education) and columns of steam, whilst the other tours all seemed to disappear with the appearance of the sun. (Either their guides were vampires or had pressing schedules to keep.) We, on the other hand, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with hot chocolate heated in a geyser before venturing down the mountains to appreciate the spectacular scenery we had missed earlier in the pitch black. We did the obligatory tourist stop on the way down at a small hamlet to sample barbequed llama (at least that’s what we were told it was, it could have been decent lamb – either way it was good; although Gill took a greater liking to cheese empanada – think deep fried cheese pancake and you begin to get the idea!). After all this exertion it was only fitting that we spent a couple of hours before lunch in a hot spring a few km above San Pedro – sheer luxury in pleasantly warm water in a series of pools at the bottom of a gorge. (The only drawback being that it had been developed by one of the larger hotels in San Pedro – but we are not talking spa luxury here; we had to bring our own fluffy towels.)
Having got up earlier than was good for any of us it was only right that this was the only night that we could go star-gazing. Despite our concerns that none of us would stay awake, we all found the 2½ hours of introduction to the stars, the zodiac, the Milky Way and the opportunity to view the same through a series of telescopes to be absolutely fascinating. With some of the clearest skies in the world, it was a total revelation (to the extent that what I had assumed to be light pollution from San Pedro was actually astral light – mind-blowing!). The Canadian astrologer was a mine of information and help – e.g. the constellation of Sagittarius (Phoebe’s sign) is a tad difficult to locate if you are looking for a half man/half goat thing but when you look for a ‘teapot’ it jumps out at you!!
Having come only to visit Chile, we could not turn down the chance to add some more stamps to our passports by visiting Bolivia – well, the smallest corner of said country closest to San Pedro (about 50 km as the crow, or Andean equivalent, might fly) but rather further by road. Initially a very good quality international road, full of car transporters carrying second cars to
Paraguay (mostly from – they are still good value even after transport and conversion from RH to LH drive!) and then back on to the tracks. Whilst the border post may not be the highest in the world, but at 4,500m it cannot be too far off, it probably counts as one of the more windswept and bleak. As Chilean vehicles cannot take tours into Bolivia (and v/v) we transferred to a 4 x 4 to take us to Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (bright turquoise on account to the magnesium) – both marvellously attractive high altitude lakes (at the standard tourist altitude of 4,200m); the latter being 2/3 frozen but still with a number of flamingos grazing happily on it. Although the sun was intensely bright, the wind put us off having a dip in the thermal pool on the edge of Laguna Blanca but we made up for this with the number of photos taken – this really was typical high-Andean landscape: huge tracts of space, surrounded by the peaks of (largely) extinct volcanoes. We could almost have been on a ‘real expedition’ given the remoteness, but we left that to the backpackers who were all on dodgy 4-day trips to/from Australia . Bolivia
Our return to
Santiago was almost mundane after the previous week – marred only by the inevitable delay to the flight and excessive (and nail-biting) wait for one of our bags and the threat of major demonstrations in central . We saw the latter – but only on TV – and they had no effect on us as we visited the Bohemian Quarter of Bellavista for dinner. Our final day in Santiago Chile was occupied with spending far too much time and money shopping for beautifully soft alpaca scarves, shawls and sundry other goods to cram into our otherwise full bags for the trip back to the Falklands. With a 0615 hrs check-in, you can imagine the general enthusiasm of the Aldridge family on the Saturday morning; a state of mind only improved by the late arrival of our taxi at 0605 hrs (for a 20 mile trip – we arrived within 25 mins…). Naturally, it was all worth while when we had to wait a further 1½ hours when our plane was declared to be unserviceable – at this stage, Phoebe was beginning to speculate about missing the return to school but sadly for her LAN Chile are not totally inefficient (whilst the Argentines are Italians who believe themselves to be British, the Chileans are rather more Germanic in their culture..) - they got us back to the Falklands well in time for tea!