Passing through the driest place on earth

Chile is a mere sliver of a country wedged between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  It is only 430 km wide at its widest point, but it is more than ten times that in length, at just over 4,630 km.  We are heading to the most southern town of Punta Arenas where we plan to do some serious hiking in the Patagonia region. This journey is daunting and we debated how best to cover this amount of distance.  Of course, we could fly, but that would mean missing out on seeing large parts of this beautiful country.  We’ve decided to do most of the journey by bus, but we would break the trip up into several manageable segments.

The buses in Chile are amazing – they come in various classes from basic to luxury with an accompanying price tag of course. For overnight legs of our journey, we have only managed to secure “semi-cama” seats as the “full-cama” have always been booked solid. Regardless, the semi-camas are spacious, comfortable, almost fully reclining with good support for your lower legs.  We are served snacks during the trip, similar to the snacks you get on an airplane.  Averaging 5-6 hours of sleep during the night, we we feel pretty good when we reach our destination in the morning.

San Pedro De Atacama

After travelling for several days on unpaved roads in Bolivia, it was a relief to get onto a paved road about 500 m from the Bolivian border. We cleared Chilean customs in the small desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist mecca (population about 5,000 although 95% of the people we saw were tourists).  San Pedro de Atacama was built around an oasis in the Puna de Atacama, an arid high plateau in the Atacama Desert, reputed to be the driest place on earth.  This 105,000 kmdesert is so dry that the average annual rainfall in a neighbouring city, Antofagasto is a mere 1 mm.  Evidence suggests that the Atacama Desert may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. Needless to say, it didn’t rain while we were there, continuing our lucky streak of sunny, dry days. With the desert came the heat and we basked in the glorious warmth, marvelling that it was below zero back home.

We were shocked by two things in this little town – the number of tourists around town and the price of everything.  A matrimonial room with private bath in a simple hostel ran $30,000 pesos, about $60 CAN.  We settled on a room without private bath at almost half the price.  Meals were similarly overpriced running about $15-20 per person for a decent dinner.  It wasn’t uncommon to spend $20-25 for a very basic breakfast for the two of us.  Our pocket book took a hit and we hoped prices would be better once we got away from the touristy areas. Unfortunately, since we are now travelling in the high season (Dec-Feb) in Chile, we have been warned that we will be gouged wherever we go, often paying more than double the low season rates for everything from transportation to meals to accommodations.  Oh well, hopefully it all balances out in the end.

A little bit of Christmas in San Pedro de Atacama.

Now that we were back on line, we had some catching up to do with emails, etc.  We were saddened to learn that Chris’ uncle Wayne (McKinnon) was gravely ill.  We managed to contact Chris’ sister Connie (through Skype) who brought us up to date. Sadly, Uncle Wayne passed away later that very night.  This was very hard on Chris; he was very close to his uncle growing up and was saddened that he had not stayed in touch with him for the past few years, and that he missed his chance to say goodbye. Chris spent a couple of days laying low, coming to terms with his loss.

Before we left San Pedro, we did a 4-hour guided tour hiking the Valley of the Moon and Death Valley. Valley of the Moon is so named because of its moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines, and worker huts.  Death Valley has gigantic sand dunes and strange rock formations.  It was a lot of fun; the highlight for me was running down the huge dunes in my socks and watching the sand boarders “ski” down on their boards.

We ran down this dune, but this was only the bottom half!
Notice the guys at the top getting ready to sand board down the hill. 

Hiking through Death Valley.

Cool rock formations.

I couldn’t coax Chris any closer to the edge.

Sandboarders walking to the top of the sand dune.

People travel from far and wide to San Pedro to go star gazing at night, and the lucky ones get a spot on a tour with French Astronomer, Alain Maury.  The tour begins with a geographic explanation of the sky and its constellations, continuing with observations of really amazing objects, such as moon craters, Saturn rings, cumulus of stars, galaxies, and other wonders of the universe through his private collection of powerful telescopes.

Our tour began at 11:00 pm, way past our bedtime.  Maybe it was the hiking tour we did on the same day, or the two very strong Pisco Sours we consumed at dinner, but we were dead tired by the time we started the tour.  In fact, we could barely stay awake during the first part of the tour.  We perked up when we started looking through the telescopes and Chris was completely engaged when a photography lesson was given about how to shoot the night sky.  The constellations in the Southern Hemisphere are very different from what we are used to seeing in the North.  In spite of our fatigue, it was a very informative and interesting night.

La Serena

After a 16-hour overnight bus ride through the Atacama Desert, we arrived in La Serena at 7:00 in the morning with plans to stay for 3 nights. Unfortunately, a mix-up with our hostel reservation meant we only had a room for one night. We made the best of it, and spent the day walking around the main plaza of this very popular beach destination. The town was bustling with Christmas shoppers as it was only a few days before Christmas. We were back on the bus by 11:00 the next morning, on our way to Santiago.

Category: Chile, South America
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5 Responses
  1. Sonja says:

    My sincere condolences Chris…..very sorry to hear about your uncle.

    • chris says:

      Thanks Sonja,

      Wayne was always my favourite uncle, and I’ll miss the jovial spirit that he was.


  2. Kim McNab says:

    Wow, I love the pictures and the stories. I feel like I am right there with you! The sand dunes and rock formations are spectacular! Thanks for sharing! It is fun being a part of your adventures!
    Kim 🙂

  3. Kim McNab says:

    Wow, I love the pictures and the stories. I feel like I am right there with you! The sand dunes and rock formations are spectacular! Thanks for sharing! It is fun being a part of your adventures!
    Kim 🙂

    • chris says:

      Thanks Kim!

      Christina does a wonderful job of documenting our journey, and we both share the credit for pictures/video. It’s nice to hear that some folks are actually checking in on our adVennetures from back home!

      All the best in the new year!