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Another Desert, Another Sea October 16, 2009

Posted by Jen Pappas in Atacama Desert, Chile Posts.
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Traveling for an extended period of time is a practice in suspending one’s disbelief. The world opens up, the possessions you own hold no value and comfort zones are a thing of the past. Even better, just when you think life has become as surreal as it gets, the natural world steps forth to up the ante even more.

So what does one do in the driest desert in the world? You go to see the geysers, float in saline lakes and hike to the Valley of the Dead, what else? We decided to really go for it and booked two separate tours for the same day. We awoke at 3:30 a.m. only to discover that the power had gone out again (a very common occurrence in San Pedro, you almost get used to eating dinner by candlelight) so we were forced to get dressed and pack our day bag in the dark, using the meager light emitted by our iPods to find our socks and sunscreen.

The tour van picked us up shortly after 4 a.m. for the two-hour drive to the Tatio Geysers, some 13,000 feet above sea level. Tours leave daily at this ungodly hour in order to arrive by 6 a.m., when the geysers are at their liveliest, spewing hot white plumes of gas into the frigid air. And by frigid, I mean frigid, with temperatures hovering below freezing. Our rogue tour guide kept passing tour bus after tour bus on the road leading into the national park, putting us in first place to view the geyser fields.

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We stepped out into the chilly air and headed directly for a small path leading through a row of smoking fumaroles. Let me remind you, South America is not the United States. There are very few rules and even fewer barricades, so if visitors want to risk their lives falling into a belching geyser, so be it. No one is going to stop you. For this very reason, you will notice the photo of Jen warming her frozen hands over the hot gas permeating from our earth’s molten core.

As magnificent as the geysers themselves were, they were rendered all the more beautiful by the rising sun- turning each plume of gas into a technicolor cloud like something straight out of a Renaissance painting. The surrounding landscape was equally awe-inspiring: azure sky, crisp mountains and pure white tufts of cloud with the moon still hanging on.

Our tour guide put out a simple breakfast of hot tea (thank God!), cookies, sliced bread and several tubes of ham paste. Afterwards, we all piled back into the van, making a brief stop at a bubbling pothole of mud so all the Chilean women could paint their faces with it, hoping for eternal youth.

Our second stop was at a thermal pool, where Steve gladly got into his swim trunks and I perched myself on a rock to write, still too cold to consider taking any of my clothes off. Our first tour ended with a 30-minute stop in the minuscule town of Machuca: nothing to write home about, just a handful of tiny homes with straw roofs and a dollhouse-like church sitting atop a hill. Steve and I stole a cup of tea from the ramshackle snack shop and took a few goofy photos.

We arrived back at our hostel at 12:30 p.m. just enough time to take a shower and a twitchy nap before our next tour started at three.

Our second tour guide was much more dynamic, barely sweating it at all when our van broke down en route to our first stop, stranding us in the middle of a vast wasteland under a vicious sun. Everyone took the mishap in stride, pretending to snap photos as our guide tinkered under the hood. Lo and behold, we made it to the Cejas Lagoon- so salty anyone and everyone can float there with ease. Again, the landscape was stunning: nothing for miles and miles except this emerald lake surrounded by sharp crusts of salt.

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The water was cold! But Steve took it like a champ, delighted and surprised once he was finally submerged to discover that he too could float. “It’s a known fact,” he told me, “Yennies don’t float.” But he did, big feet and all.

When he emerged to take a few more photos before leaving, a thick layer of salt collected across his entire body, stinging his face, ears and mouth. Guess he didn’t understand the Spanish warning our guide issued everyone before arriving: Don’t dunk your head into the lagoon!

After a lackluster stop at two stinking pools of water that somehow resemble eyes, we were on to our third and final destination. Tebinquiche Lagoon is most striking, known for its rugged, snow-white patches of salt crusts resembling baby glaciers, so strong you can walk on them. By this time, it was almost sunset, so our guide served up a round of pisco sours and put out a spread of quickly devoured snacks for us as we waited for the show.

Spectacular is the only way to describe it: five different cloud formations in the sky, with sunlight playing off the water and the salt pockets, smearing color everywhere. Steve ran around taking pictures like a kid who just heard Christmas had begun and would last forever. All of it went to our heads a little as we stood there, smiling like idiots in a parking lot in the desert.

When the salt icebergs no longer glowed and the sky finally took its exhale, we all packed into the van for the long ride home; or what we know of home now.

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