A Visit to Chile - Part Two - Atacama

Volcano Lincancabur above the Hotel Altiplanco
Last week, I shared the first stop on our trip to Chile. The next segment emphasized the extreme differences that one can experience in the country.

As mentioned last week, we were lucky enough to have won this trip through a contest sponsored by LAN airlines, Skorpio Cruise, ADS Mundo, SouthAmerica.travel and Marmot Outdoor Gear. The contest was called the “Go to Extremes” and versus the previous five days in Patagonia, the Atacama desert was a shock to the system.

Valley of the Moon
We left Puerto Montt, flew to Santiago, then caught another flight to the desert mining town of Calama. From the lush forests, sea life, and islands of the south, we arrived in the barren desert of the north. Looking at Calama, we weren’t too excited about our new locale, but after Harald (our guide for the next four days) picked us up, and started driving towards the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, things changed. We crossed to different mountain ranges, and with each crossing, the Andes became clearer. The terrain changed from plain desert to vibrant colors and canyons. Vicuña and guanaco (both relatives of the llama) began appearing on the side of the road. After a little over an hour driving across the desert, we arrived at the Hotel Altiplanco, in San Pedro. The hotel is a quaint adobe complex sitting at about 8,800 foot elevation, overshadowed by the towering Licancabur volcano in the background.

15,420 feet in the Andes
The next few days, Harald took us to almost every site in the Atacama Desert (request Harald Apablaza as your personal guide – he is the best!). We visited numerous lagoons and salt flats, including Lagunas Piedra (so salty there is no way you can sink). Moon Valley was an interesting stop, with huge sand dunes, box canyons, and deep valleys. Petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas, multi-colored landscape at Rainbow Valley, a visit to the small indigenous village of Rio Grande, and watching Flamingos at the Atacam Salt Flats were just some of the sites. 

What is interesting is that this desert is one of the driest places on earth, but there is water everywhere. The desert sits at about 8,200 feet, and it was is hot (mid 90’s during mid-day, with cool mornings). The Andes tower 20,000 feet into the sky above the desert floor, and collect the rain and snow. The snow melt filters through underground tunnels and fissures, as well as flows down the mountains. There are channeled canals throughout the towns for irrigation, but in the salt flats, the water comes up through the ground, creating marshes of salt water as well as fresh water (or known locally as sweet water). The bird life is extraordinary, along with wild donkeys, llamas and goats. Again, this is a desert!

Llamas in Rainbow Valley
One of the highlights of our stay was getting up very early, and heading up into the Andes, to visit the Tatio Geysers (highest geysers in the world at over 14,000 feet). Our drive took us over a pass at 4,700 meters (15,420 ft). At this elevation, you wouldn’t expect to see much wildlife, but we saw more in the high altitude, than any other time on our trip. High altitude marshes were teaming with water fowl and llamas, and the rocky outcroppings had the strangest creature I have ever seen…viscacha (something like a cross between a rabbit, rat and chinchilla). After the high altitude temperatures in the 20’s, we stopped at the Puritama hot springs, and their eight pools. Combine high altitude sun and white skin, and sure enough a sunburn was part of the days memories too.

Main street San Pedro de Atacama
So what about the food and drink in this part of Chile? Well, just like the Patagonia region, there are certain things that stand out, but there were also some similarities. Breakfast was the same as in the south, and nothing to write home about. However, we did add a couple new things to our breakfast list: Mate de coca (a tea made from coca leaves, and said to ease “puna”, or altitude sickness). I can honestly say that even though it has coca in it, I didn’t notice anything, but it did taste good. Another new breakfast item was puffed quinoa. Not only did we find this as a breakfast cereal, but also on the breakfast tarts, and something that resembled rice crispy bars (but with quinoa replacing the puffed rice). Quinoa was everywhere, as you would expect, being in the corner of Chile that borders Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
Chilean Flamingo

Lunches weren’t big, like in the south, which was a good thing, since the heat in the afternoon, really suppressed any idea of eating heavy food. One “lunch” was simply a stop at the ice cream shop in San Pedro for a couple scoops of ice cream. Being adventurous, I tried Chañar ice cream (a nut from a local tree).

rolls with dipping sauce
All but one night, we had dinner at the hotel, as it was included with the stay. Each night the restaurant had a regular menu, but also had a complete dinner with three courses. Each course you could pick one of the two items. Prior to dinner, there was always small garlic rolls on the table, with a  wonderful dipping sauce. In my broken Spanish, I asked for the recipe. I am not sure if I got it right, but was told the sauce contained: pimento (but could be a medium heat pepper), tomato, onion, and cilantro. Blend together, then add enough olive oil to make the consistency similar to aioli, then season with salt.

Allyu Vineyards in Toconau
The wine menu had wines from all over Chile, including a local wine called Allyu. Yes, there is a winery in the Atacama desert. We went to the town of Toconau to check it out. The government is supplying the water to develop this new winery. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about the wine. While we saw it on the menu at a couple places, no one had it in stock. To top that, whenever I asked about it, I was consistently told that the wine was not good, and told not to order it. It seems the vines are only a couple years old, and they are trying to produce wine from young vines, and not aging the wine. 

Early morning breakfast at Tatio Geysers
Most nights, my drink of choice was Pisco Sour with rica rica. Rica rica is a local herb that grows wild everywhere. It has a very medicinal and herbal taste similar to sage, but is great with Pisco and lemon. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can find this herb in the United States, so your only choice to trust me that it is good, or visit Atacama yourself. Another item of note…the Adobe Restaurant in San Pedro, was the first place we saw ice offered (of course it was in the driest place on earth).

On Monday, we left the hotel early to drive back to Calama for our flight to Santiago, and the final segment of our trip. Check out the third segment of the trip, as you’ll see how the South, North, East and West of Chile, affect the wine regions of Chile.
Sunset at Kari Canyon

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