stargazing, excursions and other stuff

San Pedro would be our last stopoff in Chile and our stay there was a touch more structured and hurried than usual. Both of us were anxious to finally reach new territory so we limited our stay to a small selection of what San Pedro had to offer.

An interesting visit to the town museum, preparations for the next altiplano excursions and a stargazing tour were crammed into our first day. We also visited the Valle de la Luna and the Valle de Muerte, both alien landscapes formed by the salty deposits of the Cordillera de Sal. The stargazing was an absolute highlight, our astronomer guide being a funny informative frenchman. He had to be pretty good to make us stand for 3 hours out in minus 4 degrees celsius staring at constellations, planets and coloured stars through his seven telescopes.
The next day we headed off on the first of our altiplano excursions, a 90km ride to the El tatio geysers. We started off too late as usual arriving at the geyser at sunset frozen solid and only too glad to skip the tent idea and take a bed in the Refugio. We had underestimated the distance and difference in temperatures as in San Pedro we had been stifling hot in our bike jackets whereas on the altiplano the wind seemed to rip through them like razor blades. The light and the colours of sunset reflecting on the saline lakes where guanacos grazed almost made it worthwhile. We had an entertaining evening in the Refugio chatting to the locals about their work there and having them regale us with horror stories of gringos who had fallen into the boiling pools of water. Gruesome!
We beat the first tourist buses to the geysers at about 6am the next morning. The reason for the early start being that the maximum temperature differences between the boiling water and the air temperature produces enormous columns and billowing clouds of steam. We wandered (cautiously) from one impressive geyser pool to the next stopping every now and again to dip our hands or our toes into a cooler tributary or pool to combat the bitterly cold temperatures of minus 15.

The original plan was to spend 2 to 3 days out on the altiplano but our chilly bike ride cured us of that idea. Instead we spent the night cosy and warm in San Pedro sippping drinks around the obligatory bonfire in the restaurant courtyard. Part 2 of the altiplano `daytrips` took us toward the argentine border to the altiplano lakes of Miscanti and Minique. The road followed the edge of the depression before cutting up onto the altiplano with its blocky climbable gorges and its ring of volcanoes. The lakes were devoid of the flamingoes they are usually filled with in summer and only a few nesting birds and llamas dotted the stark and windswept landscape. Despite its desolate beauty we didn`t spend much time there as an icy wind had started up and we were dreaming of the open fires and full bodied chilean wines back in San Pedro.
One more lazy day with bad weather, one last round of drinks in front of an open fire and we were on the road again leaving San Pedro behind. The bad weather of the day before had powdered the volcanoes with snow and a ferocious icy wind battered us as it came off the altiplano.

It chased us in our descent down to the depression before the coastal range only letting up once we were on the curvy roads cutting through the coastal mountains. A bit further along on the road we found the perfect campsite on a rocky headland. So that night we were lulled to sleep by the roar of the surf and the lonely cry of gulls.
At Iquique, a strange town set in amongst enormous dunes, we turned inland riding on ruler straight roads that only changed course when they reached the obstructions of deep gorges that cut through the desert from their source, the distant Andes. In perfect contrast to the previous night we camped on the remains of a nitrate mine with geoglyphs dotting the hillsides behind us and strings of headlights stretching to the desert horizon.

After Arica we rode a tar road following the Lluta river canyon, a ribbon of green in the Atacama desert, to gradually climb the Andes through Parque Nacional Lauca. A beautiful altiplano park dominated by the impressive Parinacota volcano and several high altitude lakes. We had travelled from sea level to 4100m in one day and had finally, after 9 months of travelling (7 if you minus the 2 months of repairs and waiting) and a poorly two countries, arrived in the new and excitingly different country of Bolivia.