We recently arrived in Chile, the tenth country of our round the world trip. I realize I last left off with stories from Mongolia, our first stop, so I have quite a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, but I wanted to briefly jump ahead to share some of our early experiences in Chile, hot off the press.
Our introduction to Chile took place via San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the Atacama Desert and one of northern Chile’s biggest tourist draws. It’s well-positioned close to a lot of interesting natural attractions- making it a great base for day tours- and while it looks like nothing more than a few streets of low-lying buildings and dirt roads, its modest veneer disguises a fairly well-oiled tourist machine. Nearly every building is set up to cater to tourists, each restaurant and tourist agency trying to outdo the next with signage and deals.
The Atacama Desert has the distinction of being, arguably, the driest place on Earth; sections of it haven’t seen rain since anyone started keeping track. For our first excursion, we signed up for a tour of the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, an area of the Atacama Desert thought to resemble a lunar landscape.
At 4:00pm on the day of our tour, we met up with our guide and fellow travelers in front of the Desert Adventure tour office and piled into a bus to venture out to the valley.
While not exactly the craterous terrain I had expected in a moon look-a-like, the landscape was interesting and complex, the soft edges of sand dunes juxtaposed with sharp, rugged textures of rock formations.
Someone with a vivid imagination named this rock formation Las Tres Marias (The Three Marys)
Sand dunes meet rock formations
Interesting color gradations
Sitting on a natural rock wall
As we walked around, admiring the terrain, the wind began to pick up, creating brief sand storms. They cast a mystical veil over the landscape which we tried to enjoy while suffering the stinging slaps of sand against our skin.
Swirling gusts of sand
Taking shelter from the sandstorm
When the wind gusts persisted, we hurried off of the dunes and ventured onward to explore a cave.
The entrance to the cave
Narrow, snaking passageways
While we crawled through the narrow cave, contorting our bodies to adapt to the continually changing width and direction of the passageways, we began to hear loud, sharp booms of thunder that occurred with increasing frequency.
Getting ready to leave the cave
As we reached the mouth of the cave, we could see the grey-blue sky punctuated by bolts of lightning. It became clear that a storm was nearly upon us and we began to traverse the steep rocks out of the cave. Moving with urgency, we scrambled up and out in single file.
Exiting the cave
Our guide stood at the top of one incline, high-fiving each person who made it up.
A view of the rock formations as we left the cave
Looking back down at the cave
As we hurried over the rough terrain toward our awaiting bus in the distance, I suddenly felt hard objects pelting my head and then noticed the same things ricocheting in different directions all around me. Quarter-inch, perfectly round balls of hail were falling from the desert sky. We gawked and laughed in disbelief, and then quickened our pace.
In case you can’t see the thousands of hail balls accumulated around me, let me point them out to you
The closer we got to our bus, the faster the hail fell and soon, rain began to join it.
Our bus, yonder
When we reached the warm and dry confines of our bus, we settled in, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation and relieved that we had made it. Our driver immediately put the pedal to the metal, maneuvering the bus adeptly forward and began to race against the storm.
He lost. Seconds after we began driving, the windows fogged up and all out downpour ensued.
Check out the look on our tour guide’s face- very reassuring
I frantically rubbed off an area of condensation on the window next to me, curious to see what was outside. And what I saw was a raging river of red mud. We were white-water rafting in a bus thorough the Atacama Desert.
Flooding in the Atacama Desert
The water was not only splashing around our bus, but flowing in swells into the distance. When we reached the visitor’s center, the driver promptly parked the bus on a slightly elevated bank of gravel where we would wait out the storm.
Our stranded bus
And so we waited. And waited. The storm ended but the water didn’t recede. We continued to wait, passing the time by chatting with the five stranded bicyclists who had pedaled into the desert, and taking photos of the changing and unchanging elements of the landscape.
Hail accumulated on the ground
Warm and safe inside of the stationary bus
The flooded Atacama Desert
The setting sun
The sunset reflecting off of the distant mountains
Another view of the flooding
While we waited, we asked the tour guide about next steps. He explained, with seemingly little confidence, that the tour company would send a bus to the other side of the flood zone and we would need to walk just a few hundred meters to meet it. After two hours of waiting, we realized that the bus wasn’t coming. The darkening sky reminded us that we needed to make a decision quickly so our group decided to walk the three kilometers back to San Pedro.
Walking by a van stranded in the mud, and the pick-up truck that was losing its bumper trying to help
The setting sun meant increasingly cold temperatures
We walked for about ten minutes before a pick-up truck passed by with a family of five in its cabin. Our guide ran over to flag it down and begged them to take a few members of our group back to town. Miraculously, seconds later, a second pick-up truck pulled up and they, too, agreed to assist.
Our group of 20+ people gratefully scrambled into the trucks, wedging ourselves into every available crevice. Our guide and a single tourist stayed behind, heroically opting to jog the remaining distance back to San Pedro.
Our ride back to town
Sardines in the back of a truck
We arrived “home” to find San Pedro in complete darkness except for the headlights of a few cars. The entire town had lost power.
Lights out on San Pedro
The next morning we woke up to find the electricity still out, the streets and street dogs of San Pedro muddied, and an overall sense of bewilderment in a town unfamiliar with storms. To add insult to injury, a second torrent of rain came that evening, and the controlled chaos continued. Tours were called off, buses cancelled, and restaurants were temporarily shuttered.
As it turns out, it was the worst flooding the town had seen in 11 years. We walked back and forth through town for two days, waiting for bus service and tours to recommence. When no news came, and with nothing to do in town, we managed to find an overpriced private van to take us out of town and we bid adieu to San Pedro and the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth.