San Pedro de Atacama
The Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth with only 15mm of rainfall per year. Scientists actually use this barren landscape to test drive prototype versions of Mars Rovers.
The desert was one of the first natural places we visited on our trip and I was very taken by its rugged beauty. It felt very dreamlike and wonderful with salt flats, flamingos and turquoise lakes flanked by blue mountains surrounded by tufts of yellow grass. It was bizarrely colourful for a desert, like a mirage drawn in bright ink.
Apparently, the high quantities of quartz and copper give the town of San Pedro a ‘positive energy’. I think that the Chileans don’t always feel that as they must certainly get sick of the tourists that outnumber them most days.
We booked a tour in Spanish to save money but to be honest it would have better to spend an extra £1 on an English tour that we could understand. We visited the El Tatio geysers, Salar de Atacama, Chaxas Lagoon which is part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, Laguna Miscanti, and Valle de la Luna. It gets very cold in the altiplano desert at night so we wrapped up warm and gradually stripped as the day went on.
The geysers are the first port of call at sunrise as that is when they look the most impressive due to the combination of heat and cold. There are also hot springs that you can bathe in but there was no way I was getting into them. The tour guide served us hot chocolate which was lovely.
There are over 80 geysers in the El Tatio fields and they are the third highest in the world surrounded by over 100 fumaroles. They are named after the Quechua word for oven.
The highest observed height reached by an eruption was six metres. A Belgian tourist, unfortunately, fell into one of the geysers and died in 2015.
The next stop was the Salar de Atacama (salt flats) which is the third largest in the world. It is a bit more rough and ready that the undulating smoothness of the Bolivian salt flats but equally beautiful. It contains 30% of the world’s lithium supply. The concentration vs evaporation rate means that it is cheaper for Chile to supply this compound than Bolivia. Unfortunately, this is another resource where Bolivia finishes last.
In the Atacama there are crystallised labyrinths of salt stretching out over the landscape so it looks like a coral reef that has been frozen. I found a lizard hiding in the salt and I had the most respect for this creature that had found a way to live in this dry wilderness.
We carried on to the Chaxas Lagoon which is full of flamingoes, hence why it is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. The flamingoes found here include the Chilean flamingo, James flamingo, and the Andean flamingo. There were also lots of grebes who were busy building nests, their outlines made the twigs look like bizarre whiskers but in such a strange landscape they fitted in just fine.
What struck me about the lagoon was the incredible colours, the landscape was red, the water was blue and the grass was yellow. All of the primary colours. It was like an oil painting come to life and I imagine totally inspiring for artists. I don’t wish to be wanky but there was definitely something special about it.
When researching flamingoes I discovered that one escaped from a zoo in Salt Lake City and became known as ‘Pink Floyd the Flamingo’ and for 17 years was the star of the state. I love a rebel escapee.
The James or Puna flamingo has a fantastic yellow beak and was thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in the 1950s. Perhaps we should just keep secret reserves of all of our species in remote locations to slow down our insane extinction rate. The Chilean and James flamingoes are now classified as near threatened. Egg stealing, habitat destruction, and unusually heavy rainfall are their biggest threats.
The Andean flamingo is particularly under threat from mining and the poisonous Borax that is unearthed from this practice. Even the name sounds alarming. Borax luckily does not affect humans but the effect on animals is a disaster. The birds are affected in their skeletal, reproductive and cardiovascular systems. A deadly threesome.
Sadly, demand for their eggs and therefore poaching has also increased making it a vulnerable species. Because of these threats flamingo protection is something that is currently being examined around the world. The infrastructure required for the increase in tourism is also affecting wildlife and ecosystems.
Another awesome character in the Andean landscape is the viscacha and we saw two wandering amongst the grasses on a hillside. Specifically, the Northern viscacha which is a cute, rabbit-like creature that eats grasses and gets preyed on by the Andean mountain cat. Make sure you take your binoculars to spot one as they are incredibly small.
After visiting the incredible lagoons we took a stroll around the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon). It really felt like we were on the surface of the moon. By this point, a German guy had started translating for us as we clearly didn’t understand our guide whatsoever. Our guide had been chatting with me about a volcano and I just nodded and said ‘si’ whilst Steph sat on the bus and pissed herself laughing. Now that we had our own translator we ran the risk of actually learning something.
The Valle is a land carved by the elements which has deep trenches made by wind and water that you can walk through. I always think its fun to find rock outcrops that look like penises.
Apart from all this touristing, we had made friends with some people at our hostel and we’d gone out to one of San Pedro’s finest bars together. It was good to meet other travellers but I was very anxious about the trip and their stories made me so worried about what would befall us.
This was especially a worry as I felt responsible for Steph. I was the most experienced traveller of the two of us and seeing as the trip had been my idea in the first place and I’d persuaded her to join me.
I had big scared eyes and a tremor in my voice when I asked a backpacker coming from the opposite direction (from Ecuador downwards) if it was scary. He said no of course, but I all I could see was uncertainty stretching out before me with a thousand pitfalls, and so many terrible things that could happen.
None of this was helped as a woman in our hostel was on a bus that ran somebody over. And killed them. This was so terrifying to me and essentially tapped into all my deepest fears. I didn’t sleep that night as I sat in the darkness, trapped by the anxiety that whirled around in my mind. Anxiety and OCD were things that would dominate my later life but I didn’t know that then. I felt like this was normal, and in a lot of ways fear is normal and so is the anxiety that accompanies it.
You can travel with a mental illness and I’ve been all over the world, but it would be a lie to say that it has always been easy. Ultimately I felt for the woman travelling alone who saw the man get killed as she had no family or friends to comfort her after such a distressing experience. I think this is a major downfall of travelling alone, when things get tough you have to be very resilient.
San Pedro was actually our last and most fantastic stop on our short trip to Chile as this country is too much for a backpackers budget. However, it is worth sharing some more of its recent history, one story in particular that you may be familiar with.
In 1972 on October 13th there was an air crash disaster in the Andes mountain range between Chile and Argentina, on board the chartered flight were 45 people. They were the Uruguayan rugby team members and their friends and family. Five people died falling from the plane and four died in the crash, another four passengers died in the next two days from the injuries they sustained.
The plane was now at over 3,600 metres with an altitude of 11,800ft without food or heat, they had a small radio on which they heard after eleven days that the search had been called off. Amazingly sixteen of the passengers survived this ordeal due to the indescribable courage and will to survive of Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa.
They survived by cannibalism, but not of their loved ones who were buried separately and not to be touched. While they were planning their escape from the mountain, an avalanche killed eight more of the survivors, and three more deaths followed that.
They made the sleeping bags that they needed to stay alive from pieces of insulation from the plane all painstakingly sewn together and they made snow glasses from the plane visors. They made their descent down the mountain which took much longer than they thought as they had wrongly assumed their geographical location.
As they got down past the snow line they saw cows and signs of camping, after ten days of walking they saw a man on horseback and thought they were hallucinating. They had to communicate across a river with their saviour Sergio Catalan, a Chilean arriero who made a living transporting goods on horseback using livestock. He reached a police station at Puente Negro and they informed the army command in Santiago, the men were saved and the risk of travelling over the mountain had paid off.
The radio finally brought good news to the remaining survivors who heard that the men had been found, so at last, they knew that help was going to arrive. It was nearly Christmas at this point and the weather was so bad that the helicopter had to do two trips on consecutive days in order to transport all sixteen survivors back to safety.
In Santiago, they were dispatched to several hospitals to be treated for a combination of altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, and malnutrition. The survival of the air crash victims is known in South America as El Milagro de los Andes. I don’t believe in milagros, but I do think their hard work and survival skills combined with luck and persistence meant they survived long enough to be rescued despite the odds that were against them.
A priest visited the site and buried the bodies with the rescue crew. The survivors stayed in touch and periodically meet up, a few of them even showed their support for the Chilean miners in the Copiapo mining accident. This brings me to the next story, one that seemed to have a happy ending but the reality of life for these men is quite different.
The miners were underground for 69 days and the passengers were on the mountain for 72 days so they are some of the few people alive in the world today who have had a comparable experience.
It was on my birthday on the 5th August 2010 that the San Jose mine in Copiapo caved in. 33 miners were trapped in the collapsed gold and copper mine in Northern Chile. The entire world was watching this incredible story including the moments that they were rescued and finally saw daylight after over 2 months in a tunnel.
All the miners were Chilean except for one Bolivian, Carlos Mamani who was met by his president, Evo Morales. Morales promised Mamani the world. Everyone did. Companies raised their profile by supplying sunglasses, signed football shirts, hydraulics and NASA sent their experts to help the miners.
There were so many stories that came out in the rescue about these men known as Los 33. There was speculation about whether 50-year-old Yonni Barrios would be welcomed back by his wife or mistress. In the end, it was his mistress, Susana Valenzuela.
Ariel Ticona watched the birth of his daughter via a live video link 40 days into their incarceration, she was named ‘Esperanza’ which means hope in Spanish.
Esteban Rojas had been married in a civil ceremony to his wife Jessica Ganiez and when speaking to her via video link he promised her a church wedding when he got out.
The oldest miner of the group, Mario Gomez was 63, he had been a miner since the age of 12 and suffered from the lung complaint silicosis as a result of his 51 years of service.
Whilst in the world’s spotlight there were many dreams for these men – jobs, security, healthcare, film scripts, book deals – the works. A year on several of the men were unable to work. Half were unemployed. Some were working part-time. A couple had gone back to mining.
They were still receiving a salary from their insurance policies and the government were trying to get the millions of dollars spent on the rescue from the mining company, who was reluctant to employ the miners again as they were ‘damaged’.
Several years after the incident, things were even bleaker. The miners have yet to receive any compensation and they are either unable to work or in part-time or temporary employment. One has been sectioned, 2 have problems with drink and drugs,
They have lost faith in their government, the one that promised them welfare has turned its back on them. Out of the 33, only the eldest 14 receive a pension.
In terms of media attention, Jonathan Franklin wrote a book about their ordeal called ‘The 33’ and a film of the same name came out in 2015. The film received mixed reviews and barely recouped its budget in North America and worldwide. In Chile, it was their second highest grossing film and did well in its opening weekend despite competing with flooding in Santiago.
The film divided the group with disputes with lawyers over the rights to their story. The miners and their families felt ‘abandoned’ and it is difficult to argue with that sentiment. A couple have made money telling their stories at public speaking events and one met a German woman who became his wife after she contacted him as a direct response to media exposure.
By and large, the few success stories are overshadowed by the nightmares, misery, and fear that these men now live with every day of their lives. One man can’t remember the birth of his children. Carlos Barrios was fine for two years before the trauma hit him and he became addicted to the drugs prescribed by his psychiatrist. Should we continue to follow this story and ensure that the company and government are held to account? We need to know the story.