Just an uber-quick entry to update you on the goings on over the past few days... will update in detail later on...
Following on from the Mar 27th entry about the last day in the Salar de Uyuni which took place this morning...
As soon as you cross the border from Bolivia into Chile you immediately become aware that you are in a completely different league of country. Perfectly paved and well-maintained roads, large comfortable buses, more white locals than I've seen since Brazil (it almost seemed like I was back in Australia), and even the touts are quite reasonable and only wait for you to approach THEM. Yes, welcome to First World South America!
Arriving into San Pedro de Atacama, you could almost be driving into a small town in the Algarve in Portugal. Despite it's location smack in the middle of the "driest desert in the world" (the Atacama), the place feels more like a beach town than anywhere I've seen since Fortaleza in Brazil. Despite the dusty roads and mudbrick street walls, you get a sense that these are in place purely for the "authentic desert oasis" look rather than due to a lack of infrastructure.
Of course there is a downside to Chile's wealth which becomes apparent as soon as you start searching for accommodation: it's DAMNED expensive!
Private rooms that I first checked out were averaging about US $100 a night! ... I eventually managed to find a twin room which I shared with one of the friends I met on the Uyuni trek which set us back US$ 40 each! Truly the only way to do Chile on a budget is to stay in dorms.. but I'm not a fan of these, I like to be able to fling my stuff anywhere I like in a private room! So far private rooms have been a cheap option, but hey, it looks like it's gonna cost me in Chile!
One of the stand-out things I noticed that REALLY told me I was in a wealthy country was that most of the dogs had collars on. They were HUGE and well fed. Sure they wandered around in packs as is typical of all South American "beachy" towns (along with the inevitable contingent of wristband-selling hippies... decidedly less dirty than their Colombian counterparts I might add) but it showed that since the people could "afford" to give their pets proper nutrition they are clearly in a different league to the rest of South America (possibly the same as Brazil and Argentina).
Mainly a chill out day today while we sorted acommodation, plus we were all tired from the 4am start we had for the Salar de Uyuni trek this morning.
The crew from the Uyuni trek: myself, 2 Americans living in Hawaii and one Japanese, all met up later for our first sampling of the local cuisine and, of course, Chilean WINE!
It didn't dissapoint. There seem to be a lot of special "menus del dia" for $5,000 (US$10) which include a 3 course meal, plus huge glass of wine. The wine was so good, we bought a 1.5 litre jug of Cabernet Sauvignon which only set us back about another US$5.
Much revelry was had... as bad as it sounds, it was so good to be in the First World again after 2 months stuck in the Third World. Oppulence FTW!
Sandboarding! I fell on my ass most of the time, but it was similar enough to snowboarding so that my experience in Canada helped somewhat.
Took in the Valley of the Dead and sunset overlooking the lunar-landscape of the Valley of the Moon (with the full moon on display. Perfect timing!)
Unfortunately the full moon at the moment meant that I wasn't able to see the famous starry-sky of the Atacama Desert, but I did see the Milky Way and stars spreading out from the horizon while I was at Lake Titicaca so it didn't bother me too much that I miss them here. The full moon at the Valley of the Moon is a great replacement.
Absolutely delicious dinner of linguini soup, followed by grilled salmon with a lemon flan as desert, accompanied by the ubiqutous free glass of exquisite red Cabernet Sauvignon. All for only 16 dollars. I guess there ARE some good deals to be had here!
I've rented a bike today and stocked up with 2 bottles of water and a few empenadas. Essential survival gear in the "driest desert in the world" (tm). My destination was to be the Devil's Gorge but I first passed by an ancient pre-Incan settlement of a fiercely-strong warrior tribe that gave the Spanish a few headaches for the first 25 years of settlement. The buildings were mainly mudbrick ruins and not THAT visually appealing, but it's a nice place to contemplate and the volcanic skyline is quite beautiful.
There was a Mirador view overlooking San Pedro that was also in the same place (and covered by the entry fee!) but I put it off until later as I was keen to check out this gorge thing. I also visited a nearby cave, but didn't venture in too deep as it was very narrow and the time issue as well...
I'd been recommended the gorge by the guy who took us sandboarding the previous day - and who also took that rather excellent photo! He certainly knows his stuff: the ride through the gorge was one of the best mountain biking trails I've ever been on! (La Paz to Coroico of course being the best!)The sign leading to the gorge is somewhat misleading as it reads "Valle de Coroico" (or something like that) instead of "Valle del Diablo"... so something to be aware of if you're passing that way. There is a perfect mountain-bike trail passing through a VERY narrow, steep-sided valley that seems rather akin to something you would see in Petra (in fact the whole Atacama region reminds me strongly of the Middle East and in particular Saudi Arabia). I had the whole place to myself and I proceeded to cycle for about 3 hours, ducking through caves, and walking through small streams (make sure to wear shorts and sandles as your legs will get wet!). The trail was endless and just seemed to go on forever winding through the gorge!
At this stage it was about 5 pm and it would be getting dark soon enough, plus I was running low on water, so I decided to go back the way I came. The reverse way turned out to be the most fun of all. As it happened, I'd been cycling at a slight uphill elevation the whole time. I didn't notice it as the Trek bike I'd rented was very good, but on the return the fun really began and it was essentially like a desert version of Downhill Madness. Cornering through the narrow caves at full speed with the bike was the best part.... highly recommend that trip!