We are at 8,000 feet in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town of 5,000 people and perhaps as many trekkers in northern Chile. But the town is lovely, and it’s off season just a bit. The sun-filled narrow streets are lined with adobe-brick houses, open to the air with patios, restaurants, and shops selling colorful Andean artisan crafts.
After our 24-hour bus-ride, we were hoping for a rest day, but our quiet and pretty Hotel Elim had just two nights for us instead of three, so we hopped over to Cactus Tours to book two tours right away, one a “trek” through the Valley of the Moon, and the second, an all day trip to the Salt Lakes and National Reserve for flamingos. Both were fabulous.
The Valley of the Moon challenged us. Our guide, Guillermo, set a steady pace of 4.5 kilometers per hour or roughly just under 3 miles an hour. We hiked along the ridge of a majestic valley, straight down a trail to the floor, then again down two sand dunes at a precipitous angle. The younger people on our tour took off their shoes and ran with abandon, but I left my socks on and plunged mid-shin deep all the way down. Our trail continued past deep valleys with high basaltic formations on either side and through caves to end the seven-mile-trek on a mountain ridge where we watched the setting sun change the colors of the mountains around us to glorious reds and pinks.
Our second tour started at Laguna Chaxa at 6 am for a hike through the salt crusted lagoons to see Chilean and Parina flamingos in the wild. They, of course, went about their routine. They ate brine shrimp for breakfast, and they flew when we got too close.
Our van took us up to the altoplano, closer to the volcanos, to the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. There we spotted several groups of vicunas grazing on really minimal desert scrub.
We stopped at Socaire for a typical Chilean lunch, including papas moradas (purple potatoes) and visited a church from 1750 and several artisan shops in Toconao where a woman showed us how she knitted stockings with long cactus spines for needles.
Guillermo was an exceptional guide. As we sat in the shadow of a church with a thatch roof, next to terraced fields in this small towns, he told us why the stray dogs we see everywhere are so well fed. The Chileans, he said, see themselves as quiltros, slang for a mixed breed, Spanish and indigenous, and thus tolerant of these dogs. We often saw, even in Santiago, people petting and feeding the street dogs. And the dogs prance along the streets, happy, their tails wagging, always ready for a pet.
I don’t want to count up the hours we’ll be travelling starting tonight, for it’s two big jumps of 9 and 14 hours. We’re headed to Arequipa, Peru, a city I’ve long dreamed of visiting, founded in 1540, where they say, “When the moon separated from the sky, they forgot to take Arequipa.”