Friday, 8 February 2008

Sand and salt

In the last two weeks we have gone from the torrential downpours of the Bolivian rainy season in Puno to the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert. After years spent in Saudi Arabia there is something very familiar about the desert that separates the Pacific from the Andes. As we made our way across the desert to the Peruvian border the unfolding landscape of rock strewn desert, punctuated with glissades of wind blown sand, seemed familiar sight. In between a games of bingo (in Spanish - I seem to still be mixing up my 60s and 70s) my mind wandered to the passing landscape and the strange draw that it seems to have for people. After 15 minutes without passing the slightest sign of habitation we started to pass grids of land, demarcated by lines of succulent plants; each box playing host to a small square shack made of interwoven leaves. What makes people lay claim to this seemingly barren land? My only guess is that it is some means of claiming ownership to land that could have future value for mineral rights.

The Atacama desert is far from a monochrome expanse of sand and rock. The landscape evolves from flat, rocky plains, punctuated with mineral rich hills in all shades of red, yellow and brown. The volcanic activity of the Andes creates large swathes of basalt an laval flows that over millennia have been eroded by the ever-present wind and occasional rainfall, to leave deposits of fine, multi-coloured sand to be blown into large dunes. Behind San Pedro stand the proud volcanoes of northern Chile. Mostly in the region of 5800m, these volcanoes (active and dormant) shape the landscape of the Atacama. as they catch the snowfall of the Altiplanic winter they become coated in snow, that subsequently melts, feeding the subterranean water courses that ultimately feed the salt flats. As the water flows underground the minerals leach into the water creating a hard water, heavily laden with salts of arsenic, boron, sodium, potassium and lithium. These water pool under the surface of the Preandean depression and ultimately form the salt lakes that are home to three species of flamingo (James, Chilean and Andean). With nowhere to run-off, the lakes evaporate, leaving salt flats rich in mineral deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama sits at the northern extreme of the Salar de Atacama shielded from desertification by a barrier of trees planted in the 1960s. The town, home to 1600 residents and 6000 tourists, survives under the most extreme environmental challenges. The sun beats down on the town, cloud-free, for 330 days per year. The temperature can range can be in excess of 50 degrees a day as the night-time temperatures plunge under cloud-free nights. At just over 2500m the sky atmosphere is clear yet the maximum temperatures are kept in check. The town is entirely dependent on tourists and as a captive market the prices are inflated, making it the most expensive town in Chile. During the summer months the tourists seem to be overwhelmingly South American, yet there are the ever-present hoards of backpackers and insulated groups of well heeled European package tourists.

The streets are lined with travel agencies touting trips to the dunes, salt lakes and geysers that make the Atacama famous. Well before dawn you can hear the streets come alive with tourists waiting to be picked up by the buses and the drinking goes on late into the evening. Without a car, we have been forced to take day trips to see the sights. As a commodity service provider to a captive audience the tours have been far from the best that we have taken but the sights themselves do not disappoint. The penetrating sunlight and dramatic backdrops combine to produce a landscape and environment that is unique and should not be missed.

However, after four days in San Pedro it is definitely time to move on. We have decided to head south to chase the weather. We will be heading to the city of La Serena tonight by bus and then on to Santiago. Before the week is out we should be in Ushuaia where we will look into last-minute vacancies on the Antarctica route. If we are successful we will be at sea for 10 days before returning to resume of journey up the spine of the Andes, through the legendary fjordland of Patagonia to the Lake District.

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