Saturday, January 8

Just 35mm of rain annually

Garry and I are enjoying the desert climate at San Pedro de Atacama, located on the northern fringe of Chile's Atacama Desert. Barely 100 kilometres from our current location is the driest place on earth where it's rained four times in the last four decades (that's an average rainfall of 0.5mm annually). We've based ourselves in San Pedro where it rains 35mm annually.

The lack of rainfall became abundantly clear yesterday when we noticed a plasma television on the wall of a cafe where we ate lunch. Nothing odd about that you say? Think again. The cafe was covered by a roof of slatted branches, offering nothing more than partial shade for hungry customers. We're definitely not in lush Santiago anymore!

Our first afternoon in the Atacama saw us join an almost obligatory afternoon tour of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) located 12km out of town. It's a fascinating landscape of weird, wind-sculptured rock formations where rain almost never falls. In fact much of the rock in the area is actually made of little more than incredibly hard, dry rock crystal. Our tour ended at sunset which we watched from a narrow ridge overlooking a giant sand dune more than 100 metres high.

Our second day in the Atacama saw us take a full day tour of the Salar de Atacama (known in English as the Atacama Salt Flats). This incredible 15,620sq km plain of dried salt lies 2,305 metres above sea level. It's surface consists of rough, jagged salt rocks that stretch as far as the eye can see. However, every so often, subterranean water rises to the surface creating spectacular brine lakes. Salt-tolerant brine shrimps thrive in these waters, attracting thousands of hungry flamingoes. We saw plenty of these birds today, all with their heads down filtering lake water through their beaks at a furious rate.

Our tour also took us up to the Andes altiplano more than 4,350 metres above sea level. Here we visited two picturesque lakes; Miscanti and Miniques. These lakes are rimmed by a thick band of bright white salt and their waters are the most iridensent blue you can image. Behind them sit a series of towering, arid volcanic peaks; again, more postcard fodder. We then stopped for lunch in the small rural village of Socaire noted for its adobe churches. Abode buildings are constructed of mud and straw bricks, making these rather unique buildings.

Today's tour ended with a brief stop in the village of Toconao. It's renown for a simple, white-washed adobe bell tower built in 1750. The tower is now a protected national monument. The town owes its existence to a remarkable oasis found in a nearby valley called Quebrada de Jerez. We visited the valley earlier in the day. It's a awe inspiring sight. Mature trees and grass nestle in the shadows while dry, desolate hills and salt plains stretch to the horizon. We learnt that each village family has a small plot in the valley where they grow fruit trees, grapes and vegetables.

Tomorrow we're off to tour the ruins of two ancient civilisations that first settled the San Pedro area. The oldest settlement discovered so far dates back to roughly 800BC. Our final day in the Atacama will see us rise at 4am to drive 97km to El Tatio, the world's highest substantial geyser field. It sits 4,321 metres above sea level. The early rise is important as the geysers are at their most spectacular as the rising sun warms the sub-zero desert, generating impressive columns of steam. Stay tuned for more memorable photos.

PS: Keri if you're reading this post and discover spelling errors, please blame my spell-checker. When logging onto the blog the system automatically detected my location and established itself using Spanish language settings. I later tried to run the spell-checker which caused almost every word came back as an error. I know my spelling is shaky at times, but challenging every word was a rather harsh slap in the face.

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