It was a short journey from where the 4 by 4 left us, to San Pedro de Atacama – Chile. Unusually this border town is not a dusty mess but instead a premier tourist attraction, with what they like to call the driest desert in the world surrounding it (although the pedantic amongst us like to remind them of Antartica).
The town itself is a world away from Bolivia, no more so than the food. The main local eateries served incredible food, which wouldn’t look out of place at many well priced restaurants in London. The streets are litter free and the people were noticeably more relaxed. Chile is one of the most affluent countries in South America and it showed. The first day was spent acclimatising to another new country and getting our bearings. On the second day, Arne, Rachael and I rented a bike with Hudson from America and Michael from Holland and set off mid afternoon to Valle De La Luna (The moon valley). It seemed like a good idea, but about ten minutes in I had a puncture. Repaired, we continued along the main road, before we hit a dirt track. In theory cycling was a great idea, however, the pump could only inflate the new tyre so much, which made it noticeably harder work. And then there was the wind, which we hadn’t factored in. Apparently September is San Pedro’s worst month for wind storms and occasionally they are even forced to shut the town itself. To put it simply…we were battered. However, it was not only the wind that caused problems, but also the dust. I could barely speak by the end of the ride. Despite the physical exertion, it was well worth it. The first stop was at a canyon, which you could crawl through in total darkness (headlight on), whilst continuously wondering if it went anywhere. Eventually sunlight revealed an exit and then it was then on to the lunar valley itself. Due to the time it took to cycle, the sun was well on the way down by the time we arrived, which only helped the area to look more spectacular. Seeming to miss the main view point, we climbed a small hill and watched the sunset from there instead. The cycle back was easier. The wind had dropped and it was mostly downhill. However, we did have the joy of cycling down the main road, guided only by the near full moon. After the surprising amount of exercise, the following day was nominated as a rest day. For some this continued to the next day too, but Arne and I got back on the bikes to cycle into the actual desert to visit a salt lake. This ride was much more fun, with a fairly decent path, no hills and no wind! We arrived well ahead of the tour groups and had the place completely to ourselves, which was for the best, because the water was absolutely freezing and getting in involved a lot of cursing. It was made worse, because by all accounts we should have floated like in the Dead Sea, but nothing seemed to be happening. But then…when fully in and letting the feet go, it worked! There we were floating at altitude. A novel experience. In the evening it was time for the solar eclipse and by coincidence we were in one of the most important places in the world for star gazing. With a tour already booked, we were driven outside of the town to a small amateur observatory. They had three telescopes. One, which could be used for photos, although it was troublesome. Another which focussed purely on the moon and gave a fantastic view and a huge one, which was great for seeing beyond what the eyes can make out. But it was the eccentric American astronomer that made the evening. The moment we met him, it was clear he was not trained in leading a group tour. No clearer example of this was him announcing his name to the group, half an hour into the tour, with his head against a telescope out of ear shot of most people. What he knew about the universe was unrivalled, however, he also believed that the moon was a spaceship with people living inside and that Mars had had a nuclear war many millions of years ago.
Whilst all of that was throughly amusing, it was a joy watching his enthusiasm as he moved the large telescope from place to place, showing us Saturn, a red giant, the milky way and the silver dollar galaxy. To my eye, they mostly looked like smudges or a slightly brighter star, but hey his passion was infectious. As for the eclipse itself? Well it was beautiful. In particular, when we arrived all you could see was the moon, but by the time of the eclipse, the sky was awash with stars. Arguably, there were more than I have ever seen before and made the tour alone worth it, before even considering the Dale effect.
Due to its isolated location, most people take the bus to Argentina from San Pedro and l was one of them. Back to Rachael, Arne and I, we boarded a morning bus and had the joy of a twelve hour journey through the day.