Photography / Travel

Day 5-6: San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de La Luna, Geysers Del Taito

from Photographs of Chile, November 2003 by Tim Darling     (Click on the photos..)

Tuesday, November 4 - San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de La Luna

I was staying at a the Hotel Kimal which is a collection of rooms, built and decorated in a log cabin fashion. It had electricity and hot water and a telephone in the desert and it was quite nice. Perhaps the best thing about it was its ten table restaurant that had to be the finest in town and it was only a few steps from my room. At 11 AM the place was empty (probably because, as I found out later, if you get there before 10, breakfast is free) and I sat alone unbothered at a thick oak table outside under a trellace-weakened sunlight.

I went on a bus to the Valle de La Luna (the Moon Valley) from 4 to 8. We stopped at a couple places on the way. At the first stop, the bus driver pointed out the moon which was very faint, just rising over the mountains in the distance. You really had to know it was there to be able to see it. There was a Japanese girl, Natsuko, who didn't speak Spanish but spoke English, so I translated it for her. She saw the moon and cheered and then everyone else cheered because she understood. So for the first time, my Spanish was good enough to help someone else.

There was a spot where a path ran through a canyon with a tall sand dune on the left and a valley drop on the right. As we walked down it, the two sides evened out after about a mile walk where the bus was waiting. Some kids were sandboarding on the dunes near the end.

(The moon above my shadow at the Valle de La Luna)

We also stopped at a salt structure called 'Las Tres Marias'. There were three statue type formations but none of them looked like a woman by any stretch of my imagination. In a cave nearby, people were chipping salt off its ceiling and eating it.

Natsuko told me how she had just spent two months travelling around South America. She was in La Paz a month before during the riots and in Peru. And she didn't speak any Spanish. I told her she was much braver than me. She had quit her job as a tour guide in Osaka and had come here for three months.

The last stop was the Valle de La Luna. From the top of a sand hill, we walked along a rocky ridge at the top of a mountain as the sun set ahead. Natsuko, Joren (a Belgian), and I walked back to the sand dune as the sun disappeared. Natsuko noted how the mountains were all changing colors from the sunset. The winds were very strong and black volcanic sand was flying everywhere. I said I was changing colors.

(Photo of me by Natsuko)

Wednesday, November 5 - San Pedro de Atacama, Geysers Del Taito

Was it 3:15 AM when my alarm went off? If you get up that early, you should at least have some good idea why you're doing it. At 4 I was waiting outside the hotel with two Brits who I met at dinner the night before, a woman named Jan and her 22-year old daughter, Jemma. They had also both quit their jobs a couple months before and had been travelling through Peru, Ecuador, and now Chile together. At dinner, we had shared a bottle of wine (Chilean of course) and apparently it was Jan's birthday, so I asked the waitress "¿no vela por cumpleaños?" and somehow she understood and later brought out a cake.

J and J were on a different bus but we were all heading to the Geyser Del Tatio, a two hour ride through the desert. On my bus, I was sitting next to another young Brit, Anna, and her parents, Nick and Marilyn. Anna had moved to Concepcion, a few hours south of Santiago, four months earlier and was teaching English. Her parents came to visit and to try to get her to travel more, Marilyn told me. Even in the 4 AM darkness, I could tell that Anna had a beautiful smile.

The skies above the desert were cloudless and clear and, looking out the bus window, I saw the Southern Cross on the horizon for the first time (not unlike that Crosby, Stills, and Nash song lyric). I was excited to see it. I had been looking over some star charts before I left, though I had forgot to bring them. The sky was clear enough to see the band of the Milky Way and the Cross was four stars at the end of it, shaped a bit like a kite. I could also just see the black gap in the Milky Way in one of the corners of the cross, which I remembered from my map was the Small Magellanic Cloud. And below it, at the top of the mountains, was the long line of stars that make up Centaurus (of which Alpha Centauri is one). At that time of year, the only time you can see any of those constellations is at around 4 AM: before that they haven't yet risen and after that obviously the sun fades them. There was almost a full moon but luckily it had set by then.

Saying hi to Anna and her family, I asked them if they had seen the Cross yet and pointed it out to them. Anna asked me what the significance of it was and I said it was the southern hemisphere's equivalent of the North Star. Though, since it's not visible all them time from most latitudes, it's much less useful for navigation.

Orion was also visible, but he was upside down on the northern horizon. It's strangely comforting to be able to travel so far, to a place where most of the stars are different, but to still be able to see him (much like he's almost always visible in the northern hemisphere).

Rumbling through the desert in the dark, we got a flat tire, so I got out and laid my camera down on a nearby rock to try to photograph the Cross while the driver was putting on the spare. The stars were just starting to fade and the tops of the mountains were turning bright blue.

At about sunrise, we got to the geysers. The air was freezing and the boiling water in the ground caused huge clouds of steam to rise from it. It was warm to stand in the clouds and they smelled a bit like the steam from warm milk with a maybe a touch of sulfur (interestingly, I gave the same assessment of the local coca tea that Anna offered me later).

After the geysers, we drove to a hot springs where a few people who had thought ahead with bathing suits on under their clothes, jumped in. Apparently, a few people who didn't think ahead and didn't have bathing suits on under their clothes jumped in too, but I luckily missed that. I saw Jan and Jemma in there and they said the water was either too cold or too hot, depending on where you were.

As the morning wore on, we rolled through many miles of desert, stopping occasionally to see wild vicunas, llamas, flamingoes, donkeys, and another oasis village in a valley with four houses and a church on a hill.

So here's a funny story: I saw Jan and Jemma sitting at a table later in the afternoon, writing in their journals, so I pulled up a chair and said hi. After a few minutes, the conversation went like this:

Jan: "This is hilarious- we were at the Valle de La Luna last night.."

Jemma: "No, let me tell it, you always tell the story wrong."

Jan: "No, I can tell it. So we were at the Valle de La Luna and we were sitting on the sand dune watching the sunset. And we were sitting in front of this guy who was trying to chat up a Japanese girl and he was trying to tell her a Steve Martin joke.."

This was beginning to sound familiar, but I let her continue: "so he tried this joke like two times and she never got it and was totally confused and we were just cracking up.."

"Wait, that was me!" I yelled and then suddenly they found it a whole lot funnier. "Are you trying to tell me a joke where I am the joke? And anyway, I was not trying to 'chat her up'.."

"So.. I painted a new dog on the side," Jemma added in a low funny voice which I guess was supposed to sound like me.

The story was, that Natsuko had showed me that she had a picture of the Greyhound bus logo in her journal because she liked the dog in the design. So I said, "there's this old Steve Martin joke. He's trying to impress a woman, so he says: 'so yeah, I own a vintage car. A 1957 Greyhound bus. Yeah it's a sweet ride.. I painted a new dog on the side..'" But regardless of whether it was funny or not, Natsuko had no idea what I was trying to say.

Jemma said, "but the best part was when you repeated it and added 'yeah.. it holds 52 tons of luggage.'" They found this quite funny.

The other funny thing is that, though neither of them had any idea how to play a guitar, they had bought one in Peru and had been lugging it around South America with them since (so much for the backpacker's motto of travelling as light as possible). This just killed me. I tried to imagine what would possess me to buy, say a French horn, and carry it around with me for months. I just couldn't figure it out at all.

The upshot of it was that I got to borrow it for a day. I also borrowed Jemma's Lenny Kravitz MiniDisc and player and wrote out the chords for a couple songs for her to practice.

Just unbelievable, though. They didn't know the first thing about how to play this out of tune guitar that they had been carrying around for weeks.

I'm sure even Natsuko would have found that funny.

Day 7-8: San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago

Your Comments

Outstanding ! Great job ;) Keep on ......

-- tom, Jan 5, 2006
that was the greatest pictures Ithink i have seen!!!

-- leah mcdonald, May 16, 2007
i love chile ive been there lie "20" times it is a wonderful place to be in i bet u luved it as much as i did i hope u had fun and enjoyed it these pictures are awesome i say again I LOVE CHILE i hope u can go again and enjoy it again but this time even more bring back more pictures

-- katherine trejo, Oct 12, 2007
those pics were totally sweet i enjoyed them alot keep it up. hope everyone enjoyed it as much as i did!!!!

-- emma andersen, May 11, 2009
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All text and pictures copyright © 2003 Tim Darling.