El Norte Grande–remember that time we were stranded in the desert with bikes and no water?–Part 1

Our next day in San Pedro started early: we took a tour of el Salar de Atacama (the Atacaman Salt Flats) that began at 6 in the morning. We had booked this tour (and the one we would take our third day) through a hostel, and because of that it was just the seven of us plus Juan, our tour guide. As we made our way down to the salar, we passed by a few noteworthy landmarks:

  1. The Tropic of Capricorn!

    Me at the Tropic of Capricorn!
  2. Inca trails–At the height of its power, the Inca Empire encompassed present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Today “Inca trails” can be found throughout all of these countries. According to our guide Juan, Inca trails were a road system that connected the entire territory. They were known to travel in a straight line despite the obstacles–mountains, rivers, deserts–in their way. In the picture above, you see a narrow path bordered by stones; this is part of an Inca trail that has been preserved.
  3. Active volcanoes–Apparently Chile has a lot of volcanoes. By a lot I mean more than 50 active volcanoes. Most of these make up the Andes (a good rule of thumb: when in doubt, assume that what you see is 1) a volcano and 2) active).
  4. Creepy mummy stories–Okay, so this doesn’t count as a landmark per se, but I think it’s definitely noteworthy. Given that the Atacaman desert is the driest in the world, scientists did some digging and some calculating and found that the Chinchorro people had mummified their dearly departed way before the Egyptians (5000 BC and 3000 BC, respectively). NPR.org actually wrote a brief article about this recently: http://m.npr.org/news/front/158790969?page=1. Anyway, early indigenous populations in the desert had various rituals at times of severe famine. One of these rituals, told to us by a way-too-eager Juan, involved human sacrifice. Children of people who held important positions in society (e.g., the chief, the healer, a warrior, etc) would be pre-selected to be sacrificed. When the time came, a processional took the child to a mountain top. During the ride there the child would be fed alcohol in copious amounts so that he or she would fall asleep, and this is how they were sealed inside caves, eventually dying from hypothermia. Remains of a child’s body that was found several years ago, said Juan, were so well preserved given the desert conditions that you could see how peaceful his face was, which supported the theory he had died in his sleep. I told you, creepy right?

Since I did so much talking, er, typing up there, I’m going to let my pictures show you what we saw that day. But before I do that, I just want to say how unbelievably gorgeous it was. I don’t know WHY people aren’t raving like madmen about Chile’s natural wonders, but I’m glad it’s hush-hush; I wouldn’t want millions of people trampling all over this earthy, profound and graceful beauty. Every time I tried to process what I was seeing my heart rate would start increasing from all the excitement and then I’d have to think about something really boring (like Ben Stein in FBDO) to bring it down again–we were close to 3000 m high…I didn’t want to faint and have to miss out on all of this!

Sunrise at Lake Miscanti
Lake Miscanti
Snow!
Vicuñas!
Trail on the edge of Lake Miscanti
Other side of the trail.
Sneak peek of Laguna Miñiques.
Laguna Miñiques
More vicuñas!
Vicuñas close-up! :)
So. Much. Salt.

Our guide, Juan.

More salty stuff.

So the salt in the salar isn’t quite the edible type though it’s safe to ingest a small amount. My friend and I commented on the lack of “Don’t eat the salt or you’ll be sued ” signs and jokingly mentioned it to Juan:

-So Juan, can we, like, lick this stuff? *snicker*
-Oh, yeah, feel free to lick all you want.
-Wait, seriously?
-Yeah, go ahead. You can also break of chunks and take them with you.
-…
-No, really, you can. There’s no point though since these formations only occur in areas of 0% humidity. They won’t last long if you take them with you to Santiago.

I wasn’t planning on stealing any salt, but scientific curiosity got the better of me. In case any of you were wondering, Juan was right: my once-glorious mass of salt is now 50% of what it used to be. No wonder the government doesn’t waste money on silly signs. Sneaky bastards.

Flamingos!
Flamingo close-up!
New best friend?
Another new best friend? Sorry I ate your cousin.
The cousin in question. Llama empanadas!

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