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

Our next day started even earlier, at 4 am! Juan drove us north this time to see los geysers de Tatio (the Tatio geyser field). It’s the highest in the world at 4200 m and the third largest geyser field after Yellowstone and Donila Giezerov in Russia. I didn’t bring my camera here, so I’ll be sure to get some pictures from friends! The reason for starting so early was to get there in time to see the geysers at their peak (they’re most active at dawn). Seeing the first rays of sunlight pierce the voluminous clouds of steam was gorgeous and way worth the early start.

Breakfast by the geysers :)
It was so warm next to the steam that I didn’t want to leave!
Eating some yummy kebabs in the tiny town of Machuca.

*Geyser pictures also courtesy of Akane!

A tip for traveling to high altitudes (especially in a short amount of time): drink lots of mate de coca in the days leading up to travel. Mate de coca, or coca tea, is easily accessible in northern Chile (as well as Peru, Bolivia and Argentina) as loose leaves or in tea bags. It’s good for helping prevent soroche, or altitude sickness, but only if you drink it regularly and start before reaching high altitudes. It isn’t 100% effective though–we had some fainting accidents in our group despite having replaced regular drinking water with mate de coca–so make sure you bring along medicine if you’re prone to altitude sickness. Symptoms including fainting, feeling nauseous and/or dizzy, shortness of breath and/or weakness, consistent rapid pulse, and nosebleeds. The best remedy is, of course, to descend immediately. It’s also good to travel with someone who has an oxygen tank (one of the girls had to use Juan’s) as that’s a good temporary solution.

Also, if you plan on going to the geysers, remember to bundle up very well. Saying it was cold would be an understatement. It was freezing. Actually, it was colder than freezing. Juan, dressed in what seemed like the minimal amount of clothing that would prevent hypothermia, informed us that it was currently 10 below 0 (Celsius). “But a few years ago I came out here and the temperature had dropped to 15 below 0,” he added proudly. I would have laughed, but I was trying to conserve oxygen and the high altitude wasn’t helping. Neither was the fact that I was wearing all the clothes I owned. It was cold.

But the crazy thing about the desert is that it can be -10° in the morning and about 37° just two hours later. We came back to San Pedro around noon carrying all the layers we had shed in the time it took to drive back down and we were all walking around in shorts and a shirt. Since our bus didn’t leave until 7, my friend and I wanted to use the next few hours to visit Laguna Cejar, a lake near San Pedro that has a 40% concentration of salt thus enabling a person to float effortlessly. We walked into downtown San Pedro and decided to rent bikes.

Before I continue, I have to let you know that this story is insane: we never reached Laguna Cejar, but we did end up having a (crazy) adventure. What more could you ask for, right? Anyway, it’s pretty hilarious (now), and I never get tired of talking about what happened over those five hours. If you’ve been traumatized by bikes, sand, wind, hitchhiking, and/or the thought of being stranded in the driest desert in the world, I encourage you to go grab some ice cream or take a nap instead.

So we walked into downtown San Pedro and decided to rent bikes. We asked the lady who owned the place if Laguna Cejar was too far to bike to. When hearing it would take us about 90 minutes of biking each way, we decided to go for it. She handed us a map and gave us directions: we were to keep to the main highway for about 20 km and then take a dirt road another 5 km until we hit the lake.

All set for biking!

Okay, so far so good. We got to the highway and had a great time enjoying the scenery (which, again, was simply stunning). Because there was very little traffic, we were able to ride side-by-side and got quite a lot of talking done. After an hour was up, we came to the dirt track we were told to take. We were so excited about getting there ahead of schedule that we stopped to take some pictures!

We’re almost there!…not…

*Biking pictures also also courtesy of Akane!

Of course, being so happy was what probably jinxed our trip…We biked down the trail for more than 5 km with no Laguna Cejar in site. Not a single car passed us by which was odd since there were multiple tours that headed to this place daily. Finally, after about 40 minutes, I saw a car heading toward us, and I assumed it came from the direction of the lake. I could see a Caucasian family inside and  I took this opportunity to ask the driver how much farther the lake was:

-Hola,  ¿está lejos la laguna?
-*stares at me blankly*
-Um, hi there, is the laguna far from here?
-*keeps staring at me blankly*

I had run out of languages to try so I was going to start miming my question when the boy in the back, who I think was his son, said:

-Dad…she’s talking to you in English.

Well, whaddya know? They were British. Awwkkwaarrddd.

^Guess who I am…

Nice job guys, nice.

After the driver-dad realized I was speaking English, he informed me that it was probably another 2 km from where we were. I talked it over with my friend and we decided to head back since catching our bus was more important. This bus, would take us to Calama, a city 1.5 hours away from San Pedro, where our overnight bus to Arica was leaving at 10. At the time we bought the tickets we were told that this was the final bus leaving San Pedro for the day. So, as you see, getting to this bus on time was imperative. We figured we’d reach San Pedro by 6-6:30 at the latest (it was currently 4). After getting back onto the highway we hit (literally) another problem: the wind. We had done a great job ignoring it on our way to the Laguna because it came from behind us; now we were biking against it. And it was so. Very. Difficult. We had to get off our bikes and walk every 10 minutes or so because it was faster than biking.

This is when the two of us thought we should try our hand at hitchhiking. We figured that since Chile is one of the best (and safest) countries in South America to hitchhike, and since there were two of us, it shouldn’t be a problem. Um, wrong. There wasn’t a single truck that offered us a ride. We got a few I’m-sorry-I-can’t-stop waves and one SUV did stop and ask whether they could help us out any other way, but nothing that would drive us to San Pedro. At 6:30 I called my friends at the hostel and told them to leave without us if we didn’t get there by 7. But here we snagged another problem: my friend had all of our tickets with her. Marvelous. At this point it was also getting very dark and the highway had no lights. Of course it didn’t because that’d be too easy.

We finally reached downtown San Pedro at 7:03. Ditching our bikes at the rental store, I sprinted to the station hoping to catch the bus as it left. I didn’t see a bus there, nor did I see my friends. As I reached the ticket counter I heard the lady explaining on the phone that there was a group of students on the bus without any tickets. We quickly explained that we had the tickets with us and after giving them to her she told us that our friends had reserved us spots on the next bus leaving San Pedro. I’m not sure if you guys can imagine how my friend and I felt at this point. There was definitely relief in there, relief and a powerful sense of physical and mental well-being despite having biked over 50 km. I could still feel the adrenaline pulsing throughout my body and for the first time in 5 hours I refused to worry about anything.

Since we had about an hour before the second bus left, we went to grab some snacks. Neither of us were really hungry, probably because of all the sand we ingested, so we spent a few minutes just sitting in the plaza. Sitting and stretching since we knew we would be really really sore the next day. Sitting and stretching and laughing at how ridiculous we probably looked, two girls biking at, like, 1 mile an hour against strong winds. Our bus left at 8 and we were there to catch it this time. Huzzah! We met up with our friends at Calama and boarded our overnight bus with no problems.

Despite my crazy farewell to San Pedro, the sub-zero temperatures, and the sandy wind (oh the wind!), I would have loved to spend more time there. When my mom and I traveled to New Zealand in December, I remember telling her that I’d never seen so many different shades of green in my life. In the Atacaman desert, I was equally surprised to see so many shades of brown. This is definitely a go-to place for any avid traveler, and I’m glad I was able to experience a few adrenaline-filled days there.

This concludes the first part of my journey north. Stay tuned for updates (which I promise will be more frequent as there are more scheduled strikes in the near future…yay for no school! Just kidding…)! I have two more harrowing bus-missing tales to tell, so keep checking back for more! :)

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