We are up and out by 6:30 to get the sunrise pictures. Our destination is Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris)–about an hour’s drive. Rainbow Valley is a series of hills that display countless colors as a result of the minerals in the rock and soil. Prolific copper reserves result in incredible shades of green. Iron produces lovely red rocks. Where the copper mixes with the clay soil there are shades of purple. We see lots of interesting plants. Rica-Rica is an aromatic plant with very small purple flowers that reminds me of Lavender. The plant is used in teas for medicinal purposes and is even an ingredient in the local Pisco Sour recipes. Mother-in-Law’s Cushion is a cactus that I guess you’d want your MIL to sit on. It can grow into an enormous, low-growing plant over a yard in diameter. I have a nice walk with Cris while the guys take an hour or so photographing the landscape.
On our way back to town, we stop to look at a neat petroglyph. Cris says it’s about 2,000 years old. The animal depicted, a deer-like, spotted animal, does not correspond to any animals of the region at that time although I find a picture in a wildlife guide of a deer introduced to the country in 1950 that looks awfully similar. Maybe the petroglyph is not as old as it is thought to be…
Chile has 4 “camelid” animals: the guanaco and the vicunas are wild and the llamas and alpacas are domesticated. We see guanacos on our drive back. It’s easy to get excited about our first guanaco sighting but Cris and Rex remind us that before the trip is over we will be sick of seeing the creatures. Kind of like bisons in Yellowstone National Park.
We notice a well-tended grave off the road and stop. A loved one has spent a great deal of effort artistically cobbling rock together to mark the grave. There are fresh flowers. As we decipher the words on the cross marker we see that the person died in 1938! It’s amazing that the grave would still be tended with loving care.
Cris is a 30-something Chilean. He has worked in the hospitality/tourist industry for over a decade. He is incredibly well-versed in the natural history and geology of the area. He is also incredibly funny! He drives like a crazy man. I think Rex is concerned that his “charges” (us) are in danger but we say that so far we do not feel unsafe.
Once we get back into town, Cris gives us a tour. San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, is an ancient oasis in the desert turned into a tourist boomtown. It has a population of about 5,000. The main street is unpaved (as are all streets although they are hardened with a product derived from salt) and lined with antique adobe buildings with roofs made of clay and hay. The commercial mix is equal parts of tour companies, restaurants and retail shops with products ranging from cheap tourist souvenirs to artisan products. And there are about 50 places for varying degrees of accommodation catering to tourists looking for adventure and incredible sights.
The town square is lovely, shaded by several pepper trees. The San Pedro de Atacama Church, with ceilings made from cactus wood, dates to before 1641. In the “mercado” on the square there are plenty of local, inexpensive wares but the most incredible thing is that no one is pushy about selling you their products. The Museo Gustavo le Paige, also on the square, is a significant archeological museum featuring a large collection of relics and artifacts from the region.
The town has a “Wild West” sort of look to it. There are probably 15to 20 street dogs in the downtown area but the streets are very clean thanks to a group dedicated to the effort. Although that did not prevent Cris from stepping into a gift from the street dogs. And later Rex came close to reenacting the same comedy skit with the exact same “gift”! The streets are filled with tourists. It’s clear that San Pedro is benefitting from the glorious sights this area has to offer.
We have lunch at one of Cris’s recommended restaurants: “Adobe.” Howard and I sample the local beer, Atacamania. It is a lager, just the kind I like, and it is good. Howard and I order pizza–it is just OK. Rex, after a course of Imodium and Pepto Bismal (Doctor Ducey comes prepared!) is feeling much better so he has the 3 course menu.
We see the cutest bird in town: A Rufous-Collared Sparrow. We cannot believe that none of us remembered to bring binoculars! As the days go on we will regret that omission over and over. We finally shut up about it!
Our sunset destination is Quebrada de Guatin, where the junction of the Rio Purifica and Puritama gives rise to the Vilama River. In this river valley we find a unique cactus growing throughout the canyon, the Giant Cardon cactus (reminiscent of the Saguaro cactus). Some of the cacti are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. The wood from this cactus was used for the church ceiling in town. We cross the river several times and exercise our rock climbing skills (not too extreme) as we make our way downstream. There is a neat waterfall that offers great photo opportunities. There is evidence of past BBQs along the shores of the river. I ask Cris if he has backpacked our dinner telling him we expect it to be Wagyu beef with a nice red Chilean wine. That’s a bit of a joke. Cris told us that a semi-truck overturned near the village a while back and it was filled with Wagyu beef. The villagers stampeded to the site and that night the hobos feasted on meat only the rich can afford.
Cris is sweet to help Howard with his camera pack and tripod. It is not easy for me without a pack to scurry over the large rocks so it is nice of Cris to relieve Howard of his pack. We spend a good bit of time waiting for the setting sunlight to be just right for photos–such is the burden of photography. While we are waiting, I wander around and fall on my butt just inches away from the MIL cushion! I do not want to think about the consequences of landing on that cactus. I can just envision the 3 guys plucking thorns from by bare behind.
We see 2 neat birds: flocks of Grassland Yellow-Finches and some Mourning Sierra-Finches. We spot 2 lizards but they are too quick to identify. Fortunately we are told that there are no poisonous snakes in Chile. In fact 99.9% of creepy-crawly things (bugs, arachnids, amphibians, and reptiles) in Chile are harmless.
We have a small dinner at the hotel: chicken Caesar salads for Howard and me. Rex has a sandwich. Cris will pick us up at 7am for our next adventure. We try to sleep peacefully while hundreds of street dogs bark and fight.