A Travellerspoint blog

Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama)

semi-overcast 15 °C

Today was a great travel day. Staying at the airport (literally the Holiday Inn is connected to the terminal) last night made for a leisurely morning and no stress on timing for check-in for our two-hour flight to Calama. Funny, the hotel last night, right beside the airport was 100% soundproof and we all sleep like great (we are experiencing a bit of rocking still from 7 days at sea). Check-in was seamless (all internal flights have been on LAN) and we were in the air around noon and landed in Calama around 2:30 pm. We retrieved our luggage and were off for the hour-ish commute to our hotel.

Calama is a city on the Loa River in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile. Set in a mining area, it’s known as the gateway to the Atacama Desert. Just north of Calama is, Chuquicamata, a vast open-pit copper mine. Calama is one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5 mm.

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It is the strangest terrain, dry like I imagine Mars would look. It is barren, craggy and almost completely void of vegetation. The region has been used by filmmakers (Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets) to simulate the Red Planet, and by scientists, who duplicated tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect signs of life in the area (of which there couldn't find any). The desert itself occupies more than 40,000 square miles and eats up a full third of Chile.

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One of the reason it is normally so dry in the Atacama is the atmospheric pressure over the Andes can cause dry, cold air to compress and come down to earth. This dry air has almost no water vapor so the sun, causing high ground temperatures with very low humidity, can easily heat the air. Another reason that the Atacama doesn't get enough rainfall is because of a phenomenon called rain-shadow. The warm, moist tropical air that blows on the trade winds from the east, which douse the South American rainforest, get hung-up on the east side of the Andes. The mountains are so high in altitude that the air, cools, condenses and rains (or snows) on the mountains. As the air descends the other side of the mountain range it warms, holding in its moisture preventing rain from falling on to the ground below. So in a nutshell, it is a phenomenon caused by the mountains much like Calgary’s Chinooks.

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Funny, we have managed to end up here during the Altiplanic Winter and its occasional showers. The amount of rain this area is receiving is extremely rare and part of a unique meteorological phenomenon. In the summer months, the thermal air currents above the Bolivian side of the Andes form large rain clouds that then drift down back into Chile and deposit heavy, but short, rain showers over the area, often accompanied by loud thunder and lighting. This phenomenon is also called the Bolivian Winter, resulting in snow at higher elevations. An episode in March of 2015 had a devastating impact when the area received 7 years of rain in a matter of hours.

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The rain yesterday (15mm) washed out the road to our hotel, Alto Atacama http://www.luxurylatinamerica.com/chile/alto_atacama.html, so we were met at the road entrance and walked 5 minutes in. The hotel is amazing (shout-out to the best travel agent in the world! If anyone needs someone good, ask me for Tara’s contact info, she is awesome. She has done all the logistical work on booking this trip for us (air, transfers, hotels, boat etc.) and has actually done all our adventures since Ger and I started travelling almost 20 years ago starting with Cozumel)). Small plug, back to regular scheduled programing but I am not kidding if you need ANY travel help, Tara is your girl).

Due to record levels of rain (and the clay soil, like Arizona, that can’t absorb the moisture) some of our excursion options (guided hiking mainly to the surrounding natural wonders (geyser, volcano, salt flats) may not be available. Losing activities would be a shame but truly first world problems (there is spa here ☺). We are very much looking forward to seeing the stars (which seems unlikely today given the rare cloud cover but the rain is supposed to stop tonight), this is the best place in the world purportedly to do so. Fingers cross on clearing conditions but regardless I am positive we will enjoy our time here.

We will find out tomorrow what excursions options are available, regardless Ger and I can take the mountain bikes out for a spin. They have lots available and we can ride into the town about 5km away. We are here until Thursday so we are hoping the worst is over tonight (and road repair happens quickly).

It is pretty cool to be lying on the bed in the room listening to the thunder crackle in the driest place on earth!

Until next time,
G^2

Posted by imalazyj 14:49 Archived in Chile

It’s a “Hake” of a time

The afternoon stop at Agulia Glacier was phenomenal. We hiked along the shore of the sea with it in the hovering above the trees until we rounded a bend and saw it in its full glory. We spent a couple hours exploring the shoreline and returned to the boat for one last feast. The evening was great fun and we got to spend some time with the expedition crew and hear their stories.

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Today is travel day; we started with a visit to Magalena Island to walk through the Penguins. The island has been designated a national nature reserve because of its importance as a penguin breeding site, and the reserve is managed by the government agency Corporación Nacional Forestal.

Funny little creatures but it was great to be so close to them. We are now bobbing around in the harbour waiting to head in 50 knot winds (~100 km/hour gusts) means that the Captain had to call for tug boats to assist us getting in the harbour. We are told this is an usual process. It was kind of cool to watch two tugs push our boat into the harbour until it turned into a bit of an episode of the Amazing Race in order to make our flight on time. With about 10 minutes to spare we made our flight and headed back to Santiago. We are overnighting at the airport (Holiday Inn) and headed off tomorrow noonish to the Atacama.

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The visit to Patagonia was magical. The area is beautiful and chalk full of history. The journey through the ancient waters has definitely peaked my interest in Explorers and the time of mapping our world.

As for tonight, I am happy to have curl up early and get some sleep. I am also happy to be back in the land of the internet, being connected is not always a bad thing. I missed it, I won't lie. Tomorrow will bring a different part of Chile which I am immensely looking forward to.

Until next time,
G^2

Posted by imalazyj 16:19

Winner of the Brownie

sunny 13 °C

Yesterday was a complete down day for me, I read a book and didn’t disembark on either the morning or afternoon option. It was lovely. At dinner we met an Aussie lady, who claimed she was the brownie winner (remember Nottingham Hill with Julia Roberts and whoever had the saddest story got the last brownie). She is here alone, her and her husband had booked this “bucket list” trip a year ago, two weeks after they paid the deposit he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in October. She definitely won the brownie in my eyes, life is short, try not to wait to live and experience things. I am forever grateful that I have had the opportunities to experience and travel the way I do and with Ger.

Today we sail through Magellan Strait back in to Agostini National Park. Named after the Italian Salesian priest who worked with the region’s indigenous people during the first half of the 20th century, De Agostini Sound is flanked by numerous glaciers (think back to Glacier Alley). This afternoon we stop at Aguila (Eagle) Glaciers for a hike (which I will most definitely go on).

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The ship has several activities to keep you engaged, they drop off a trivia questionnaire on the table every day for the return journey we have been active participants. Old school research though, no Internet means no Google, so it is back to the books in the ship’s library searching for answers. Funny I haven’t actually missed or for that matter really noticed we are off the grid except for the lack of Google.

The boat journey has been incredible but I am ready to be able to get outside at my own will and not be surrounded by constant people or a schedule. We are gearing up for our afternoon hike and getting ready for our final shore excursion (walking through the penguins) tomorrow am before we head off back to Santiago and on to the Atacama Desert. I feel like we really got to see and feel Patagonia, it is truly a unique and remote part of the world.

Until next time,
G^2

Posted by imalazyj 16:18 Archived in Chile

It’s getting “Chile” out there

Yesterday concluded with some interaction with the new people on the boat and another fabulous meal (and some vino). Tired from the evening before we retired early and slept well as we sailed back towards the Horn. Today was a repeat of Day 4’s morning activities where we had an opportunity to disembark at the Horn again. We choose to enjoy the sight from the boat this time (how does one repeat the Cape Horn experience I had?). Once everyone was back on board the Captain sailed through Drake Passage and around the Horn, a new experience and a fantastic one (evidently this is very rare, only 30% of the time are the Seas kind enough for this ship to take this route).

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Today has been my down day, given this was a repeat itinerary of Day 4 of our cruise I choose to curl up with a cheesy but all consuming book (“Who’s That Girl” (it’s a “Two Weeks Notice” sort of story, which is my favourite movie)). A complete day on board to enjoy the ship is perfect timing for a time-out from the crowd. Our cabin has a massive floor to ceiling window so I can recharge and have a true “vacation” day. I used to wrestle with not doing every activity offered but a previous guide once said to us, “this is your vacation do what you want to” that approach helps with the notion I might be missing something. I absolutely love watching the waves of the ocean, a good book and a nap. We still have a week and a half left, unbelievable because I feel like we have already seen and done so much.

Random Observations
- Argentines DO NOT stop for pedestrians, instead of putting on 4-way blinkers they speed up
- Dolce is not a substitute for peanut butter. It’s an odd caramel flavoured spread Chileans put on toast and in all sorts of sweets (Chilean Nutella???)
- Argentina imported the beaver and Chile the mink. Different “rodents”, same environmental disaster

Until next time,
G^2

Posted by imalazyj 14:47

Ushuaia “The End of the Earth”

semi-overcast 10 °C

My birthday evening continued far too long into the night but was incredibly fun. The bartenders have stopped serving us by the glass and now just drop off a bottle (which is really only 4 glasses ☺).

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The morning was a flurry activity of on the boat as all but 10 of us passengers are leaving today and a new load of excited passengers will arrive for the return sail to Punta Arenas. We feel like old hands at this now as we know most of the staff and it feels very much like home.

After breakfast we retrieved our documentation and headed in to Ushuaia. We wandered through the lovely coastal town. Ushuaia is home to over 65k people and feels sort of like Banff (not as ritzy). Founded in 1884, Ushuaia was one of the first meeting points of the Yamana culture and Anglican missionaries. It was used as penal colony starting in December 1902 until the closure in 1947. We toured the old prison, which now houses a museum on the prison, prisoners and life in the prison plus an Antarctica Museum (more on our hero Shackleton), a Maritime Museum and an art gallery. Lunch in town and the afternoon at the museum was pretty good way to spend the afternoon.

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We have returned to the boat and are sitting one of the lounge areas alone as the new passengers will not arrive for another hour or so. It feels like a very large private yacht. All the rooms have been cleaned and are ready for their new occupants. The doors are all open allowing a decent look inside (pretty much all the same).

The fun part about being on a boat is all the people watching. I look forward to seeing all the new faces arrive this afternoon and trying to figure out the dynamics of the pairs (the last group had a pair that the jury is still out on if it was mother and son or boyfriend/girlfriend). As mentioned before the nationalities are varied (European, American, Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, South American etc.). I am definitely on the younger side of the demographic here and interestingly the majority of the rooms are set up as two twins rather than one bed.

Until next time,
G^2

Posted by imalazyj 14:28 Archived in Chile

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