26.02.2017 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.
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.
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.
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.
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,