Next stop: Mars – Adventures in the Atacama

I left off my last post by describing my friend’s leap of (misplaced) faith through a geyser in the Bolivian desert. And I described the subsequent appearance of weird bony pointy thing (showing off with my technical terms here) protruding from his his left shoulder. We headed back into the jeep and I calmly told our guide what had happened, which didn’t seem to elicit much of a response. We looked at each other puzzled, and the classic British MoA set in: we said no more about it for fear of causing a fuss. He gritted his teeth and I dug through my bag for the strong painkillers I’d been given when I’d hurt my back salsa dancing in Colombia  (a story for another time). We continued on with the last few hours of the tour, agreeing to get to a hospital when we reached the town in the afternoon. He fell uncharacteristically quiet for the next several hours.

After a quick soak in some hot springs, we carried on towards Chile. The border is marked by the sudden appearance of an immaculate road which starts abruptly out of nowhere. We transferred into a shiny new van and headed off. As we careered along, we pointed gleefully at the perfectly painted road markings, the smooth surfaces, the pristine road signs. It felt like we’d crossed the border not just into another country, but into the future.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town on the doorstep of the Atacama desert. Perched on parched plateau in Northern Chile, the streets are lined with low, squat buildings dusted in various shades of brown and bursting with things for adventurous tourist. We dropped off our bags at the hostel and told the owner that we needed to find a hospital for my friend’s shoulder. She looked panicked, blew a large amount of air through her teeth, and said ‘but there is no hospital here’. My friend who had been just about holding his composure looked as if he was going to vomit. She proceeded to tell us that there was a health clinic but that it was ‘very bad, very bad’.

With no other option and rough directions to the very bad health clinic, we set off up the dusty streets. We found a small building complete with reassuringly medical green lino floors. However, with no reception and no clear waiting area, we had to amble around for a bit, dipping our heads into consultation rooms to establish what exactly the protocol was . We’d been warned that no-one spoke English here so we rehearsed how to tell them exactly what happened. It was difficult enough in our native language to explain just how the injury came to occur, and we were nervously running through the words we knew to convey leaping, geyser, rocks, falling, pain, sticky outy bony bit.

After working out the waiting system, we agreed that I would go and find food. As I watching a woman prepare an empanada painfully slowly, I got a text. He’d been sent via public bus to the hospital in Calama, a larger town around two hours away. Returning much later that evening, his arm in a sling and a dour expression on his face, he told me that his collarbone had become displaced. He’d been advised to return to London as soon as he could to see an orthopaedic surgeon, cutting his trip short by over a month.

That night, we sought out a meal that we’d both been craving: spaghetti bolognese. After a toast to bad luck, he headed back to the hostel for an early night and I headed towards the square.

San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places in the world to view the stars and various ‘star tours’ are offered, taking you out of the town for some stargazing. Without realising that it would mean I would be awake for solid 24 hours, I’d booked on to a tour that night with a midnight start time. After dinner, I roamed the streets of San Pedro for a few hours feeling like one of the stray many dogs filling the streets. I nursed a coffee until it turned cold. Eventually midnight rolled around and I climbed onto the bus that would take me to the observatory to see the stars, lightheaded with tiredness.

The guide used a laser pointer to draw our attention to the constellations, and the powerful green beam appeared to graze the stars themselves. He talked us knowledgeably through the history of astronomy and how to identify the different constellations. Despite my interest in the subject, the stars weren’t as bright as I’d seen them the night before deep in the Bolivian wilderness. I was cold and eye-achingly tired. I just about made it through the two hours which included the chance to peer through several powerful telescopes and take a picture of the moon through another. By the end, I was barely human and have no idea how I made it back onto the bus and into my hostel bed, but there I awoke, much revived the next day.

The following afternoon, I went on a tour of the Valle de la Luna – the valley of the moon. We scrambled through low passages in salt caves, contorting our bodies through the narrow spaces, on high alert for scorpions. We clambered up the jagged salt mountains to survey the Martian landscape; burnt orange rock jutting upwards in gnarled alien forms. We clung precariously to high rocks over jutting precipices, our knuckles white as the wind whipped up a frenzy around us and threatened to carry us up, up and away. Sand dunes rose and fell, impossibly smooth and sculpted into precise ridges by the constant gusts. We watched the as the sun set and cast dusky shadows of rose and azure over the distant mountains. I once again felt incredibly lucky to be exactly where I was.

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On my final day in the desert, I went sandboarding in the reassuringly named Valley of Death. After a challenging trudge up a dune, we buckled boots to our feet and strapped waxed snowboards beneath them. We were given instructions on how to tackle the deep downward incline, cutting across it at a diagonal angle. One by one, we shimmied over to the edge and nudged our boards downwards to skid and slide down the sand. It was a lot of fun, although somewhat tempered by constantly having to haul ourselves and our boards back up the sand dune in the heat of the sun. “What this sand-dune needs is a ski-lift,” someone commented. I agreed wholeheartedly, breathless and bright red.

After lunch and a couple of beers at the hostel to say goodbye, I got on the 15 hour night bus down to La Serena on the way to spend Christmas with an old friend in Santiago. I sat on the bus feeling exhausted, both in body and mind. The desert had been unforgiving and unforgettable, a huge highlight of my trip.

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