10 Dec 2001 - San Pedro, Chile
We arrived in Calama and immediately sought out a car rental agency and then a supermarket to stock up on a few bites but mainly lots of water - we didn't want to be caught out in the desert in the case of a breakdown and being forced to drink the vehicle radiator water just to survive!
While driving through the featureless Atacama desert from Calama to San Pedro we stopped off at the Valle de la Luna. In English this means the Valley of the Moon. This is a spectacular place of natural beaty where flood and wind have left their mark. After a look around and a few photos we carried on our journey and arrived in San Pedro and immediately felt that this was a place that has hardly moved with the times. Buildings are one or two story and look as though they have been constructed using methods that haven't changed since the days of the Incas. Buildings are made from mud bricks and new bricks can often be seen baking in the sun. Even at 2440m, walking around brought on the breathlessness of mild altitude sickness.
After looking around San Pedro we took a trip to Laguna Chaxa - a flamingo breeding site. A remarkable place as the lake has almost totally evaporated leaving behind rock and crystallised salt. Not many flamingos though.
Finally we headed to the El Taito geysers. These, 4300m above sea level, are the world's highest geyser field. The steaming fumaroles at sunrise may well be unforgettable but not as unforgettable as the torture we endured to see them. When we arrived at the geyser field there were a couple of hours left till sunset. We pitched a tent, lit a fire, made some food and cracked open a few tins of the amber stuff. Even gentle movement brought about breathlessness but this got worse as the night progressed. Remember, from a reasonable 2250m in Calama to 4300m in one day isn't an ideal way to avoid altitude sickness.
I managed to fall asleep but as breathing becomes shallow while asleep this only increased the oxygen deprivation. After a couple of hours I woke up and then kept waking up every half an hour to an hour desperately out of breath and with a splitting headache. The headache could only be reduced by deep breathing to reoxygenate the blood and brain though this only gave a brief respite. As I dozed off again I knew that I would soon wake up breathless and in agony. At one point I thought that it must be 5AM only to check my watch and see to my utter despair that it was only 1AM. Christ, more agony - please take the pain away. Towards the end of the night I got a bit more sleep but as soon as it was 6AM we took a look at the geysers, thought 'splendid' and then quickly packed up so as to return to a comfortable 2440m in San Pedro. One other thing to note; at this altitude the night get very cold and in the morning our water that was left outside the tent was frozen.
While I had it bad poor Adam didn't get any sleep on that night. The pain reduced him to banging his fist on the floor in frustration.
To prevent acute altitude sickness (AMS) you should:
1) Spend 2-3 nights at each rise of 1000m
2) Once above 3000m do not increase sleeping altitude by more than 300m per day.
3) Avoid alcohol.
AMS has been fatal at 3000m but 3500m to 4500m is the usual range. If symptoms of AMS persist immediate descent is necessary. What we did contravened the AMS avoidance 'shoulds' and staying there all night may not have been one of our brightest ideas. Add to that the fact that the altitude of El Taito is at the extreme range of the usual fatality altitude.
We descended but the pain in our heads, while reduced stayed with us. We went to the campsite Takha Takha which was an excellent spot. Despite the heat in San Pedro during the day the trees in the campsite provided plenty of cover from the scorching sun and allowed us a comfortable rest. After a few hours of sleep we awoke refreshed and without pain!
Just before we left we took a trip to the nearby Indian ruins of Pukara de Quitor, the last bastion against the Spanish conquistadors. There didn't seem to be a lot to see - perhaps we didn't fully appreciate the place as we stayed in the car(!) and after driving through quickly turned around to return to Calama.
Chile - San Pedro, on the way to the El Taito geyser field
An awe inspiring photo of the landscape on the way to the El Taito geyser field. I think that this displays the how vast and hostile this area is.
Chile - At the El Taito geyser field exercising!
I have never been at such an altitude so to test the effects I elected to do some sprinting exercises. The lack of oygen told and I very quickly became out of breath.
Chile - The El Taito geyser field in the morning
The only time to see these is in the still air of the early morning before the wind picks up and disperses the steam.
Chile - The only way to get around the Attacama
A 4 wheel drive is essential in getting around the mountainous and dusty terrain.
Chile - The Valle de la Luna
The Valle de la Luna - just one more place boasting a lunar landscape. White salt crusts cover the area.
Our car in the middle gives an idea of the immensity of scale.
Chile - Laguna Chaxa flamingo breeding site
The air at this drying out salt lake as dry and still making for hot temperatures.
Chile - Llamas in the desert
On our way back to San Pedro, we saw these Llama wondering alongside the road so we drove up to them and then got out for a closer look - after all, Llamas are icons of South America so it would be wrong not to see any!
Chile - San Pedro
A typical street with mud brick buildings.