Sunday, February 28, 2010


We got up at 4:30 in the morning and headed for the airport at 5:30 for a flight to Calama, a small city in the north of Chile.  Once we landed, we loaded up the rental van and headed straight east up into the Andes to see some of the smaller, traditional towns in the area.

On the way there, we passed the Chuquicamata open pit copper mine.  At 4.3 km long by 3 km wide by 850 m deep, it is the largest open pit mine in the world.

Our first stop was at a small town called Chiu Chiu (pronounced Chee-oo Chee-oo), population 322.  The main attraction, other than it's name, is this beautiful white washed church with cactus wood doors and ceilings.  It made me think I was in a Clint Eastwood movie.  The floors inside the Iglesia de San Francisco. were cactus wood as well.  The altitude there is 2500 m.

Cactus wood door at the church.
Building near town square.
After Chiu Chiu, we traveled further east to a small town called Caspana, population of 400 and altitude of 3300 m.  Caspana is known for its many terraces.  The terraces are used to grow garden crops and flowers that they sell to the other towns and cities in the area.


The bustling center of Ayquina (pop. 40) was next.  There were a lot of houses there for 40 people but that's because most of the buildings were padlocked from the outside.  The owners would only come to the town so that they could celebrate the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe with 30,000 other people.  Party on, Wayne!  Party on, Garth!

The Santurario Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

And the courtyard of the Santuario.

The houses have mud and clay roofs. 


Rio Salado (Salado River)


These were all pre-Columbian villages, meaning pre-Spanish.  It's a very beautiful, authentic area.

We then trucked it hard to San Pedro de Atacama, the main town where everyone goes to visit the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world.

The town is a fascinating place to visit with its dusty, dirt roads and light-brown adobe buildings and fences.  There are many restaurants and hotels in the town.  From the outside they look like nothing special, but on the inside they're all well taken care of and very nice.  The food was excellent.

Our hotel owner, Alvaro, told us that, back in the day, their ancestors had a lot of restaurants and hotels to serve anyone traveling from the mountains down to the ocean or who would travel along the Incan trail.  That's just what they do now, really, except they serve tourists.

We did run into a cool couple who lived in London.  She wrote children's books and he was a corporate head hunter.

We arrived at our hotel, which were small adobe rooms north of town.  During the day, the adobe kept the rooms fairly cool and they definitely retained the heat for nighttime.  It was a rustic place to stay but it  was nice.

Day 2
We headed out to see Miscanti Lagoon (pictured below) and Miniques Lagoon, altitude of over 4,300 m.  We drank a lot of water to help cope with the altitude and both Dana and Derwin had a bit of a headache dealing with the high altitude.  It has been scientifically proven that high altitudes affect those with big, male brains more so than others.

There were many vicunas and some flamingos and other birds there as well.


Next, we headed down to the Salar de Atacama or the Atacama salt flats.  It measures 30-40 km wide and runs 100 km from north to south.  It is 300,000 ha of rugged, barren salt flats. 

We took a brief tour near the Laguna (Lake) de Chaxa where we were able to see flamingos, other birds, some lizards, and a lot of salt.  We were right there with them.


Day 3

We woke up early and headed to Death Valley, 3 km north of San Pedro.  It's good to get there for sunrise as you're able to see the colors change and the shadows that form as the sun rises.

Death Valley



We then went to the Father Le Paige Museum in town.  Father Le Paige, before he invented glue, was a Jesuit missionary who did a lot of excavations in the area.  He and some of the town's residents excavated over 300 sites and collected more than 380,000 pieces that represented 11,000 years of the Atacamans living in the region.

Evidently, the Atacamans did a lot of hallucinogenic drugs as half of the museum pieces were paraphernalia related to drug use.




Instead of forest fire warnings, they have UV warnings.


San Pedro Church


Pukara de Quitor

The Pukara de Quitor is a small fortress city just north of San Pedro.  In 1540, Francisco de Aguirre and 30 other Spaniards attacked the Atacamans and decapitated all of the chiefs.  Oh yeah, they had the help of 1000 Yanaconas.

The fortress was originally built in the 12th century and is made of stones stuck together with mortar.  They originally had straw roofs.  There are about 100 little enclosures on this steep, steep hill.



Valley of the Moon

Just west of San Pedro lies the Valley of the Moon, an area of sand dunes and weirdly shaped rocks.  We headed there just before sunset.  There is one spot where all of the tour companies take the tourists to view the sunset.  There must've been a couple of hundred of people on top of the sand dune.

Los Vigilantes Tres Marias

Anti Teatro



Sand dunes




Desert Night Skies

The view of the night skies was amazing; very clear with beautiful sunsets.



On our last night, with all of the lights from the hotel out, we came out to look at the night sky.  The clarity and number of stars that you see down here in Chile is absolutely amazing.  You can see a lot of stars on the Canadian prairies but nothing like I've ever seen up there beats what can be seen here.  I guess that's why so many of the world's best observatories are here.


Although Tulor is not big on other people's itinerary, we enjoyed the visit to this archaeological site a lot.  The area was inhabited from 800 BCE to 500 ACE when it was slowly covered with sand.  It stayed that way until 1982, when it was discovered.  They've only dug up 10% now but you can see the circular bases of the houses that they had back then.  The houses were grouped by family clan.  They've built a couple of replicas near the original site.

The beams were tied together with animal this case goat but back in the day it would've been llamas or guanacos.


The bases of the original houses.


Sunflower near the administration building.


This was thee happening place at one time but the desert eventually blocked the river and forced it towards what is now San Pedro.

There was a young man who was in charge there and he was very knowledgeable about the site and very happy to share all the information about the people and their lives back then.  

It is administered by the little village just outside the site and the residents are direct descendants of the Atacamanos people who lived there.

Drink Deliveries

Back to San Pedro.  Since the delivery trucks are too large to drive around the narrow streets, they would drive into town and unload in a parking lot.  Then guys would load up the deliveries on the bikes pictured below and make their deliveries to the restaurants, stores, and hotels.


Andes from the plane

After a great trip, Nana, Papa, Dana, Kirsi, Aidan, and I headed home.  In all, it was a great trip.  We had about 3.5 days in total there and did a lot.  We were really glad that we rented a van rather than taking all of the tours.  It gave us the flexibility to see what we wanted when we wanted and to be able to work around the kid's nap schedule.  Everything we wanted to see we were able to with just a van.
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