After a blessed sleep in this morning we stumble out of our tent and amazingly we have sunny skies and a hot day, what a surprise. This morning it’s time to get metaphorically off the tourist bus and do little more than simply hang about in San Pedro. While indulging in organised tours in San Pedro we retain our traveller integrity, a blessed lack of contradiction for us. While most tours come with an air conditioned detachment which often undermines the very reason to do what you are doing, San Pedro is a fairly warts and all experience. In a place like the Atacama it would not only be a travesty but near on impossible to shelter from these elements; although I’m sure there are those who try.
With a few days at altitude now we’re feeling a lot more energetic, the town of San Pedro losing a little of it’s harsh edge but not that sun, that never goes away. The town here sets a lot of the scene for the traveller experience; it’s tourist friendly but with enough dust, chipped edges and simple life to retain plenty of charm. I guess the extremes of the Atacama attract the more adventurous souls, not a single tour has been tainted by a culturally disrespectful companion. Yes San Pedro is touristy but not at the expense of the entire reason you come here: to experience one of our planets harshest and most captivating environments.
We have this small break to mentally place some of the things we’ve seen and experienced but the fun is not over, we’re off to Valley de la Luna today, the moon valley. This will be the final stop on our tour whirlwind and who knows what it will throw up at us, the Atacama remains the ever playful tormentor with us the wilful toys.
So quick geology lesson. The Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains) is the mountain range west of the salt plains which is the more ancient range here. To the east is the baby of the family the Andes; and the lowlands were all under the ocean at some point. So when the ocean decided some millions of years ago to be about 2500m lower than here, as you do, the Cordillera de la Sal acted as the worlds biggest dam, trapping an inland sea. Throw in a geological blink of time, a few million years, the water dries up and voila, we see the wonders we have today. We’ve been in the Andes and on the plains so now into Valle de la Luna we go into Cordillera de la Sal.
The initial entry to the park shows up one plainly obvious difference between the Andes and Cordillera de la Sal, there’s not a whole lot alive here. Where the Andes throws down snowmelt providing life giving water, these mountains don’t seem to have that crucial element. Much of this area has an ever present struggle for life in an environment that allows little opportunity for growth but no such balance appears here, death won long ago it seems.
As we journey around this valley we can see nothing but two things; there’s rocks and there’s rocks which have been ground into sand. Where we’ve become quite accustomed to a meagre but ever present life all around, the barren starkness of this burnt jagged region offers simple beauty in singularity. And beauty it is, that much is indisputable. We’d had a preview of the lunar or Martian landscape before but this is the real show, no wonder cinema make scenes on Mars here. Scalding sun, violent geology, scarred red sand and massive sand dunes with perfect complexion transport and visitor to either the Moon or Mars, I can’t quite tell which one.
Again this is an exercise in being somewhere that seems unlike it belongs on our planet as we know it. This really is natures convention hall and the exhibitors are out in full force, a virtual reality journey into a reality that’s in no way virtual. At one stage we allow the group to go on ahead to admire the isolation in this place surrounded by ever dissolving mountains of salty crust seemingly too frail to stand.
We venture slightly off the paths to catch a high-ground view, not sure how far we are really allowed to go. Before we know it, an eager German guy goes bounding up the hill and that’s all our conscientious restraint needs, we’re off like kids in a playground to get to the top. Crunching up the salty sand like meringue crust we reach a peak to be greeted by a never ending vista of red salty peaks resisting the all consuming cannibalistic sand, the dissolving desert swallowing itself. At some points the red rock is rounded in decay, at others it stands defiantly jagged striving for the surface, a vision of an ocean blinked away in an instant.
This valley retains all the ridiculous extremes that this region possesses but this time without the conflicting juxtaposition that exists elsewhere, life. Out here battling forces ceased combat millions of years ago, weapons were sheathed and the defeated sank back to the plains. The victor now sits his decaying throne; dry forbidding heat has won the day and rules with an iron fist. Yes we are intruders just grateful to see a place too beautiful for us not to come; even if we don’t belong.
What a place. We’re back in the bus excitedly chatting with other travellers, Hendrick and Sebastian are our new German mates and we recount the wonders we’ve all just witnessed. Is the day done? Of course not, we’re in the Atacama and there’s always another trick. Back in the bus we scale up to the crest of the headland on the eastern side of the valley for more views to expand the imagination and of course the sunset.
Atop our cliff we stare down at a birds eye view of what we saw before, this perspective filling in the gaps even more comprehensively than before. Below us is a former lagoon, flanked by the headland we are on scooping around in an arc and dammed by ridges of spiky salt ridges running in lines like ribs of a slain beast. Little imagination is necessary, below us I see the lagoon teeming with flamingos, steepling ridges rising from the salt crusted shores and the winding tributaries beyond. But not now, a lone scar meanders to the crack in the ridge where the dam burst, a final flourish of the artists brush in the death throes of life’s lost battle.
With beer in hand the sun sets on another day of reinforcing the singularity of this domain, burning sun on Mars or the Moon going to sleep we still can’t tell. We take for granted that nature always balances, always finds a medium. As we look on to the burnt blaze of the sun we witness a final lament for the living. It’s beautiful and enticingly easy to appreciate. It seems that in nature there’s not always a true balance, sometimes one battling factor vanquishes all others. This area retains beauty on the basis of its rarity; a place this forbidding can only be appreciated through the lens of comfortability that death’s victory is confined to the convention centre, not your lounge room.