Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The hidden agua of the Atacama

(San Pedro de Atacama, part II...)

One of the reasons for San Pedro's beautiful and varied rock formations are its volcanoes, which, owing to its location on the Tierra del Fuego, are plentiful. Here's a view of one, through the grass:
However, the same seismic activity that empowers these mighty architects of the barren landscape also holds the secret to its shocking ability to still maintain life: Hot springs! Geysers! and lots of them...

(from the NYT:) "The barren, super-dry places are just part of a landscape whose open secret is water. A line of snow-laden, Fuji-form volcanoes rears abruptly along the eastern horizon. They feed a lacework of narrow, lush stream valleys, oases and salt lagoons, which sustain native AtacameƱo hamlets with meticulously kept colonial-era churches. Flocks of scarlet-orange flamingos blazing like sacral pyrotechnics rise from the lagoons."

Visiting the geysers meant a certain level of sacrifice. First, I had to abstain from rich food (red meat and wine, Chile's specialties) the night before the trek in preparation for the rapid and disorienting leap in altitude that lay ahead (from San Pedro's already-high 2000m altitude to the 4,300m peaks of the geyser plateaus). I also had to sacrifice the night's sleep, as our peppy hippie guide arrived at 4:15am sharp to herd sleepy tourists into the minivan.

The sleepiness and slight, hangover-like buzz of an altutude headache was worth it, though. We arrived at the geysers just in time to watch the full moon set on one side of the sky as the new sun arose on the other:

That tiny silhouette is me, basking in geyser steam:

At the high altitude and early hour, it was pretty chilly. After the hot bike ride of the day before it felt surreal to be donning gloves and scarves and layering up on pants and socks :
By the time we had reached the hot springs, it had warmed up to a brisk 8 degrees Celsius or so. Even still, it was only the promise of the warm, sulfuric waters that convinced me to shed my layers and go for a quick dip:
The pool is a mix of ice cold mountain runoff (left side of the photos) and boiling hot geyser water (right side--as evidenced by the steam). Everyone congregated on the warmer side, although the inconsistency of Mother Nature's heating system made that a bit hazardous. If you put your feet on the silty ground, you could actually feel the bubbling pressure from the heat underneath the rock, and a spot that had been cold seconds before would become a surface hot enough to literally vaporize the water touching it in mere moments.

On the drive back, we stopped off a few times for photo ops. We saw a lagoon with the very earliest flamingos of the season, but unfortunately, my increasingly-finicky camera was feeling uncooperative at that point in the day.  I did manage to capture this shot of a vicuƱa, though (a smaller and softer-furred relative of the llama):

Every direction you looked in was picture-worthy, and as usual, photos failed to fully capture the magnificence of the place

Just as I failed, in a mere two days, to absorb all of its experiences. 

Picking and choosing activities among the plethora of options was difficult, and although I loved what I did and don't think I physically could have done more, I was a bit sad to not have tried sandboarding, or to have made it to the salt flats or the true flamingo lagoons.

I guess that just means that I'll have to come back someday...

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