The Oasis at Huacachina: 19-21 March 2015

19 march 2015
I left Cusco on an overnight bus, sitting next to a kid from Lima who had the same name as my grandfather, Franklin. I remember this as the most awful of my bus rides through Peru – worse even than the minivan along the cliffs to Hydroelectrica – because of the number of people on the bus who spent the entire ride vomiting into plastic bags handed out by the bus company. An indigenous girl and her mother sat behind me filling bag after bag (occasionally I saw them walk past carrying their full bags to the toilet). Franklin made it to the bathroom in time, thank God, and spent the rest of the trip sweating next to me looking miserable. I’m no stranger to physical ailments (read: gluten intolerance) but thankfully motion sickness isn’t on my list of issues, so I made good use of the music loaded on my iphone to drown out the sound of sickness and enjoyed the view out the window of the brilliant green hills.

20 march 2015
Around 11:00 the landscape levels out and most people’s stomachs calm down (except for the ladies behind me who are still at it). We’re in a beautiful yellow sandy desert now, stretching out flat in the valley where we drive and bounded by stark rocky mountains and plateaus. We pass Nazca, where the famous enigmatic petroglyphs lie close to the road, though of course you can’t really see them from the ground. We stop at a roadside shack for lunch (some people still have an appetite) before continuing on to Ica.

Franklin nudges me and tells me to let the bus driver know I’m getting off here. “Doesn’t the bus go to a terminal?” He shakes his head. I stagger down the stairs as the bus swings around corners in the outskirts of Ica and convince the drivers to let me off in the dirt by the side of the road – I get the sense they’re reluctant to do even that, never mind actually taking me to a bus station or at least a taxi stand. They chuck me out the bus and leave me coughing in the dust by a busy side road in God knows what part of Ica. I stand there in my chucks with my blonde hair and my big American backpack, feeling indignant and a little awkward and exposed for a few minutes. A sleepless night surrounded by vomiting bus passengers leaves me a little underprepared for thinking on my feet. But I love this about traveling, the random places you find yourself and the adventure of getting yourself where you need to go on your own willpower. And there are few enough places I’ve traveled where friendly locals would actually refuse to help a lost tourist. Within a few minutes, a shirtless old man working on a car near where the bus ditched me waves me over and points excitedly at a tiny, rickety taxi that’s just turning across the road. He tells me it’s his neighbor’s taxi, and the neighbor can give me a cheap ride to Huacachina.

I get in the front seat of the taxi, say hola, and start to put my seatbelt on. “Oh you won’t need that, I’m a safe driver,” says Jhon, before stomping on the gas and driving full-speed in reverse for about three blocks. It’s probably not a very safe ride, from an objective perspective, but it’s a fun and fast one and about six minutes later we’ve come around a curve in the road that takes us into a valley of high sand dunes, and then we’re pulling into a tiny sandy town surrounding a cluster of lush palm trees ringing a large brown pond.

image

From the racks of snowboards hanging up at the hostel and the giant posters advertising rides in dune buggies, I gather people tend to come here for adventure sports in the sand dunes. I consider trying this – it certainly seems fun – but eventually decide to save the money for something else. Adventure sports were never meant to be the focus of my trip – I didn’t ride the death road in La Paz, I didn’t do a trek to Macchu Picchu, I don’t plan on zip lining in Baños. It’s not my style. I’m not exactly an adrenaline-fueled person to begin with, and anyway, for this journey at least, I wanted my focus to be on experiences that would help me understand South American culture. I don’t expect to experience any great insights into the nature of everyday life outside the US while squeezed into a dune buggy full of shrieking tourists. That sounds cynical – I guess you never know. Perhaps next time.

I spend a quiet two days in Hucachina. It’s touristic – you can’t walk anywhere without someone coming up to you and trying quite persistently to sell you a tour or convince you to eat at their restaurant. The aggressive salesmanship has gotten worse as I’ve come farther north into Peru. Here a simple “no, gracias” is interrupted by raised voices and even more rapid spanish as they attempt to change my mind by reading me the entire menu or describing a tour in detail. I find it rude and a little exhausting. Fortunately, the little sand beach that rings the lagoon is free from this kind of behavior. I find shady spots on the rough, worn concrete walls and watch the humid air stir the surface of the lagoon, watch people float their paddle boats in circles across the water.

image

21 march 2015
Before breakfast on the morning of my first full day, I climb one of the sand dunes looming over Huacachina. It’s hard work getting up those massive formations. They must be 150 meters high, the big ones, and the thing about climbing in sand is you’ve got nothing to push against, so progress is slow and difficult. The humid air here makes me sweat as I heave myself up to the very crest of the southern dune and look out across the desert. The view is enchanting. I was taken with the desert in Nevada as soon as I saw it, but that is high desert, flat caked earth and hard, unforgiving rocks and sagebrush and rough mountains. This is something softer and more exotic, this mysterious yellow landscape of sensual curves and elegant arcs and mysterious hollows between the hills. I look out in wonder to where the dunes march away south and west to the horizon. To the north and east, separated from the oasis by the crest of a single large dune, the city of Ica coughs in haze between the foot of steep mountains and the dust of the dunes.

image

Back in Huacachina I enjoy a day of doing nothing in particular. Sometimes I feel guilty for relaxing, doing nothing, like I’m wasting time or missing an opportunity; but then I think back to where I might be if I hadn’t quit my job, in a meeting or at my desk working, and I think, I’m so lucky to have this time to myself, I’m lucky that I could afford to quit working for a year and do whatever the hell I want. I will probably never have this opportunity again. I’m going to savor it.

At sunset I walk up the dunes again to watch the sun go down. On the way I use the money I would have spent on a dune buggy tour to buy a beautiful macrame bracelet set with lapiz lazuli. The woman who made it ties it on my wrist, then clucks at my disapprovingly when she sees the state of my other bracelets. The one from Uruguay is being held on with a safety pin and the one from Machu Picchu is already coming undone. With a few deft movements she repairs the loose ends and secures them with a quick flame from a lighter, giving me a motherly pat and a smile and sending me on my way.

I watch the sun set and come back from the dunes covered in sand. The evening breeze crested the tops of the dunes with a surprising force that drove blowing sand in my ears, coating my skin with a fine layer and sticking to my face where I had sweated from the effort. The beauty and romance and enchantment of the desert are all great, but it’s also a messy, sandy place when you come right down to it.

image

The hostel is about half full of friendly-looking backpackers, but the people who pass through while I’m there are all strangely insular, either in closed-off groups or buried silently in books, and I don’t exchange more than a few superficial greetings with anyone. This doesn’t bother me – I’m independent enough to survive a few days of keeping myself company – and I spend my last evening in Huacachina drinking red wine on the patio of the hostel where it overlooks the lagoon.

Advertisements

San Pedro de Atacama: 12-17 February 2015

San Pedro
February 12-17

San Pedro de Atacama turns out to be a strange place. It’s a small town of low, humble buildings mainly constructed from adobe. There are no paved roads – only dirt. The principal streets are crowded with an unbelievable number of tourist agencies – I think there may be 100 different agencies, easily. In a town that’s less than 10 blocks square, this is surreal. I’m still not really sure how they all stay in business selling basically the same tours. Despite this, the town is actually kind of nice to walk around in. There’s a pretty little plaza and restaurants of varying price ranges, and even a few decent bars. Around 17:30 each day, as the sun begins to set and the desert air rapidly cools down, the streets fill up with people running errands and coming in and out of the tour offices. You see a surprising number of locals mixed in with the hoards of tourists.

All of this is set at the edge of the driest desert on earth, surrounded by high mountain ridges, salt flats, surreal salt valleys, strangely colored lakes, and geysers. The natural setting is rough, enchanting, beautiful. It’s not surprising there’s so much tourism here, though I can’t help but feel it’s rather clumsily executed. But more on that later.

image

Boris and I stay in the hostelling international hostel, which doesn’t have any other name apparently. I would describe it as exactly okay: our beds are comfortable but the frames sway alarmingly; the showers are warm once in a while; the kitchen has a few pans that aren’t broken. For me a highlight is the resident cat population. There’s a very old calico who rotates sleeping spots between the tables and the towers of the receptionist’s PC and dislikes being touched; a few sleek black cats who come and go over the roofs as they please and are more or less indifferent to attention; and my favorite, a longhair tabby mixed with something (I think maybe an ocicat, which is an exotic breed). This cat sleeps on my bed in the afternoons and likes cuddling. When I get him to chase a bit of string he concentrates so hard on catching it that he sticks his tongue out, then very quickly gets worn out and falls asleep with the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth.

image

The Atacama desert surrounding San Pedro, we soon learn, is not easily accessible without a guide or tour operator. The best alternative is to rent a bike to explore on our own, but some sites are too far away to bike or too difficult to reach in the sweltering afternoon heat. So we spend some days in San Pedro researching tour operators, asking around town at local agencies, and taking some guided tours to the most popular sites near town. I find it interesting and perhaps a little unfortunate that access to the surrounding desert is administered by the various private tourist agencies rather than in some kind of national park. It really does lend a Disneyworld feel to a wild, dangerous, and beautiful landscape that I think deserves far more respect. It’s not often that I talk about something I think the US does better than other countries, but being here really makes me appreciate the national park system in the States.

On our second full day in San Pedro, Boris and I visit what is probably deservedly the most popular excursion near San Pedro : Valle de la Luna, a valley or series of valleys tucked into a small chain of salty hills. Here floodwaters have come streaming down from the high mountains surrounding the Atacama. The water evaporates in the dry heat and leaves behind mineral deposits that over the millennia have grown into a chain of small hills, carved into unearthly shapes by wind and erosion.

image

Our guide takes us into a narrow canyon carved out by rain water. She shows us a few different crystal formations, some that look a little like broccoli, some that are more like quartz. Apparently it’s all salt (I lick a rock as we squeeze past. Sure enough, it’s salt). We enter a small cave and stoop as we follow the sleek watercourse through a sort of tunnel in the rock, then scramble up a steep hill. From the top, we can see the chain of salt hills spreading out around us. I enjoy imagining how many heart attacks American lawyers would have if you attempted to take a tour group somewhere like this in the US – there are no guard rails, no warning signs, no security guards. It’s not dangerous if you use common sense, just less idiot-proof than your typical American outdoor tourist destination. I notice that a lot in South America: in general people are far less litigative in response to accidents, and as a result there’s far less of a culture of hand-holding and idiot-proofing in otherwise slightly dangerous places.

image

It’s already hot and dry and as much as I feel weird taking a guided tour after so much time spent traveling independently, I’m kind of glad to be in a bus with air conditioning. We head into the valley proper. Our guide points out interesting rock/salt formations as we pass. I can see that other roads lead off to the left and right, away to other parts of the valley, and I wish for a car to be able to explore this place on my own.

image

We reach a famous salt formation called the Three Marias, which I think is mainly notable because someone decided it looks like a group of human figures. This is fine although I think it takes a little bit of the fun out of imagination if someone else tells you what you’re supposed to be seeing. A little later we take a short walk along the road leading out of the valley, past an enormous sand dune up which someone has apparently ridden a dirt bike, to judge by the trails in the salt.

image

image

As the bus heads to another valley, we stop for a bathroom break and see a group of men and women in a carnaval procession, faces powdery white, processing behind a drum and a few trumpet players, decked in ribbons and fake flowers. A few of them wear elaborate devil masks. A few tourists get on the bus with faces covered in flour. Carnaval is beginning today, and one of the traditions is to cover your face with flour for the parade and then smear flour on the face of anyone else who may have forgotten to do so as you pass. There’s some kind of rationale or tradition behind this custom, but no one I’ve talked to seems to know what it is and even Wikipedia seems pretty vague on the history. In any case, I’m fascinated by the carnaval parade and glad to have seen it, though as someone with gluten problems I’m just as happy to have avoided the flour bomb.

image

The next stop on our tour is the Valley of Death. It’s pretty dry and desolate, and they tell us the name may have come from a confusion between the name Mars and the word Muerte (death). We take a short walk here. Our guide has us sit in a small alcove at the base of a cliff, close our eyes, and sit without moving for a minute or two. There – very faintly, we hear it – a crack here, a creaking, stretching sound. It’s the sound of the salt drying and crystallizing as the water evaporates.

image

The last stop on our guided tour is at the top of a hill looking down into Valle de la Luna. It’s near sunset now and there are huge crowds gathered to watch the light change over the rocks. Strangely, most people are watching the actual setting of the sun, which generally isn’t very interesting unless you have some kind of spectacular cloudscape in front of it. Instead, I look east at the colors changing on the clouds there above the mountains, and watch the purple line of the horizon advance up the side of the volcano Licanacatur as the sun drops.

image

image

Licanacatur  dominates views of San Pedro. You can see it from the main street in town, looming over the landscape, huge and high and unnaturally symmetrical. Somehow your brain knows mountains aren’t really supposed to look like that and it unsettles you. It’s large over the landscape the way the moon is large – you know it’s big but when you try to take a picture, it comes out looking much smaller in the camera.

image

Though it hasn’t erupted recently, Licanacatur is an active volcano, and I think you can feel the power and the wildness in its presence over the landscape. It’s like being in a room with a wild animal. I think it’s this quality of rawness, a bit of danger, that makes the touristic atmosphere of San Pedro feel more acutely fake by comparison. Making this landscape into something that can be commodified, packaged for consumption…. tamed and made to perform at the command of a tour guide for clueless rich tourists – this is what it feels like, sometimes, and at its worst it feels like a violation of the wildness of the natural landscape. In Nevada when I began to know the desert and the mountains, I started to understand the violence of nature, its lack of sympathy or sentimentality. Having learned to respect the wilderness in this way, it makes it hard for me to see raw nature made into a tourist attraction.

image

My consolation is the bike ride I take on Sunday morning. By 9:30 I’m out the door, down the street, and heading out of town along the river course. I follow the dirt and gravel road around a few curves and through the river a couple of times (once a man in a pickup helps me across) and into a little green valley bounded by dry hills. There’s almost no one on the road or in the little kiosk that guards the entrance to what seems to be a park. Where the valley flattens out I see a little canyon I want to explore, and, not seeing anyone around, discreetly stash my bike in some tall reeds and thread my way through the tall grasses to the mouth of the canyon. I step firmly but carefully. This isn’t a trail in a national park. There are no footprints or other signs that anyone else has come exploring this way. I watch very carefully for snakes and signs of snakes and whistle to avoid startling any other dangerous wildlife (I can never think of good walking tunes so I usually default to Beatles songs – the long and winding road, in this case, seems appropriate). I’m a little wary – exploring a random desert canyon on your own in a foreign country isn’t the safest way to spend a quiet Sunday morning – but I’m also delighted to be out in the desert on my own. When you travel in hostels and on buses, solitude and privacy become precious commodities, and I feel refreshed by being alone.

image

Eventually the canyon becomes impassible and I return to my bike. A little further down the gravel road and over the river again and then I start up a very steep hill. The altitude flattens me in a matter of moments and I spend more time walking my bike than riding it. I don’t mind – I’ve still got the road to myself and the views of the valleys and mountains become prettier and prettier as I climb.

image

It takes me around 25 minutes to reach a tunnel through the hill I’ve been climbing. “1930” it reads above the black entrance. I wonder how sturdy the architecture is. As I enter the mouth of the tunnel I can see that a rock about the size of a car has fallen and partially blocked the tunnel. I expect it’s happened recently since there are no signs up directing cars to an alternate route. This makes me extremely nervous – how sturdy is this tunnel? What if there’s an earthquake while I’m inside? It’s probably 40 meters long – at least two minutes of walking with the bike from one side to the other. I walk quickly and don’t turn around.

image

On the other side, a barren valley opens up before me. Up and to my left there’s a steep trail where I saw a group of horseback riders disappear earlier. I leave my bike again and go exploring, climbing and leaving myself little stone cairns to mark my way back since there are no trails. At the crest of a hill I look out across the desert: rows and rows of dry ridges standing out sharply in the clear, bright air, marching toward distant mountains. I revel in the utter silence and solitude.

image

Later I decide to explore the horse trail. A steep climb that’s hard on my lungs takes me to the top of a long high plateau with steep drops on both sides (no guard rails, fences, or warning signs here either). I walk for an hour along the plateau, further and further south as the slow rises of the table tempt me with promises of better views. I come to a small sand dune, and, still seeing that I have the desert to myself, roll down it, shrieking with laughter and grinning as I dust myself off at the bottom. I haven’t rolled down a hill in ages.

Finally it’s time to turn around. I see three mountains hikers away in the distance who must have much sturdier legs and lungs than I do. It’s a fun but bumpy ride down the steep embankment and an easy, flat road back to San Pedro.

image

A couple of days before we plan to leave on a long tour to the salt flats in Bolivia, Boris and I stay up late drinking with friends from the hostel. Around 1 am we all decide to walk through town to the “playita” (little beach) – a little sandy river bank at the end of principal street that’s an informal gathering spot at night. There’s no one there but we hear faint drums and music faint and far away. The river is dry, so we cross the bank and follow a rough road in the direction of the music. Eventually we crest a hill and find a little group of people drinking, talking, playing drums, and singing by starlight. There are no candles, no cell phones, no flashlights – just the stars. The Atacama desert is supposed to be the best place in the world to stargaze – indeed, there are several major and important scientific observatories here. The stars are bright enough out in the desert that we can just barely make out each other’s faces as we talk and laugh and introduce ourselves to the group. I watch the constellations wheel overhead as the hours pass. Around 4:00 the party dissolves mysteriously and we’re left to walk back to San Pedro in the faint starlight and bare hint of sunrise.

image

The next day is for resting and the night for sleeping and preparing for our next major tour, through the desert and the high plains in southern Bolivia, up to a high salt flat near Uyuni. This is my last full day in Chile.

IMG_9947[1]