No rain for 400 years, then we arrived

This post was written as we were leaving San Pedro de Atacama.

For our three days in the Atacama desert we have joined up with our friends Phil and Shannon from New York. We met them in Santiago fresh off our delayed flight for the short hop up Chile to San Pedro de Atacama. As fresh as you can be anyway when you have been on a delayed overnight flight arriving at 4am instead of 9pm the previous evening. Safe to say going to our hotel we had booked for the night was pointless as we needed to be on another flight at 8am. On the bright side, at least we didn’t miss it.

For a treat, Phil has contributed a section as guest blogger…

Located in the north of Chile, Atacama is a desert that receives, on average, 0.1mm of rain per year.  This makes it one of the driest places on Earth – there are some places where no rain has fallen in 400 years!  Let’s talk a little more about that, but first, a short digression.

Suppose that you have a job as an airport cleaning lady.  Not the most glamorous profession but a necessary one and often one that goes unnoticed.  You’ve lived in Calama, in the Atacama desert, for most of your life and have become used to the way things work around here.  It’s quiet – aside from the tourists – and it doesn’t rain much.  In fact, it rarely ever rains.  This means that there are no mosquitos because they need water to breed in and the roads can be made of mud because what’s to wash them away?  Your days are much the same, but you don’t mind – it’s not a bad way to earn a living.  The home cooked empanadas are tasty and Mary will look the other way if you have a cerveza every now and again.

Today is a particularly bad day for you because the heavens have opened.  In England this would be a summer shower, here it’s nothing short of disaster.  You don’t know it, but it’s not only messing with your day but it’s messing with a whole region.  Planned tours have been cancelled because the mud roads have washed away.  The communications hub for the entire region is down, no phone signals, no internet, no nothing.  The whole Atacama region, for tens of miles around, is off the grid.  It’s a little like the start of a bad science fiction film.  But you don’t concern yourself with that.  Lastly, the airport has sprung half a dozen leaks and caused a complete shutdown.

As an airport cleaning lady, the leaking roof is something that you’re worrying about.  What should you do with all the leaks?  Buckets are the first fix and they work as you’d expect.  The rain won’t last long – it never does – so things will be fine.  Unless the buckets start to overflow, in which case things won’t be fine at all.  What is bigger than a bucket and watertight?  An ingenious answer presents itself: a wheelie-bin.  In fact, one of them for each leak in your sector.  This is a perfect plan and it’ll let you collect all of the water in a nice tidy manner.  Mopping up the floor had become such a chore and now you’ll be able to have your break on schedule.

It’s at this point your heroes – Rich and Vicki Kink enter the picture.

(Yes, Kink.  They were misnamed by a tour guide and the name seems to have stuck.)

I’m sat with them in the airport cafeteria watching what’s going on in the airport.  What we see are wheelie-bins.  But not only that, wheelie-bins that are getting perilously close to being full of water.  I’ll pause here to see if you can see the problem that’s about to unfold.  You can?  Good.  You can’t?  Fear not, let me elaborate.  As any good Brit will tell you, a wheelie-bin full of water weighs a a fair bit and is all but impossible to move.  Now your perfect solution is turning into a disaster because you didn’t think to empty the bin when it was only half full.  As we’re sat here, we estimate that at the present flow rate there’s an hour or so until the bins begin to overflow and a whole different problem emerges.  The leak is back and now you can’t put anything under it.  Mopping looms.

Wheelie bin photo

Fortunately for you, your shift is over in fifteen minutes and then it’ll be Brenda’s problem.  You’ve never really liked her ever since she made fun of your sensible shoes.  I mean, really, why does she put on that much makeup?  What sort of tart is she?  She deserves it.

So, as Phil has mentioned here, we have continued our weather luck by coming to the driest place in the world only for it to be raining. It does seem that we have a very special kind of luck with the weather, or maybe just our own personal rain clouds.

So back on normal blog form…what have we been up to?

Sunday 22nd March – Stargazing

Not much rain today. A bit in the afternoon but Vicki and I missed it as we were inside sleeping off our overnight flight. We were particularly concerned about the weather today as our evening really needed a clear night sky. Being at high altitude with low humidity (ha!), Atacama is an ideal for stargazing. Lying on sunbeds in the afternoons we did have our doubts about what visibility would be like as there were a lot of clouds.

Our tour guide Jorge assured us it would be fine though and true to his word, in the end it turned out perfectly clear. Jorge picked us up at 8:30 from our accommodation and took us somewhere out into the desert. Escorted by red light to an observation area we were seated in a row of chair with blankets awaiting us. The four of us were settled in along with a couple from Bolton (small world) and Jorge began his articulate and enthusiastic explanation of the universe.

At the start of his presentation Jorge asked us to rate our knowledge of the night sky from 1 to 10. We all modestly went for 1 which was probably accurate when we named Galileo as a famous Polish astronomer (he was looking for Copernicus). By the end of the hour long presentation we were much more informed though, we can all now find the South pole (using both the Southern cross and Magellan clouds), identify the brightest stars in the sky and have some idea of the co-ordinates used to map the night sky. I bet you didn’t know there were 88 constellations…well you do now!

Following refreshments Jorge moved on to observation. Using 6 different telescopes he showed us stars, clusters and nebulae. Perhaps the most impressive was when using the electronic tracking telescope he showed us Jupiter at both 200 and 600 times magnification. You could clearly make out the moons around and stripes across the planet. A bit of time for trying some night time photography and we returned back to our accommodation at midnight. All of us were extremely impressed by the evening


Monday 23rd March – Moon Valley

After long journeys and a late night with the stars, today was set to be a lazy day. Post breakfast, Vicki, Shannon and I headed out for a walk around town. San Pedro is a small town serving as a base for the surrounding desert attractions. Safe to say it didn’t take long to explore however we did appreciate our post walk desert dessert of Mango Pie. Yum.

After an afternoon by the pool and generally relaxing we headed for an evening tour to the moon valley. This was our first of 3 desert attraction tours we had booked with Turistur. Picked up by an empty coach we spent a long time touring hotels gathering a full load before heading the valley. While the valley was impressive with different rock formations, salt accumulated over the years and large dunes, we were less than impressed by the tour overall. Herding the large group was painful and their idea of a trek was walking down a road (partly because we had left the bus stuck in the mud). Still the tour was cheap enough and we got to see the valley. Doing it again we would probably hire bikes and go independently as it turned out to be much closer to town than we had expected.

Shannon: Don’t forget to mention how the tour guide thought that Newcastle was much nicer than Santiago.

To me, this is a telling representation of what Turistur rate as worthwhile attractions.


Tuesday 24th March – No Salt Flats

Tour 2 of 3 was cancelled. This was a shame as it was going to be to the Tara Salt Flats which we were told would be a highlight of the tour. Unfortunately due to heavy rain out of town the day before (none on us) the roads were impassable. This left us at a bit of a lose end.

I wasn’t feeling too perky in any case so immediately following breakfast I was having another lie down. A combination of over indulging on steak and chips (the food here has been very good and plentiful), Pisco sours and beer the night before plus not sleeping very well after getting eaten by mosquitos left me feeling a bit worn out. However, this didn’t hold me back for long as before lunch we decided a good rainy day activity was a group run. We all headed out and really felt the effect of the altitude as it made the run much harder than it should have been.


With the run done we had earned our lunch and enjoyed a long lunch out of the rain which turned out to be our best meal in San Pedro. Ceviche and pasta was delicious and thankfully in sensible portion sizes today. We had a look round town for options on what to do for the afternoon but nothing was really rain appropriate or was closed when we arrived. Instead we spent the afternoon relaxing in our accommodation (the B&B has very good communal areas), listening to music and swapping reading ideas for our kindles.

Wednesday 25th March – Snowy Geysers

Another rainy day in San Pedro. However this was not going to stop our tour (2 out of 3 isn’t bad). Up at 4:15 for a 4:30 (in reality 4:50) pickup we once again toured town loading a bus before heading up to the highest geyser field in the world at over 4000m. No rain up there however it had been snowing heavily overnight. The bus could not get to the expected destination so instead we had a 1.5 mile walk there and back. This was across snow and slush. As I wasn’t feeling 100% still, made much worse by the altitude and a zillion more mosquito bites overnight, this was a lot of effort for me. Particularly since the tour group told us not to have breakfast before due to going to altitude and then failed to provide the promised refreshment at the halfway stage. The sugary tea at the end made me feel a lot better and I would have appreciated it sooner.

Despite the effort required getting there the geysers and surrounding snow covered mountains were very impressive. Nobody fancied a dip in the thermal pool, in better form I would have liked to do this to get the contrast between the warm thermal pool and freezing conditions outside.


On the way back from the tour we had a few stops to eat llama kebabs the to see the original animal plus flamingos and llamas.


On a tight schedule to get back to our hotel, checkout and get to the airport we were left in town to make the 10 minute walk home instead of doing the usual hotel tour. The guide said this would be the quickest route even though we then saw his bus pass much closer to our hotel ahead of us as we walked home. Another black mark for Turistur who were not what we expected of them after a number of good reports from others.

Walking home we once again experienced what we had come to loathe about San Pedro de Atacama. We came here expecting the driest place in the world. When the conditions are far from dry the place really loses its appeal. The attractions are based on being dry so we got a very bad impression of the place. This is particularly obvious when you are walking along sodden mud streets – the mud was artificially added to give an authentic look and feel and really isn’t quaint when sodden and sloppy. We would be happy with just the paved roads that lie beneath. The central square and main street are made more appealing for the tourists however that is more or less where it ends. Trudging back along streets enclosed by mud walls topped with glass and barbed wire getting wet, muddy and miserable we were happy to be heading for the airport. Other than stargazing we have been quite disappointed by our stay here. I am sure it would have been a different story if it has been dry, however sadly it wasn’t.

As Phil’s novella above states we are now at the airport. We have had enough time to write the blog due to a 2 hour delay. Fortunately a plane has just landed to get us down to Santiago to meet our other friends and prepare for the wedding at the weekend. We look forwards to a much more exciting time there.

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