What i learned during my journey to Atacama

Our Trip in Detail:

5 Days in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

2 Nights Hotel Estacion del Fuego

3 Nights B&B Casita la Brea

780 km by Car

71 km by Foot

210 Photos and 41 Videos

All of us have seen those amazing images of the Altiplano and the Atacama salt flats browsing Instagram. For me a to visit San Pedro de Atacama and to learn about the history of the Inka culture and the Geological history of the landscape and minerals was a dream come true.

Sunset over the Moon Valley

We were aware of the recent social unrests in Chile but during our stay in San Pedro we did not feel any of it. It gave us an opportunity to talk to locals about the recent history of Chile to understand the reason for their anger.

We (My business partner Joseph and me) flew with LATAM Airlines from Santiago de Chile to Calama. Try to catch a window Seat on the right side. You can catch a first glimps from the plane to the Andean mountain range and the beautiful landscape of the Atacama Salt flats.

The TRANSVIP Shuttle took us from Calama to San Pedro. It fits up to 6 People and will cost 12’000 Peso per person, which is around 15.- USD. After an hour of scenic drive, that could already be part of the tour, we arrived in San Pedro, which is 2’400 m above sea level.

The first two nights we stayed at a Hotel in San Pedro. It was walking distance from the main street, Caracoles. Hotel Estation del fuego charged us around 100.- USD for a double room / night. Prices in San Pedro tend to be higher compared to other destinations in South America. I would stay again in the same Hotel as it's simple, clean, familiar and fair prices. Breakfast is included, they have a cute Hotel Dog and a table tennis court.

The Caracoles road is the main meeting point of the many backpackers, adventure tourists or locals. Here you find all the restaurants, bars, shops and markets. There are plenty of travel agencies to choose from if you have not booked a trip prior to your arrival. I counted around 30 of them but I’m certain there is close to hundred.

Most Offices had foreign sales people that spoke all the common languages, i heard them speak chinese, japanese and russian to me . I noticed that they offer all the same package, to simular conditions: Uyuni Salt flats Tour in 4 Days, El Tatio Geyser full day tour, Moon Valley Hikes for 1/2 day, Star gazing or swimming in the Lagoons.... the list goes on.

We ended up booking with a German Lady, as i was happy to speak a little german.She suggested us two different tours for the following day, after showing her our Agenda for the rest of the week.

To avoid the masses, we booked a private tour in the morning to the lagoons inside the Atacama salt flat, chile’s largest salt flat.

Lucky Jo, floating in the empty Lagoon (be Anticyclic!)

First, we visited the famous Cejar Lagoon and Piedra Lagoon, surrounded by the green and yellow gras, which highlights the color of the water while we see a unique landscape of turquoise waters and volcanoes. In the Piedra Lagoon, we enjoyed swimming with a flotation effect similar to the one in the Dead Sea.

The tour continued with the Ojos del Salar, two deep freshwater wells in the middle of the desert, where you could swim as well. As we already showered after our Piedra Lagoon dip (they offer Shower Facilities) and the water in freshwater wells was quiet fresh, we spent taking pictures of our red Minivan and enjoyed an amazing breakfast.

Lourdes Expedition prepares us a tasty breakfast out of the Van

We were lucky with our guide Nico, he has studied geology and was able to give us detailed information about the creation of the salt flats and the recent mining of lithium in the region. The 4 hours trip costed us around 80 USD, that included a private guide, a driver, breakfast and entry to all the locations.

The second activity was a group excursion to Valle de la Luna, the moon valley. It is the closest of all the activities and the most hyped in Instagram - we could expect to see lots of people and cars. At least our bus had a great air-condition which helped after returning from each viewpoint in the burning heat.

My favorite attraction was the view from Duna Mayor. It is about a 15 Minute hike from the base where our bus parked. I suggest you walk to the very left side, there is a secret spot that gives a great angle for images. The other attractions were just alright. Looking back, not really worth it as we did many other hikes later on the week that offered a much more authentic experience.

The climax of the tour was the sunset from the Mirador overlooking the moon valley. It was too hectic, too crowded, as everyone stormed the site to go get/own the best photo spot.

View from Duna Mayor. Have you noticed the Tour bus and the little "ants"

Back in town, we dropped by the Laundry shop. We had already accumulated 4.8 kg of dirty clothes that costed us about 7 USD to wash clean. As expected, she washed it all together at once, using the same settings. Certainly not ironed or folded, but packed into the same bag we gave her.

About two months prior to my journey I got in touch with another swiss countryman, Martin Rihs, a true tourism pioneer in the Atacama region. He came first to south America in the late 80’s, travelling the continent by bicycle. He ended up staying in San Pedro ever since, being a mountaineering guide, a self-sufficient farmer, survival expert and does private tours on request. To our joy, he was willing to give us a 3 Day tour of the Altiplano, the Andean highlands. Upfront, the sixty-year old is a walking encyclopedia, fit like a mountain deer and speaks fluent Spanish, French, English and Swiss-German.

We met Martin at Adobe, an excellent restaurant with an open fire, for the briefing of our expedition. Whenever I go on a holiday, an adventure or an expedition I’m willing to surround myself with knowledgeable professionals. Nothing is more frustrating than having a guide who vomits only the information that you can read anyway in the books and often inventing stories or retelling information without their own research.

Martin told us from the very moment we met, never trust a tour guide, they tell a lot of stories that are sensational but always prove for yourself! All the days we spent together, he shared many stories and information with us and took us to places where we could verify his information with what our own eyes. I really appreciated his way of “educating” us, always giving us time to digest and make our own interpretation. I learned more about geology, geography, politics, physics, biology and chemistry in the 3 Days we spent together that in all my classroom education.

Martin our guide explaining the history of our planet to Lucky Jo

This day started for us before the sunrise, as we wanted all support from the fresh morning air. The weather here can be up to 40 degrees during the day and drop to minus at night. We drove about 15 minutes outside of San Pedro, where the hot air balloon was waiting for us. The plan was to get a better perspective from above to understand the geographical location of San Pedro de Atacama and the Salt flats.

The Andes mountain range to the east, which are the result of tectonic plate processes, which are caused by the subduction of the oceanic crust beneath the South American Plate. To the west, the Cordillera de la costa range is nesting in the Atacama valley, making it one of the driest places on earth where nothing really grows.

View from 4'200 M above the ground, leaning over the basket

Hot Air Balloon Excursions had only recently been allowed again. For our Spanish Pilot Jose this surrounding was new as well, but he navigated us very well. I had previously flown a few times and each time something is very special. What fascinated me here is the complete silence and the perfect visibility, that is due to the dry climate that has less than 10% Humidity. The Guide told us that visibility further than 200 km are possible. Ahead of us, an endless mountain range which peaks are all higher than 6’000 meters, many of which are perfectly shaped volcano as you imagine it from the childhood books. Below us, snow white salt flats and a spiky landscape that resembles the moon valley.

We landed pretty hard; our basket got carried by the balloon for almost 30 meters on the sandy ground. Everybody was in good spirit after the first shot and we had a long laugh while we all hunched for some time in the basket that had been knocked over.

After our hard landing, i managed to get our first and take this picture

We continued the day at the Mars Valley, also known as Death Valley. It was a beautiful but physically demanding hike of about two hours in the burning heat. We followed Rio San Pedro (River) towards Valle de Catarpe. There you have to pay an entrance of 3’000 Peso. We hiked a winding Canyon, part of the old street that connected San Pedro and Calama until we reached El Tunel, that was built in 1930. After it’s closure in 1950 due to heavy rainfall and floods, it was used by General Pinochet as a arms & ammunition depot.

Lucky Jo and me after a long hike to "El Tunel", the former Arms depot of Pinochet

At the highest point of La Cornisas (part of Cordillera de la Sal), which is an ancient pathway that links Valle de la Muerte with the Catarpe Valley, we took a rest. We sat there quietly for almost 30 Minutes, eating nuts. The place we had selected had not only a stunning view but was sheltered well from the wind, that usually blows from the west.

As if this hike was not enough, our guide Martin (who claims to have climbed every mountain around here at least 5 times, some even 20 times) wanted to test our endurance.

He took us inside of the Valle de Catarpe, the Garganta del Diablo. This labyrinth, that translates into “the devil’s throat, is surrounded by rocky formations that defy gravity. It is ideal for riding a bicycle through it and to get lost within this natural amusement park – only we were by foot and it was almost sunset. We did find the way out of this deep dryness, the landscape molded by salt and clay, formed by wind and water.

Overlooking the Mars Valley, with my prototype technology of Joya Shoes

We switched our Hotel to a B&B in Solar, about 15 Minutes outside of the buzz of San Pedro. As I’m with my business partner Joseph, we are always looking for new inspiration for our Tourism and Agricultural business in Flores, Indonesia.

Our B&B was a dream, run by a lovely couple, Rafael and Marie who decorated the place with so much love and cared for us like their own children.

We took an Aspirin 100mg before we went to bed and another one the next morning. It will help against the altitude illness, as we went drove 2’400 Meters to 5’000 Meters this day.

I’ll tell you, it’s really hard to breath up there.

We drove towards the east on the “27”, the international road towards Bolivia. The roads are well maintained. As we left the desert and entered the Altiplano, the vegetation changed. Unlike in Switzerland where at a height above 4’000 Meters there is not much life, here there were a lot of yellow bushes, grasses and small trees. Every now and then we encountered Lamas and Vicunas, who were friendly and curious towards us.

Lama looking at the perfect cone of Licancabur. "Lama are domesticated"

After we crossed the highest point at Portezuelo del Cajón (4’480 M), the road that connects Chile with Bolivia; instead of taking a left to La Paz, we continued towards Argentina.

The Landscape changed into a surreal world, that it is often called the Salvador Dali Desert where we had Lunch behind one of the Rock sculptures, enjoying Chilean red wine.

After Lunch we headed to the salt flat for a digestive walk. To me, who spent much of my life surrounded by snow, it felt surreal to walk on a salt-lake that gave an illusion of a snow covered plain in Switzerland. The Poncho we bought on San Pedro market was a real blessing, as it protected us from the wind and kept us warm.

Lucky Jo and me doing a digestive walk on the Salt lake, wearing the local Poncho

Martin took us to a secret valley, that is unknown to most. Protected by a roadblock, at the dead end of a valley that is not to be found on a map, there is a small blue lagoon with a lush riverbed where only a herd of lamas was grazing. We sat on the warm stones on 4’000 Meters and talked about Life.

Martin our guide has been living for over 12 years without electricity and shared his personal view about our society. The essence we all agreed is to live our life much slower using less resources. We need to observe and be inspired by the Life’s of indigenous tribes around the world and start living with a more integral approach.

We enjoyed every conversation we had with Martin and often had to break a conversation as we had to continue our journey.

A group of Lama grazing in the secret valley

We went straight to bed upon return to our B&B and slept deep beneath the star filled sky in midst of the desert. We got picked up at 9 AM sharp, Swiss time. We would drive a total of over 700 KM in our Toyota Pickup, 4 x 4.

We headed south east towards Toconao, about 50KM on the Road “23”. We took a sharp exit and drove about 2 KM into the dunes to park our Car beside a dry Canyon with the goal to hike up to an Inka ruin. (For those who want to find the location, it’s located somewhere near to the ALMA Observatory)

The Inka’s build supply villages along the Inka trail for their messengers to recharge about every 40 KM. (As the Greeks used their “Marathon Messengers)

This supply village that we are about to visit has turned into an Inka burial ground, known as Necropolis. The Hike required much technical skills as we had to cross twice a Canyon. I would not recommend this hike for people who are not familiar with mountain climbing. Martin, our Guide explained us in much detail about the Inka culture and their rituals. Classroom education should be exactly this way – I know I’m repeating this.

Our guide Martin with Lucky Jo, facing the Necropolis to the far right

We spent way too much time here, learning about the Inka culture that we were a little behind schedule. We still had another highlight of our journey ahead of us the Laguna Miscanti and Miniques. We continue the International Road “27” towards Argentina.

The International Road “27” has been built more recently. The older Road “23” is slightly longer but less steep, therefore preferred by the heavy trucks or bicycle drivers. This road is economically crucial, as it provides countires like Bolivia or Paragua that are landlocked an access port to the Pacific Ocean for exports to Asia.

We pass by the Salar Aguas Calientes, better known as Salar de Talar. This Salt flat is larger in size than most of the others and its color varies from grey to pink. There are many hot springs around the shore in which primitive organisms live that could date back to the very early hours of planet earth. About 10 KM towards the Argentinian border, pass the Laguna Tuyajto we had lunch on a wide open space. Sheltered again by a rock formation, it was the first time in my life that I ate an Empanada.

The spot was great to take pictures of the Puna grassland, a vegetation that you find between 3’500 and 4’500 M. The typical yellow Jarava ichu, known as the Peruvian feathergrass, always looks photoshopped and enriches the image of this landscape.

Lunch setting in the Pampa with a proper table and chairs

As we were behind schedule and the Laguna Miscanti & Miniques was closing at 6 PM we had to rush. To our Luck, the road condition were great and we reached the Laguna around 5 PM, with perfect light conditions for my final great shot.

Our Guide left us to walk down to the Laguna, while he was settling the administrative part and doing his sweet small talk. Here my misfortune happened. The road down made a large right turn and then a long straight to the second Laguna.

As a minimalist, I decided to take a short cut across the grassland, hiking up to a elevation. I realized that from up here the view is unbelievable, nothing i would have imagined at all.

It was the perfect conditions for a perfect Photo, no waves on the lake, perfect light and just a bit of mist over the valley. The clouds in the background looked painted, the sky contracsting in a deep blue.

Let me tell you, i took one of the most amazing images, that i could submit untouched for the National Geographic Landscape Photo Award.

Without noticing, I must have stepped onto sacred land. The elevated hill a holy site! Nationalpark rangers have already called back Joseph, who as well tried to take the shortcut. I guess he did not tell the full truth when the Rangers asked him about my whereabout. When I got back to the car, the guards already awaited me with a not amused face. Our guide Martin has received a warning paper for my action. I’m sorry Martin, will not happen again.

I removed the memory chip from the Camera and put it secretly into my pocket in case they would check my camera. Knowing that i must have taken pictures from the Hill, they warned me not to publish images from the Hill facing both lakes. I promised them that i will not publish them, but i might print it for a poster in my bedroom as a memory.

(This is not the image of the two lakes)

I promised not to publish the Image of the two lakes. I hope you enjoy the animals

The day we met our Guide Martin, he told us: I’m operating at the edge of legal. I’m happy that we had a guide like him to introduce us to his home, Atacama.

I believe that this region will not be the same when I will return one day as mass tourism is growing. We must protect the nature and the culture. Tourism should be here to teach us, to learn from the past, to connect and to hold in the moment. All that we should leave are footprints and memories.

What we learned during this trip is that a guide is not here to show the Hotspots but to make us understand and create our own interpretation.

If I would return again, I would try to rent a bike a do a tour, I would ascend a volcano and I would go and visit the observatory.

Lucky Jo and me, as we crossed the Tropic line of Capricorn, thankful for being able to do such a trip.

2019/12/06 - All content, Image and Text is created by Karl Müller

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