Land of vulcanoes

Land van vulkanenFor the ninth and final time this trip we cross the border between Argentina and Chile. We know the procedure by heart now and do not need much time for the paperwork. A friendly customs officer welcomes us to Chile, while he stamps our passports with a loud thud. It is a good thing we left home with some extra pages in our passports, because for the nine times we crossed we needed five pages for all stamps! It is becoming a nice collection.

We continue our route on the barren plateau, passing several small salt lakes. It is very beautiful, especially the colors of the lakes are remarkable. We stop often to take pictures. With our binoculars we see some flamingos in the salt water. It would be great if we could take a closer look, but we have no time for that now, because we still have a lot of kilometers ahead of us.

Land van vulkanenThere is a strong wind. Just like in Patagonia we lean against the wind and hold on to our handlebars tightly to keep our motorbikes on the road. We still ride above 4,000 m altitude. Despite the bright sunshine it is bitterly cold. We both wear our rain suit against the cold and sit huddled on the bikes to keep out of the wind. We had expected to descent after the border, but after we stayed around 4,200 m for a while, the GPS actually indicates that we keep ascending. The bikes are struggling on the steep slopes with the wind and the height. They still run smoothly, but they lose a lot of power. We do not get higher than third gear and slowly but steadily ride on. The road continues to climb until we reach the summit of the pass at 4,825 m. This is higher than the Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the French Alps!

Even after that, the road does not descend much. We stay at an altitude of 4,600 m for a long time. We do not stop to take any more pictures, because my hands are so cold that I can no longer press the buttons on my camera. After an hour we reach the end of the plateau, where we have an amazing view. On the left we see two pointy volcanoes, that stand out against the yellow field and the blue sky as two black pyramids. In front of us, we look out over the Atacama desert. A vast plain, where we dimly see the outline of a town through the dust. That must be San Pedro de Atacama, our destination for today. The road runs in one straight line without any curves down to the valley. A ride of 45 km where we descend more than 2,000 m! On a bicycle it must be a great ride down! Although our motorbikes seem to appreciate it too, because they run like a charm. And for us it is great as well, because every 100 meters we descend it becomes a little bit warmer. At some point it is even so warm that we have to stop to take off our rain suit.

Land van vulkanenIt is dusk when we ride into San Pedro and find a spot on a camp site in the center of town. San Pedro appears to be a beautiful town, with characteristic buildings, white plastered walls and dark wooden doors. But what stands out the most is the great number of tourists that walk through the streets. It is very touristy. We walk through the maze of one-way streets along dozens of restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops and tour operators. The difference with the villages we visited the last few days could not be greater. We have to get used to the hustle and bustle, but quickly see the benefits when we put our teeth into a pizza. And all those tourists are here for a reason, because there is a lot to see around San Pedro. We are in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. That creates a special ecosystem with: salt formations, high sand dunes, salt lakes, clear starry nights and particular animals. Moreover, we are back in the land of volcanoes. That does not only mean that we have a nice view, but also that there are hot springs and geysers in the area! We will stay in San Pedro for a few days to visit all that.

Before we set off, we use two days to do some chores. And we take our time, because it is way too hot to get busy, especially in the sun. Fortunately it cools down in the evening to a pleasant temperature. Only when the sun has set, we walk to the center of town to eat and to join the other tourists in search of some souvenirs. Land van vulkanenThe shops are full of coloured rugs, woolen caps and small llamas. Peter and I almost never buy souvenirs, because we have no space for them in our bags. It is also a hassle to send stuff by mail, so we usually just leave it to some coins of each country. This time we are lucky, because Ton and Marijke have some space in their suitcases for a coloured tablecloth and a poncho of alpaca wool.

For our first day trip we ride to the ’Valle de la Luna’. A nature park just outside San Pedro with high sand dunes and unusual rock formations that consist largely of salt. We are allowed to enter on the bikes and ride to several viewpoints. The salt rocks have special forms: sharp dots, beads as cauliflower and smooth pieces that look like glass. The valley is covered in a thin white layer of salt, which crackles beneath our feet. It’s a beautiful ride. At the last viewpoint we swap our motorcycle suits for shorts and climb the sand dunes with some cold beers in our bag. As the sun sets, we look out over the “Valley of the Moon” from the highest dune. The setting sun colours the valley red and casts beautiful shadows. The moon is already in the sky and completes the perfect picture. Really pretty. When the sun has set and our beers are empty, we ride back to the campsite in the light of the full moon.

Land van vulkanenThe second day trip we go in search of flamingos. For that we go to Laguna Chaxa, one of the lakes in the middle of the salt flats in Los Flamencos National Reserve. Around the salt lake, where the water has evaporated, is a thick layer of salt crystals. The white crystals are as hard as stone, razor sharp and glisten brightly in the sunlight. Unlike anything we have seen so far. The water in the lake has the most beautiful colors: pale blue, red and even yellow. It looks poisonous and it is hard to imagine that you can still find living creatures here. Nevertheless there is a lot of life between the salt crystals and in the water: large lizards, all kinds of small sandpipers and hundreds of flamingos. As far as we can se, there are pink birds walking through the water in search of food. They stomp on the ground and move with their hooked beak over the bottom. This time we do not need the binoculars, because we are only a few meters away from them.

After lunch, it is time for some relaxation. We ride to Laguna Cejar, a lake that contains so much salt that you can float in it as the Dead Sea. The first half an hour at the lake is for free. A lady at the gate writes down our time of entry, after which we quickly walk to the water. Land van vulkanenIt’s pretty cool, but there is not time to get used to the water, we should just get in there. Although ’getting into the water’ is hardly possible, because we are immediately pushed to the surface by the salt. It is so salty, that we can even sit upright in the water. We float until we only have a few minutes to walk back to the gate. The lady is already waiting for us, watching the clock, to write down our time. The salt water dries quickly and when we return to the camper we have a white layer of salt on our bodies. As if you have been swimming in the sea, but then a lot more! Ton knows just what to do. He sticks the showerhead through the window of the camper, so we can wash off the salt with fresh water. Really convenient, such a house on wheels!

On the way back to San Pedro we look out over the volcanoes on the horizon. At the sight of those beautiful mountains, you could easily forget that they can also be dangerous. Along the roadside are signs that warn that we are in the ‘danger zone’, which means the area where the debris falls down when the volcano erupts. The land is indeed littered with large stones. Land van vulkanenIt has been some time since the volcanoes around San Pedro were active, but if they are you better make sure to get out of here.

The last day trip that we make from San Pedro de Atacama is to the Valle del Arcoiris. The ‘Rainbow Valley’ owes its name to the colored rocks. We ride a great route through a dry river bed and stop to see the holes and grooves in the rocks that have been carved out by the wind. It feels like a discovery, especially since there is no one else! The busy San Pedro is not far from here, but it feels like we are alone. Once again we experience how nice it is to have your own transportation and the possibility to turn left when all the tour operators turn right that day.

There are two more spots on our list: the hot springs of Thermas Puritama and the Geysers del Tatio. We could make a day trip to the geysers, but then we would have to leave in the middle of the night to see the geysers awaken at sunrise. We do not feel like doing that, especially because we would have to ride in the dark to get there in time. We read that we can camp at the entrance, near the visitors center of the geysers. That sounds like a better plan. From San Pedro, which is located at 2,400 m, we drive up into the hills. First on an asphalt road, but soon on a gravel road through the desert. Apart from some small cacti, there is hardly any vegetation. Land van vulkanenWe keep ascending and have stunning views over the rocky plains and volcanoes. The road is not in good condition. We jolt and bump over the rocks and have tingling arms of the corrugated road. Driving requires quite some effort and is exhausting in the heat.

After two hours we park at the entrance of Thermas Puritama. The GPS indicates that we already ascended to 3,545 m. The hot springs are in a narrow gorge. It looks promising from above. Once we have walked down it seems we have arrived at a hidden paradise. The hot spring water flows through the valley by small waterfalls to seven different natural pools. Some just big enough for a handful of people, but others larger. Ton takes a seat on the terrace while Marijke, Peter and I choose one of the pools. The water is crystal clear and warm. At home a warm bath is cold after about half an hour, this bath stays warm all the time! It’s so nice that we actually don’t want to leave. Only when our fingers are completely wrinkled, we get out and back to the motorbikes.

Land van vulkanenWith new energy we begin the second part of the ride to the geysers. It is a beautiful route through the mountains. We continue to ascend, crossing a pass of more than 4,500 m and arriving on a plateau on 4,300 m. The vegetation here is very different, as are the animals. We see vicuñas, large geese, moorhens and enormous condors. There is a strong wind and the weather changes very quickly. One minute we ride in the rain and the next moment we are standing in the sun looking at how it is snowing in the distance. At the end of the afternoon we end up in a torrential thunderstorm. The sky is black and the terrifying thunder is very close! When it then also starts to hail, we stop to take shelter in the camper. It does not happen often, but this is one of those moments that I would prefer a car over a motorcycle. When the storm has settled, we continue our ride in the rain.

We are soaked when we arrive at the visitor center and ask where we can camp. A little lady says we can pitch the tent behind the building, but that we can also sleep inside. She points to a large pile of mattresses in the corner, opposite to the cash register. We would not have much privacy, but it sounds like a good plan. Especially now that it is still pouring with rain. We take two mattresses from the pile and lay out our wet gear to dry. Land van vulkanenWe join Ton and Marijke in the camper for dinner and have a drink to warm up. In the distance we can already see the geysers. Here and there are small steam plumes that come from the ground. El Tatio is one of the six largest geyser fields in the world with over 80 geysers. The best time to see the steaming geysers is in the morning just before the sun warms up the valley. We set the alarm clock at 04:30 AM and agree that we leave at 5:00 AM.

When we get back in the visitor center that evening there are some more mattresses on the floor. On one of them a man is snoring unhealthily hard. We put in earplugs and try to get some sleep. The snoring man keeps us awake half the night and when he finally stops, we wake up by someone banging hard on the door. It is 04:00 and the first guide is at the entrance to buy tickets for his guests. We will not get any sleep now, so we get up. When we get outside, there is already a long queue for the toilets. The camper of Ton and Marijke is surrounded by small vans of all the tourists that have come to see the geysers.

Land van vulkanenWe leave the bikes in the parking lot and get in the back of the camper to ride with Ton and Marijke to the valley below. In the back of the camper we feel that we ride is a bit bumpy, but other than that it felt OK. However, when we get out Ton tells us that it had been one of the most exciting rides of his life. It was pitch dark and the road was in very poor condition. On the steep road down the camper had slid in the mud a number of times. He had had difficulty to keep the heavy car on the road. he even had to dodge some steaming geysers to eventually arrive at the parking lot! And all of that with a long line of honking vans behind him. We drink a cup of coffee to warm up and cool the nerves and start walking towards the geysers.

It is slowly becoming light. Everywhere steam plumes are coming from the ground, even more than we saw yesterday. Now we are closer we can see where the steam comes from. Everywhere are holes and cracks in the ground with hot water steaming in the cold morning air. The water bubbles, sputters, buzzes and hisses, and sometimes suddenly a fountain sprays in the air. They are not very high geysers, but at least a meter. There are so many small waterholes that you have to watch where you walk. Some of them stink of rotten eggs from the sulfur. The calcareous water has created nice shapes: small towers where the water flows from gracefully and ridges like on the beach. It is really beautiful! Land van vulkanenWe take our time to look at all those gurgling geysers. After a while, the large groups of tourists leave and we have the plain almost to ourselves. We walk around, take lots of pictures and then head back to the visitors center to have breakfast. A quiet ride this time in the light, without honking vans behind us.

Once we have packed again after breakfast, we continue our journey through the desert. We do not drive back to San Pedro, but ride to Calama. It is not so far and we have the whole day to get there, so we take it easy. And that’s a good thing, because it is beautiful! We stop frequently to take pictures and take our time to have lunch. Mid-afternoon we find a spot at a campground in the middle of the busy city. It is very hot. While we had to wear a woolen hat this morning at the geysers, we now wear shorts and try to move as little as possible. And, in fact, we do not have to move. We stay a few days on this campsite until we say goodbye to Ton and Marijke. Their vacation is almost over. From Calama, they will ride back to Santiago without us, where they drop off the camper before they fly home.

Land van vulkanenWe use the days in Calama to chat, to share our photos and for our last joint trip to the copper mine of Chuquicamata. The mine just outside Calama is one of the largest copper mines in the world. The copper is not collected in narrow underground passages, but in an open pit of a kilometer deep. At the visitor center we get a safety helmet and a vest after which we are first taken to the town of Chuquicamata. Until a few years ago the miners lived here with their families, until it was decided that all 25,000 inhabitants had to move to Calama for a healthier environment. What remained was a ghost town. We walk past the abandoned houses, vacant schools and a dilapidated cinema. The central square looks just like all the other squares in South America, with a large statue, nice lawns and benches. But this time there is no one. Even the pigeons are missing. Very strange.

In the former bookstore the guide explains about the mining of copper and the production process. An interesting story, especially for Peter who recognizes many aspects of his former job. Land van vulkanenThen we visit the mine. From a plateau we look down the kilometer deep hole and we see huge trucks bring up the stones from the depths. It takes them 20 minutes to drive down and more than 75 minutes to ride up again when they are fully loaded. They are monster trucks! Their tires alone are three meters high! The mine itself is like an anthill: activity everywhere and moving trucks as small yellow dots zigzagging through the hole. It is almost incomprehensible how deep it is, quite impressive!

That evening the four of us sit down in a restaurant in the center of Calama, where we end our journey in style with a Pisco Sour and a good piece of meat. The next morning, is it time to say goodbye. With tears because a piece of ‘home’ is leaving and a big smile because of the nice time we had together!

Land van vulkanenMom and Dad, thanks! Thanks for getting on a plane to fly to the other end of the world to join us on our trip. We are happy that we could share a part of the journey with you. It was a road trip we will not forget.

Distance travelled to Calama: 49,527 km (30,775 miles)


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| Leonie | Chile, ZUID-AMERIKA

10 Reacties (Comments) - Land of vulcanoes

  1. Saskia Ansink-van den Tweel

    Hoi Leonie en Peter,
    Toen ik in mei/juni 3 weken samen met mijn man naar Peru ging, wees Mariët mij op jullie verhalen. Ze zei toen al dat jullie onderweg naar Peru waren. Sindsdien heb ik jullie blogs gevolgd. Wat een geweldige verhalen om te lezen! Wat een avontuur! Toch heel wat anders dan met per bus en trein de toeristische highlights bezoeken, zoals wij hebben gedaan. Maar we hebben genoten van Peru en ik ben heel benieuwd naar jullie verhalen over dit mooie land! En ondertussen ben ik zo vol bewondering van jullie avonturen dat ik de rest ook wil horen! 😉
    Geniet van jullie reis!
    Groetjes Saskia (dochter van Rinus en Marion)


    Geniet jul stories baie en hoop om dit ook eendag te kan doen

  3. Mieke

    Bijna niet te bevatten die bijzondere kleuren en vormen van het landschap. Zelfs die maan lijkt te mooi om waar te zijn. En dan hangen jullie daar ook nog eens met z’n drieën alsof je door de ruimte zweeft :) Ongelofelijk mooi allemaal! Bedankt weer!

  4. Jan.G

    Peter en Leonie.
    Geweldig jullie verhalen en foto’s.
    Om jaloers op te worden.
    Blijf genieten en het goede zien.
    Groet Jan G.

  5. Gerard

    Peter en Leonie, het wordt eentonig. Prachtig verhaal en schitterende foto’s. De hartelijke groeten van Gerard en Anja.

  6. Jan Krijtenburg

    Hallo peter en Leonie,

    bedankt voor het leesplezier dat ik heb als ik jullie reisverslag lees. En o wat krijg ik weer een zin om op de motor te stappen voor een flinke reis 😉

  7. Anna

    Lieve Peter en Leonie, wat weer een prachtig verhaal met mooie foto’s. Wat is de wereld toch mooi en wat maken jullie toch veel mee!! Toch bijzonder om Ton en Marijke bij jullie op de foto’s te zien. Heel veel liefs en reis plezier. Jan en Anna

  8. Pieter

    Wat een gaaf verhaal weer!
    Net als sommigen met mij waarschijnlijk, ben ik op jullie site terecht gekomen omdat ik zocht naar informatie over de CBR250F (voor een RTW trip). Maar na jullie hele blog te hebben bijgelezen gaat het allang niet meer om de motoren! Ik zit nu steeds met smart te wachten op nieuwe foto’s en verhalen :-))
    Keep up the good work!

  9. Michnus

    Stunning! I can’t wait to get there. It seems you guys are having a blast. Thanks for sharing

  10. Ton en Marijke

    Lieve Peter en Leonie, We waren erg blij dat de gelegenheid zich voordeed om een stukje met jullie mee te reizen. We hebben er ontzettend van genoten en nog meer bewondering gekregen voor jullie manier van reizen. Op onze gezamenlijke reis zijn we aangestoken door jullie avontuurlijke instelling en zo genieten we, sinds we weer terug zijn, van onze eigen zwerftocht door de wereld, al is het op een heel wat kleinere schaal… Liefs pa en ma.