Monday, 6 August 2012

To Mars, and beyond......

Hello again!   Sorry I haven't posted anything for a while.  My wife and I have been taking a short break from the Falkland Islands, after moving here in January.  A change is as good as a rest, as the saying goes, and we certainly had a change.  The brochure didn't mention it would be like going to Mars....
Sunrise over Stanley Harbour.
As these recent photos show, the Falklands has charms of its own.  The skies are often spectacular, and the wildlife is all around.  Yesterday, we braved a fresh breeze to see a growing group of Gentoo penguins arrive at a beach just outside Stanley, where we live.
Watching Gentoo penguins in the dunes.
However, it is also midwinter here, and the days are short, so we were looking for a bit of sunshine to brighten the winter months.  About a month ago, we headed down a very rough, icy track (the main road!) to the international airport at Mount Pleasant to catch the weekly flight to Chile, which, unknown to us at the time, had been a stand-in for the planet Mars!
Vicuna at the roadside, Atacama desert
After spending the night at the airport hotel in Santiago, we left on an 4-hour flight north to the Atacama Desert, and the small town of San Pedro.  The nearest airport is in a mining town called Calama, which has the biggest copper mine in the world.  The mineral wealth of the region was to be a feature of our trip, as it had (literally) shaped the country, and the continent, over the centuries.
San Pedro guard dog
San Pedro is a small oasis town, built where the melt-waters of the Andes disappear under the vast salt flats of the Atacama - the driest desert in the world.  The desert basin is surrounded by mountain ranges, meaning the rivers that do flow into it have no outlet to the ocean.  It had once been a giant lake - about the size of the Black Sea - now a barren wilderness, but with mineral deposits thousands on feet thick (the former lake bed).
Main street, San Pedro.  Mostly unchanged since conquistadores found it.

The town centre is only a couple of streets long and wide - in the traditional Spanish colonial style, introduced by the Spanish invaders around 1540.  The road surface is a compressed mix of salt and dirt, which lasts well as there is virtually no rainfall.  The buildings are mostly traditional adobe mud brick.
Volcanoes at the edge of town.  Telescope is for stargazing - assuming no clouds.
 Nowadays, this remote frontier town (Argentina and Bolivia are about 40 minutes drive away), attracts many tourists:  here to see the scenic wonders - the salt flats; snow-capped volcanoes; flamingo-filled lagoons; the valleys eroded by wind over millennia; steaming geysers, and the Andean cultural heritage.  And there are plenty of hotels to provide a "desert experience".  I certainly have never felt so dry in my life, despite drinking about 4 litres of water a day.

Valley of the Moon.  Andes in distance.
The other novelty was the altitude.  The town is about 9,000 feet (2,400mts) above sea level and the humidity is very low.  Waking up with a dry throat and wrinkled fingers was a new experience - well, the dessicated hands were a novelty.    However, we would soon be touring around neighbouring Bolivia, and nowhere on our route was as "low" as this, so it was important to spend time acclimatising to the height!
Eroded valleys.
 We spent a few days exploring the desert and its historical and geological features.  Nearby were remains of Inca and pre-Inca civilisations.  The Incas arrived in this area only about 80 years before the Spanish, and took over hilltop fortified towns and road networks which had been built hundreds of years earlier.   Their empire brought a uniform administration to much of Andean South America, but this centralisation of power made it vulnerable to an attack at its centre - exactly what the small number of Spanish invaders did.
Old church, San Pedro
In a few decades, and with only a few hundred men, the Spanish imposed their power across this vast territory and stamped their legacy on the people and the land.  We were to see their influence almost everywhere.  
Licancabur, sacred mountain.  Bolivia is on the other side.
But, initially, the most striking features of the area were physical. 
As some of you may have heard on the news, a NASA probe, "Curiousity",  has just been delivered to explore Mars.  It seems that scientists needed a testing ground with somewhere as close as possible to the harsh Martian conditions that the module would experience.   So, they chose the Atacama!  This article gives more detail - (once more, indebted to the wonderful Kindle which delivers the paper each morning! Thanks to my Nordic Walking friends!)

San Pedro valley - the river soon peters out in the desert.
 The region was highly volcanic and we visited the highest geothermal field in the world.  Enterprising locals now offer hot bathing at high altitude.  Changing rooms were being built, but with an air temperature hovering around freezing point, changing out of wet clothes doesn't take very long.
Tatio geyser field.  13,123ft, or 4,000mts above sea level

The main drawback about seeing the geysers is that they are at their best at dawn.  And this means leaving San Pedro around 4am!  However,  it is worth it!

Middle-aged geyser having a dip at 4,000 metres above the sea. 
Much older Geysers
(If you want to see more Atacama scenery, you could watch a DVD of the Bond film - "A Quantum of Solace" which an evil organisation hides Bolivia's water supply under the barren desert...)
Vicuna on the altiplano.  The lack of llamas wouldn't last!
Although not quite in the same league as those we see in the Falklands, we did have a couple great sunsets.  The only cloud on the horizon for us, were..... the clouds on the horizon!

For four days, we tried to organise a session of stargazing in the clear desert skies, accompanied by expert astronomers to identify the heavenly bodies.   However, very unusually, clouds arrived every evening just as we were setting off for the session.  Maybe a reason to return?
Andean sunset, with gathering clouds about to obscure the stars
Soon, we would be enjoying the clear skies in Bolivia.....Could it top Chile, and Mars?  I knew very little about the country, other than it boasted 500 different types of potato - reason enough for a Scot to want to go there!  Oh, and that's where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended up....



  1. Great pics and narrative. Cannot believe your hands go wrinkly from the dehydration. Interesting about the Curiosity being tested there!

  2. Thanks, Renee. Yep - lots of moisturiser needed if you don't want to be a prune. And several locals proudly told us about the Mars rover. I think they may be getting posters printed - "'Just like Mars', NASA'

  3. I don't think Moisturiser Hand cream is my thing at all. I also prefer my Mars with chocolate round it. The two just don't go together!
    Welcome home Peter. Summer is coming.

    1. Maybe it's all the washing up that's making my hands wrinkle....? And talking of chocolate, Bolivia has some of the best. More on that country's produce soon.