Happy Immaculate Conception Day! I had no idea that such a day was celebrated. And the entire country is virtually shut down. Thankfully, the tourism industry does not take days off.
It's not a happy day for Chile. Newspapers discuss how police fired on protestors on Easter Island. On TV, there's sad and frightening footage of a huge prison fire that consumed 81 people.
It's a 90 minute bus ride from my base at Calama to San Pedro de Atacama. Tiny, dusty San Pedro is a tourist hub. From there, you can go see desert, Bolivian salt flats, flamingos, geysers, etc. It is filled with Western tourists. It is really shocking, almost unsettling, to see women in tank tops and short shorts. We're not in the Middle East, but these people have zero respect for local cultural norms. Put on some clothes, people. Is a little modesty too much to ask?
My purpose here is to see the sunset at Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). My bus back to Calama leaves at 8:25 p.m. No tour operator could guarantee that I would be able to return from the sunset tour in time to catch the bus. Except one-- Rocco. I hand him the equivalent of $13 USD and hope for the best.
I've got a few hours before the tour so I walk around town. The local museum is small but very well put together. It focuses on the work of a Belgian priest (LePaige) stationed here who collected thousands of artifacts. Everything was laid out logically and explained with precision, simplicity, and clarity.
I hear a band playing by the town square. I assume it's to celebrate the immaculate conception.
We get in a Mercedes van for the tour. Rocco is our guide and driver. I sit next to a cool French archaeologist who is here for a conference. He specializes in Stone Age tools in Guadeloupe and France. We talk about the conflict between archaeologists digging up artifacts and the natives whose ancestors made the artifacts. He tells me about independence movements in Martinique and French Guiana (zero chance of success due to apathy and space program, respectively) and French Caledonia (quite likely to succeed, so long as the local French elite controls everything). During the tour, he tells me everything I need to know about the geological processes I see before me.
We enter the park and make our first stop. This Renault parked next to us was driven here from Germany.
We first explore a cave. Here is Rocco.
We drove through some incredible scenery.
I'm by no means a religious or spiritual person, but when I saw the Three Marias outcrop, I got choked up. I look at it now, and I say "meh." Maybe it's because I saw it on a special day.
Next to the Three Marias are an abandoned salt mine and a hut for the miners. I tasted the stuff on the cave wall and I can confirm that it is indeed salt.
Here's the Three Marias from a different angle:
We then went up a dune.
Our penultimate stop was Death Valley, which is just past this narrow passage. Nothing, not even microorganisms, grows in the valley.
We finished the tour with the sunset at Valley of the Moon. Because everything else we saw and did on the tour was so fantastic and intense, the sunset was a bit anti-climactic. I was dropped off at the bus station at 8:15 p.m., with ten minutes to spare. If you go, definitely use Rocco (Coquel Tours). He is the MAN.