Moon, Stars, and Pisco: San Pedro de Atacama, La Serena, and Valle del Elqui

The walk seemed never ending on the road. I reconsidered going to the valley that night as my energy weaned and the hours crept by. The sun radiated and my feet sweltered after walking more than 18 miles along desert roads and dirt canyons with a full pack. The dog ran next to me the whole day and offered company in a desolate landscape. A few more miles to walk through the valley of the moon, and I would find a place to camp. It was worth it. This was Chile. The land of adventure, and I was writing my own story.

Fresh off my string of buses through Ecuador, Peru, and Northern Chile, the landscape of San Pedro de Atacama was a golden color at sunrise when I stepped off the bus. Before heading off on a walk through the desert, something I was unfamiliar with, there were a few necessities I had to ensure were in order. The most important being breakfast of course. At the bus station I found a place and got my fill, charged my devices, and packed up my 50 pound pack with an extra 1.5L of water exchanging the space and weight for water rather than food. Ready for the journey, and a hand drawn map of activities in my pocket, I walked through town which was quiet but touristy. Every street had tour agencies and there were many cafes; something I take as a sign of catering to foreigners. I was happy I was going off on my own and knew my experience would be different than most.

As I neared the edge of town, I passed a pack of dogs and yelled in Spanish, “Alright dogs, who’s coming with?!” Three immediately ran over and followed me up the street. I imagine I looked like a unique character walking out of town past the last tour agencies filled with people. Their faces said it all: a guy with a full pack, cowboy hat, and three dogs in tail walking into the desert. By the time I reached the single lane road headed to Valle de Muertos (Death Valley), only one golden haired dog was left. He attacked the few cars that passed on the road, and I yelled as he came close to getting run over every time.

I walked over an hour on the road, and by the time I reached the valley I was tired, and the bag was heavy. The entrance was a simple gate and station where indigenous rangers collected a fee. After a brief conversation that included my questions on camping in the valley, the young ranger gave me the local’s discount, a handshake, and told me to be careful walking: I would be the only one not in car, on bike, or on horse. The temperature was perfect, the ground cracked with a lack of water and was covered in white salt deposits, and the mountains around me were a golden orange. After walking a couple of miles, I laid down and took a nap in the sun. The dog sat above me on the rocky hillside, and the thirty minutes of shuteye gave me a renewed energy.

Continuing on, the occasional tourist driving passed in a car would roll down the window to see if I wanted a ride. When I would smile back and say no thank you, they would laugh at “how incredible it was that my dog and I were walking the valley.” The wind was barely audible and quiet permeated all around except for my boots grinding on rock. The extreme quiet was consuming, until off in the distance electronic music sounded. I rounded a corner and up on a large dune a group of people were sand boarding. I climbed up to where they were taking off and looked out. The amazing contrast of desert and snow capped volcanic peaks on the Bolivian border was amazing. Without much conversation from the group, I continued on to the last lookout at the end of the valley. With a similar view at the end of the valley as the top of the dune, I ate a peach and began the walk back.

Back at the ranger station, the ranger and I exchanged stories and discussed the mountains worth climbing in the area. Happy with the people I was meeting in Chile, he left to go home at the end of his shift, and I fell asleep next to the dog again on the ground in front of the station. With one tourist site done of many in the area, I decided to walk to Valle de La Luna for sunset which was all the rage. It was about five miles away, I had already walked over ten, it was more than seven miles up and back through the Valle de La Luna, and I was in arguably the driest place in the world. My expectations may have been high for what I could do there in a day with my pack.

The walk seemed never ending on the road. I reconsidered going to the valley that night as my energy waned and the hours crept by. The sun radiated and my feet sweltered after walking more than 18 miles along desert roads and dirt canyons with a full pack. The dog ran next to me the whole day and offered company in a desolate landscape. A few more miles to walk through the valley of the moon, and I would find a place to camp. It was worth it. This was Chile. The land of adventure, and I was writing my own story.

By the time I arrived at the park entrance it was close to 5:00PM. The swarm of tour buses at the entrance was a bit off putting, but it was entertaining watching the heads turn as I walked out of the desert. When I walked up to pay the entrance, the park staff weren’t going to let me in at the hour, especially with a tent. A bit frustrated, an Indian man walked past and asked a simple question which sounded like one of the best invitations I have ever received: “hey man, you want a ride through the valley. You are more than welcome to join my wife and me.” Without hesitation I accepted. There was only one problem. As usual, and not getting any easier, I had to leave my four legged compadre. I was wrecked and didn’t have many options. With a pat on the head I said “see you soon buddy,” and hopped in.

“Dude, were you planning on walking through the valley now? No way you would have made it at this hour.” As the man asked, I smiled with relief to be sitting and was immediately comfortable with him and his wife. It was great to have some company, and they told me to call them by their nicknames Dan and Chiro. We spent the next three hours driving to the different stopping points in the valley to look at the salt formations, rock, and eventually the sunset from the top of the largest dune around. Most of all, we chatted about life and got to know each other.

With the sun set, we pulled out of the valley and turned onto the road when  Chiro said “something’s coming out of the top of the volcano!” I looked and my heart immediately jumped. I thought the volcano was erupting. The next minutes were interesting. My mind said to tell Dan to hit it and drive West as fast as possible; however, our moods quickly changed to excitement when we realized it was the full moon rising directly over the volcano. The light and angle were set just right so that it actually looked like it was coming out of the volcano. The ride back to town went by quickly with laughs after that. We exchanged numbers once back, and they invited me to go sightseeing at the sights hours away from the town that required a car.

When I stepped out and threw my pack against a wall, I turned around to see another familiar face looking at me wagging his tail. My dog companion had made it back to town, and was right where Dan and Chiro dropped me off! I laughed and a voice yelling “Gnocchi!” came down the street. The dog began to walk and I followed. It turned out that the dog, whose name was Gnocchi, wasn’t a stray and his owner grabbed him saying “I heard you were all the way over at Valle de La Luna crazy dog.” We chatted and laughed when I told her he had walked with me all day. One final goodbye to Gnocchi, and with a place to camp picked out nearby, I immediately fell asleep. It was the first time in days I had laid down and wasn’t on an overnight bus.

With a plan to meet Dan and Chiro at 9:00AM I was relieved to receive a message pushing it back to 10:00AM. I was having a hard time getting started, my stomach was bothering me, and I needed the extra hour.  After a 30 minute walk to where they were staying, we set off to our first destination: Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks). The two hour drive South went quickly. We chatted and listened to Indian music which I recorded and would later look up. They were such nice people, and the combination of conversation and high energy music was a ton of fun. The drive was more interesting than the first site. It was beautiful, but a bit underwhelming. However, our second destination on the way back was incredible.

Laguna Miscanti and Meñique were a set of two lakes off of the main highway. They were in the shadow of mountains and had golden sand/rock at their edges. Vacuna, a local deer Lama type animal, were feeding near the edge, and a mother and calf made for a perfect setting. The three of us enjoyed lunch and snapped pictures before heading to one final stop, Laguna Chaxa and Salar de Atacama. We were playing the “will we run out of gas in the desert game,” and after a brief stop at the final site, we decided not to spend time and head back.

Dan and Chiro invited me to stay another day and do more sightseeing, but I had my fill of San Pedro de Atacama, and wanted to get into the mountains. With one final goodbye and an invitation to visit in Santiago, I hoped to see the two of them in the future. Back in town, I found a bus to the neighboring town of Calma with a connecting overnight bus to the city of Coquimbo. A quick bite to eat and a lot of water later, I was back on the bus out of town. As the sun set, it shone over the desert and highlighted the shadows in the rock crevices.

After my bus change in Calama, my stomach that had been bothering me began to rage and transformed into full fledged food poisoning. The first serious case I had during my travels, and it was on a full 14 hour bus ride. That night I didn’t sleep a wink, switched between sweating and freezing, had a stomachache and headache, and as a good friend colorfully puts: was doing the double dragon the whole 14 hours. About two hours before arriving to Coquimbo, I thought about standing on a mountain top at the end of the world and a happiness came over me that overcame the horrible physical state that I was in. Gathering some energy, I asked the conductor if there was a town with decent healthcare facilities. He said to get off the bus in the bigger sister town to Coquimbo called La Serena.

After what felt like an eternity, I stepped off the bus with a flush white face and no energy. The sun was out, but there was nothing lifting me from the lows. I asked a few people on the street where the nearest clinic was and found a couple nearby. When I walked into the first and talked to the receptionist, she told me no one would see me until Monday: a full two days away. That wasn’t going to work, so I left and walked near a mile to another clinic. This one was more of a emergency care setting, and right after walking in I quick turned around ran out and threw up in the bushes in front. I was making friends quickly. Back inside, they brought me in to see a doctor in under half an hour with a room full of people, and gave me IV saline and antibiotics. On no sleep, I fell asleep for a couple of hours while getting the solutions before finding a hostel near by to crawl into.

El Árbol Beach Hostel was a great hostel a couple of blocks off of the beach in La Serena. It had a nice outdoor area, people relaxing out front, and a large front yard lush with trees. I must have looked like death walking in. With a hand full of antibiotics and hydration solution to go along with my usual gear, when I walked passed the first group of people everyone asked if I was okay. “Yes, I just need to lay down” came out of my mouth, but inside I was in a bad place. In my bed, I shivered under the covers. A couple of guys staying at the hostel, one Chilean and one Spanish, checked on me continuously and pushed me to drink tea. It was nice to have the care, but nothing was stopping the sickness which lasted through the night.

The next morning dawned a new world. I was feeling better, the sun was shining, and the hostel had a handful of great people. Fresh off my sickness, I took things slowly and spent the day meeting people and walking a few miles on the beach. Two of those people, Viviana from Chile and Kristy from Australia, would end up becoming friends and company for future activities. After the day of recovery, Vivi put together a plan to visit the Penguin colonies on Islas Damas, a couple hours North of La Serena.

Up early and my body back to full capability, I joined a group from the hostel to the islands. It was great that the group of seven bonded so well. The multi-hour bus ride seemed to take forever, but in the end it was worth it. We took a three hour boat ride out into the Pacific around the group of islands. We crawled over the rolling waves in our boat and snapped photos while the wind blew, sea sprayed and the dark clouds loomed overhead. The weather was not great, but it didn’t take away from the penguins, birds, sean lions, and whales.

Next up on the visit list was a place that both Chileans and travelers recommended to me: Valle del Elqui. Described as a place with “great energy, stars, hiking, and Pisco,” Valle del Elqui was screaming my name. My new friend Kristy from Australia joined the trip, and we hopped on an afternoon bus out to a town named Vicuña. The ride East from La Serena took us along well paved roads through irrigated valleys that contrasted the dry towering mountains on either side. Grapes were growing everywhere and vines were in full bloom filled with green. Different than traditional wine grapes, the pisco grapes were much larger and the vines were grown closer together.

After a quick bite in the small town of Vacuña, we hitched a ride with a construction worker to the hostel Kristy was staying at. My favorite source of information is from locals and we had a nice conversation about Pisco refineries to visit, breweries, mountains to climb, and multi-day treks. The weather was warm, there were no clouds in the sky, and the opportunity to camp under the stars was intriguing. I wasn’t sold on staying at a hostel and decided to try and find a spot to camp near one of the many star observatories.

A few miles outside of town, and a few more miles from a star observatory named Mamalluca, we began walking. I was carrying my full pack, and combined with the hot dry air it was a particularly tiring combination. Following the suggestion of the construction worker we hitched with, we stopped at Guayacan brewery in the town of Daguitas. The cool shade and beer in the southwestern decorated brewery and beer garden was a welcome relief. With miles to go, we finished our last sips and hit the road again. We rounded a corner towards our next destination, a Pisco refinery, when we heard what sounded like a muffled gurgling sheep cry. We looked in a ditch by the road under tangled brush and there up to its neck in water was a sheep. Luckily, across the way a farmer was tending to a large flock that this sheep belonged to, and I called out to him. He came over with his herding dogs, and he and Kristy crawled down into the ditch and hauled out the sheep! Never a dull moment! There is always an adventure around the corner. From beer to Pisco, our next stop was a refinery named Aba. Aba was pretty, but neither Kristy or I were in the mood for drinking the extremely strong alcohol. The afternoon sun shone stronger the later it got. The heavy pack, beers, blazing sun, dry conditions and walking uphill for hours was exhausting. Soaked in sweat, we arrived to the observatory in the middle of nowhere right before sunset.

I slung my pack off and dropped it like a brick on the ground. The gate to the observatory was locked and the number on the sign to contact wasn’t being answered. After looking out at the amazing sunset over the dry surrounding mountains and vineyards below, a security guard strolled down to the gate from the observatory. He was rather rude and told us that there was a new rule that tickets for the observatory had to be purchased from back in town. Town was a 4 mile walk downhill, and a four mile walk back up with the sun setting: it wasn’t going to happen. After arguing and trying everything possible, we gave up and walked a bit downhill from the observatory. Fortunately, there was one thing that saved the evening. The stars and Milky Way burst into the sky immediately following the sunset. Having hauled my full pack meant I was prepared to live for several days and had plenty of food. I prepared some vegetable sandwiches for us, and we had dinner under the stars with our necks bent back and our faces to the sky. I snapped photos of one of the nicest night skies I have ever seen, and it was obvious with the surroundings why the valley was known for good energies.

Although we missed out on the observatory, we were happy with the stars. Now there was one other issue we had to solve: we were up in the mountains miles from Kristy’s hostel and it was going on 9:30pm. We began the walk. Luckily there was a hostel/campground about 25 minutes in, and after some convincing the owner agreed to give us a ride. The ride was a bit pricey, but it was worth it. With Kristy at her hostel, I decided to go with my original plan of camping, and found a spot near a church in a cul de sac. Quiet at first, the silence was soon broken for the rest of the evening by street dogs howling. While setting up my tent, a black lab came over to say hello, and he sat outside my tent the remainder of the night chasing away any of the other dogs that came too close.

After a rough night of sleep, I was up before sunrise. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent door, and immediately snapped out of morning grumpiness with the greeting I received. Right when I stuck my head through the rainfly the face and wagging tail of my new dog friend were there to say hello. We shared a few hard boiled eggs and salami before I finished packing up my gear. By the time I finished, Kristy was up and packed. We made our way out to the main road to move farther through the valley and of course were accompanied by my dog while we tried to wave down cars. After about half an hour, I decided to go out of sight, and within one minute a dump truck pulled over to give us a ride. As always I gave a sad goodbye to my guard dog, and noted an important trick to hitching: don’t be a guy if you want to get picked up quickly.

The drive through the valley was filled with more incredible views of steep desert mountains broken by green Pisco grapes down the center. Our destination for the day was a town named Pisco Elqui, but the driver was only going to a small town a couple miles before named Monte Grande. Another afternoon of walking through the valley was great, and just as hard as the first day with my full pack. When we reached Pisco Elqui, we had a nice lunch in a shaded garden restaurant, dropped off our bags and headed farther down the valley towards an artisan city named Hornaco. The late afternoon sun was hot, it was dry, and both of us agreed to try and hitch the remaining miles. However, without luck, we ended up hitching a ride back to Pisco Elqui instead. We ended up having beers in the main square, and talking with some locals. One man named Jorge had an enormous sack of grapes, and for a $1 we bought over a kilogram. After the hot day, and continuing the following day, I am comfortable saying we ate the best grapes I have ever tasted. They were sweet, crisp, and every now and then in between the juicy full grapes I would find a raisin.

(photo cred Kristy)

The two hour bus ride in the morning back to Serena was a breeze. Once back to the main bus station, Kristy and I shared a traveler’s goodbye, and I made plans for my next destination. After speaking with Vivi, the amazing Chilean woman from Santiago who had stayed at El Arbol, I decided to make my way to a city named Valparaiso. Over a coffee in Serena’s beautiful main square, I bought a bus ticket and did research on the artsy port city often compared to San Francisco. Slowly but surely, I was making my way to Patagonia. Now mid-February, the weather South would begin to cool, the crowds would thin, and I would be free to explore nature. A favorite among travelers, I was excited for Valparaiso, but got goosebumps at the thought of the unexplored still several thousand miles away. I boarded my seven hour overnight bus, and quickly went to sleep with the thought that the things I had only dreamed of were coming true.


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