Saturday, August 20, 2016

Notes from Atacama - días 1-4

Disclaimer: Most of this post was written on June 30 on a plane from Iquique to Santiago, so please excuse it. ;)

Day 1: Arriving in Chile and Iquique - Our ~30 hours in Tocapilla included walking along shore to the Esmeralda ship, buying salty fish, seeing a celebration (pre-celebration?) of the San Pedro festival; staying in Backpacker’s hostel and having our first meal of empanadas with chicken after not finding much restaraunts open and wandering several circles through creepy streets. Lots of surfing going on, even though water is freezing!
Pacific Ocean from Iqueque :) 
In the morning at the hostel, before leaving on the big road trip, we met a son and dad from Australia who came all the way from California to Iquique (the teenage son is homeschooled) with surfboards and gear in their trunk, traveling for the last 8 months. They recommended some nice beach near Santiago (for surfing!) and a fancy skiing location (to which you can only get by helicopter!). I took pictures of their map, which actually saved us multiple times.

Day 2: Road trip to Tocapilla - Beautiful stop at the oceanside, with sunset photography...
While we styed in Tocapilla - Chile won against Argentina! We found a rather random hotel, stayed there and watch the game in the company of the hotel owner, his sons and friends. We (or rather I, since Kelly '15 is already pretty Chilean ;)) learned some Chilean slang (add “po” to everything, kind of like "like"), and had Chilean drinks. The hotel owner told us about what sets the Chileans apart (Chileno corazón!); one of them recommended some Chilean band and offered us glasses of wine and cheered for the Chilean best player Sanchez, number 7. In the morning, when we were leaving, the workers at the hotel asked if James was Prince William and if Kelly was an actress...

On our way to Tocapilla :) 
The Pacific Ocean from Tocapilla

Day 3: Road trip to Calama and San Pedro: On our way to the coveted San Pedro (the center of all the good stuff - volcanos, deserts, salt flats and camping sites) had Chinese food in Calama, a small mining town (pretty good chicken and fried dough things). Then we took off to San Pedro, saw some beautiful flatlands and the first views of the volcanoes were magnificent. We saw beautiful cliffs and canyons along the way, closer to San Pedro. We arrived to San Pedro at around 5pm, got some mango cake, coffee, and coca tea (you don’t get that in the US, supposed to help with altitude sickness). In the evening, we ended up staying in hostel since unfortunately I needed more internet to write about IYPT stuff. Hostel had a very flufffy cat who wanted to eat things in the morning, and stayed up till 4AM writing emails. But the views from the day were fantastic.

James '15 and Kelly, LMF '15

Day 4: Drive to the first salar & Cerro Toco: This was an absolutely beautiful road trip through the eastern part of the Atacama desert: along the way we saw some incredible formations on the first salt flat, such as outwardly poking bubbles of ice and very smooth icy surfaces, just perfect for skating, for instance. How do these bubble things form? Maybe Kelly could explain more - we had many geological discussions along the way. :) Also, things started to get cold.

Driving down further, saw the Salar des Aguas Calientes, along with some alpacas. It was exciting to finally see them! After checking out this Salar, we continued happily back to hike the “relatively easy” Cerro Toco (only 600 meters, from 5 km to 5,6km!). However, we had no ideea what a challenge that would be....

We could definitely feel the altitude, started breathing deeply. I thought it was OK at first - just felt a slight head-achy discomfort, and took an ibuprofen (so did Kelly, and James took three) - for it to start working as the altitude changes more. We were fully ammunitioned with 3 layers, winter coats, hats, face masks and extra pants. However, the further we went, the more difficult it became to breathe - I had to breathe frequently and deeply, almost like in the Voice and Speech class, trying to get air all the way to the diaphragm. If I did not do that, I knew there was no way I would have enough oxygen not to faint. We were already at a 5km elevation.

My head also started to show signs of being affected by altitude sickness. Somehow, through this pain, I got to 50m below the Cerro Toco summit itself. Exhausted, breathing like I was hyperventilating, and with a splitting headache, I felt almost a metaphysical existence. The only thoughts going through my head was to keep breathing optimally and move my body such that my hands did not get frostbite. Finally, about 20-30m from the summit, the wind chill became unbearable, and my headache became torturous when I took a step to increase the elevation. The roaring and bonechilling wind did not make it any better. I realized it would take me at least 5 stops between where I was and the summit to be able to get there and not faint, but by that time we would all have frozen hands and feet. So I decided it was the right time to give up. Sometimes it can be the right choice. Kelly wanted to go ahead - James got down a bit to give me his sleeping bag, so that I survive while they try to brave the last 30 meters to the summit. :) I climbed into the bag, shielded on one side from the wind by a big rock. I lay there for about 10 minutes before Kelly and James showed up, looking kind of miserable. They had made it to about 5m from the very top, but were in danger of getting frostbite had they stayed up any longer.

We didn’t make it to the very, *very* top, but I think we’re hardly to blame. Still feeling the effects of altitutude sickness, we drove back to San Pedro and had a cracker-like pizza with a pina colada and pisco. It was nice. Upon returning to the hostel, we planned for a day of camping.

Salar de Talar (huuuge salt flat!)
It was coold! 

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