Chile 2016 - Mountains in Atacama
After two - avowedly very nice - trips to Ladakh, we wanted to visit an other region this year. Northern Chile became our choice: There are high mountains which can be visited during our summer school holidays. We organize this trip on our own. It will not be a trekking lasting for weeks; instead we want to tackle each mountain as a one or two day trip, and in between return to "civilization".
Wednesday, 03. August / Thursday, 04. AugustFlight Frankfurt - Madrid - Santiago - Calama
Our train journey to Frankfurt Airport goes smoothly until near the Airport. Then, for some time there is no movement at all, until the conductor announces a turn-around because of signal disturbances. Via Frankfurt Main Station, we arrvive at the airport with a delay of 1 1/4 hours. Until we finally find Terminal 2 our time buffer is mostly consumed (and our stress tolerance, too). But we reach the flight to Madrid in time. In contrast to Frankfurt, there the transfer to the other terminal is clearly signposted, the shuttle train station is announced doubtlessly. At 00:30 our flight to Santiago starts, around half past two we find some rest.
We reach Santiago well in time at 7:50 in the morning. A helpful gentleman leads us the way to the right counter and checks in our baggage (for a small tip). So we have enough time for a snack before the domestic flight. Two hours flight to Calama with a nice view to the mountain chain of the Andes, virtually void of almost all trace of human beings. Around Santiago, everything was heavily snow-covered, towards north the landscape becomes more grey.
At half past three in the afternoon we are at the hostel, after 34 hours of travel. But, there is nobody. After 1 1/2 hours an Nachmittags um halb vier am Hostal, nach 34 Reisestunden. Nur, es ist niemand da. Nach anderthalb Stunden macht ein älterer, an elder, hearing-impaired man opens the door, eventually we have a bed. This evening, we don't want to search for a restaurant and spend a long time there. Rather we go for a short shopping in the supermarket, have a cold supper in the hostel and are in bed at 7 o'clock.
Friday, 05. AugustCalama
We fell asleep quickly, but despite the tiredness due to the long journey, we can't sleep until sunrise at seven. This morning we fetch the rental car at the airport and go to the shopping mall. Due to several detours (road construction), this is rather cumbersome in an unknown town. Changing money in the bank is a time-consuming business, it takes half an hour. In the big supermarket, we do the big shopping for the mountain tours. A few things which would have been nice cannot be found like ravioli or other canned dishes. But most things are found. Dinner today in a Pervuian restaurant, it was the closest from the hostel. We already keep up until eight in the evening.
Saturday, 06. AugustCalama - San Pedro de Atacama
The nights are long if you go to bed so early. Around two or three o'clock everybody wakes up once, being used to that at home it would be eight in the morning. But more or less, we can sleep on until seven.
After breakfast in the hostal, we load our baggage into our car which hadn't appeared too small. But it takes some optimization, at the third attempt finally everything fits.
After some time we find the way out of Calama, and an hour on an excellent road brings us to San Pedro de Atacama. First we refill the tank, who knows when we'll get some fuel again. We soon find an affordable room 1; our walkabout through the village yields an arrangement of bouncing castles on the plaza. There's a lot of attractions on the "day of the child", for Nina a very lucky coincidence. At the parking lot there is a fairground with several different rides which are all free of charge. In the evening we have a good pizza in a restaurant.
Sunday, 07. AugustVisit at ALMA
Reserved months ago, today our visit of the radio telescope ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Micrometer Array) takes place. Since end of the 90s, one had found that the area around San Pedro offers unique environmental conditions for radio astronomy: very dry, hight altitude observation points minimize the absorption by atmospheric water vapour. The project ALMA is currently the world's most modern and powerful radio telescope. 66 single telescopes on the Chajnantor high plain, each with 12 m diameter, can be interconnected to different configurations which
- simply speaking - in the best case correspond to a single radio telescope of up to 16 kilometers diameter. The interconnection of these 66 telescopes is of course absolute high-tech, so not only the signal propagation time due to the different antenna positions must be compensated. It even is an issue that when they follow a certain object, the dishes will see different delays due to their inclination. All these calculations are done in a supercomputer which is situated close to the telescopes at more than 5000 m altitude, being waited by specialists with oxygen masks.
An English language tour explains us construction, operation and function of the site. The tour does not lead to the single telescopes, because they are at more than 5000 m altitude which is clearly too high for unacclimatized visitors. Besides, actually there is about 70 km/h wind up there, which would not be very comfortable. Altogether, however, the visit was clearly worthwile. And, it is for free, but the engagement of our guide was clearly more than what we could expect for our 1 Euro contribution which was paid by each taxpayer of EU/USA/elsewhere for this 1 000 000 000 US$ project.
In the afternoon we go to Valle de la Luna for the sunset. Since 20 years ago, a lot has changed here. The access costs an entry fee, and hiking is only allowed along a few marked paths. Considering the present visitor numbers, the sand dunes would surely be washed out. In 1994, we had been practically alone in Valle de la Luna.
Monday, 08. AugustCerro Jorquencal (4971 m)
First acclimatization mountain. On the way towards Tatio, we see Vizcachas and Guanacos. At 4550 m, we park the car in the puna and hike up Cerro Jorquencal (4971 m).
From here, it is only a grass and scree hill, but the altitude makes it tough. After all, we are not at all acclimatized yet.
From Jorquencal, we go back towards San Pedro de Atacama in order to find a campsite at an acceptable altitude. Tatio at 4200 m would be too hight for the first night. A bit above the Baños de Puritama we find a good spot at 3650 m. The evening is short: Already before the sun sets, it becomes cold and we disappear in our tents.
Tuesday, 09. AugustAttempt at Cerro Corona
By car, we go down again and continue to the southern side of San Pedro. Beyond Talabre at the road to Laguna Lejía, we find a flat area to pitch the tents at 3900 m. Henning and I go on to attempt Cerro Corona (5291 m). Already at the pass at 4350 m it is very windy. After 400 height meters, the wind besomes a nuisance, it has steadily increased and now blows with about 60 km/h. It is hindering the strenuous hike, and further up it probably will be more uncomfortable. We turn back.
At the campsite, Claudia, Marion, and Nina have pitched the tents, needing to level many treacherous small holes. Whereever we put our foot here in the sand, it will sink into a hole. 20 years ago we had experienced the same thing at our camp at Láscar - did we end up on exactly the same campsite?
Since we have a lot of time until dusk, we undertake an excursion to Laguna Lejía by car. From there on the backside of Láscar, the extinct volcanoes Aguas Calientes and Acamarachi can nicely be seen. We are planning to climb the latter, but from the other side.
Wednesday, 10. AugustCerro Corona (5291 m)
In the morning, we have -10°C in the shadow around the tent. Unfortunately it is the shadow of Láscar which hides the warming sun for some time. Nina and I stay at the camp, we explore the surroundings and meet some Llamas which thoroughly sniff at us. The only one of the other three to reach the summit of Cerro Corona is Claudia. Though the wind was better than yesterday, the scree in the higher sections was very unpleasant.
In the afternoon we dismount our camp and drive back to San Pedro. There is a room in the same hostal as last time; besides a shower we can enjoy a meal without having to use the camping stove.
Thursday, 11. AugustDrive to Tatio
Our permit schedules Cerro Toco (5604 m) for tomorrow, and afterwards Acamarachi (6046 m). We don't judge ourselves really fit for that altitude; we visit the carabineros in oder to change date and sequence of the mountains. After an initial "impossible", 45 minutes later a changed and reduced list is noted in the book of the station, and our absence at those mountains is thus registered.
Food purchase, bakery, a decent lunch - and we set out for Tatio. Near the village Tatio we encounter a beautiful lake where guanacos,ducks and many other animals enjoy the day. As we drive on, more and more dust enters the car interior. As we get off the car near the Geysers, we see the reason: The rear window is not there. After a few kilometers searching for the window, we suddenly understand what happened: The window was downed due to a wrong switching signal. I would not know how I could do that intentionally; but we soon find the switch to move it up again in the manual, and we have a rear window again.
We stay the night at the entrance of the Tatio Geysers, with the luxury of real toilets.
Friday, 12. AugustTatio Geysers; Tatio Sur (5200 m)
During the night a few cars could be heard. At half past five, it gets busy around us. In the cold of -13°C, we pack together everything except for the tents, pay the entrance fee and drive to the geysers. The vapor clouds are most impressive around sunrise, but after a while we feel cold. In the sun at our campsite, we have breakfast while busloads of tourists queue for the toilets.
From the pass south of the geyser basin, Marion, Henning, and I go to climb Tatio Sur. Unfortunately I am the only one to have the nerve to climb the 200 m steep cliff of completely loose debris and cross the big, flat summit plateau. The GPS shows 5210 m; according to our experiences here hitherto (which were confirmed on the other summits, too) the reading is about 9 meters too high. So the summit probably is 5200 m.
At the evening we find a nice camp site at an abandoned sulfur transfer station at Cerro Colorado, at the rim of an extended high plateau. Here no mountains should cause long shadows, so we expect to have the sun for as long as possible. There is no wind, and it is completely silent. No cars, no planes, no birds - the silence is surprising. When walking around, we only hear our own breathing and the blood in our veins. The altitude of 4550 m is once again 250 meters above the last sleeping height. That should be ideal for acclimatization. We had done the first steps up to 3900 m rather quickly, now we should slowly consolidate for around 4500 m.
Saturday, 13. AugustCerro Colorado (5748 m)
Slept very well last night. In the morning it is only -5°, and soon the sun comes. We spend an easy relax and acclimatization day around the campsite, where we meet several vizcachas. In addition we explore a rather strange accumulation of big rocks in the middle of the plain. It must have been a dangerous time here when that had been formed (by a long throw from the distant volcanoes),
Meanwhile Claudia is climbing Cerro Colorado (5748 m). The route from here along the left side of the mountain is rather loose and somewhat delicate in the upper part. After seven hours she is back at the campsite.
Sunday, 14. AugustAttempt at Sairecabur (5971 m)
After another night at the sulfur mine we drive back towards San Pedro, but we take the western side road to Sairecabur (i.e., not the road to Azufreira Saciel). Of course, there are no signposts, but the map (Openandromaps on the smartphone) is quite good. The road has poor quality, and some snow becomes more and more obstructive. Already at 5130 m we get stuck in the snow, our car has not enough chassis height. A pity, the road would lead up to 5700 meters.
I try the summit from there, following the road. That turns out to be way too far, the road is crossing several flat plains. The last one at 5500 meters takes me 40 minutes without even a meter of height gain. I walk until the observatory which has a lonely position at the edge of the plain. Even if the summit trail would be steeper now, it would take another three hours. Too much for the current lenght of a day, and the walk up to here was quite strenuous, too. 5530 m is my turnaround point.
In the afternoon we return to San Pedro; overnight stay in the hostal. This time there are only four-bed rooms without private bathroom available.
Monday, 15. AugustRest day in San Pedro
Tuesday, 16. AugustApproach to Acamarachi
Having enjoyed good food in San Pedro for two days, we come to the central part of our "expedition", Volcán Acamarachi (Pili). We also have Cerro Toco on our permit, but we will spare it for later.
The new road to Paso de Jama (CH-27) is paved and in an excellent state. Beyond San Pedro de Atacama it directly leads up the uniform slopes at the right side of Licancabur - 2000 meters of altitude gain at the first 30 kilometers. From the dry desert of the Salar we cross a puna grass vegetation zone in order to end in the cold rock desert of the high puna at almost 5000 meters.
The road is heavily frequented by car transporters, we see several trucks along the road, deposited or abandoned in different states. In most cases apparently the traction engine didn't do the right job.
After the branch-off of the road to Bolivia, the CH-27 winds through vast high plains at an altitude of 4500 to 4800 m, surrounded by many volcano cones. The emptiness of the landscape is somewhat bizarre.
Wednesday, 17. AugustVolcán Acamarachi (Pili), 6046 m
Camp 1 gets sunshine from the sunrise on (7 o'clock), so we can leave alreade at half past seven. After all, we have a lot to do today.
After half an hour the terrain becomes tedious without being steep enough for a good altitude gain: irregular rough and loose rubble. Over and over a cold and annoying northern wind.
Slowly the slope steepens, and after three hours we are at the saddle of the "shoulder" at 5460 m. Here, the actual summit cone is piled up, and it looks not easy.
But we find some traces on the left ridge. Time and again we see something like a small path in a steep walking terrain, soon disappearing again in the rubble.
Sometimes it is useful to use the hands, but it is not real climbing. Further above the slope reclines; here we meet a Chilean descending from the summit on a solo trip, having started at three at night from his car (below our basecamp).
Thursday, 18. AugustCerro Negro de Pujsa (5135 m)
The night was cold: The zipper of the inner tent was broken, so we didn't sleep very well, and we have to wait longer here than in camp 1. The sun comes no earlier than half past eight, and before this time no resonably intelligent being would leave the tent.
Friday, 19. AugustSalar de Atacama
Sightseeing program today. We begin with Laguna Cejar, but don't enter - having seen the signs indicating an entrance fee of $15000 per person.
Maybe one can have a bath in there, but for 20 Euros?
Saturday, 20. AugustCerro Toco (5604 m)
Without a stay in the tent, we leave from the hostal to Cerro Toco. Also here a radiotelescope is operating, and the road is in good condition. We can drive up to 5250 m without problems.
For the first time, we are not alone at a mountain: four or five all terrain vehicles are parked along the road, all of them obviously Toco visitors.
At the parking, again we find an inexorable wind. Marion and Henning soon feel too cold, Nina anyway, and the retreat to the car.
Claudia and I reach the summit in two hours. Probably this is the most unextensive 5000m peak at all. We meet several groups of Chileans, escaping from the wind and mostly chilled to the bone. Some of them walk in sneakers.
Sunday, 21. AugustValle de la Luna
There is no big motivation for archeological education today, so it is (almost) a rest day. In the afternoon we visit the places of Valle de la Luna which we had omitted last time due to lack of time: A long cave3 in the salty rock is interesting especially for Nina. The stone columns Tres Marias are quite far from looking like three Marias. The salt mine at the very end offers interesting insights into the earlier mining activities in the region.3Important: Take a headlight or lamp with you!
Monday, 22. AugustCerro Toco (5604 m)
We start another attempt for Toco, because two days ago Henning and Nina could not go up in the windy weather as they had not enough warm clothes. Today we are equipped better. Big surprise at the parking: It is calm. Further up there is a slight wind, but far from the day before yesterday. We can even go without jacket. In such good conditions, all five of us reach the summit (5604 m). Nina climbs her first 5000 m peak without effort. This is a nice ending for our mountaineering activities here.
Tuesday, 23. AugustSan Pedro - Calama
Back in Calama, we happen to find a good accomodation rather quickly - the "Hostal" sign near the gas station brought us to two tidy and affordable rooms with breakfast and improvisational parking (i0n the courtyard).
Wednesday, 24. AugustChiu Chiu / Lasana
In the morning we make an excursion to Chiu Chiu, 30 km north of Calama. The village looks similar to San Pedro de Atacama 20 or 30 years ago: a plaza with a nice, old church, two tiny food stores, a tavern.
The small valley of Rio Loa further above is nicely green, llamas and sheep are grazing in between a large number of old, discarded cars in different states of decomposition.
Thursday, 25. AugustCalama, Chuquicamata
Last night the dogs werde unusually loud. During the day the doze on the sidewalks, at night they defend their districts more or less loudly.
Friday, 26. AugustFlight Calama - Santiago
At noon we drop the car at the airport, and we have plenty of time until our flight to Santiago is leaving.
In Santiago, we deposit the big bags at the baggage room (which is an expensive business of $25000) and use the Centropuerto bus the the city. Our pre-booked hostel is found soon, it is a rather decent hostal close to the center. After dinner we are soon in bed, tomorrow we have to start early - we have to be at the airport at half past seven.
Saturday, 27. August / Sunday, 28. AugustFlight back Santiago - Buenos Aires - Madrid - München
Bus ride, fetching the baggage, check-in works perfectly. We get boarding passes only to Buenos Aires and have to look after the Iberia boarding passes there, but the baggage is checked until Munich. Well in time we fly to Buenos Aires where the weather is really ugly: 10°C, rain. We have to wait half an hour in the plane until the door can be opened, apparently it was blocked by freezing. The delay makes us a bit nervous, we only have 1 1/2 hours to the next flight. The way to the gate of the continuation flight is quite long, but we get the boarding passes until Munich and have enough time (but you don't know before if time is short or not). The long flight to Madrid is packed to capacity, and we hardly find any sleep on the central seats. At least one can spend the time watching movies.
The chocolate which was offered at breakfast must have contained considerable traces of peanut which we adults had not tasted: Nina (peanut allergy!) complains about stomach pain and uses all available sickness bags to empty her stomach. Unfortunately the Fenistil drops are in unaccessible the checked baggage. So at Madrid airport we locate a pharmacy which has a comparable allergy medicine. We have to cross the security check several times on the search for the medicine, but in the end everything is good.
On the flight to Munich, Nina's stomach is quiet again; flight and train journey home proceed as scheduled, and we are at home around 5 p.m. Since we had entered the plane in Calama, we have been on the way for 44 hours.
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