After two and a half months traveling in developing countries, entering Chile came with sticker shock. Prices on basic items went up close to ten-fold from Bolivia. My usual $6-$8 a night (breakfast included) for accommodation rocketed towards $20+ and nothing beyond instant coffee was provided...maintaining my budget was going to be much trickier here.
A little time was needed to decompress from the craze of developing world life, and I found refuge in the comfortable yet uber touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama. I embraced the functioning infrastructure and a delicious French bakery that served up croissants as good as they do on the Seine. As the name implies, San Pedro rests within the Atacama Desert, known to be the driest place on Earth; regions of this arid landscape can go 400+ years without rain and it is believed some may not have received precipitation during human history.
No moisture means no clouds. It’s always clear and in conjunction with a multitude of other meteorological and environmental factors (elevation, temperature, lack of light pollution, etc...) it is considered the best region in the world to view the night’s sky. The world's largest land based telescopes are located in the general area, including the EVLT (European Very Large Telescope), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope*, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Unfortunately, do to timing I didn’t get to visit these amazing pieces of equipment as they only offer tours when the arrays are not in use. Nevertheless, having an opportunity to check out the same sky our most advanced optical/radio technology is scouting was a decent consolation prize.
Downtown San Pedro is some what of a desert Disney Land. It solely exists as a tourist hub, and this generally means there is little to offer the budget traveler. However, one attraction far exceeded its presented value, and in such a manner that I would call it a must see in Chile: The Valle de la Luna.
From San Pedro, rent a bike and in 15k you enter, keeping with the space theme, a truly martian landscape. It’s so similar in fact that NASA tests its Mars Rovers and many ‘life on Mars’ research endeavours take place within. Extreme heat/cold/wind/dust you name it, provides a perfect environment to stress test robots and people.
The valley is not that big, and it can be explored by bike in an afternoon, but the sites are spectacular in every way. Salt caves carved out by ancient waterways shimmer as headlamps bounce off embeded crystal in the rock. Sand dunes stand tall on the edge of wildly ornate tectonic and volcanic spires. As sunset wrapped around the undulating structures it created extreme contrast and an ethereal glow. Biking back to town the desert heat turned to chill and I knew San Pedro had run it’s course, it was time for a beer, and time to move on.
I hopped a flight to Santiago and felt a strange sense of homecoming back in a big city. Subways whipped through tunnels and hipster university students served pour over coffee alongside organic brunch (which I obviously partook in). But Chile’s price bracket was costing me out and a plan was needed to stop the bleeding. Having known this would be the case, I began scouting out volunteer ‘Workaway’ opportunities a few weeks prior. ‘Workaway’ is a great platform linking travelers with ‘employers’ where a set amount of work is traded for room and board. The terms are agreed upon between the traveler and host, but there is no formal commitment so if either party isn’t happy with the situation they simply end it.
Abi and I decided we would embark on this adventure solo. Traveling alone is a very different experience than with a companion, and if you have never done it I would recommend giving it a try. It’s a great way to test your self reliance, meet new people, force unique experiences, and in my case, work on elementary school Spanish. I had set up a deal with a hostel located in ultra rural Chile outside of Malalcahuello. Ever heard of it? Of course not! No one in Chile has even heard of it; it’s a town of about 500 people (which I didn’t necessarily realize upfront). The location is in the heart of volcanic Araucania Andina surrounded by national parks. The hostel had a garden, mountain bikes, and access to great hiking so I gave it a shot. After a quick day in Santiago I bought a bus ticket and was off to Malalcahuello and Hostal Ruta 181.
*Basically this is a 3.2 gigapixle digital camera being used in conjunction with AI to identify thousands of black holes, asteroids, and all kinds of other things every night and way faster than a traditional observatory. Google plans to survey the entire visible sky of the region and make Terabytes of the collected data public daily to allow amature astronomers to make wild discoveries...EPIC NERDAGE