There is no doubt that Chile is a country of extremes. Having started off in the freezing, wet and windy deep south, passed through wild Patagonia and the lush lake region and sultry wine valleys, we were now headed to the Atacama Desert in the North, the driest non-polar desert in the world. Its 50 times drier than Death Valley in the US. Some weather stations in this desert have never recorded a single drop of rain. Soil samples are remarkably similar to Mars, and NASA tests its Mars rover vehicles here.
After a few unremarkable days in the capital Santiago, catching up on schoolwork, we continued our journey North. The altitude of San Pedro de Atacama, a small town on the border with Bolivia where we based ourselves, is around 2400m (1000m higher than the highest point in the UK!), so I felt it would be a good place to start the acclimatization process required for the next leg – up and over the Andes into Bolivia, reaching nearly 5000 metres at times.
I know from past experience that Altitude sickness is no joke.
We stayed in a very rustic but perfectly acceptable hostel, about 15 minutes’ walk from the centre (one street full of tour operators, a bank, a pharmacy, handicrafts and some cafes/restaurants). It was strange to suddenly be on the ‘Gringo trail’ – the place was full of backpackers and hippy types and old ladies in traditional Andean clothes selling crafts.
One day we ventured out into the desert with a guide – while not a fan of tours, the extremes of this place – heat, dryness, altitude – made it seem like a good idea to go accompanied, especially as a lot of walking was involved. We stopped at various points and walked for a good while through the desert, all the while drinking as much water as possible. The air was intensely dry and dusty, the sun was fierce, and every step was an effort given the altitude. Lauren was not so affected by the altitude, racing around and doing twice as much as any of the adults, seemingly not minding the heat in her tight jeans. She even rolled down the massive sand dune, then climbed it again and again to do it some more. She is so adaptable.
It was a full day, with lots of climbing and scrambling in difficult conditions, and I was utterly exhausted by the end, so we spent the next day resting up, and getting in provisions for what was to be the most physically demanding bit of our whole trip so far – crossing the Andes with four other people and a driver in a Jeep, and travelling through the Bolivian Altiplano in a very remote region with very basic facilities.