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Marvels of the Atacama Desert

Exploring one of the world's most extreme environments: The Atacama Desert, Chile with Agents Tiegan Curtis and Flavia Souza.

International Tours & Travel (ITT) strive to provide clients with the latest information on products & destinations in South America along with personalised service & attention to detail. In order to keep our knowledge current, we try to visit as many new & existing destinations as often as possible to provide the client with the best possible travel experience and service from our company. Last month, agents Tiegan Curtis and Flavia Souza visited The Atacama Desert, Valparaíso & Viña del Mar and Santiago to gain a personalised insight on the main tourist destinations and hotels offered by ITT.

After checking-in at Mount Pleasant, we sat in the departure lounge with a sense of excitement to finally be two of the many passengers that we see depart on a weekly basis, en route to a wide variety of destinations. We were determined to make the most of all opportunities that may arise throughout our week-long trip, not only to ensure that we can say we had a wonderful time, but also so that we could gather plenty of first-hand experience of the various situations that our clients are potentially faced with when whenever they travel.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed (so to speak) we arrived back at the airport at 06:15 Sunday morning to check-in for our flight to Calama. A short 2 hours after taking off, we landed having just witnessed some amazing views of the Andes mountain range. Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Deserts are usually defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250mm of rain in a year – the Atacama receives less than 1mm each year. As a result, it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution. We were met at the airport by our Spanish speaking guide, who was about to drive us to our hotel, Casa Don Tomas in San Pedro De Atacama. Driving through the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand and the odd cactus was a sure sign that the next three days were about to be something completely different to anything either of us had ever experienced. We arrived at around mid-day, so we took the opportunity to have a quick look around San Pedro before we were collected for our first tour.

San Pedro is a busy town, bustling with tourists weaving their way down the narrow streets. During our quick look around, we saw several local shops selling touristic memorabilia and a large variation of currency exchanges. We were collected from our hotel at around 15:00 for our shared tour of the Moon and Death valley. Our tour was booked with an English and Spanish Speaking Guide, so he was very good at translating the interesting facts as well as stories from each stop. One of our favourite was from the Salt Valley; If you stand in complete silence in the center of the Salt Valley, you can hear loads of very faint cracking and popping noises. The native people believed that these noises were the tiny gnomes that live inside the walls trying to break their way out! In actual fact, it is caused by the extreme temperature changes between day and night – as the sun sets into nighttime the temperature can drop to around -2C, which causes the salt particles to shrink, and then as the sun rises, the temperatures increase anywhere up to the extreme highs of 55C, causing the particles to expand. If you are in the valley at the right time of day, you can hear the cracking noises echoing through the valley. After the Salt Valley we went to see Las tres Marías (the three Mary’s) in the Moon Valley. Las tres Marías are essentially 3 sculptures that have been formed through the natural process of erosion. The wind blows small sand particles trough the valley, and as they brush past the rock formations, tiny particles are chipped off – a bit like sandpaper! – over a long period of time, they have been worn down to a shape that, when observed from the right angle, resemble the figures of 3 women praying. However, a few years ago, there was an incident with a tourist that was trying to pose for a selfie with one of the Marías, and as he leaned on it, he broke a large piece of the structure off. There are still technically ‘tres Marías’, but only 2 actually resemble a ‘María’! The view of the sunset over the Moon Valley was breath-taking. The best view point to see the beautiful array of pink and orange sky was crowded with people, who all had the same idea of watching the sunset before heading back to their hotels.

We were both very excited for our tour the next day, as we were starting off at the Salt Flats, approx. 4,300 meters above sea level, with the hopes of seeing some flamingos! After a short pit-stop on the way, we stopped in the town of Toconao to see the bell tower that was built in 1750 purely from Cactus Wood. We arrived in the Salt Flats a short while after and although we did get to see some flamingos, they were very far away, in order to not disturb their natural way of life. We made our way back down to the village of Socaire where they still use the resources cultivated from the ancestral agricultural terraces. Our tour included lunch at a local kitchen before heading on to the Miñique and Miscanti salt lagoons, situated at the foothill of the Miñique and Miscanti volcanoes, with fantastic scenery of the bluish waters arising from the background volcanoes.

Tuesday involved a very early start for us, made slightly easier by the fact that we were headed to what we thought of as the highlight of our trip – the Tatio Geysers, one of the most important geothermal fields in the world. We were collected from our hotel at 0430hrs, in order to arrive at the Geysers just as the sun was rising, which makes for an amazing view! From the geysers you can see Putana Volcano, sometimes also called Jorqencal Volcano, which marks the border between Bolivian and Chilean part of Andes Mountain Range. The temperature at the Tatio Geysers was -10C when we arrived, so the driver kept the bus running with the heating on full, in case anyone wanted a quick break from the cold. As the sun rose, many tourists started changing into bathing suits and hopping into the hot springs and the geysers became less visible, so we moved on to the next part of our tour. Machuca Village is a small agricultural village located 4,000 meters above sea level with only 10 inhabitants. The village is nestled deep into one of the valleys, making it a good cardio workout walking up the steps to visit the church! While the people of Machuca are farmers, they also rely heavily on tourism, by selling drinks and local foods, including llama meat, to each batch of tourist that visits. Due to the early start, we returned to San Pedro just before midday, so we had the entire afternoon to do some further exploring the town. We visited several small shops selling local handicrafts as well as hand-made and traditional clothing. Thursday morning – we were collected from our hotel on a shared transfer bus and taken back to Calama Airport.

The brief 2-hour flight back to Santiago, was followed by an equal amount of time driving to Valparaiso. We arrived at our boutique hotel, Casa Higueras. The next morning, we were collected from the hotel to start our private city tour. This tour involves lots of walking both up and down the increasingly steep hills, but it is made completely worth it once you stop walking and take in the view. Our guide was born and raised in Valparaiso, so he took us through all of the nooks and crannies of the city that are not necessarily the main tourist areas, which gave us a real insight into what it is like to live in a city like that. Every road we walked along seemed to be adorned with murals, each with their own story. After about an hour of walking through Valparaiso, we met our driver on one of the more accessible roads, and were driven around to Viña del Mar for the second half of our tour. Viña del Mar is such a contrast to Valparaiso with a lot more open space, and with the sandy beach-front, it has more of a modern feeling. This particular tour included a  two course lunch at the Portofino Restaurant, where the menu was primarily fish and seafood, given the location! After our lunch we were driven back into Santiago, just in time to spend a few hours in the Costanera Centre and have a bit of retail therapy…

Friday consisted of a full-day city tour of Santiago, including stops at Santa Lucia Hill, Plaza De Armas, Cerro San Cristobal, the Providencia and Vitacura neighborhoods, before making one last stop at the FABA handicraft shop, which specializes in lapis lazuli jewellery - a semi-precious stone found only in Chile and Afghanistan.

Finally, Saturday was our snap back to reality, or so we thought! After traipsing through Santiago airport with our dangerously close to the 23kg limit bags, we checked-in and made our way through the airport, mentally prepared ourselves to return home after our week-long adventure. There were mixed emotions when we arrived into Punta Arenas and were told that the flight has been cancelled until Sunday due a technical fault with the aircraft; a mixture at disappointment not to be coming home, but also a sense of excitement at getting a chance to explore Punta Arenas, which was a first for both of us. On the plus side, having experienced a delay on ‘The other side’ we now know what our clients are experiencing when it happens to them.

The incredible diversity of South America, the unique wilderness of the Falkland Islands or the pure allure of the least known and last explored continent, Antarctica - begin your journey here, with us.

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