Like Nowhere Else on Earth ~ Atacama Desert, Chile (Part II)

There are countless ways to see the Atacama. Because it is so vast, a local guide is key to experiencing its intense beauty. Since there are tour companies on almost every block in San Pedro, it pays to do your homework first, as there is always someone ready to grab you off the street and entice you with their colorful photos.

Given how much I loved my first tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones, who seems to steadfastly adhere to their motto “quality time in the Atacama”, I booked a second tour, and this time I would have my hubby by my side and Pablo as our guide once again. 🙂 Valle de la Luna, also part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, was our tour of choice.

The tour began at the CosmoAndino office where our little group of roughly a dozen hopped onto an awaiting van. A short drive outside of San Pedro we stopped at the Mirador Piedra Del Coyote for some photos of this windswept landscape, warming us up for what was to come.

From here we jumped back on the van for the short drive to Mars Valley, where the real adventure began. The soil here has been compared to that of Mars, hence the name. NASA has used this region to test instruments for future Mars’ missions.

Hiking along the rim of a vast red rock canyon rimmed with towering mountains and volcanos, sand dunes rose at dizzying angles before us, the steepest the perfect setting for sandboarding.

Trying their “feet” at sand boarding. Not as easy as it looks.

Pablo took us back in geologic time as we hiked to the point, then proceeded to share our next adventure, running down a 230-meter (755 feet) sand dune to join up with our van parked far below us. That sounded intriguing, except none of us could see how we were going to get down from the top of the canyon to the top of the sand dune. As we continued our trek, Pablo joked about making sure we all had our travel insurance cards handy.

Our escape route was finally made known and we were helped down from the rim. Pablo assured us there was no danger, then proceeded to begin running down the steep dune, encouraging us to join him, running in a zigzag fashion. We all giggled as we sank to our shins in loose sand. Halfway down we stopped on a ridgeline for photos and removed our shoes. There was nothing better than pulling off hiking boots we had lived in for the past two months and playing in the warm sand.

With huge smiles on our faces, we piled into the van and headed to Moon Valley, a striking lunar landscape formed by eroding salts and minerals. Several mountain ranges surround this region, as well as a chain of volcanos, not surprising, as this stretch of Chile falls within the Pacific Ring of Fire. The most active in northern Chile is 5592-meter tall (18,346 ft.) Lascar, which looms over Lake Miñiques.

Gnarled fingers of rock reaching skyward came into view as we walked through red-rock sand rimmed with salt. One of the more famous formations in this area is “Tres Maries”, created by gravel, clay, salt, and quartz, worked by the whims of wind and erosion for over one million years.

We found one of the more interesting structures in Moon Valley to be the “Amphitheatre”, part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain), formed by horizontal accumulations of sand, clay, salt, and movements in the earth’s crust.

The action of wind, with a little water thrown in for good measure, created a sequence of peaks that are similar to the bellows of an accordion. Some see a resemblance to the Colosseum in ancient Rome. I have to agree.

Our final hike was up to a vantage point overlooking a ridge skirted in dunes, with the Amphitheatre as a backdrop. This is where one hopes to get the iconic shot of the moon rising over the Atacama, as well as a sunset shot bursting with color. We were not confident of either as clouds had chased us all day, with rain a possibility, a most unusual occurrence in this land devoid of moisture. We saw neither the moon nor an enchanting sunset, but still labeled this a magical day.

Moon Valley iconic shot. Photo credit – kimkim.com.

As I perched on the ridgeline overlooking this ethereal void, I mused how an area so remote, so empty of life, could make me feel so alive, so full. I was reminded of the quote:

“Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.” 

Next Up: Night Sky, a Stroll through San Pedro, and Final Thoughts

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Shifting, Ever-Changing ~ White Sands National Monument ~ Alamogordo, NM

As we looked west to the San Andres Mountain range rising from the desert floor, wave after wave of blinding white seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, rolling out to the horizon.  We had arrived at one of the world’s great natural wonders, White Sands National Monument.

miles of white sand

Approximately 15 miles outside of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico lies the world’s largest gypsum dune field, 275 square miles of white, glistening sand dunes, ever-shifting, ever-changing.  Technically this should not be here, as gypsum is soluble in water, which makes it a very rare form of sand.  Typically, rain and snow high in the mountains carry dissolved gypsum to rivers, which then flow to the sea.  But the Tularosa Basin is not typical; no river drains this desert land so the gypsum that collects here becomes trapped, along with various other sediments.

During periods of rain or snow, water evaporates in the Tularosa Basin, breaking the gypsum down into a crystalline form known as selenite.  Freezing, thawing, wetness and dryness break the crystals down even further into fine grains of sand.  As the wind tosses them along the ground, theses tiny grains crash into one another, scratching their surface.  These scratches change the way light reflects off the sand particles, causing them to appear white.

White Sands is a living laboratory, providing scientists an understanding into our past and a peek into our future, as they explore the gypsum dune field on Mars.

As we drove the 8-mile loop road through the monument, we had the feeling we would begin sliding at any moment, as it appeared we were driving on an icy, snow-packed road, with snowdrifts as far as the eye could see.  I wondered what keeps dunes like this, so exposed to the wind and weather, from simply blowing away.  New Mexico does have its fair share of high winds with so much open desert.  I learned that the dunes can shift west to east up to 30 feet per year but it is ground water, found 12-36″ below the surface that keeps the dunes at 100% humidity year-round, helping to stabilize these massive sand piles.

Looking out over this vast expanse of white, you would think that nothing could live here, but many species of plants and animals do just that, having adapted and evolved over time to a white pallor that provides the perfect camouflage.  The bleached earless lizard is one who is coping well to a life without color.

Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset
Terry, looking out over the Sacramento Mountains, at sunset

Many come here to slide down the massive dunes, purchasing wax-coated sleds in the visitor center’s gift shop.  I decided to let the kid in me run barefoot up and down the dunes, while Terry, who had cut his toe earlier in the day, kept shoes one, shaking his head as he watched me run up one dune and down another.

As the sun began to dip below the San Andres Mountains, we sat watching in awe, as this wonder of nature was wrapped in a golden glow.

Sunset over the San Andres Mountains
Sunset over the San Andres Mountains

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Cool Little Coastal Town ~ Florence, OR

Old Town Florence Boardwalk

Nestled between the Siuslaw (Sigh-oo-slaw) River and the Pacific Ocean is the cool little coastal town of Florence.

Logging, agriculture, and commercial fishing have been the mainstays in this little coastal gem but tourism is steadily increasing as the town has been discovered.  Florence is a great location to settle for a few days or weeks and branch out to explore.

When we felt the need to change plans earlier this year, Terry began to look at the state parks along the coast for our RV stops, as they had been given great reviews.  With high season fast approaching, this became a challenge so we settled on some county parks instead.  Armitage in Eugene was a great Lane County park and we’ve found another right here, Harbor Vista.  With only 38 sites and lots of vegetation between them, we can’t even see our neighbors and the steady moaning of the foghorn on the jetty lulls us to sleep at night – heavenly.

Cozy, secluded camp site

Here are a few things we would recommend should you find yourself wandering these parts:

Historic Siuslaw River Bridge

1)  Old Town Florence

Sitting right on the riverfront, Old Town has some great little boutique shops and restaurants and a quaint little harbor.   The view of the 1936 Art Deco Siuslaw River Bridge makes for quite the lovely backdrop.

Toes in the sand, feeling like a kid!

2)  Florence Beach

The beaches we have seen thus far in Oregon are so rugged and wild, with piles of bleached logs strewn along the shores like old bones.  This beach is no different and is a peaceful place to explore near sunset.  We spent some time visiting with a couple who settled here from Eugene 9 years ago. They say the fishing is grand and they often find little treasures that have washed ashore, like Japanese glass floats used in fishing nets.

Terry bracing against the wind on the jetty

3) South Jetty

Head to the south side of town; turn onto South Jetty Road; park in one of the lots; and head to the beach.  Just getting there requires a little effort to traverse the sand dunes but the reward is another lovely windswept beach where you can walk for miles.  We headed over to the south jetty after our walk  and decided to watch the kite surfers as this seemed the perfect activity for this windy day. Amazing what some of these guys can do!

Kite surfer
Buggies racing up the dunes

4)  Dune Buggies

On our way back from the jetty, we heard a deafening roar so stopped to check it out.  Dune buggies and ATV’s were tearin’ up the sand and it’s no wonder many accidents occur on these vehicles as we watched the mayhem on the dunes.  With vehicles flying in every direction, heading up steep dunes, not knowing what may be coming at you at any given moment, I was quite surprised but thankful we did not witness an accident while we sat there.  I only have two words for those who take part in this sport – TOTALLY CRAZED!

Shoreline from St. Perpetua Trail summit

5)  Cape Perpetua/Heceta Head Lighthouse

Venture out about 10 miles north of Florence on Route 101 to Cape Perpetua, where you will find a stunning headland jutting out into the Pacific.  Named by Captain James Cook in March 1778, as he sighted it on Saint Perpetua’s Day, it became part of the Siuslaw National Forest in 1908.

The Civilian Conservation Corps carved out a network of trails, built an observation point overlooking the coast, as well as a campground in this 2700 acres of old-growth spruce, Western hemlock and Douglas fir. The Forest Service followed that up with a Visitors’ Center in the 60’s and today it’s a popular spot for whale watching and exploring tidal pools.

At high tide when the ocean is turbulent, which it was not on the day we visited (insert heavy sigh here), there are some striking features to enjoy along this section of coastline.  Spouting Horn, a unique salt-water fountain, Thor’s Well, a powerful force of nature, and Devil’s Churn, a long crack in the coastal rock that fills with ocean waves that occasionally explode when incoming and outgoing waves collide are wonders I just had to be satisfied to see through photos.  Check out Thor’s Well here, Spouting Horn here, and Devil’s Churn right here.

Take the 2.6 mile hike to the summit on the St. Perpetua Trail and you will be rewarded with some fabulous views of the coastline from the West Shelter Observation Point.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Travel another 2 miles and you SHOULD be able to see some stunning views of the Heceta Head Lighthouse.  We knew there would be no tours available for this grand lighthouse that sits 205 feet above the ocean as it is undergoing an extensive renovation project which will last into late summer 2013.  What we did not know was that the entire tower is shrouded in black, almost as if she is mourning that she can’t be on display for all to see.  It was a disappointment but just means we will have to come back!

RV travels
Umpqua River Lighthouse

6)  Umpqua River Lighthouse

Six miles south of Reedsport or roughly 26 miles south of Florence stands the lovely Umpqua River Lighthouse.  Of the 9 lighthouses adorning the Oregon coastline, hers is the only one with a distinctive red and white Fresnel lens.  The very first Oregon coast lighthouse was erected on the northern spit of river here in 1857.  The one standing today is the second Umpqua River Lighthouse as the first crumbled into the river in 1861 when her foundation eroded.  This currently functioning lighthouse was built instead on the south side of the bay, standing 165 feet in elevation, with a 65 foot tower. Tours are scheduled when enough tourists are gathered together, which unfortunately was not during our visit.

By the time we end our Oregon wanderings, we will probably have seen 8 of the 9 lighthouses and I will most likely honor them with their own post.

Terry trekking up the dunes

7)  John Dellenback Dunes Trail

Six miles south of Reedsport is the John Dellenback Dunes Trail, highly recommended by our fabulous tour guides and RV buddies, Nina and Paul of Wheeling It.  In some respects I am saving the best for last, or perhaps the most entertaining, at least to us.  We were told this is a seldom traveled trail and as we ventured out the reasons became obvious.

I may have mentioned in a past post that I have an almost non-existent sense of direction, and if you do as well, DO NOT attempt this by yourself, particularly on a very breezy day as this one was.  This is a ~6-mile trail, with 4 of those miles done slogging through loose dunes, some BIG ones.  Your navigational aids are posts with blue striping to guide you to the ocean.  Imagine a trail that takes you through the forest, scampering up tall dunes, and dumps you off on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and that would be the John Dellenback Dunes Trail.  Just for fun, throw in a little wind (or a lot in this case) to toss the sand around a bit, giving you a free nature-made facial, and if you walk through these loose sands in your bare feet (and you really must), a pedicure to boot!  I mused to hubby that if we shed a few more articles imagine how polished our skin would be (he wasn’t biting)!

Navigational aid when seen through the blowing sand!
hiking
Through the forest

With the wind whipping around us and sand blowing everywhere, we thought about stories we had read of people getting lost in real deserts.  At one point, as we scaled a large dune, Terry yelled “this is insane!” but he did have a smile on his face.

hiking
Destination beach!

Call me crazy, call me senseless, I laughed throughout the journey and had a total blast!  This is a must if you are looking for a different kind of hike, one that will TOTALLY work your legs and backside.

There is definitely lots happenin’ in and around this cool little coastal town so come on over!

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