Dry is a relative term. When I read that the Atacama was the driest desert in the world, I thought, ¨huh, that´s neat.¨ When I fully experienced the fact that they only average 1 MILIMETER per YEAR (and that certainly didn´t transpire during our visit), I was very impressed. Now, that´s dry. We probably doubled the yearly average with the tears within our group when the town announced there was NO water and would be NO showers for three days (not even the meager drip showers). Not me of course... what a great excuse to be ¨natural¨(my word for what other people term ¨dirty¨or ¨grungy¨).
In case you don´t know where an oasis fits into the whole supply and demand scheme, supply is essentially absent which skyrockets the prices on everything. Luckily, JooYeon has been rapidly developing her culinary skills and training Gyu as an assistant chef so our meals were bare minimum and we did all the sightseeing etc. on our own instead of with paid tours. Our hostel was a particularly entertaining one (despite the lack of water and electricity) so we found ways to kill the midday heat fairly easily...
The one (very worthwhile) exception where we paid for some entertainment was our last full day when we all rented bikes and rode off into the Valle de los Muertos (Valley of the Dead).
The landscaping was surreal and it definitely helped that we virtually had the place to ourselves. Joo hadn´t ridden a bike much before so our ride on some of the narrow rocky ledges was a bit horrifying (probably moreso for me to coach her through it!) Anyway, although she loved the views, the tension was a bit much after awhile and Gyu was feeling tired too so they returned to town while Kiwi and I charged on deeper into the desert.
There was no straight path since the Valley of the Dead is essentially a valley full of high sand mounds. I never did find out if there was anyone actually buried beneath the mounds, we were just doing our best to stay on the crusted waterway (from whenever that 1 milimeter fell) because whenever we broke through, we would sink down into the sand making biking impossible. We eventually came out to a clearing where we proceeded to walk our bikes up a large sand dune. And, remembering our isolated situation, you can imagine our surprise when we finally reached the top and found... Gi Sawn! If you go back a couple entries, you´ll see that she was the Korean girl we met in Arequipa, Peru (the one that had been mugged). We had a happy reunion chatting for a bit and then headed our separate ways.
We climbed even higher to a baby mountain peak where we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape including the entire Valley of the Dead we had just biked through. We were alone, except for a handful of stone towers. I remember reading in the Old Testament about how several religions had ¨high places.¨I can easily fathom why, with the feelings created on top - the mix of adrenaline and absolute peace is quite a high. We stayed up there for awhile - I meditated/prayed while Kiwi pretended to be dead and then built his own little tower.
Next, we jumped on our bikes and did some roughriding to reach an overlook on what I think was the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)... the disadvantage of not having a guide along is that you don´t really know for sure where you´re at, but the advantage is that you get to fully savor the ¨where you´re at.¨ And this is what we did. We both just found our own little spots and sat quietly for awhile... eventually we laid down to soak in the sky as well as the land. I´m not sure what it was about the moment, but it was transcendent for both of us. There was no sound except a slight breeze shooting past our ears and the crisp desert air of sunset cleared both of our minds. As Kiwi told me later, it was the first time in his entire life he has ever experienced such a moment of deep inner Peace. Hearing that, coupled with the fact that it had been quite awhile for myself also, made it the most special moment of our journey so far.
Feeling energized and refreshed, and with large grins, we biked a little further to an entranceway where we could actually descend into the Valley of the Moon. One whole face was a steep sand dune and Kiwi took a deep breath and then lunged off the edge, running down the face with huge leaps. I was next and decided to mix it up a bit by rolling down and eventually climbing back up and doing somersaults down which quickly accelerated to an exhilirating pace. Laughing, we regained our balance and dumped out the sand from our shoes...
Since the sun had just set and we were still quite far from town with no flashlights, we said our goodbyes to the lovely valley and mounted our bikes for the 16 kilometer ride home. We made it about a half mile. I should mention that, at this point, we had no idea we were 16 kilometers from home or we probably would have started home sooner. Anyway, a half mile into the ride, Kiwi got a flat tire. We both stared at it for awhile and laughed, still feeling high from the great day. We did have a tire fixing kit with a spare tube, but unfortunately we had given it to Joo and Gyu several hours earlier when they had went home. So we started walking. And walking. Night fell, bringing with it the most glorious arrangement of stars we had seen yet (even in the oasis, there had been occasional lights or the moon blocking out some of our vision, but here there was nothing except the stars and two dark silhouettes pushing their bikes home).
Two hours later, we rolled into town to find Joo and Gyu waiting for us at the front edge of town of the oasis, discussing whether they should try to contact the police (which I´m not sure how they would have done since I don´t think the oasis has any police). Happy hugs were shared and we returned to our hostel where the two chefs had a huge candlelight dinner waiting for us. The next morning, we packed up our bags, said goodbye to the desert and Chile (and hello to Gi Sawn who happened to be taking the same bus as us) and got on the bus headed for Argentina...