Saturday, June 11, 2016

Landing on Mars- The Landscapes of the Atacama Desert

Martian like landscape of the Atacama Desert
Martian like landscape of the Atacama Desert from above- source NASA 
My flight touches down in the middle of the Atacama Desert; I'm startled by the sign outside which states, "Welcome to Mars."
Of course, I made that up, but a few things I am not making up about the region-

  • it is the driest place on earth. The average rainfall is about 15 mm (0.6 in) per year. 
  • Some areas of the desert have seen ZERO rain in recorded history.
  • Because the region has clear skies more than 300 days a year, some of the world's largest and most advanced telescopes are positioned here to view the stars. 
  • Something like 75% of the known supply of lithium is located in the Atacama desert, mostly in Bolivia, which has the world's largest reserves, with Chile placing 2nd. 
  • Due to the landscape imitating Mars, it is here where NASA attempted to train the Mars Rover. 
  • The mission suffered a major setback when a government employee forgot to bring water, and the entire crew died of dehydration. 
From the airport in Calama, there is exactly one way to traverse the 100km to the small town of San Pedro de Atacama- via shared vans. There are several companies, but each charge exactly the same price; it reeks of collusion, but I'm unsuccessful in finding an alternate route so acquiesce. 
San Pedro de Atacama
 the main drag of San Pedro de Atacama

video: Old West streets of San Pedro

The town itself has an Old West feel to it, it's buildings made out of adobe mud, which probably is not the best choice of material in this earthquake prone region. There are 1800 permanent residents, 115% of whom work in the tourism industry, generally under the employment of the restaurants or tour operators which alternate doors as you walk down the streets.
Atacama DesertJefferson and I rent bicycles and head out with a map drawn on a napkin to explore the area, with a friendly perro (dog) who latches onto our plans, trailing us for a couple km until he's attacked by another canine and submits.  

Everyone in San Pedro owns a dog, there are so many in the streets that the joke is the town should be renamed to San Perro.
The landscape surrounding is spectacular, from the arid hills, choppy hills to the 22,000+ foot (almost 7,000 meters) volcanoes in the distance. We ride and ride, exploring as much as we possibly can before night falls. 
As hard as one might try, it's virtually impossible to get lost here, especially given the fact that there is but one road.
a few km from San Pedro
San Pedro de Atacama's Mount Rushmore
okay, it's not the Egyptian sphinx, but still pretty cool
San Pedro de Atacama's Mount Rushmore
the gateway- at the end of a steep road is a small cave

Video:  the Martian like landscape of the area
a herd of llamas 
clear skies of the Atacama
clear skies of the Atacama
We ascend a steep mountain path, which was a dangerous and speedy obstacle course of large stones on our way back down, a stupid thrill for us given the associated physical penalties of crashing.

At the top of the trail is a tunnel barreling its way through the mountain. It's fairly long, and too dark to ride through. We walk our bikes through this dim purgatory, until eventually a bright white light beckons us forward.
"Go towards the light!" I yell to Jefferson, "Go towards the light!!" In the below video you will experience and see, not only a NDE (Near Death Experience) but also what it is like to enter the other side of the great divide.
video: Near Death Experience and the entrance to heaven

Heaven, once entered (see video above) is a magnificently quiet place, one of utter solitude, and God's whisper the zephyrs blowing in our ears. Of course, tempting as it might be, we didn't stay, there's still too much of this world to explore. Plus we forgot to bring water.

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