Thursday, October 15, 2009
(old) Salt flat rock city
As the sun rose, I wiggled my toes, then my fingers. They were fully functional no hypothermia and frostbite for me. Actually, for all that drama I was surprisingly warm and toasty unlike Adrian who had accidentally kicked off his blankets in the night and woke up with his teeth chattering. And unlike our driver who I saw sleeping in the back of the frost-covered jeep when I slipped out to use the loo. But maybe that sun would mean a warmer day. The bitter wind had disappeared and that definitely helped. A warm shower would have really helped too, le sigh. At least none of us were able to shower so any b.o. would be impossible to trace. Breakfast was just as simple as our accommodations had been: bread and coffee and the only milk on the table was chocolate milk. It actually made the instant coffee taste pretty good – a cheap and easy mocha I guess. Adrian sat at the table and patiently awaited the arrival of some eggs but when the driver started the jeep he knew he was out of luck. We jumped in the back again this time to start the day. Our day of rocks.
Our first stop was a group of red rocks that we’d seen a hint of in Villa Mar. The centrepiece was called el Mondial or World Cup and I suppose if you squinted it sorta looked like the trophy. There were also a few of those rock trees I’d hoped to see. Not actual petrified trees but wind-eroded rocks that, once again, sorta looked like trees when you squinted. The rest of the gang went climbing up the cliff but I wasn’t up for that and headed towards the cave further back. Along there was one rock formation that reminded me of the Easter Island heads that we probably wouldn’t be visiting (too expensive). Just beyond them was a cool cave that had been carved out of the rock by the wind. Inside the wind had created these swiss cheese niches that lots of birds were now using as ready-made nests. Cooler than the view from the top would have been, I think. Although as a non-climber and hiker, I may have been biased.
We regrouped at the jeep, climbed in and then drove for an hour on rough roads across the desert not seeing many other jeeps. Actually, we didn’t see any other jeeps, surprising considering yesterday’s race to the parking spots. I guess the other groups had all chosen to the lake route. When we stopped for a break in a small town I wondered if perhaps we should have chosen the lake route at all. The view along the route was unique but the barren land was getting a bit samey. And the town was another small one with nothing to explain why we had stopped. There was some weird chicken sculpture in the town square and on the gazebo there were odd cartoon paintings of a very sickly looking Minnie Mouse and Goofy complete with Nike branding. Perhaps this was where we were supposed to contemplate the evils of copyright infringement. Or perhaps the driver just wanted a break from us as none of us could find him when we wanted to leave (5 minutes later) and had to wait until he materialized (30 minutes later). He didn’t really offer an explanation and we piled back in so he could drive us to another non-descript small town so we could stop for lunch. I’m not faulting the towns, they were tiny outposts in the middle of the desert, just curious why we were stopping.
Lunch was soup, rice and llama and there was plenty of it even if it wasn’t the tastiest. Good thing we were all getting used to bland food. The highlight of the meal was dessert. It was Jello (or jelly to you Brits) and none of the Europeans knew what it was. They watched as Adrian gleefully grabbed a serving. His enthusiasm enticed Bart to give it a go but he was less than impressed. Oh well, I guess jello won’t be taking off on the Continent any time soon. Meanwhile, Kai went to check out the accommodations at this place. He reported they were a step above the ones we’d had last night but sill nothing like the pictures we’d been shown when we had booked. Somehow we all started to discuss the driver’s name which we still didn’t know and now it was too late to ask. I decided that Amigo would probably get his attention and probably confuse him less than shouting out Rubregenerto.
After lunch it was off to our next rock formation outside of town (photo above). Yup, more rocks but at least these ones had an interesting story. The locals had used to use one of the natural shelters as a church until they’d gotten the money together to build an actual one. Considering how far from the small town these rocks were, I’m not surprised they were such bad cartoon painters. They had to spend all their time walking too and from church rather than perfecting their painting technique. Amigo stopped the car and began leading up up one of the tall rock faces. Kai, Anna, Bart and Adrian followed him while Tony and I ditched the hike to check out the church. It didn’t look like a church but the nature of this shelter was still super cool. A circular area carved out by the wind, big enough to hold the locals for Sunday service, although without a roof I can imagine rainy days made services uncomfortable. When Adrian came scrambling down from the lookout point I took him to see it. Just beyond the church there was another sheet of rock –really it was as thin as a sheet of paper. Despite that and the giant crack down the middle of it, it was still upright. Better yet there was a human-sized hole at the bottom of the crack which Adrian promptly jumped into so I could take a picture of him. Then he made me do it, but it was kinda scary. It seemed like it would come crashing down on me at any moment. Of course, as Adrian was quick to point out, it had been there for hundreds of years and wasn’t likely to come down in the next few minutes - touch wood.
Amigo called us all back to the jeep and we were off along the dusty roads once again. The dust really picked up but it wasn’t because of the jeep. The wind had caused a minor dust storm in our path. We quickly closed all the windows and the vents but we could still taste the dust in the jeep until we got through it. Just on the other side of the cloud was another small town. Originally it had been a little stop along the railway tracks but now it was 90% deserted. Adrian and I were excited at the prospect of the ghost town but we were alone. We jumped out and began exploring the empty buildings. If 10% still lived here we never saw them and the only evidence was the neglected cemetery which had a sprinkling of recently (recent as in the last year or 10) laid decorations. There was no sign of life except for the water leaking out of the water tower and a distant cement factory that was just as still as the town itself. Adrian and I would have stayed longer but we could feel the others getting antsy.
The rest of the afternoon was a lot of driving and more rocks and more small towns. We stopped at one for almost an hour and once again we couldn’t figure out why. It was obvious we had all had our fill of rocks and small villages but I was still glad we weren’t doing another day of lakes. Eventually Amigo resurfaced. I’m guessing the breaks were mostly for him as we were covering a lot of distance today and it couldn’t have been fun to spend that much time behind the wheel. In fact the last leg of the day was a long one on really really bad roads to our accommodation. The road ended and the sand changed to hard packed dirt with white frosting that was salt (but at least not ice) We were headed to the salt flats and the supposedly good accommodation, the one we assumed we had seen in the photos. On the horizon we could see the white glow of the flats but that was tomorrow. At San Juan we turned right and around a big hill. Behind it was an even smaller town and just beyond it a hill with the hostel where we’d be staying. Bart admitted that he didn’t think he’d find a pub here either.
No there was no pub but when we walked into the building the first thing we saw was a dining room with a bar. The boys were immediately pleased and we were all a bit more optimistic. But alas our room was another dorm room. It did however have a shower. Adrian immediately saddled up to the bar while I waited for the hot water to be turned on so I could scrub off the last two day’s dust and grime. The others went out to explore the small town. They were back before the hot water was on and went to join Adrian at the bar. Soon the shower was ready and I jumped in. It was probably the best shower ever and I made sure to leave plenty of hot water for the rest of the gang.
Dinner was an improvement too. There was a big spread of soup, rice and chicken. Yes I’m expressing excitement about rice and chicken. There was even lemon cake for dessert. So the accommodation wasn’t the greatest but the food wasn’t anything to complain about. We tried to convince Amigo to eat with us but he told us the guides always eat together. Oh well at least there wasn’t going to be any awkward name moments. But before he left to hang out with his fellow guides he asked us if we wanted to get up to experience sunrise on the salt flats. Since there was nothing much to do once it got dark and we knew we’d all be heading to bed shortly after dinner, we thought why not. Of course that meant we had to get up at 4:30 am to leave at 5. Oy vey. But even with the bar we were all in bed by 9pm.