So, in the middle of the night, I was woken up by violent shaking and LOTS of dogs barking outside. I checked my phone, it said 9:19am, did some mental arithmetic and realised that since that actually meant it was 5.19am and still dark outside, it probably meant I’d rolled over funny and had a strange dream, so I went back to sleep.
When we both woke up a few hours later, the first thing I looked up was earthquakes in San Pedro, and lo and behold, during the morning at around 5.19am, there was an earthquake that reached a huge 6.2 on the Richter Scale right in San Pedro de Atacama. Neither of us could quite believe that A) I had got the time so exactly correct (thus proving J’s initial scepticism wrong) B) It was such a huge earthquake, enough to shake the bed and already be reported in the news and C) that J slept so peacefully through it. Didn’t even stir. I can sense he’ll be very helpful in the event we’re stuck in one somewhere else in the future!
That was a bit surreal, realising that I’d experienced my first earthquake; thankfully I was too sleepy to realise what was going on at the time but now I know, thinking about what it felt like and what was happening in the room is actually pretty scary!
Anyway, after going through some of the tours on offer by our hostel and trying to plan what order to do them in in order to not be complete zombies for the Salt Flats (some have VERY early starts) we headed into the little town for lunch.
It’s a strange place.
It reminds us of Paraty in that it has a small community of locals, seems to be built mostly for tourism but is also in the middle of the desert. Seriously, the mountains and volcanoes you can see from the road our hostel is on are incredible, and the fact that there is not one single cloud in the sky and the moon can be seen constantly throughout the day all adds to the slightly creepy charm of this quaint, strange, oddly placed place.
Also, the danger of the sun here is VERY real. Although the temperature might be a nice 24/25 degrees, it feels a LOT hotter and the solar radiation level is extremely high. At home, we might get up to a level 4 on the radiation scale, you know, on those rare REALLY hot summer days. Here, it is roughly between 7 and 9 (10 being the most dangerous) every single day, even though we are heading into winter period, depending on what time of day it is. So, we were lathered up in SPF and covered up.
We had a nice long lunch whilst people watching in a good spot off the main square, where dogs begged for food, buskers played excellent guitar and the birds spent a very long time attempting to steal pizza – working in tandem to distract me from one side whilst another descended and hovered like a hummingbird over my meal to pinch it from the other. It was hard work and these guys definitely aren’t shy!
In the evening we went on our first desert tour – Stargazing! We were picked up at 11pm and driven to a little cabin about half an hour away. There we were told to watch ten minutes or so of a hilarious documentary that although informative, was hugely dramatic in it’s telling of ‘the birth of a star’ and me & J couldn’t help but catch each others eye and giggle whilst the rest of our group watched on intently. Eventually though, we were led out into the garden where we were introduced to our guide and offered a drink, snacks and binoculars and then we posed for photos of us as a group next to the huge telescope bolted into the ground, then as couples with the sky lit up behind us. The sky with no lights was indescribable but unfortunately neither of our cameras are good enough to give you a photo that properly represents what it looks like – a smattering of many bright, twinkling stars across the sky looking like the real milky way. It was beautiful.
We were talked through various constellations, stars and planets and each were given turns to look through the telescope after each explanation. We saw red stars, blue stars, green stars (!), Saturn and could make out its rings, Jupiter and four of it’s moons – all with startling clarity and, the moon especially, close enough to see all of its craters and crevices. We could ask questions and used the binoculars whilst our guide used far reaching lasers to pinpoint which objects he was talking about next, and at the end he helped us take photos through the telescope lens of the moon. This was taken with our camera:
We got back home around 1.30am quite chilly and quite literally ‘spaced out’ but also totally enamoured with the desert and it’s bright busy skies.