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Archive for the ‘San Pedro de Atacama’ Category

A broken night’s sleep; more noise than usual last night and the usual waking up in the early hours to check ‘is it time to get up yet?’. My desired shower was impossible because San Pedro had run out of water the previous evening – the flow only returned as we set off.

Anyway, we stuffed the last-minute items into our bags, had a quick bowl of cereal and Jorge loaded up the car. We were off by 6.20am; the long, 90km journey to Calama. (Every time they want to pop to the supermarket, it’s a 120-mile round trip!) Maria Antonieta came too (perhaps to do some more shopping – with us paying a substantial £48 towards their petrol…).

Life on Earth is remarkably adaptable and resilient, but pretty well nothing had a foothold in this bleak, dry terrain – miles and miles of barren landscape, made even less welcoming by the landmines to our right (a remnant from the Pinochet era).

Markers counted down the kilometres in 5km intervals while I watched my watch. The journey took longer than the promised hour, so we were glad to have set off slightly early. At last the first oasis town since San Pedro came into view – it was Calama. We looped off before it and found the airport, pulling up just behind a coach from San Pedro (this would have been cheaper, but we would have had to get our bags into the centre of town).

We had about an hour before take-off, but we passed smoothly through the check-in desk and through security – they are not bothered about liquids in hand-luggage in this part of the world (we each took a 600ml bottle of water on board).

Advice to round-the-world travellers; take a six-year-old with you (or younger). This way you (usually) get priority boarding and front-row seats with lots of legroom… (And the six-year-old will get free admission into lots of places.)

All was rather boringly straightforward; we took our seats, the plane departed on time, it was a smooth flight down through the top half of Chile with the Andes all the way on our left and the coast all the way on our right. Oh yes, it got greener as we travelled 900 miles south, and the Andes started acting their height, with a liberal sprinkling of snow on the peaks.

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We landed at 10.15am at Santiago airport, and here began our Country Mouse experience. We saw shops! Not just little stalls selling drinks and nibbles, but jewellery, designer goods – Lacoste, etc. Shiny and expensive luxuries instead of the everyday necessities. Yes, this is how things are in some parts of the world, but we had quickly forgotten.

Bags collected, we took a taxi to our hotel. $15,000 (although they conveniently omit the thousands when giving you a price, to make it sound more reasonable). Yes – so this is what motorways are like…

Our driver didn’t know where our road was in Las Condes, so he made a couple of phone calls (now mobile phones have been ubiquitous throughout South America, so no culture shock there). But eventually he found the address and deposited us.

We couldn’t check in until 1pm (by now it was 11.30am) so we left our bags and went off in search of lunch.

Four blocks down, a modest shopping centre. We gazed in open-mouthed wonderment at sparkling displays of yet more jewellery, clothes shops, shoe shops (whose wares now owed more to fashion than to practicality). And on the top floor, a paean to fast food; everyone but Big Mac was represented. We were flummoxed by the choice – Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC (although we never seriously considered it), Subway, Burger King, Fritz (German fast food), Doggis (hot dogs) and at least four other outlets.

[We eventually settled on a small Sub for Hannah, a quarter chicken with mediocre chips and veg for Ellen and Kirsten and a couple of Burritos for Tim and Kirsten.]

Back to the hotel to get the key to our room; it was not quite ready. (Apparently another UK family had checked out only this morning – they might well be RTWing too…) After ten minutes we were given the go-ahead, and we’re happy with our choice once again. A small kitchen, bathroom (with a bath), bedroom and living room with a convertible sofa bed – and a balcony. The reproductions on the walls are Van Gogh, though, not Dali – Blue Irises, Cafe Terrace, Road with Cypress and Star.

Out around tea time to have a drink and something to eat, then to wallow in the prodigal profusion of produce in the (proper) supermarket opposite the mall. We got mince, eggs and onion to make meatballs as well as a stack of other essentials and not-so-essentials (honey-roasted nuts we haven’t seen for a while).

Supper with a glass of Chilean Rose and Berliners for dessert (they are nearly as good as the Belgian ones).
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The sun sets later here, nearly 1000 miles further south, and we can look forward to many more increasingly long, light evenings.

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Fortunately, today was relatively uneventful apart from another fridge theft (but more of that later). We got up, had breakfast and met another RTW family, a French couple with three sons travelling for a year (the youngest two are Jules and Anatole). At the moment two grandparents are with them; they are sharing the self-catering cottage near the entrance to the B&B. They started their trip on August 2nd, the day after us – they are spending longer in South America, then flying via Easter Island and Tahiti to Australia, and finally South-East Asia. Don’t know if they have a blog, too, but no doubt they’ll write a book about it (so many French families seem to).

They said that we were the first English (or Belgian) family they had met during their travels, and we have seen only two French families and one Scandinavian one in three and a half months on the road.

Incahuasi breakfast.
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Into town to collect the washing; the sky was uncharacteristically grey which lent some welcome shade. A slight worry as the laundry slip said 4pm, but fortunately our three kilograms of clothes were ready. On the way we popped into the museum housing various ancient artefacts. These were collected between 1953 and 1980 by a Belgian missionary, Doctor Le Paige, whose statue stands outside the entrance (and there is a reconstruction of his bedroom and office inside). Arrowheads, pottery, textiles, the usual sort of things…

Dr Le Paige’s office.
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The solar strength gauge, one step above ‘dangerous’…
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Then back to our favourite restaurant (Casa Piedra) for lunch, and again we were not disappointed. We prohibited ham sandwiches (planning to have them for supper) and chose grilled chicken and salmon in butter with a side order of papas fritas. We shared these out and they went down extremely well.

We returned to our room after lunch to start some packing, pausing for tea to finish up some biscuits. I settled up for our stay, but was a bit annoyed to be charged 5% extra when I was paying by debit card, not credit card – ‘I won’t get the money until next month’ was the excuse, but that’s a pretty extortionate rate of interest.

Our room.
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Plomo the cat.
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During the day the girls made up games to amuse themselves, involving spending the night on an island in Lake Titicaca, visiting la Valle de la Luna or some old Geysers. Ellen babbled away in ‘Quechua’ much of the time, with Hannah translating.

Come suppertime, Kirsten fried some eggs and we got the rolls out ready for the sandwiches. One problem; where was the ham? We had two slices in the fridge from yesterday, but the pigs had flown… We suspect this may be a genuine misunderstanding on the part of another guest – there is one sign on the door saying ‘Use passenger’ and below a list of foodstuffs in Spanish and English (including ‘Jamon – Ham’). Now we asked about this, and it is merely a vocabulary list – not an invitation to help yourself – but this is not at all obvious.

We chatted more with the French father this evening, and I got it wrong; they’re not writing a book, they’re making films. Both of their family travels and also educational videos for schools about sustainable development (they have been to the Brazilian rainforest and spent time with a remote Chilean family). Their website is www.saperliplanete.org.

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Spring scenery

Again a slow start to the day, but it seemed that everybody else at the B&B had the same idea.  Never have I seen so many people at breakfast time, 15 in total!  Service was a little slower than usual, we had to ask for a couple of things, but nevertheless very friendly.  Nothing seems too much for the owners and they make you feel very welcome.

After the owners had cleared away and washed up all the breakfast crockery and cutlery, I asked to borrow their laptop to check any messages from Easter Island.  This time it didn’t take too long to connect but I only had just enough time to check Ellen’s and Tim’s messages before it disconnected.  And yes, a message from Aukara on Easter Island letting us know that everything is alright, they didn’t need a deposit after all and they will meet us at the airport!  Yippee, we can at last relax a little knowing that and hopefully sleep a lot better tonight.

This also meant that I didn’t need to go into town to phone the hotel, so Tim offered to walk in with our second lot of dirty washing.  He came back laden with goodies for lunch – fresh empanadas filled with meat, egg & olives, fresh rolls for the girls, fresh bananas (slightly squashed from being in the rucksack), fresh apples, cereal and cereal bars.

Most of the morning we sat around relaxing, playing cards or listening to Zens.

After lunch we all changed into our swimming costumes and packed our bags ready for the hot springs of Puritama.  A car was meant to pick us up around 1.20pm, but when it still hadn’t arrived around 1.30pm we decided to head back inside to keep ourselves cool.  Just as we were about to walk in a people carrier turned up – our transport!, and we were the only passengers, so more than enough space and airconditioning.

It took a little under 1 hour to get to the springs.  The driver parked at the top and it was about a 5 minute walk downhill where we paid an entrance fee of 5,000 Chilean pesos each.
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The pools are actually in the middle of the river and the temperature of the water was about 33.5°C, but acctually felt a little colder than I expected when I first got in.  Hannah loved being in the water, but Ellen chose to only dangle her legs in to keep herself cool.  All in all we spent 2 1/2 hours in 2 of the pools, with a slight break for nibbles at 4pm, and surrounded by beautiful, clean landscape.
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For me these were the best hot springs I have been to in South America, but also the most expensive ones!

After we had come out there followed the 5 minute trek back uphill, hmmm, I wished the driver could have driven all the way down … we were feeling pretty warm by the time we reached  the car.  We all piled in and the driver drove off, only to stop again after 30 seconds as my sliding door wouldn’t close.  Oh well, let’s just improvise and tie a rope from the door handle to the driver’s seat.  That only worked for a little bit and the door still kept sliding open slightly.  He stopped again, this time to tie another piece of the rope between the door handle and the driver’s window – which meant it had to stay open whilst driving along the dusty road.

Never mind, we made it back to the centre of San Pedro in one piece and headed down the main street in search of supper, it was almost 6pm by now.  Tim had read a good review about “La Casona” in one the guide books so we decided to try it out. 

The girls chose to share a hot ham/cheese sandwich washed down with Sprite (H) and fresh banana/orange juice (E), Tim opted for a Caesar salad & Cristal beer (local) and I had a vegetable salad and helped Hannah with her Sprite.

To be brief, we were pretty disappointed with the grown-ups’ salads, the vegetables were very hard and there was no dressing to make it more appetising and Tim had to ask for his olives and the pieces of toasted bread were pretty tough.  All in all, thumbs down, and we decided that tomorrow we’ll go back to “Casa de Piedra” where we had our very first lunch in San Pedro – a restaurant we can strongly recommend!

Shortly after 7pm we headed back home, but first a Princess icecream for the girls as we were walking down the road.  Once back it was bed time for our princesses and blog time for us.

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Walking on the dune

Up around 9am after our late night stargazing. Breakfast, then finishing yesterday’s blog (no, I didn’t stay up even later to write it) and checking emails; consternation that Easter Island now wanted us to make a bank transfer to reserve the room, when on the phone it sounded like everything was fine. So we’ve emailed back asking if a Mastercard number would do – we don’t want this to fall through at this stage. (Again, an hour’s wait to connect to emails.)

We visited the two shops just around the corner in the hope of finding something other than rolls for lunch. We got a cheap tin of tuna and some dried pasta twirls as well as four eggs. Well, the cheap tuna consisted of minute unappetising fragments – we passed the tin on to Plomo the cat, and she turned her nose up at it as well. Then the eggs were marked with a use-by date which passed a month ago. Anyway, we cooked the pasta and had it with chopped ham and olive oil, and Kirsten risked a fried egg because it didn’t smell bad (perhaps they meant November 12th, not Ocober 12th).

After lunch we got our picnic ready for our trip and packed fleeces for the evening chill. The minibus collected us at 3.20pm and we filled the rest of the seats in the centre of town. First stop a viewpoint overlooking the Salar de Atacama from the Cordillera de la Sal. Here three Frenchmen were hogging the best photo area, apparently making a TV programme about remote mountainous regions. One cameraman, one sound guy and a presenter – but it was take after take after take, repeating the same few lines.
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Atacama Panorama

Into the Valley of Death drove the twenty-odd. La Valle de la Muerte is a fairly arbitrary name for one of many barren spots around here; just the odd Pingu-Pingu (?) plant and a scuttling lizard to be seen. This location is chiefly known for its magnificent dunes, and we saw a party of sandboarders toiling up the slopes for their 15 seconds of fun (I got the impression that there’s lots of standing around in the hot sun and not much action).

We walked along the cliff edge of the valley admiring the strata, finding lumps of gypsum and spotting the village where the 400 people working on the ALMA telescope are based. Then we stepped down onto the top of a large dune and made our way down – walking, running, cautiously, hell-for-leather. Great fun, but you fill your boots (unless you go barefoot).
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View of San Pedro oasis.
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Then along to the left to see more desolate and dramatic scenery, and slowly back to our bus (which drove along to meet us).

By now it was nearly six o’clock. We had walked for nearly 1 1/2 hours, but the girls coped so well with the heat and the terrain. We had a quick bite to eat on the bus before arriving at our second Valley of the Moon (the first was near La Paz). We first walked through a salt valley (created where the edge of the salt flat was pushed up against other rocks). An outcrop shaped like a condor; the creaking and cracking of the salt contracting as the evening cooled; a rock-salt cave.
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Salt formation.
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Finally we drove to the honey-pot of the sunset viewpoint. Here for the first time we were surrounded by ten, twenty other tour groups all there for the same reaon. We struggled up a steep sand path and then picked our perch to view the evening colours. At around 7.45pm the sun dipped below the horizon and the mountain ranges blazed orange, pink and then purple. And yet it was curiously underwhelming, perhaps because of the unblemished blue sky; no Technicolor cloud displays to augment the proceedings. The peaks went dark, we all filed down back to our buses and pootled home with our thousands of amateur sunset photos.
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Atacama sunset

We asked to be dropped off at our B&B and the driver obliged (it was 8.30pm and dark by now). A foot bath for all of us to wash those sandy toes, then cereal and bed for the girls.

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Starry starry night

We all woke up a bit later than usual and a bit more tired than we have been recently. We supplemented our breakfast with grapefruit, banana and cereal (for the girls), showered and then made the dry-hot walk into town (at least it’s not humid like the jungle).

Various tasks for the day. Still no joy with replies to our emails about island accommodation, and the B&B laptop is currently taking up to an hour to connect to our webmail account (yes, one hour – it repeatedly fails, then eventually gets through; and then it’ll fail again just as you’re sending a reply and you lose everything).

Local playground.
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San Pedro church.
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The famous Belgian, Doctor Le Paige.
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So we visited an internet establishment and checked again. A reply from Tahiti, asking for a credit card number to secure our booking. But still nothing for Easter Island, so Kirsten phoned up a hotel (Iorana) which has 52 rooms – surely they’d have a vacancy? Well, the Santiago office had to phone Easter Island and then we had to phone back to find out the answer. In the meantime we had lunch at Casa de la Piedra (this was where we had our first lunch in San Pedro). We are getting better at beating the tourist-trap menus, and we shared a couple of sandwiches (plus a beer and water) for only $7000 (plus the virtually compulsory 10% service charge).

Kirsten then made the follow-up phone call, only to find that all 52 rooms were full. Hmm. So we tried our back-up hotel, Aukara, which only accommodates 15 people, without any real hope of success. But the thumbs-up from Kirsten in the phone booth told a different story. Much relief, because I’ve been losing sleep over this – one of our ‘must-see places’, but nowhere to stay.

So we have a quadruple room, breakfast and airport transfers included, with use of a kitchen, in a quiet part of town. And when I checked in Lonely Planet, it looks like this hotel will cost only a third of our first choice one – $88,000 per night. (That’s Chilean Pesos, not US dollars…) It’s still nearly £100, but that’s the way things are on Easter Island (it all balances out with Cusco’s £12 a night).

We then took care of the remaining trivialities: milk, water, fruit from the market, yogurts. We also booked two more tours at Cosmo Andino, one to the Valle de la Luna tomorrow afternoon and another to the hot springs of Puritama. The latter is a private tour for the four of us; most groups visit in the morning but we’re going in the afternoon when admission is cheaper. (What’s the catch, I wonder?)

Back to our room, stopping for refreshing ice lollies on the way (the shop maths always seems dubious – sometimes we’re overcharged, once undercharged).

Some quiet time because of our late night tonight. We’re visiting the astronomical set-up belonging to a French chap, Alain Maury; lots of information followed by time using the telescopes, and it seems we can take photos through them. He certainly has the right location; not just the high altitude and the low light pollution, but San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations has an apposite acronym.

They don’t run tours near full moon, so tonight should provide good viewing conditions – we’re probably only a few days off a new moon. we leave at 9pm and will probably return just short of midnight, by the time we walk back from the centre.

So – the tour: we met at the office in the main street (quite a large crowd of us) and shortly aftr 9pm we filled up a  medium-sized bus – nearly 30 of us.

A short drive took us out into the countryside and to Alain’s place; we passed his garden full of telescopes and then were ushered inside to sit on benches arranged in a circle around a solitary candle, an aperture in the roof revealing the heavens.

Our guide for the evening was Alain himself, and he proved to be a knowledgeable and amusing host; indeed, this was the clearest and funniest astronomy lesson I have ever experienced. He assumed very little background knowledge, whizzed through the history of ancient astronomical theories and continued by pointing out key constellations once we progressed outside.

No moon above the horizon, so we had a wonderfully clear view. The two Magellanic clouds which make an equilateral triangle with the (invisible) South point (no Pole Star here). The Southern Cross had yet to rise (it is another guide to the South), but we could see Cassiopeia, Orion rising as we watched, Pegasus, Alpha Centauri, the Dolphin.

Also a guide to the constellations of the zodiac, from Jupiter in Capricorn to the horns of Taurus (which I have never really noticed so clearly before). It’s obvious, but I had not registered the idea that your birth sign is the one you can’t see – i.e. which is blotted out by the sun. Not that he had any time for astrologers; he gave them very short shrift indeed.

The girls opted to go inside, feeling very tired and cold by now, so they missed much of the final stage – using the telescopes. Alain has a garden of home-made telescopes, made out of bicycle wheels, aluminium curtain track, etc., which he welded together with specialist high-quality commercial mirror and lens units ($3000 US per unit). Perhaps six or seven of them on swivel mountings, up to 1m in diameter, pre-set to point at various interesting features of the sky.

Two clear views of Jupiter and its four largest moons (no other planets were visible). The Tarantula nebula, spiral galaxies, binary stars, etc. I was amazed by the ease with which Alain then swivelled the telescopes to pick out new objects – but then he’s been doing this a long time.

One amazingly useful prop for this sort of thing is a laser pointer; its beam through the sky is ideal for locating a particular star or for drawing a constellation. He even used it to chunk the sky to produce an estimate for how many stars are visible to the naked eye (about 3000) – if there are ten stars in this region, then…
 
Alain pointed out a row of stars pointing across the sky; “and this is the hot chocolate line”, directing us back inside for a warming drink while we waited for the coach. Meanwhile he talked about the ongoing ALMA project – Atacama Large Millimetre Array – a set of microwave dishes with a baseline of 16km. To detect microwave radiation you need very dry air, and here the total vertical depth of water in the atmosphere is as low as 60 microns.

By the time the bus arrived it was nearly midnight – there was no second tour tonight, apparently. Ellen was pretty much asleep but fortunately the driver agreed to drop us off outside our B&B.

Anyway, we thoroughly recommend this tour, both for the ideal location and for the quality of exposition.

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Again a very good night’s sleep for everyone followed by a delicious breakfast of fresh bread for the grown ups and cereal for the little ones.

Not much happened today as we were still busy looking into accommodation for Easter Island and Tahiti and checking our emails.  No replies to the enquiries/reservations we made yesterday.  We’ll wait until tomorrow morning and if nothing has happened by then we’ll have to try and phone them, as they don’t seem to reply to emails.  We’re just slightly worried that we might end up with either a very expensive room or a very grubby one …

The girls occupied themselves by playing imaginary games in the bedroom and courtyard, and pretended to be travel agents selling us trips to Machu Picchu and the salt flats. 

We also managed to fit in a tiny bit of schoolwork, more times tables for Hannah (she’s getting pretty fluent) and keywords and a little numeracy for Ellen.

For lunch we went to one of the local little shops and bought some fresh rolls, ham and ice creams for dessert.  Only Hannah managed her ice cream, the rest of us were too full.  We decided to have a little siesta after lunch and occupied ourselves quietly.  The girls had a rest on their beds listening to their Zens, Tim had a lie down, and I read up on Bali and Lombok (just found a book in one of the outside spaces around the back of the bedrooms).

Around 5pm we walked down to the centre to pick up our laundry, but once there the lady asked us to give her another 10 minutes as she hadn’t folded up our clothes.  Alright, let’s have supper first instead.  That was easier said than done, as most eating places weren’t open yet.

We then decided to book an astronomy tour for tomorrow night, which means the girls will have to stay up late!  The other day we were told that we would have to pay half price for the girls, but tonight the lady told us that Ellen would be free and Hannah would be half price – great!  We heard from some of the other travellers that it is a great tour – sounds promising…

Back to the laundrette – no, she needed another 10 minutes, because there are a lot of clothes to fold!

We were all getting hot and thirsty so started looking for an eating place.  The first one we entered didn’t inspire us at all, there was nothing for the girls to choose and Tim & I couldn’t find anything to try.  Just around the corner we found a more exciting place called “Ayllu” where the girls shared a platter of cold ham, cheese, salami and olives (for daddy) and warm chips.  Tim chose a sandwich with meat, tomato, avocado and cheese which wasn’t as appetising as it sounded and I had an ordinary chicken and mayonnaise sandwich.

While we were waiting for our food I was starting to feel chilly.  I decided to return to the laundrette in the hope that our clothes were ready, but no such luck.  At least I was allowed to fish our micro fleeces out of the basket after I explained we were getting cold!

After we finished our supper we made one more final trip to the laundrette and finally everything was neatly folded and smelled freshly washed.

Time to return to Incahuasi, for the girls to get to bed and for us to type the blog whilst enjoying a lovely glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc!

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Just happened to notice this milestone today; 31 + 30 + 31 + 8 = 100. A bit under a third of our time gone but plenty left to look forward to. The girls are now calling tomorrow ‘Dalmatian Day’.

After last night’s concerns, we were pleased to get our best sleep in a long time (helped by the drone of a fan). We awoke around 7am and came out for an early breakfast (we thought it was only served from 8am); last night’s fresh bread, with ham, cheese and dulce de membrillo (a jelly from a fruit something like a yellow pear). A welcome change from the boring breakfasts we have suffered in the past.

We sorted out our washing and walked into town. On the way in, we realised that it was a Sunday and hope faded of finding a Lavanderia open, but as it turned out, several shops offered a washing service so we deposited nearly 5kg of dirty laundry to be collected tomorrow evening (just over 1000 Pesos per kg).

Views of San Pedro de Atacama.
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Licancabur volcano.
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We were then sufficiently unencumbered to look in various craft shops – jewellery, bags, hats. Kirsten and Hannah bought head scarves and Ellen chose an Easter Island postcard.

We wanted to check emails and we tried an Internet place at the end of the main street which offered wireless. But we had no luck connecting, and cable connection was also impossible. Down to the other end, but no joy here either. So we used one of their machines for half an hour to try to find a hotel in Santiago. We tried one called Hotel Dali; their website didn’t let us send our enquiry successfully so Kirsten phoned up and – success! We have an apartment for three nights in a nice area of the city. Can’t wait to see the fried eggs…

Then lunchtime. We tried Casa Adobe (it turns out we went to the place next door yesterday) since they offer Wifi access. A big platter of rare steak, chicken, chips, mushrooms and onions along with two milkshakes for the girls (which came to a bit under £20), but our computer still wouldn’t connect (others were surfing successfully). Now we started to get concerned; was there a problem with our laptop?

More window-shopping after lunch, then a hot walk back to Incahuasi (we tried unsuccessfully to buy a bottle of wine). A refreshing chunk of watermelon and a slice of pineapple. Then we did a bit of sticking-in and school work with the girls and borrowed the laptop to send an email to Tahiti and one to Easter Island (those are our two remaining unbooked spots).
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Baked potatoes in the oven for supper; we popped out to the nearby park so that the girls could let off steam (followed by an assortment of neighbourhood dogs).

Back again; tuna mayonnaise with our potatoes. We also made the startling discovery that we had failed to adjust to our new time zone; it was now 7.15 and not 6.15pm. (But we had survived more than a day without this error bothering us…) So the girls got to stay up ‘extra late’, and this also explained our ‘early breakfast’.

We’re wondering about the occasional trip while we’re here (but we’ll have plenty of ‘down time’, too); there’s a visit to an observatory at 9pm every evening (wrap up warm), some thermal pools nearby and yet another ‘valley of the moon’ where you get nice sunset views.

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