Int. Travel: Outer space

Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile. Mary King explores this alien nation.

Slouched on a stool in Los Amigos bar, Alberto swigs back yet another pisco (Peruvian brandy) sour and elaborates on how his hometown, Vicuna, has become a magnet for UFO buffs. "People come from all over the world, hoping to spot something, but those spaceships don't show up for tourists just like that," he says with a snap of his fingers. "You gotta be patient. Maybe wait for years. But I've seen them and so have most folks in this town." He gulps down another pisco.

The Three Marias jut out of the Valley of the Moon

Considering the amount of brandy that Alberto can consume in one evening, reported sightings of pink elephants would not have surprised me, but he was the second person to have collared me that day and brought up the subject of UFOs. Clearly I was mistaken for an Omni freak visiting the small Chilean town.

Saline solution
It takes seven hours by bus from the Chilean capital of Santiago to reach Vicuna, a small spaghetti western-style town that at sunset is surrounded by startling red mountains. Nestled in the upper Elqui valley, this village of adobe houses boasts a certain charm but few attractions. A lonesome feeling of being on the outer edges of civilization prevails at the periphery of town, where a vast plain of desert and blue sky begins and reaches out far beyond the horizon. Particularly at night, when the sky is studded with a zillion stars, the area seems to naturally lend itself to sci-fi tales.

The gardens of San Pedro de Atacama are home to several llama

It was after a few days that I ventured north to San Pedro de Atacama, hopping on a bus and making an exhausting 24-hour journey through an uninspiring desert landscape. Stories of UFOs, I mused, would perhaps be a panacea to boredom if one lived in such a no-man's-land.

San Pedro de Atacama is a village oasis surrounded by scenery that takes on a moonlike quality. With a population of about 1,600, the people here are more Spanish-Indian looking than one usually finds in Chile. To the north lies the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat), a vast saline lake with flamingos on its shores. To San Pedro's east are towering volcanoes, both active and extinct, and just 15km west of the village is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), where the wind and rain have sculpted dramatic rock formations over the eons. The main attraction, however, lies about 100km north of San Pedro. At 4,000m above sea level, El Tatio Geysers is the world's highest geyser field.

My tour to El Tatio Geysers, like all the others in San Pedro, left at the unearthly hour of 3:30am, arriving at the field of steaming fumaroles after a bumpy three-and-a-half hour ride through the desert. The sun slowly revealed itself from behind some far-off mountains draping the geyser field in a vermilion light, as we trudged across a primeval landscape where all around us holes in the ground gurgled, belched and spat, sending steam snaking skywards along with raging bursts of scalding-hot water.

"Watch where you walk," our guide warned us. "A few years back two tourists were walking between two large fumaroles when they were suddenly splashed, and then fell into the pool. The water was about 98 degrees centigrade. Both of them died before reaching hospital." The chthonic rumblings and the soft, cracked earth underfoot were enough to convince all but the foolhardy not to venture too near the more volatile fumaroles. Kneeling around a small bubbling pond, a group of Chilean students boiled eggs for breakfast. "Three minutes, and perfect," commented one after taking a bite. "Just needs some salt," he said, sprinkling on some from the deposit that he had found nearby.

UFO paradise: Elqui Valley on the outskirts of Vicuna

Everyone agreed that in the azure clarity of the altiplano, the sight of the steaming fumaroles at sunrise was an eerie yet awe-inspiring experience. Later that morning we drove on through desert, passing Volcano Putana (5,890m), which is active, and later Volcano Lascar (1,154m), which last erupted in July 2000. Mountains loomed sensuously in the distance, veiled in a blue haze as we made our way through a landscape that was at one moment stark and arid, and at the next flecked with the soft mauves, reds and yellows of wildflowers.

The following day I took a bus ride through a surreal landscape formed by eroding salt mountains to the Valley of the Moon. The main road leading out of San Pedro passed through what seemed like an avenue of pyramids, before winding down into a valley and what symbolizes the valley, "The Three Marias," a bizarre spectacle of what appears to be petrified bodies.
Once at the bottom, we ventured into caves to study the patterns formed in the rocks, see salt deposits, and even occasionally hear a cracking sound from rock walls. That day's trip ended with a hike up one of the sand dunes from where we saw the sun set over the valley, filling it with first a golden, then reddish, evening light.

The following day I took my last day-tour out of San Pedro, passing Volcano Licancabur (Mountain Man), on whose summit, during Inca times, animal sacrifices were made. The group I was with headed off toward the 100km-long and 80km-wide Atacama Salt Flat, the third-largest salt pan in the world and home to 40 percent of the world's lithium reserves. The shores of this salt pan were once a great inland sea but now are home to waders, herons and flamingos. Walking around what appeared to be a giant ice rink in the middle of a desert, we all waited in the hope that a flock of flamingos would pass overhead, but the beautiful pink birds seemed to be aware of our presence and stayed huddled together far off.

After an hour our guide called for us all to get ready to leave for San Pedro. With sighs of despair at having to content ourselves with only a glimpse of the birds through binoculars, we grudgingly hopped back into the minibus and slowly crawled away. "Look!" someone shouted, and as we turned around the rear window of the minibus was filled with the view of a whole flock of flamingos, some 20 birds or more, flying low across the early evening sky.

Getting there
Northwest (tel: 03-3533-6000) flies to LA and New York, connecting to Lan Chile Airlines and onward to Santiago. American Airlines (03-3214-2111) flies to Dallas/Ft. Worth and Miami, both with connections to Lan Chile Airlines to Santiago.

Where to stay
The Tulor Hotel in Domingo Atienza, San Pedro de Atacama, offers double rooms for about US$82. Contact them by fax at 56-(2)-655-1881 or email at At the other end of the spectrum is the Explora Atacama Hotel in Domingo Atienza, San Pedro de Atacama, which offers double rooms for US$1,296: fax: 56-(2)-655-1881, email: If you hold a foreign passport and tourist visa, you can avoid paying the 18 percent IVA taxes on hotels. For reservations or more details about hotels in San Pedro de Atacama and elsewhere in Chile see

Information on tours, sites and local agencies is available at the tourist office in the bus station on Calle Licanbur (tel: 56-[55]-851-084) and at One notable tour company is Atacama Desert Expeditions (tel: 56-[55]-851-140, See also the Chile Information Project (CHIP) travel site at The CHIP Travel Guide arranges tours around the country, tel: 56-(2)-777-5376, fax: 56-(2)-735-2267; email:

Photo credit: Mary King

B u y  i t  o n l i n e !
Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan

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HIS Experience Japan is offering tourists and residents of Japan a chance to experience “real Japanese culture,” in addition to the usual tourist spots. The company has nearly a dozen programs that allow participants to learn directly from professionals. Activities include sushi-making, yuzen silk-dying, calligraphy, karate and ninja lessons, taiko drumming and lantern-making, among others. Guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish are available, and reservations can be made online at Further info is available in English by calling 03-5322-8988.

From August 26 through September 13 (excluding September 7-9), Tokyo Dome Hotel is offering a late summer accommodation promotion, in which rooms will be discounted by up to 45 percent. During the period, the rate is ¥14,000 for a single room, ¥18,500 for a twin or double and ¥21,000 for a triple. Fifty rooms will be available per day. A variety of events are being held at Tokyo Dome City during this period, including the 78th Intercity Baseball Tournament (August 24-September 4) and the popular children’s program The Jukensentai Geki Ranger Show will be performing on stage at Sky Theater until September 2. For reservations, call 03-5805-2222 or visit CB

677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
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399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

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