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.
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
|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
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.
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 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 www.chile-hotels.com/index.htm.
Information on tours, sites and local agencies is available at the tourist
office in the bus station on Calle Licanbur (tel: 56--851-084) and
One notable tour company is Atacama Desert Expeditions (tel: 56--851-140,
www.adex.cl). See also the Chile Information
Project (CHIP) travel site at www.chiptravel.cl.
The CHIP Travel Guide arranges tours around the country, tel: 56-(2)-777-5376,
fax: 56-(2)-735-2267; email: email@example.com.
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 http://hisexperience.jp/. 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 www.tokyodome-hotels.co.jp. CB
INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
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
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
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
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
Sarawaks 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 its
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
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
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
Seeking the past in China's megacity
Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatias phoenix
The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
World heritage site
Land of hope
Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
Suzhou and Hangzhou
The river mild
Top of the world
Memo from the Lower Mekong
Call of the wild
Mad about Madurai
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