Tuesday, April 1, 2008
We woke up on time, without need for an alarm. We got ready, then headed over for breakfast. As it turned out, the German couple, Peggy and Mathias would be coming with us – they also wanted to go to Cerro Toco the next day.
The four of us, plus Cesar and Javiera got in the car and embarked on a 2 hour journey basically northeast, going well up in elevation. We started to see some greenery as we got into a couple of places that got a little bit more rain. There were some tall cacti, tall as 2m, which must have taken a long time since they grow only 1-2cm per year. As we got even higher, we started to see some llamas and vicunas. We also stopped at a small, very small, town, which basically fit in a single photo.
When we got out of the car for this, it was freezing and the wind was blowing quite hard. Just before we got to our destination, we stopped briefly at the Tatio geysers - right at the base of the Andes - which we would coming back to later after we were done. When we started our journey, we were at 4500m in elevation, and dressed like we were backpacking through Antarctica (or getting ready for a Captain Morgan commercial shoot).
The scenery was amazing, with jagged rock formations close to us, active volcancoes and the snow-capped Andes off in the not-to-far distance, and panoramic views to boot. We saw mice-looking droppings and asked Javiera what these were, she told us they were from a Viscacha, similar to a rabbit. While she and Cesar were explaining what they looked like, one actually came up and we got to see for ourselves. We were generally walking level or downhill, which was problematic, since we knew the car was not moving and we were going to have to walk back up all of this. Near the bottom, there were a bunch of rounded rocks, sticking up like fingers from the ground. We took a brief break at the bottom, in a dry riverbed, a little after an hour after we started.
The return would take us two hours. We did not go back the same way, we kept circling the mountain. We were basically climbing up the riverbed, with not much to look at unless we turned around and looked at the progress we had made. In this area there was no wind, so people shed some layers, and Justin changed hats. On the way up we saw another Viscacha, this time with his or her mate.
When we rounded the corner (basically the 270 degree mark), we lost much of our view, and also much of our footing. The footing got much worse, and we were still going uphill, basically at 2 steps forward and one step back. Peggy was having major problems, and we could tell the guides were worried about her having altitude sickness. As it was, we think she was just exhausted with an upset stomach. This made things a lot slower going, which was fine with us since we had nowhere else to be.
Right near the end was the toughest, straight uphill through loose sand with loose rocks. At this point the group separated, with us following Cesar and Peggy and Mathias going with Javiera. We got up to the "top" – with downhill being the only thing left to the van, and waited about 10 minutes for the others. This did afford us the chance to take some panoramic shots. Once we got down near the van there were even more vista shots, and it appeared it was actually raining or snowing higher up more towards Argentina and Bolivia.
We headed down in the van to Tatio, where we changed into swimsuits and went into the hot water pools formed by geothermal activity. After we got out of the pool, they had lunch ready for us, with a number of choices to choose from. It started to get really cold – even colder than before – so we ate in a hurry and got back in the van. As we were finishing up getting in the van, it started to snow on us. This was, as far as he could remember, the first time Justin had ever been snowed on. He had been to the snow, but never when it was snowing. On the way back, it started to snow harder, but the big group of vicunas did not seem to be that disturbed by it.
Everyone slept off and on during the trip home – minus the driver, thankfully – but we all woke up when we passed a lake that had a number of flamingos doing their thing. We got back, very tired, a little after 6pm, just in time for another nice sunset. Crystal got cleaned up while Justin caught up on the diary before we forgot everything that happened during the day. We got the distinct impression that Peggy and Mathias would not be joining us the next day to go even higher and do even more uphill trekking.
We went to the bar for a little bit, before meeting with Maria to discuss what to do the next day. We waited around for a little bit, then had a lecture on the local flora from Nico – very informative. We also saw many of the plants we had seen earlier that day, and learned what they were. One interesting thing was that one of the Festucas (fescue grasses) was basically an altimeter – when it was by itself on the mountainside that is an indicator that the elevation is 4000 meters, whereas if other plants are mixed in the elevation is between 3800 and 4000 meters.
We went to dinner later, almost 9pm. It was good, but there was a surprise for dessert. They brought us out a lemon-raspberry cake for our 8th wedding anniversary, plus a bottle of champagne. Justin had asked for the cake a couple days before, so Crystal was surprised. After dinner, we went back and crashed.