Wednesday July 3: San Pedro de Atacama
A Close Call
It is amazing how sometimes major effects depend on the most minor decisions. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The drive back to Santiago normally takes 6 hours. They were expecting with the traffic that it would be 7 or 8 hours. When we were leaving Google was forecasting 7 hours, but it ended up being terribly wrong.
Think of the traffic as a large wave flowing out of the Elqui valley. At the time we were leaving, the wave was just getting to La Sarena. So Google thought that the traffic was bad to there and clear afterwards. But when the wave flowed out of La Sarena, the route south became clogged as well.
At one point, we saw that a lot of cars that had apparently given up, pulled over to the side, and presumably the occupants were napping and planning to continue in the morning.
To cut to the chase, our "6 hour" drive ended up taking 12 hours! One person at least was not going to make their flight. The guides told her to call her airline and try to reschedule. I'm not sure, but I thought from the sound of the voice that it was the woman from Scotland. If so, then she probably had several connections, which would be fairly messy to reschedule.
I ended up sleeping acceptably well on the bus. I figure that if I actually only slept half the time, then I got 6 hours of sleep, which is good by recent standards.
It is funny how one's point of view can shift. Earlier I was wondering how much sleep I might get in the hotel room before we had to get up and go to the airport. Then I was thinking that we would just have enough time to get the hotel, repack our bags for the flight, and then immediately head to the airport.
About 20-25 minutes from the hotel, where we were apparently as close to the airport as the bus was going to go, we pulled over and a bunch of people got out. These were people with earlier flights. They were going to send a van to pick them up and take them from there to the airport.
I was on the fence as to whether we should join them. On one hand, it seemed silly to drive up to the hotel just so that we could repack and grab a taxi back to the airport. On the other hand, it would be more convenient repacking in the hotel than on the sidewalk (or airport), and there would be a bathroom at the hotel. if we were lucky, we might even be able to snag a bit of breakfast. So we didn't join the people waiting for the van.
That decision ended up making all the difference in the world.
We got to the hotel and made a beeline for the bathroom. Then we got our bags and started repacking things. In particular I had to rearrange the camera gear. I also got our passports out of the zippered compartment in my suitcase where I had put valuable things like passports and cash.
Well...I almost did. There were only two passports there! I nearly had a heart attack. I took everything out of the suitcase and dug through everything tossing it around, but there were only two passports! I had this horrible sinking feeling. We would clearly not make our flight that day. If we were lucky, we might be able to go to the embassy and get a replacement passport by that evening. Or perhaps it would not be until the next day. That would screw up our ride to the hotel (a 1-2 hour drive), and the tour plans.
By this time, most of our group had either gone up to their room or maybe over to breakfast, but there was one guy who happened to be standing near us. He overheard us being agitated, asked what was wrong, and we explained that we lost one of the passports.
My best guess was that it had fallen out either when I had been putting in or taking out the solar filters, or perhaps when I had gotten cash out the previous night for tipping the guide and driver. I thought about searching the bus, but a quick glance outside showed that since the bus was empty, it had driven off.
Then the most amazing thing happened. He said, "you know, last night I found a passport sitting on the seat in the bus. I thought it was <so and so>'s, so I gave it to her. I wonder if it was yours.
A while later, he returned and amazingly enough, he handed us the missing passport. Apparently it *had* fallen out when I had gotten the cash out the previous night.
What are the odds that the one (of maybe two) people who might have been able to help us just happened to be standing next to us and bothered to ask what was wrong?
And so the second half of the trip was saved. But it is mind blowing to consider the number of things that could have led to a very different outcome. If we had left with that first group in order to get to the airport sooner, we would be have been lost. If that guy had already gone up to his room, or if he hadn't happened to be standing near to us, or if he hadn't asked us about our problems.
It seemed that there were so many things that had to have gone just right in order for us to be able to successfully continue the trip, it is sort of mind blowing. I really feel like we had a guardian angel looking out for us this morning.
With disaster averted, we asked the front desk to call us a taxi, then we hurried over to the breakfast area to grab a few mouthfuls of food. Sam and I finished first, and we went out to move out bags out front, but we were told that the taxi was already there and waiting. So I hurried back and got Amy.
Fortunately, this time it was a van, so we weren't squashed on the drive to the airport. We had been told to assume it was up to an hour to get to the airport, and then to get there two hours before our flight, so that we should be leaving the hotel three hours before the flight. This is what we did. But the drive was quicker, and security was quick, so we ended up at the gate with two hours to kill. And so I'm typing up the events as we wait.
We had been planning to be spending a bit of the night in our hotel room, and thus having plenty of time to rearrange things for the flight. But with the limited time we had, and with the fiasco of the lost passport, we didn't spend a lot of time thinking about where to put things. So we got to the airport with time to kill and lot of dead or almost dead batteries, and then we found that most of the charging cables and adapters were in the checked bags. Sam had a cable, however, and they had some charging stations with USB ports, so Sam could give Amy's phone a bit of a charge.
We were expecting to pay for our checked bags, but I don't know if we did or not. At the kiosk it said something that I didn't understand, and a woman who helped us said to take this receipt and pay where we handed over the bags. When we got there and checked out bags, she said that we should pay online before coming, because it was cheaper. Then she said something that might have indicated that when we return we'll pay for both legs, but I'm not sure. She ripped up the receipt, and we didn't end up paying anything, at least not yet.
I feel really grungy as I haven't taken a shower since Valparaiso. It will be good to get to our hotel and be able to get cleaned up and change into clean clothes.
Now I only have an hour and half to wait before our flight. :-)
The local flights are even more stingy than American flights. The only thing free would be a cup of water. If you wanted soda or a bottle of water (or even worse, a meal) it would cost you. Amy got some food, but Sam and I didn't bother. He had gotten a sandwich while we were waiting for our flight, and I got a donut and a coffee. It was from Dunkin Donuts, but I figured that you were not going to get authentic Chilean food inside the airport.
We were at the very back of the plane, so we were literally the last passengers to debark. While we waiting for the people in front of us, we saw our luggage go out into the cart. By the time we got to the baggage claim, our bags were already there, and everyone else had left.
When we got outside, our driver wasn't there yet, and so we weren't quite sure what to do. Some people who were trying to arrange rides tried to help us, but before they did anything our driver showed up. To out surprise, he spoke English, having spent 5 years in the US.
He had an SUV, so our luggage fit OK. We drove just over an hour to San Pedro. The land here is pretty barren of vegetation, although Amy likes the shades of coloring. Our hotel seems nice enough, although there seems to have been a misunderstanding with Expedia. Amy made one reservation, then made a second and canceled the first, but the hotel never got the cancelation, so they thought we wanted two rooms. We'll have to see if we can contact Expedia and straighten this out. Unfortunately, we use a password manager at home, so I'm not sure we actually know the passwords.
It seems that it is warm enough during the day here, but at night it gets very cold.
We got settled in, and Sam took a shower. Then at 4:30 we met a person from the tour company, who went over our itinerary. Unfortunately, for reasons that weren't clear to me, we couldn't go to the hot springs spa. It sounded like they were closed that day, but one would think that they would have known that when they were setting up the tour. On the plus side, we won't have wet bathing suits to pack up when we head home. She also gave us a gift of a bottle of wine, although I have no idea when we might use it.
The hotel complex we're staying in looks like something straight out of Disney. There is an outer adobe wall, and a large sliding door (for vehicles) with a smaller person-sized door in the middle of it. Inside the walls, there is a central courtyard with single story buildings surrounding it. There is a somewhat meandering path with a low stone wall, interesting frilly grasses, and a lot of ambiance. One of the buildings is covered with round stones only a few inches in size. It really looks like something Disney would create if it wanted their guests to feel like they were in an upscale Chilean hotel. Just walking through the courtyard is neat, particularly at night.
We figured we would scope out the town, then I could take a shower, then we could go out to dinner. We were told that Chileans normally eat starting around 7, and that a restaurant might open at 5, but it would be pretty empty.
On the way out, Sam found a very friendly dog that took to him. For a while he was playing fetch with a small twig, which pleased them both.
We found a small "convenience store" less than a block from the hotel, so we got a 6 liter bottle of water, which I brought back to the hotel. We wandered a few blocks to the center of town, where we found a historic old church which had originally been built before 1575. It is still in use. Interestingly one could see the erosion on the buttresses, where rain had slowly eroded the clay. There was exposed straw in the walls, and a pile of dust on the ground at the base.
We wandered a bit further. It seemed like just about every other establishment was a place running tours. We were scoping out possible places for dinner. We looked at one place that seemed to have a 60's theme. The pizzas were named after old rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and others. It looked like a plausible location, but I figured that we would continue to check out places as we meandered back to the hotel, and then return if we didn't find anything better.
As we started to walk away, this woman came out and started talking to us. I figured that it was the proprietor, trying to get us to eat there, but when I turned around I recognized her. It was Marta from our tour group! My first thought was that the other group had made it to town, but then I realized that Marta was from our group, which wasn't coming to the Atacama. It turns out that she was doing sort of what we were doing, but she was more winging it. She had flown up here, was staying in a hostel, and had just arranged some tours with some local people. She was paying a lot less than we were, but I think we're getting a higher-end tour.
We ended up joining her for dinner, where each of the three of us got a pizza. (Marta already had food.) We talked a lot about the previous trip. We learned something amazing. The night of the big soccer game, she had gone to a popular park to join in the celebrations. There, someone had pickpocketed her cell phone. Even worse, in her cell phone case she had all of her credit and ATM cards. She basically had left cash that she had gotten before, and some cash that she had "borrowed" from another guest earlier in the trip.
We couldn't help thinking about the incident on our first day in Santiago, when Amy apparently came close to having her purse stolen.
It was really strange meeting her there like that. I had joked that it would be weird if we met eclipse tour people up in the Atacama, but the problem with that is that we did very little with that group, so we probably would not recognize most of them if we passed them in the street. We never figured that anyone from our group would also be going up there. Even stranger, she was staying right around the corner from where we were staying.
It turned out that this was her second eclipse, and she caught the eclipse bug. She said that she likes to travel, so she's decided to plan her vacations around wherever eclipses were going to occur. So, for example, she's already planning to visit Argentina next year to see the country and to catch the eclipse there.
She likes living more "dangerously" than we do. For example, she came here with no tours previously arranged. More to the point, she flew up here on the flight that was a half hour earlier than ours. But despite that, when she got to the hotel this morning, she went up to her room, took a shower, came down, had breakfast, and then left for the airport.
She figured that she had enough cash for the rest of the trip, but barely, so after dinner we hit an ATM and loaned her some more. I would think it would be really scary (particularly for me) to be in a foreign country, with a fixed amount of cash, no way to get more, and wondering if I would run out before I got home.
She was going to be picked up for her tour around 7am tomorrow, when it would probably be close to freezing. They gave her a 20-30 minute window when she should be waiting outside her hostel. She didn't have a heavy jacket, so I loaned her my heavy down one, figuring that I wouldn't be needing it tomorrow morning. We made plans to meet up tomorrow evening for dinner again.