Archive for June 2015

Cold Beer is Overrated

About three weeks ago when we first pulled into San Pedro de Atacama after crossing the Salar de Uyuni, our refrigerator stopped working. Part of the reason we stayed in San Pedro for so long (other than work) was to get parts for the fridge mailed to us from Utah. While we were waiting, we sampled some of the offerings available in the region.

Witt takes apart the refrigerator for something like the fifth time.

Witt takes apart the refrigerator for something like the fifth time.


Among the many, many tourist activities on offer in San Pedro is sand-boarding on the local dunes.

Among the many, many tourist activities on offer in San Pedro is sand-boarding on the local dunes.


Quinn had fun playing on the dunes too.

Quinn had fun playing on the dunes too.


One afternoon we went back to the Valley of the Moon to explore the salt cavern there.

One afternoon we went back to the Valley of the Moon to explore the salt cavern there.


Quinn had a good time climbing on the strange salt formations.

Quinn had a good time climbing on the strange salt formations.


One benefit of our extended stay in San Pedro was that we got to see the beautiful adobe church without its shroud of scaffolding.

One benefit of our extended stay in San Pedro was that we got to see the beautiful adobe church without its shroud of scaffolding.

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We discovered recently that many of our credit and ATM cards are expiring soon. June of 2015 seemed like so far away when we left on our trip two years ago! Quinn’s grandparents have been kind enough to collect the replacements for us, and since we were stuck waiting for our fridge parts anyway, we asked them to send our new credit cards to us as well. Despite having to make the 4-hour drive from their house to the nearest DHL office, they mailed our cards and new car registration documents for us. Thank you so much!!

The process for receiving a package in Chile goes something like this. First the package gets mailed. It usually only takes 3 days to arrive in Santiago. Then it has to go through customs. Each of our packages took about 5 days for this process. Then DHL notifies you that you owe import duties on your package. Visit the DHL office and pay the taxes. Then they release the package from customs, and about two days later the package arrives at its destination.

For us the destination was Calama, a mining town in Northern Chile. Since the town (and more importantly its only campground) wasn’t that appealing, we decided to wait in the tourist hub of San Pedro, camping at hostels where we could use the fridge in the kitchen. This meant that we had to make the 3-hour round trip drive from San Pedro to Calama three times before we had both of our packages in our hands.

The fridge parts were the first to arrive, and we installed them that evening with high hopes that we’d soon have cold beer once again. Unfortunately it was not to be; the fridge still refused to run.

A few days later it was time to pick up the package containing our credit cards and other necessities, like train tracks. (Doesn’t everyone get train tracks in their care packages?) After retrieving that package we drove to the Tatio Geysers, the world’s highest geyser field.

We got to see an amazing sunset on our way up to see the Tatio geysers.

We got to see an amazing sunset on our way up to see the Tatio geysers.


By far the most important part of the care package was new tracks for Quinn's train set.

By far the most important part of the care package was new tracks for Quinn’s train set.

The Tatio Geysers are apparently most active between six and eight AM. That combined with the fact that they’re at 4320m (over 14,000 feet) in elevation meant that we had to endure some discomfort to see them (namely cold temperatures, lack of sleep due to altitude, and then getting up before sunrise). We drove up the previous evening and camped near the geysers. It got to well below freezing overnight, so we put our water-filled nalgene bottle along with a container of leftover bean soup outside to freeze. This will keep our fridge (turned cooler) cool for a couple of days, we hope. We fired up our heater and snuggled into our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning as the tour busses started to pull in well before dawn, we dropped the top on our van and followed them to the geyser fields.

The geysers were neat to see, although they consisted mostly of pools of boiling water and not many actual jets.

The geysers were neat to see, although they consisted mostly of pools of boiling water and not many actual jets.

With our packages now safely in hand, we were finally free to leave for Argentina. Since we’d decided to cross the border at Paso Sico, which doesn’t have a Chilean customs post, so we did our immigration and customs paperwork in San Pedro. We left town at about 2pm, and since we didn’t want another sleepless night at altitude, we camped in a flamingo reserve on the Salar de Atacama.

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Quinn convinced us to let him open up some of his new tracks and set up his trains on his bed.

Quinn convinced us to let him open up some of his new tracks and set up his trains on his bed.

We’ve decided that Buenos Aires is the best place to try to get our fridge fixed, so we’ve opted to detour south to the “Paris of South America” to either repair or replace it. Our next stop is the Argentinian wine growing region of Cafayate for a week. After that we’ll bolt across the continent to BA. Wish us luck!

The Star-Gazing Capital of the World

The Atacama Desert is known as one of the best places in the world for star gazing. That’s why scientists from the U.S., parts of Europe, and Japan decided to install one of the world’s largest radio telescope arrays at 5000m (over 16,000 feet) in the mountains there. The dry (2% humidity – don’t forget your moisturizer!), thin air ensures that the faint signals that have been traveling from distant galaxies for the past 100 million years don’t end their journey by being dispersed in a pesky water droplet in our atmosphere.

We visited the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-millimeter Array last weekend, and it was quite an experience.

The first thing that clues you in that this project has deep pockets is the fact that the tour is free. We awoke at 8am, which here is before dawn, and went to board the brand new, fancy bus that would take us to the site. Then they turned on the safety video which easily matched any of the safety videos I’ve ever seen at NREL or any other government facility, right down to the Personal Protective Equipment, Health and Safety Regulations, and Medical Response Action Plan. The English speaking narrator obviously had never even visited a Mexican restaurant, as he kept saying, “San Pedro dee Atacama.” It all felt very out of place for us.

These 12m telescopes have been moved from the 5000m plateau where they operate down to the maintenance and operations facility at 2400m for repairs.

These 12m telescopes have been moved from the 5000m plateau where they operate down to the maintenance and operations facility at 2400m for repairs.

How do you move a 12m telescope, you ask? With one of these crawlers. It moves at 5kph and consumes $2000 of diesel fuel in a round-trip.

How do you move a 12m telescope, you ask? With one of these crawlers. It moves at 5kph and consumes $2000 of diesel fuel in a round-trip.

If you start thinking about the task of assimilating the data from 66 different radio telescopes into a single dataset that represents the virtual 16km antenna that the site simulates with it’s array, you can imagine that there’s a lot of data processing going on. In fact, for every astronomer on site, there are 9 electrical engineers. On top of that, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, called the correlator, is operational at 5000m on the site to carry out this work.

We got to climb up on the transporter and even sit in the driver's seat.

We got to climb up on the transporter and even sit in the driver’s seat.

The collector on the antenna is cooled to +5 degrees Kelvin in order to make the receiver “radio quiet.” This must be maintained even during transport, and so the crawler generates power for the antenna during the trip.

To continue the astronomy theme, both Jen and I attended (on separate nights) an astro tour held just outside of town. The host had a couple of good-sized telescopes, and we got to see Saturn with it’s rings, star clusters, and something called the “Sombrero Galaxy.” The guide was obviously passionate about the subject, and we ended out having a great time despite the cold weather.

I biked out to the valley of the moon, about 10km outside of San Pedro. The white stuff on the hills is not snow - it's salt.

I biked out to the valley of the moon, about 10km outside of San Pedro. The white stuff on the hills is not snow – it’s salt.

I love it when old rusting equipment has manufacturer's plaques on it. I think this was either a generator or a pump for a mine.

I love it when old rusting equipment has manufacturer’s plaques on it. I think this was either a generator or a pump for a mine.

Anyone have any idea what language this is?

Anyone have any idea what language this is?

It’s hard to buy real coffee here, and we’ve been drinking instant. Jen’s birthday present this year was a real cup of coffee. Happy birthday!

Birthday breakfast with real coffee.

Birthday breakfast with real coffee.

Through the Salar de Uyuni

The night we camped by the old locomotives near Uyuni turned out to be the coldest night we’ve spent in the van, getting down to about 13 degrees F (-10C). We didn’t really expect that, since we were at lower elevation than in Potosi, and we didn’t run the heater.

We were fine in our down sleeping bags, but our water pipes froze! We were really worried that we’d broken something, but once everything thawed out we were relieved that no damage had been done.

We spent a few hours stocking up on food, fuel, and water for the next leg of our journey. We planned to drive out onto the salt flats, spend the night there, and then head south through a national park to enter Chile. From talking to other travelers, we expected the roads to be very rough and for the whole trip to take three to four days.

We were told we could find fuel in a couple of the towns along the way, but we filled our tank up to the neck and filled our 5 gallon jerry can as well. We also filled the tank that supplies fuel to our heater, expecting more cold nights.

The first 25km from Uyuni through the town of Colchane where the access to the Salar is was very rough, but once on the salt flats all was smooth sailing.

The salt flats are not mis-named. They're flatter than most of the roads in Boliva, and you can go pretty much as fast as you want. It's a lot like driving a boat. You pick a spot on the horizon and head for it. Who needs roads?!

The salt flats are not mis-named. They’re flatter than most of the roads in Boliva, and you can go pretty much as fast as you want. It’s a lot like driving a boat. You pick a spot on the horizon and head for it. Who needs roads?!

Q gets his first driving lesson. We got the van up to 80mph out here!

Q gets his first driving lesson. We got the van up to 80mph out here!

Jen finds her bliss...

Jen finds her bliss…

... And Quinn uses his dump truck to push the van out when we got stuck!

… And Quinn uses his dump truck to push the van out when we got stuck!

It's really hard not to look at this as a frozen lake. We kept calling the salt ice, and we camped on an island.

It’s really hard not to look at this as a frozen lake. We kept calling the salt ice, and we camped on an island.

We enjoyed an amazing sunset that evening, at least for as long as we could stand the cold.

We enjoyed an amazing sunset that evening, at least for as long as we could stand the cold.

The next day we re-filled our salt container.

The next day we re-filled our salt container.

Leaving the salt, we went from a perfectly smooth surface to a horrible road where we could only go 10-15 MPH. That lasted for a couple of hours before we reached a still-unpaved but much better road. We stopped in the town of San Cristobal where we had been told we could get fuel, only to be told, “No hay. Mañana?” (“There isn’t any. Tomorrow?”) We were glad we’d filled up our jerry can, and after we had the salt washed from the underside of the van we carried on.

Because of the cold weather and high altitude, we decided to skip the southern part of our planned route past Laguna Colorado and take the shorter and easier route directly into Chile. We camped that night in the Valley of the Rocks.

There were dirt piles at the campsite, which are second only to wifi in making for a great camp.

There were dirt piles at the campsite, which to Quinn are second only to wifi in making for a great camp.

The next morning we enjoyed a spectacular sunrise with a full moon setting over the mountains.

The next morning we enjoyed a spectacular sunrise with a full moon setting over the mountains.

We passed many lakes and salt flats on our way into Chile the next day. This one even featured flamingos.

We passed many lakes and salt flats on our way into Chile the next day. This one even featured flamingos.

The Origin of the Almighty $

One thing I took away from the month we spent in Bolivia is that they’re a very proud and patriotic people. Evo Morales, their current president, is loathed in Washington because he continually refuses to take loans and give away the country’s resources in exchange for perks and bribes like so many other Latin American leaders have done over the course of the past 50 years. His people seem to be very proud of him for that stance, and Bolivia may be better off for it.

We were fortunate enough to be in Sucre for Bolivia’s independence day celebrations. Sucre was one of the first cities to gain independence from Spain, in 1825, and it’s citizens are very proud of that. That pride showed in the three days of celebrations.

The start of one of the many marching bands parading through the city to mark the celebrations.

The start of one of the many marching bands parading through the city to mark the celebrations.

This long procession wound past our campground. We could hear it, and ran down the street to watch.

This long procession wound past our campground. We could hear it, and ran down the street to watch.

We got to visit Sucre's Liberty Bell, which features its very own crack.

We got to visit Sucre’s Liberty Bell, which features its very own crack.

Sucre is famous as the "White City."

Sucre is famous as the “White City.”

Sucre had a great central market, featuring fruit from the jungle regions of the country and eggs and cheese from the highlands.

Sucre had a great central market, featuring fruit from the jungle regions of the country and eggs and cheese from the highlands.

Quinn found this fuzzy caterpillar in our campground. At first I thought he was going to eat it like a brochette!

Quinn found this fuzzy caterpillar in our campground. At first I thought he was going to eat it like a brochette!

One of the city's many plazas hosted a pick-up soccer game on a Friday afternoon.

One of the city’s many plazas hosted a pick-up soccer game on a Friday afternoon.

We departed Sucre for Potosi on Saturday. Potosi is a silver mining town with a long history, having supplied Spain with silver since the 1500s. The Spanish crown set up a mint soon after the silver was discovered, and the coins produced there became the world’s first international currency. The museum showed the entire history of making coins from the early crude hand-stamped coins up through the modern techniques employed before the mint was finally closed in the 1950s.

The mint mark for the Potosi mint was a P, T, S, and i superimposed on each other. According to our guide, this is where our modern $ symbol originates.

The mint mark for the Potosi mint was a P, T, S, and i superimposed on each other. According to our guide, this is where our modern $ symbol originates.

This complex wooden gearing is a mule-driven press dating back 250 years. It's still in the same location as when it was constructed.

This complex wooden gearing is a mule-driven press dating back 250 years. It’s still in the same location as when it was constructed.

Potosi is still a mining town today.

Potosi is still a mining town today.

From Potosi we headed southwest toward the dusty outpost of Uyuni, gateway to the famous salt flats that bear it’s name and have the distinction of being the flattest place on earth. On the way we stopped to visit another ghost town, again complete with rusting locomotives.

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Just outside of Uyuni is a locomotive graveyard, a must-see attraction for us. It was pretty surreal, and we spent the afternoon exploring the wrecks. We even decided to camp among the rusting hulks.

No safety rules here. We could climb around on the rusting locomotives to our heart's content.

No safety rules here. We could climb around on the rusting locomotives to our heart’s content.

The setting sun amongst the aging giants made for a spectacular sight.

The setting sun amongst the aging giants made for a spectacular sight.

We enjoyed a full moon camped in the desert.

We enjoyed a full moon camped in the desert.