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Back in the tropics, but you'd never know it! San Pedro de Atacama is located in north east Chile, just shy of the Bolivian border. At 2450 m, it is a small dusty town on the edge of the famous Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet. In some places in the area, there is no recorded precipitation. None. That's right, it has never rained. They even say the records go back to the 1700's! I'm not sure if I believe that, but one thing is for sure, the place is devoid of vegetation, and it's easy to understand why NASA chose the area to test the Mars rovers, because the place looks like Mars.

We had an epic journey to get here, but everything came off quite well owing to the fact that Chile really is an organized country. We flew Lan Chile from Punta Arenas all the way to Calama in the North and then just caught the bus to San Pedro with minutes to spare. We got to our hostel at 8:30 pm after having gotten up in Punta Arenas at 4 am. Ughh! At least it wasn't the bus the whole way.

Yesterday, we went on a small tour of the area to see Valle de la Luna and a few other sites including a salt pan where old fumaroles used to spit molten salt into the air. This part of Chile is very volcanic, and there are signs of volcanic activity everywhere. From all the mineral deposits and mines in the area, to the ominous appearance of Mt. Licancabur in the distance on the Chile-Bolivia border, the place is freaky looking. At nearly 6000 metres, the Licancabur volcano is a perfect cone. I wondered why Peter Jackson didn't consider this area for Mordor in Lord of the Rings as well as New Zealand. I guess it's because he's from New Zealand. But this place could certainly have passed as well. It's easy to understand however, why Chile's economic history and strength are based on mining - there are a lot of mines in the area. Indeed, the largest copper mine in the world is just north of Calama not far from where we landed yesterday, and the largest salt mine in the world is a bit further north near Antofagasta.

With the change in altitude, we were huffing and puffing a bit yesterday, having climbed up from sea level. We planned three days here at 2500 m because for the first steps into Bolivia tomorrow, we go all the way up over 3600 m where we will be for the next couple of weeks en route to Cusco and Manchu Picchu in Peru. That's a huge gain, and we are sure to feel it for a day or so at the outset. Mind you, after Lhasa and Tibet, we should adjust fine. All of that was 3600 m plus as well. So, we are just hanging out in San Pedro, which is a really cool place to do that. Unlike the rest of Chile, San Pedro is basic and cheerful - more like it's Bolivian neighbour to the north. Hanging out is the thing to do, and just adjust to the thinner air. Tomorrow we start our three day 4X4 trip across the remote southwest corner of Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt pan in the world (and the highest). Should be good, but tough!

Before leaving, we went out to buy our last supplies for the jeep trip (especially fruit and veggies), and clean up the currency situation. Bolivia is one of those places where the currency is almost valueless outside the country, yet, you have to have a little on your way in from here because the first thing you have to pay is an entry tax and a national park fee. These must be paid in Bolivianos, forcing the fact that you have to get Bolivianos in Chile before entering. Problem is, there are not a lot of them around here in San Pedro - only the notes that backpackers have somehow not gotten rid of before exiting Bolivia on their way here. So as you can imagine, the competition is high for the notes, the supply is short, and we all know what that means. I checked the web before heading into town and discovered that 1 Boliviano was trading at about 67 Chilean Pesos. The best available at the "cambio" here in town was 95 Pesos per Boliviano, and they didn't even have any! I wound up having to pay 100 Pesos per Boliviano at the travel agent as it was the only option. And there was no other way. Can you say S-C-R-E-W-E-D?

I am sure the national park folks and the tax folks on the Bolivian side are in cahoots with the townsfolk here in San Pedro in order to keep this false market aloft. Man, that's more than a 30% surcharge! What a rip off! But what can you do? Fortunately, we didn't need to change too much - just the bare minimum to pay the silly fees, and then apparently once in Bolivia converting USD to Bolivianos is much more reasonable (or draw from the ATM if there is one - that's the best because you get the most efficient rate. Ughh! Sometimes I cruise around a bit to find the best option, but here, there is no better option. You simply have no choice but to get fleeced for at least the amount you need for the park fee and the tax. Oh well, that's all part of the gig!

I guess I sound like I'm whining a bit eh? Sorry. I have to keep telling myself that I'm the one that's here; but after 16 months, it feels like this is my life! I think... ./



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