Location: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Lat/Long: 22° 54′ 39″ S / 68° 11′ 59″ W
Weather Conditions: 68F (20C) Sunny with 8% humidity
Atacama Desert.

Full Field Update #2

View the full photo gallery that accompanies this post.

As we arrived into the port of Pucallpa, two strong men reached out to guide our motorized canoe between other boats, pulling the canoe up onto the muddy shore. We carefully climbed out of the canoe and loaded our bags into waiting motocars before heading to a hotel to get a good night’s sleep after our incredible Amazon experience…
Map of South America showing the team's route there.

The Earthducation team is continuing its travels in South America, capturing education and sustainability narratives from a broad array of individuals across Peru and Chile. In the first few days in the field, we were welcomed into three inspirational communities in Peru: Villa María del Triunfo in the hills outside Lima; and Neshuya and San Rafael, in the Amazon basin surrounding Pucallpa. We traveled from the Amazon on to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where we encountered a starkly contrasting landscape and lifestyle. This full update details our stay in the San Pedro de Atacama area of Chile from days 5 through 9. Tomorrow, we’ll journey on to Santiago for one night before traveling to our final destination of Patagonia, in the far south of Chile.

Day 5: October 24

Charlie and Aaron working on Full Update 1 in our hotel room in Pucallpa, Peru.

We woke up early to work on our first full field report. Reflecting on the many experiences we’d had within such a short span of time was both overwhelming and exciting. We were thankful there was no time change between Minnesota and Peru (i.e., no jet lag!), given the very full schedule we had planned out.

After a full day spent editing videos and photos and writing the report, we boarded a bus around 4 pm to head to the Pucallpa airport. We had a long night of travels ahead as we were flying from Pucallpa to Lima in Peru, and then continuing on at 1:15 am to Santiago, Chile, before boarding our final flight to Calama, Chile, later that morning. We attempted to get some sleep on the plane, but as you can imagine, it was more than difficult.

Day 6: October 25

Our plane upon arrival in Calama, Chile.

As we arrived in Santiago, Chile, we were greeted with a stunning view. The sun was just rising and we could see the shadow of the Andes as we landed. With just a little over an hour to catch our next flight, we knew time would be tight as we had to get through customs and recheck our baggage first. Two kind Chileans escorted us through the airport, allowing us to make it to our departure gate within minutes of the plane leaving. We had momentary flashbacks to a similar near-miss at an airport in the Northern Territory in Australia during Earthducation Expedition 3!

After two hours in the air we arrived in Calama, Chile. If you look at the map linked above or on the Route Overview page, you’ll see we actually flew back north from Santiago to travel to Calama. This is because visitors arriving into Chile from outside the country must check in to Santiago first; thus, there were no direct flights from Lima to Calama.

Our view of the Atacama Desert as we landed in Calama.

As we descended toward the Calama airport, we opened our window shades and saw a view we couldn’t have begun to imagine: desert and dust among volcanoes and mountains. We now understood why the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. The sparsely populated Atacama Desert is a plateau covering around 600 miles of land west of the Andes Mountains. It is known as the driest place in the world, with an average rainfall of a mere .4 inches annually. Some areas of this desert have no recorded rainfall in history. The Atacama is comprised mostly of salt lakes, sand, and lava flows.

Our local guide, Rodrigo San Martin, picked us up at the airport and drove us about 60 miles southeast of Calama to reach the town that would serve as our home base for the next several days, San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro sits at 7,900 ft (2,407 meters) above sea level, with an extremely dry climate. We immediately realized the importance of having a water bottle with us at all times. Rodrigo described the geography of the landscape and the importance of mining (especially lithium and copper mining) and tourism within this region.

Rodrigo dicussing the Atacama Desert with Aaron and Charlie.

With temperatures ranging from a cool 45°F at night to a warm 80+°F during the day, we are enjoying the dry, cool weather in contrast to the heat and humidity we experienced in the Amazon. However, here in the high altitude of the Atacama, we do sometimes have to contend with shortness of breath and a bloody nose!

Arriving in San Pedro gave us the first glimpses of anything green since our touchdown in Calama. The small San Pedro de Atacama River brings water from the mountains throughout the town with many manmade mini aqueducts that channel water into various locations throughout the town, providing water for irrigation and human consumption.

Charlie interviewing Gabriela Rodríguez, professora of tourism at Linkan Antai School.

Our first stop in San Pedro was Linkan Antai School, a secondary school that focuses on preparing students in one of four areas after their general studies: tourism, administration, electricity, or agriculture. At Linkan Antai, we first interviewed Gabriela Rodríguez, a professor of tourism. Gabriela reflected on her beliefs regarding education as she shared her passion for educating the students to be productive and respectful citizens – both in their actions toward others and the environment.

In discussing sustainability, Gabriela noted, “When money talks, consciousness stays quiet.” She was referring to the ongoing struggle to get people to follow through on their their beliefs with action.

For example, the mining sector is the leading employer throughout all of Chile. Although the water consumption within the mining industry is high and water in the region is scarce, few in this region are challenging the mining companies to conserve water. Without the mining industry, the economy of Chile would completely change. In fact, some call it an “artificial economy.” If you are employed in the mining industry and making a fair wage, you can get by comfortably in this region, but if not, life here is a struggle.

Guillermo Gallardo, professor of agriculture at Linkan Antai School.

This tension between industry and the environment was a common theme throughout our interviews in the San Pedro area, especially in discussions about water, a coveted resource. We interviewed Guillermo Gallardo, an agronomist engineer who has been a professor of agriculture for 12 years at Linkan Antai. He shared that his goal is to educate his students about alternative agricultural practices within the Atacama climate. He also discussed his desire to teach his students about advanced agricultural practices where all materials grown are put to use – for example, everything from the actual corn to the by-products of the cornstalks.

Guillermo studies and teaches about innovative new methods of irrigation. He sees these advancements as the most pressing need within this region, and hopes that advancements in agriculture found throughout the world will come quickly to Chile. Guillermo said education is very important within San Pedro and throughout Chile, especially agriculture education, as the dance between agriculture and the environment is a tenuous one.
Aaron interviewing Geronimo, a 16 year-old student at Linkan Antai School.

We were also fortunate to be able to visit a classroom where students were learning English. We spoke with Gerónimo Sota, a 16-year-old student with an impressive grasp of the English language. He shared that he learned his English not only from the school, but also at home from his parents. His parents stressed to him the importance of learning English in order to be competitive within the global economy. Gerónimo’s hope is to go to Santiago to university, though it is very expensive to attend university in Chile, and then come back to San Pedro, a community he absolutely loves. His favorite activity in San Pedro is rock climbing.

Public protests centered on educational reform in Chile, especially concerning the cost of and access to higher education, has been an ongoing recent phenomenon in Chile. To read more about this issue, see our page on Education in South America.

Arturo Segovia, secondary English teacher at Linkan Antai School.

We also spoke with Arturo Segovia, a secondary English teacher who has been teaching at Linkan Antai for 2 years. Arturo is originally from Arica, Chile, which sits just 11 miles south of the border with Peru. Arturo moved to San Pedro for this teaching opportunity. He said some of the students find value in learning English as San Pedro is becoming a tourist area, and they understand the value of learning an international language like English for future employment. He also noted the importance of education because the country depends on education for development.

Arturo said he was very grateful to his parents as he received a great education from them, although they “were not professionals.” Without education, he said, “you will make many mistakes in your life.” Sustainability to Arturo is about using the environment “without damage” to the environment. He believes the biggest sustainability challenge in San Pedro is water.

Day 7: October 26

Salar de Atacama

Today we woke up early to travel to some small communities outside the town of San Pedro. We first drove about 25 miles to Toconao, Chile. On the way, we visited the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and the second largest in the Americas (the largest salt flats are the Salar de Uyuni, found in Bolivia). The Salar de Atacama is surrounded by the Andes mountains to the east and the Cordillera Domeyko range to the west, with no drainage outlets. We stopped and took a brief walk within this salt flat, the purest active source of lithium in Chile.

Luisa Zuleta working on a manual wool weave in her shop in Toconao, Chile.
While in Toconao, we interviewed a local artisan, Luisa Zuleta. Luisa opened a local shop over 30 years ago with the desire to provide her children with a better education than she had received.

Luisa said she cannot read and write as well as she would like, and that her shop has provided a dream come true and allowed her to earn a living to support her family. She showcased her work for us, primarily weaving with llama wool, and it is simply beautiful. A sweater alone can take her about 12 hours to weave, yet within the shop it is sold for 8,000 pesos, approximately $16 US. Luisa reflected on education saying it is much different today for her children and grandchildren as she herself had had no access to schooling. Luisa also spoke about sustainability, especially the importance of water.

Belarmina Plaza, a sheepherder in Toconoa, Chile.

About 60 miles southeast of San Pedro de Atacama lies the community of Socaire. As we stopped for lunch there, we encountered a woman herding sheep down an open ditch lined with green grass. We were fortunate to be able to speak with her about her life and her views on education and sustainability. Her name is Belarmina Plaza, and she has 51 sheep and one llama. On both the sheep and the llama, bright yarn knots were tied to the wool as a ritual to provide safety, as well as mark ownership.

Education to Belarmina was extremely important as she believed it was critical for new generations, to provide them a better life. She said she was very grateful to her parents, who gave her the knowledge of agricultural practices.

After our interview with Belarmina, we traveled to Laguna Miscanti, a lagoon located at 13,000 feet that is renewed by the seepage of rainwater and thermal groundwater in the area. While there, we interviewed a ranger of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, 23-year-old Leda Plaza, originally from Socaire.

Aaron, Leda Plaza, and Charlie in front of Miscanti Lagoon.

Leda discussed the importance of the education she received in Socaire in her primary grades and in Calama for her secondary schooling. She said that without an education, she would not be a ranger today, and that it is through education that we have a future. Regarding sustainability, Leda reflected that it is her generation that must truly understand what sustainability is and what it means for the future, especially in Chile, a country closely bound to its natural environment.

At this point in the day, we returned to our hotel in San Pedro to prepare the daily update, which we subsequently sent out using the BGAN satellite. We then packed a night’s worth of gear into Rodrigo’s truck and travelled about 45 minutes outside town to Catarbe Canyon. We arrived in the canyon after dusk, driving through several small streams, some 12 inches deep, that branched out from the San Pedro river along the distant canyon wall. Deep in the canyon, away from the ambient glow of the town, we pulled over on the sandy roadside and photographed a series of spectacular starscapes. The Atacama Desert is home to several important international astronomical telescopes and projects, and as we stared up at the clear and brilliant starry sky, we could certainly understand why.

After seeing no signs of homes in the canyon for nearly 20 minutes, we turned down a small sand driveway and arrived at Meybol Garcia and Juan-Pedro Lopez-Piña’s home. Their home would be our first and only homestay of this expedition, an experience we always look forward to on each Earthducation expedition as we are able to spend an entire evening with a local family and view, through a more informal and relaxed lens, how they live their lives.
Sunrise in the Catarbe Canyon near Pedro and Meybol's home.

Meybol and Pedro have been together for more than 2 years and have a 10 month-old son, Mallku, as well as a 3 year-old son, Harri, from Meybol’s first marriage. Pedro shared an amazing story with us that he delivered their son Mallku alone at their home with Meybol, with no midwives or doctors present.

Meybol and Pedro’s home consists of a beautiful array of small adobe-constructed buildings connected by a central meeting area. There was a kitchen with a roof supported by dark-stained local trees and thatch, as well as a main living space with two separate bedrooms and a large bathroom and storage area.

Aaron and Charlie brought their gear into a small room off the main living area that had two single beds and seemed to be Harri’s bedroom and play area as his toys were spread around the room. Justin’s room was another small building across from the main living area that seemed the perfect guest room. In the central meeting area there was a 4-foot-wide hand-constructed stone fire-pit and an open patio for play and relaxation, as more of Harri’s toys were spread around in front of a sleeping pad, hammock, and small garden. The Catarbe Canyon seemed to envelope their home in all directions, creating a stunning night-setting for dinner.

Arriving at our homestay in Catarbe Canyon, outside San Pedro.

Meybol’s father Roberto Garcia joined us for an excellent lamb, quinoa, and vegetable dinner next to the fire on their patio. Over dinner, Meybol, who grew up in San Pedro de Atacama, and Pedro, originally from Madrid, Spain, shared a story of how they first met when Pedro visited San Pedro de Atacama and introduced himself to Meybol at a local restaurant. Pedro referred to Meybol as “the love and passion of his life.”

After dinner, Pedro shut off the power to the home as they live off the grid with no city electricity or water, and we built up the fire for the evening. We interviewed Roberto, Meybol’s father, next the to warm glow of the fire – a beautiful setting for the video. As Roberto discussed with Charlie his beliefs on education and sustainability, Meybol, Justin, and Aaron continued throwing small branches and logs on the fire to maintain the only point of light for our video.

Juan Pedro Lopez-Piña, a local guide originally from Spain.
Roberto, who has lived his whole life in San Pedro de Atacama, shared that he believes education is fundamental for the lives of locals as they adapt to changing sources of income, from professions in mining to construction to, most recently, tourism. For him, providing educational opportunities to each of his 6 children was very important as he wanted his give his children strong foundations in both traditional and formal contexts.

Roberto also noted that his beliefs about sustainability have shifted along with the shifting needs of San Pedro over the years, from fresh water availability to debates about mining the local landscapes. After the interview, Roberto headed back to San Pedro as he needed to head to work the next morning, and Pedro, a local guide, also turned in for the night as he had an entire day with French tourists that would start at 4:00 am (in order to bring them to the geysers about an hour from town). Aaron, Charlie, Justin, and Meybol continued to share stories around the fire for some time before they also turned in for the night.

Day 8: October 27

Meybol Garcia sharing her thoughts on the importance of the land.

The next morning we woke early for breakfast, which consisted of coffee, toast, and ham. We then interviewed Meybol on her patio with her young son, Mallku, in her arms. Meybol shared that she enjoyed living away from the noise and bustle of town with the canyon as her ideal life and family setting. She wants her two boys to grow up with respect and modesty throughout life, and planned to send them to school in town once they are old enough. Currently, Harri and Mallku are the only two children in the canyon, so going to school in town would allow them to be closer to friends. Meybol defined sustainability as using only the necessary resources for life to preserve the environment she loves, especially the San Pedro river and Catarbe Canyon. It was a beautiful interview that will remain with us for some time.

Upon finishing our interview with Meybol, Rodrigo arrived to take us on to our next destination, and so we packed our gear, said our goodbyes, and headed back into the canyon. About 10 minutes from Meybol’s home, we parked the truck and took a short hike through the canyon. With a setting that seemed the perfect backdrop for a movie, we explored the crumbling canyon walls and climbed through several small tunnels before returning to the truck.

On the road in the Valley of the Moon, Chile, at dusk.

We then traveled to Valle de la Muerte, the Death Valley of Chile, where we hiked within a surreal landscape carved by wind erosion. The gigantic rocks, huge sand dunes, and incredible cliffs, mixed with the intense heat and dryness, made for one challenging hike!

After our hike, we returned to our lodging near San Pedro to complete a daily update, and then headed out of San Pedro once again to visit Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The Valley of the Moon is home to six communities (Coyo, Larache, Quitor, Sequitor, Solor, and San Pedro de Atacama) that work to protect the natural resources of this region. The valley, which is made up of different stratifications and salt formations, is named after its resemblance to the surface of the moon. In fact, a prototype for a Mars rover was even tested here by scientists! While here, we hiked through the Chulacao Caves and viewed salt mines filled with crystals of gem salt.

Charlie photographing Piedra del Coyote at sunset.

Our central goal for the evening was to view the sunset at Piedra del Coyote, a recently named area of beautiful cliffs overlooking the salt range. We were not the only ones who wanted to be at this ideal scenic viewpoint at sunset; when we arrived, the entire rim was lined with people trying to get the perfect photo. We stayed well past sunset and enjoyed the breathtaking views.

Day 9: October 28

Rodrigo, our Chilean guide, showing us Cuevas de Sal.

Today we are working on this second full field report before capturing a few more interviews. We leave tomorrow morning for Santiago. This experience, as in Peru, has been like no other! The Atacama is simply an amazing place. We want to thank everyone from all the communities we visited. From our homestay to the many interviews, a big thank you goes out to everyone from all the regions surrounding San Pedro de Atacama!

Please share your perspective on the EnviroNetwork! Our goal is for people around the world to share their ideas on how education and sustainability intersect. For example, what do you believe is the importance of education and how does education, be it from a formal school or your parents and elders, impact your ability to sustain your way of life? We would like EVERYONE to participate. No matter if you are 13 or 90 years old, we want to see you on the network!

As always, Earthducation provides a number of educational activities and resources that educators can use within their classrooms. Make sure to check them out and get involved!

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