Expedition to Chile and Peru
In 1985, when I was 22 years old, I went on an expedition to Chile and Peru in South America for three months. This was part of the Operation Raleigh expedition which was started to help young people experience adventure in various countries around the world.
There were 15 people in my group. All of us were British but our leaders included some American marines. We spent almost the whole time living in a remote part of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile at the foot of the mighty Andes Mountains.
In Chile, we stayed in the tiny village of Toconao which is located in the Atacama Desert at an altitude of 2,500m. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth and the villagers told us that it had last rained in 1943! As you can see, the roof of this house was full of holes but that was no problem! Toconao had a population of about 500 and the people were mainly poor farmers who grew vegetables, fruit and grapes for making delicious wine. We slept on the floor of the community center and helped the villagers with various projects: painting the church tower, cleaning the small reservoir that supplied the village with water, and fixing the community soccer pitch.
On one occasion we were invited to a fiesta (party) at an even smaller village far away in the middle of the desert. The villagers slaughtered a llama by cutting its throat, then put a big steel rod through the middle of it and barbecued it for us. That was all we ate... just llama meat! Apart from the food, I really enjoyed the fiesta. I love the music of the Andes.
We also hiked across the desert and up the nearby canyons where we looked at wall carvings and the remains of ancient villages. When we were hiking in one canyon, we came across some human bones. We were worried at first but we later found out that this was probably an old tomb that had been broken open by grave robbers looking for gold.
The biggest adventure was climbing up the active volcano Lascar which towers 5600 meters (18,000 feet) high. It took three days to hike to the mountain and climb to the crater edge. It was amazing to be able to look out across the whole Atacama Desert. The air was so thin that breathing was difficult and walking was exhausting. It was also difficult to sleep at night because of headaches, but the night sky was incredibly beautiful and there were many shooting stars.
After two months in Toconao I moved to a small town called San Pedro de Atacama, which is visited by tourists and even has a small hotel. It also has a museum. In San Pedro de Atacama, I joined a group of ten volunteers who were digging up indian mummies at an ancient burial site. This was very exciting and I was lucky enough to find the mummy of an important warrior - complete with red-feather cap, bow and arrows, axe, bowls, baskets and a wooden spoon.
While staying in San Pedro I also joined a group who were attempting to climb Mount Licancabur, a 5920-meter-high volcano on the border of Chile and Bolivia. We hiked for two days and camped in the ruins of a village in the most beautiful place I have ever seen: 4000 meters up, near an azure lake surrounded by the incredible peaks of the Andes. We climbed to 5400 meters but two of the group (both U.S. Marines) were hallucinating and vomiting because of the altitude, so we slowly made our way back to the camp. That night there was a snowstorm on the mountain and we awoke to find the summit covered in snow.
Copyright: Nigel Stott (2007)