OYOP: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
After a 3-day adventure riding in a jeep through the desert, having seen landscapes that put the Inca Trail to shame, I was on a high as we crossed over the border from Bolivia into Chile. I was thrilled as the bus toward the border travelled further and further down in altitude since I had spent the morning and night before at some of the highest altitude I had experienced so far and tightly wrapped up in all of my layers. As we continued on this leg of our journey with the two German girls and two English guys from the desert tour, we were all in smiles still sharing laughs from the inevitable stories that arise when you are in close quarters with 10 strangers for a three-day trip together. (Be sure to look out for James’ informative and witty post coming soon on our 3-day desert adventure).
Once the bus reached the border patrol office, a small shack in the middle of the desert, I quickly realized that having four days in this town might be a little too much. An inevitable part of traveling long-term is ending up “stuck” in a town because of transportation being unavailable or having booked the next leg ahead of time. This happened in the border town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, because we had booked our flight into Santiago, Chile, a couple of months ago for the 30th of January, not knowing the exact date we would make it to the border town. San Pedro wasn’t exactly the kind of town that you need four nights to explore.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town snack dab in the middle of the desert. It consists of a few main grid streets with cafes, hostels, and tourist offices, small buildings that all look like little clay models built on a wide expanse of dust. While there was some local life here dominated by a mixture of tourism workers, hippy artisans and musicians, there were as many if not more tourists than locals packed into this tiny town. Most tourists are swiftly passing through to access tours to one or all of the breathtaking landscapes I had already passed on our 3-day tour from Uyuni. In the meantime, tourists are just trying not to completely melt or bake in the unforgiving desert sun. By the way people are dressed in not much more than bathing suits and sun hats riding bicycles through the dusty streets, you might think they are all on the way to a nearby pool or beach. In your delirium, you think you should start running after them to find whatever cool relief they are after, but you realize any water you envision is just going to be a desert mirage. And then you wonder why these people all rented bikes in the first place in a town that takes 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other, and you hope they recover from the heat enough to remember there is no beach to ride to at the other end. Being here feels quite like being trapped at home in southern Louisiana in August with the air conditioner broken. Except the air conditioners aren’t broken here, they just don’t exist. When I told James I was writing on our time in San Pedro, his only comment was “did you say it’s hot?”
We spent the first couple days still seeing a lot of Andy and Anthony, the two English guys from our desert tour, and gathering lots of tips from Andy on Southeast Asia travel, where he’d been the past several months. Upon their recommendation, we had stayed in the same hostel with them, Mamatierra, the first night, which was a backpacker haven. It was comfortable and clean. It even provided shampoo and soap, which I was admittedly more giddy about than having made it into Chile. It had tables and hammocks outside, and provided the kind of atmosphere to meet and mingle with all of the other travelers all day. It was a kind of mini paradise in the desert. I enjoyed this immensely, but unfortunately, we hadn’t booked ahead of time and could only stay one night there. We had to move to the only other reasonably priced hostel available. This hostel was all the way past town back near the border patrol office. It was completely barren, isolated and somehow seemed even more heated than anywhere else in town. It looked like the lone building in an old western movie, but we didn’t have much of a choice but to spend the next couple of nights here. On the plus side, the shower had steaming hot water. As I had gotten enough heat outside, I turned on the other knob. Except strangely, the hot water was coming from both knobs. And wouldn’t you know it was the first time in two months I was wishing for one of the dozens of cold showers I’d taken before.
We spent a lot of time walking through the same few dusty streets and spending hours at an outdoor cafe that had giant cheap sandwiches, reliable wi-fi, couches, and Chilean musicians that came in and out to play a few songs for tips. We were able to plan out some of our upcoming travels in Chile, something we hadn’t been doing at all while in Bolivia. And I could already see some differences in culture and people that set Chile apart from Bolivia and Peru.
The first thing I noticed is that Chile is more expensive, but then, we are in this small town where tourists don’t have much of a choice other than to pay the price offered. As a comparison, the ice cream here is between $4-$6 compared to less than $0.50 in Bolivia and Peru. That’s an extreme example, but it was still a surprise. And the population is different. There are many more locals who look much more European than South American. It’s much more difficult to tell offhand who is a traveler and who is a native. I believe our days of photo requests and being quickly pinpointed as gringos are over in South America.
The highlight of our time in San Pedro were the stars. We debated whether to take the astronomical tour, a tour in which you are driven out into the desert a few kilometers away from the town and given telescopes to look at the stars. But these tours were expensive, and we knew from being in the middle of nowhere in the desert a few days earlier that we had just passed a full moon and paying a lot of money to not be able to see much with the light pollution might be disappointing. So instead, we walked outside in the middle of the night at our hostel on the outskirts of town. And we saw an incredible sky. I could see the Milky Way, for the first time in my life, even with the still bright moon. I am pretty sure we could see the planets that are visible right now as well, but so many of the stars were so bright, it was hard to tell which ones might be the planets. It was a great reminder why I was looking forward to being in the desert.
On our last day in San Pedro, we walked into a crowded restaurant for lunch and with no tables available, we were asked by a Chilean couple from Santiago to join them. These invitations always surprise me and we seem to surprise the inviters by joining them, since Americans have a reputation for maintaining distance and not joining in on a communal meal, we have been told. This lunch and conversation were a nice treat, and we learned more about the areas around Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile that would be nice for us to explore. We also learned that this particular couple in their late 40s were both divorced with kids and had just started dating each other. We awkwardly learned that this was their first trip away together, and they had been fighting a lot. Hopefully the Chilean wine they had with them and the planned sunset walk helped, and meeting us of course.
San Pedro is pleasant to pass through but a bit boring, if you’re not going to take part in all of the tours, and extremely hot for four days. I was not at all daunted by our full day of traveling on bus, taxi, plane, bus, another bus and another taxi to get to our next stop of Valparaiso, Chile, because it’s not in the desert, and it is on the beach. And between those two facts, there must be some relief from the heat.