San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama: Where the days are hot, the nights are cold, the tap water isn't potable, and the stray dogs are as plentiful as the tourists.
The bus from Iquique arrived at Calama earlier than anticipated—in the dark, frigid, pre-dawn desert hours. I was the only passenger continuing on to San Pedro de Atacama that Sunday morning, for which transport wouldn't be available for at least two hours. The driver was concerned about the environment he was going to have drop me off in—it's typically not a good sign when someone in his position uses the slicing finger across the throat motion—and after driving around for a few minutes found the only illuminated structure in the immediate area. I was deposited in small a ticketing office for another bus company—empty, save for a lonely security guard.
Two hours of idling later, I made my way to through the brisk morning air to the proper bus company (Buses Atacama 2000). Killing two birds with one stone, I purchased my ticket to the border with Bolivia at the same time—departures occur twice weekly, the next available being on Wednesday night, the 18th.
San Pedro de Atacama
I have no idea what I'm going to do with three nights in this town. It's great seeing and catching up with my friend Giovanni (who traveled here on a 4×4-tour from Bolivia), but San Pedro is one of those tiny stranglehold villages that doesn't hide the fact it's robbing you with every purchase you make. With as bad a Chilean prices are, this place has the audacity to double them. I'm amazed to watch travelers paying over US$9 for a lunch.
I feel like I'm living on the surface of Mars. The temperature shift between day and night on this vegetation-less landscape is extremely radical—90°F (32°C) by mid-day and down to near freezing after dusk… and this is practically the summer—it gets much, much colder in winter.
I never thought I'd pass through a location with less humidity than Arizona in the summer, but this parcel of Chile is one of the driest places on the planet—the nearby Atacama Desert is the most arid in the world, and only receives 3mm of rainfall annually.
My clothes are charged with static electricity; I can see tiny sparks when adjust the bed covers at night. My skin is super dry, but thank the heavens I pack ChapStick with me (an absolute necessity for dry lips here).
Walking around town, I feel like I'm in the Wild Wild West—where's my six-shooter? Many homes have roofs made of mud and straw; a very interesting sight. Walls, roofs—everything is made out of dirt, stone, and wood (mixed in with a spattering of ugly, corrugated tin). It rains so little here—and the mixture they use is as hard as concrete while providing fantastic insulation against the temperatures—that locals have no reason to use anything different… except for those pesky earthquakes that continually hit the region. I read that Chile is one of the most seismically active countries in the world.
Bark, Sniff, Woof
I'm told that locals have given San Pedro the nickname of San Perro, Spanish for dog. There are so many feral dogs scattered about on the dirt streets, it's a rather ridiculous sight. The city should really have an annual day where they just euthanize the problem. Hell, I'd do it for free. I hate stray dogs.
Why San Pedro?
I would have never come to this village if it wasn't to meet up with another traveler. Upon entering town, I asked myself why others were here, and for what reason it has become, as my guidebook phrases it, "the backpackers' gathering point of northern Chile."
I suppose a lot of it has to do with three things: The proximity to the borders with Argentina and Bolivia, the naturally occurring landscape wonders, and the modest archaeological ruins.
You can catch expensive buses into Argentina from here, as well as multi-day 4×4 excursion tours across the terrain and into Bolivia. San Pedro is also a receiving point for such modes of transport from the opposite direction.
There are indeed some neat day trips that you can go on (if a business in town isn't a hotel or restaurant/bar, it's a tour agency). I've been looking at some of the photos that Giovanni has been taking during his moderate–madly expensive trips—really beautiful stuff. If I was on vacation, I'd be all over these excursions into the landscape.
…Instead, I spend the daylight hours in the shadows, with the reptiles and stray dogs, finishing off a pair of novels whilst escaping the heat (although I do love it).
Evenings here, a few hours before dusk, are wonderful. The temperature is perfect, and walking around the back country is peaceful and relaxing. Long shadows add character to the clay-colored surroundings. When the sun finally sets, the sky is packed with an overwhelming display of southern hemisphere stars.
Sadly, I've been hobbling around for the past week or so—the Achilles tendon in my left ankle is in a lot of pain. I'm wondering if it has something to do with a sand fly bite I received on it—one of about 30 ferocious bites that just stopped itching a few days ago—during my trip up to Machu Picchu two weeks ago. I'm treating the pain with some Tiger Balm that I carry with me, but I'm still limping along at a sad pace.
I won't even being to claim that I've got a good grasp of Chile—geographically, it's a very elongated country—but I think I've got enough of a bitter taste in my mouth to stay out of the rest of it.
Chile is subdivided into 12 regions; I've only seen regions one and two. I've heard that the desert starts to dissolve into some wonderful green landscapes south of the capital (region five), and after, even further south, the green turns into ice. I'm also told by Chilean a guy (staying in my mud-walled complex of rooms) that the further south you travel the less expensive it gets as well (…I would hope so).
This Chilean guy that I mentioned is a rather interesting sight. When I first approached him, I would have thought him a Dutchman. Masses of Germans immigrated to southern Chile back in the late 1800s, with the result being that the further south you move, the fairer the skin tone gets. Some folks, like Marco the Chilean fellow, are often mistaken for tourists as they walk though towns such as these.
I can only hope the speech improves as you head south as well. I seem to have walked into a country of mumblers. I can't remember having such a hard time deciphering the Spanish tongue as I have here. I thought it was just me, until a pair of Canadian girls I ran into on the coast asked me if I was having problems understanding people here. Fast talking to the point mumbling—no enunciation. The regional slang that's injected into conversation is new to me as well, and I was once asked by a local if I could speak Chilean (not Español).
This country must indeed be a outdoor adventurer's dream—but I don't have the clothing, finances, or interest at the moment to pursue such things. My hat goes off to those who can, and do, in this eclectic piece of the world.
Off to Bolivia I go.