Our adventure crossing the big, bad, desolate Andes ended when we were deposited on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. After deleting Chile from our itinerary due to expense, we were wooed back by this burgeoning yet still rustic town. Situated in the notoriously arid Atacama desert, San Pedro is surrounded in all directions by spectacular scenery–salt flats, flamingo-filled lakes, and lunar landscapes to the south, the world’s highest geyser field to the north, volcano-ridden mountain ranges to the east and west, and some of the planet’s most revealing, star-filled skies overhead. Given this impressive natural setting, the dusty, quiet town has become a backpackers’ mecca, though the prices ($10 for a hostel bed and another $10 for a fixed price dinner) force most to break their budgets.
Many friends and readers have assured us that given the right information, Chile doesn’t need to be expensive for travelers. We believe them, but San Pedro breaks all the rules. Travelers here are without options; the restaurants all offer the same menu and the hostels and hotels all charge the same rates depending on the level of luxury. Bike rentals cost the same in every shop that offers them and each tour agency sells the same standard tours at the same fixed prices. The good news is nobody cares: San Pedro’s charms far outweigh its limitations.
We were immediately charmed by the carefully raked dirt roads–no asphalt here–and welcomed by the town dogs. The touts at the bus stop told us our chosen abode, the glorious Hotel Altiplanico, was a 20-minute walk from the center of town and recommended we take a cab. The only problem was there were no cabs. We didn’t mind. The moon was high, the air was crisp, and we were exhilarated to be off the Air Supply bus. Packs in tow we crossed the pepper-tree lined town square, ambled past five blocks of low-slung adobe storefronts, and promptly found ourselves out of town. Streetlights lit our way for the next quarter mile but we had to rely on the moon and our guide dogs–Joseph Stalin and John Kennedy (don’t ask)–to navigate the last few hundred feet. The managers of the Altiplanico were a little confused as to why the dogs had shown up with us and had a hard time getting them off the grounds.
I chose the Altiplanico for one simple reason: I hate the cold. And San Pedro gets really cold at night. By paying a little more, we got a glamorous, resort-like setting complete with in-room heat, a luxury in the Andean highlands. I immediately fired up the heaters and snuggled into our authentic adobe dwelling complete with thatched roof and devoid of TV so guests can truly relax and enjoy the rustic setting.
A visit to San Pedro for most is a collection of day trips to outlying areas. We knew we would be taking the king of all tours, the 3-day trek across the Bolivian border to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve and Salar de Uyuni, so we decided to limit ourselves to one, the sunset tour of the Valley La Luna, or Valley of the Moon. We jumped for joy when a 14-seater van showed up piloted by a young Chilean with perfect English and a warm smile. He told us we had the van and him to ourselves so we could explore the valley at our leisure and on our own time. The only rule was we had to make it to the top of the sand dune in time to catch the sun as it set behind the Andes and illuminated the Cordilleras in a magical spectrum of golds, oranges, and pinks.
The first thing Sergio told us was how lucky we were. While we had been clouded in in Salta, San Pedro had likewise suffered the effects of lack of sunshine. The normally captivating landscape had been obscured from tourists’ view by the weather, and many had been forced to move on without getting a chance to witness its splendor. As the final clouds cleared the Andes the previous day, they dropped the snow that hampered our efforts to cross. While the white stuff had been a problem from above, on the ground in San Pedro it lent a magical, softening air to the rugged peaks. “We only get snow on the mountains only once a year,” Sergio explained. Truly this scene had been prepared just for us (or so I like to think).
Sergio was a repository of geological knowledge and taught us everything there is to know about this particular Chilean countryside. Since it was once an ocean, many millions of years ago, the earth is still laden with salt and as a result little can grow here. Add to the inhospitable soil an almost complete lack of rain (San Pedro averages 40 millimeters per year), and you’ve got one harsh backdrop for life.
Our favorite part of the tour was the hike through a valley canyon, which had once been cut by a river. The upper part of the path was surrounded by sand dunes and Kieran and Asher rolled themselves silly down each one. While they were smitten by the sand, the rest of us were awed by the canyon walls, which began to crack as the sun lowered on the horizon. Formed almost entirely of crystallized salt, the rocklike structures expand and contract with the changing temperatures. Our visit was timed just right for the afternoon contraction. We must have spent a good 15 minutes just listening and marveling that the walls were not going to come crashing down on us in the wake of all the noise.
We got the little kids to move on with promises of an even bigger sand dune to roll down and headed off for our sunset viewing point. The uphill hike at our new altitude of 8,000 feet was taxing on our sea level lungs, but the sunset proved a fitting reward. Tom captured it better with his camera than I can with words.
We spent two more days in San Pedro booking our Bolivia tour and gearing up for it. We rented the town’s only bike with a child seat and took turns riding back and forth from the Altiplanico for supplies. We found a great open air pizza and pasta restaurant where patrons dine clad in stocking caps, gloves, and parkas while huddled around a central fire. The owner was shocked when we told him we were from Georgia, a place he knew as near Russia, and just laughed when he realized we meant the North American version.
Fortuitously for us, our last day in San Pedro was also the town’s annual festival day. Dedicated to its patron saints, Peter and Paul, the celebration began in the morning with a parade and continued on through the day with speeches by priests, musical tributes by colorfully clad bands, and a spirited throwing of confetti throughout the dusty streets. Frankly I was surprised that go-go boots, frilly miniskirts, and silver lame were the costume of choice for religious tribute, but who am I to question such a vibrant, devoted people? I’m just glad they so graciously open their town to travelers. Maybe I should look for some of those boots when I get home…just to spice things up a bit around the ATL and, of course, to remember Chile.