San Pedro de Atacama- The Infinite Frontier

Smuggling drugs between Bolivia and Chile would be easy. The border control is in town about twenty miles into the country, hopping out before then would be quite doable. Even that’s unnecessary though as the people who check the bags do little more than probe a disinterested hand around the top of your pack. Minor efforts like putting it inside a smaller pocket or an item of clothing or just on you (we didn’t get a pat down) would do the trick. Not that I’m encouraging drug trafficking of course, just observing how half assed the crackdown on what is one of the area’s major trades. Intentionally half assed or not I couldn’t say.

We hadn’t planned on coming to Chile but many travellers had recommended a stay in little San Pedro and seeing as it’s only a half hour over the border after the Uyuni tour we thought we’d see if it’s worth the fuss. Quick conclusion: worth a trip, enjoyed it but don’t fully understand the hype.

The appeal lies in it’s laid back hippie vibe, cute Adobe streets and the myriad tour options that explore the stark and varied landscape that surrounds. Furthermore the climate, being that the altitude is lower, is far more agreeable than the frozen, wind battered Altiplano that offers similar scenery. We had just come through the Salar though so had already seen the big volcanoes, flamingo populated lagoons and high altitude geysers that people​ flock to San Pedro for. There’s plenty on offer though so for something different we aimed to visit Valle de La Luna and do a stargazing tour.

On arriving at its pleasant, leafy plaza we come across dreadlocked jugglers, expensive cafés and a level of order and organisation that feels quite alien after my time in Bolivia. It seems relaxed so we follow suite and have a good lie in, the all important internet catch up and a wash. A sign asks us to limit our showers to three minutes as this is the Atacama: The driest place on earth (a point of pride in these parts). But having four day’s worth of desert sand caked into our scalps requires some tender love and care so like the self interested, energy glugging westerners that we are we indulge in double digit shower time. Cue: X gon give it to ya.

Our first day we wander round town, ominous clouds limiting our options. There isn’t much to see, a small church and countless hostels, tour companies and overpriced tourist shops. It’s pretty though and has a friendly atmosphere. There is an old fort out of town, ‘the fort of 300 heads’ if I recall (it was a couple weeks ago now) so called because, well, when the Spanish finally overcame the stubborn natives here they stuck 300 heads on spikes as a warning to other resistors. Ahh, isn’t colonial history fun! Europe was such a good influence on the world. The ruins themselves are of modest interest and are scenically set but it’s quite hard to envisage what once was amidst the crumbling stones. It had some spanglish par excellence though.

 

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We became quite endeared to our friend Slippery ‘The Path’.

 

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We (/I because I am a child) of course took this as a challenge. We’d already been throwing all the ‘Throw Stones’ anyway

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The fort, sans heads

While we’re there the rain starts and slowly builds. It rains enough that the streets turn into a quagmire. It rains enough that, paradoxically, the water stops working in the town (the flooding cut a pipe I think). In the higher areas it snowed, enough that the pass we came over the night before became impassable and many people’s Uyuni tours were cancelled. I had the impression of the Atacama as a dead place of cracked earth, parts of which hadn’t seen a drop of water fall since records began. And here we were, rained in, for the first time this trip I might add, in the driest place on earth.

It abates by the next morning. The town’s response seems comparable to when we have two inches of snow in England. It seems minor enough but the services just can’t​ handle it. So no showers because the waters off, and obviously no water so need to buy. We wanted to rent a bike and cycle to the Valle de La Luna​ but were told that when there’s a bit of mud about, bikes can’t function apparently. Mountain bikes. We had straight rejection from five rental agencies saying the roads were unstable, it cannae be done! And then we went to a sixth and final one and they were like “Yeah, sure”. Huzzah! Persistence pays off. (The resistance became utterly confounding as we did the ride, the roads were well drained tarmac, gravel or dust and had baked dry in the desert heat already)

Kim and I aren’t much for bikes, she hadn’t been on one since she was fourteen, and our bike fitness was clearly minimal. The ride is, I imagine, easy for a cycle-y kind of person. For us not so much. It didn’t help that the seats were hard, high and unadjustable so as we spent hours on the bumpy roads the bike seat areas of our bodies (I don’t know the medical term for that part, we called it the Gooch bone) took a continual pounding. Each time you saw someone getting off or on the bike you could see the tell-tale wince. On the plus side the views made it absolutely worth it, the name was utterly appropriate, it felt pretty cool riding a bike on the moon (even if we didn’t look it).

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One rolled up trouser leg is a fashion statement I’ve taken to.

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The cycling option beats a tour because it’s fun in itself, can be done at your own pace and avoids the selfie snapping crowds.

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Dog without trousers but still enjoying the sunset.

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Sunset Crowds

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The ride back in the dark… Kimmy did not enjoy this part… She was literally inches from death when a car started passing and she hit thick sand, nearly falling to her doom. It’s quite incredible that she lives to tell the tale. But she was very brave, only cried once and impressed everyone in San Pedro with her ability to not fall off the bike and under the wheels of the car. I wish I was more like Kim. [This paragraph may or may not have been written by Kim].

The clouds had been threatening all day so so it was a pleasant surprise when it cleared for stargazing. It’s just about the best place on earth to stare upwards. The predictable weather patterns, high altitude and unpolluted, dark, cloudless skies (most of the time) combine for exceptional visibility. The world’s most powerful telescope, a 10km array of radio dishes and antenna called ALMA is nearby. It’s worth looking up, very interesting.

Our tour involves a short drive out to an Observatory, a presentation on the cosmos by some enthusiastic Spanish speaking guides that largely goes over my head, and then we look at the sky. The guide has the most impressive laser pointer we’ve ever seen and points out various stars and constellations; Cruz del Sur, Scorpio, the derpy space Llama etc. Annoyingly these are all southern hemisphere things so when I’m back home I’ll still be totally ignorant. I want that laser. Also hot chocolate, they promised hot chocolate and for some strange reason I don’t have hot chocolate. Next we use the telescopes which is great, looking into dense clusters of stars, invisible to the naked eye and close ups of the butterfly constellation. Still no hot chocolate, I’m having a delightful time but there is a big hot chocolate shaped hole in my life right now. Most arresting are the close up views of Jupiter and Saturn; their patterns and rings quite clear. Through the little telescope hole it looks like an ol’ timey stop motion film, I expect the planets to turn around and have a monocled, mustachioed face. As the tour time draws to a close we’re ushered into a room. My mounting rage subsides; it’s hot chocolate time. I’d been fearing it was a sham and that there were no hot drinks or snacks but after two hours of toying with me they gave me my satisfaction. I stuff myself with the communal Doritos and call it a day. A great day.

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They pointed a camera at us for about five minutes and didn’t tell us when they were starting the long exposure shot. On the plus side- evidence that I did get my hot chocolate.

And that was about it. Next day we had the long drive back to Uyuni (the Chilean border point had füsbol, the Bolivians had no games) and then on to the tragic city of Potosi.

Also dog with the trousers was good.

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