San Pedro de Atacama turns out to be a strange place. It’s a small town of low, humble buildings mainly constructed from adobe. There are no paved roads – only dirt. The principal streets are crowded with an unbelievable number of tourist agencies – I think there may be 100 different agencies, easily. In a town that’s less than 10 blocks square, this is surreal. I’m still not really sure how they all stay in business selling basically the same tours. Despite this, the town is actually kind of nice to walk around in. There’s a pretty little plaza and restaurants of varying price ranges, and even a few decent bars. Around 17:30 each day, as the sun begins to set and the desert air rapidly cools down, the streets fill up with people running errands and coming in and out of the tour offices. You see a surprising number of locals mixed in with the hoards of tourists.
All of this is set at the edge of the driest desert on earth, surrounded by high mountain ridges, salt flats, surreal salt valleys, strangely colored lakes, and geysers. The natural setting is rough, enchanting, beautiful. It’s not surprising there’s so much tourism here, though I can’t help but feel it’s rather clumsily executed. But more on that later.
Boris and I stay in the hostelling international hostel, which doesn’t have any other name apparently. I would describe it as exactly okay: our beds are comfortable but the frames sway alarmingly; the showers are warm once in a while; the kitchen has a few pans that aren’t broken. For me a highlight is the resident cat population. There’s a very old calico who rotates sleeping spots between the tables and the towers of the receptionist’s PC and dislikes being touched; a few sleek black cats who come and go over the roofs as they please and are more or less indifferent to attention; and my favorite, a longhair tabby mixed with something (I think maybe an ocicat, which is an exotic breed). This cat sleeps on my bed in the afternoons and likes cuddling. When I get him to chase a bit of string he concentrates so hard on catching it that he sticks his tongue out, then very quickly gets worn out and falls asleep with the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth.
The Atacama desert surrounding San Pedro, we soon learn, is not easily accessible without a guide or tour operator. The best alternative is to rent a bike to explore on our own, but some sites are too far away to bike or too difficult to reach in the sweltering afternoon heat. So we spend some days in San Pedro researching tour operators, asking around town at local agencies, and taking some guided tours to the most popular sites near town. I find it interesting and perhaps a little unfortunate that access to the surrounding desert is administered by the various private tourist agencies rather than in some kind of national park. It really does lend a Disneyworld feel to a wild, dangerous, and beautiful landscape that I think deserves far more respect. It’s not often that I talk about something I think the US does better than other countries, but being here really makes me appreciate the national park system in the States.
On our second full day in San Pedro, Boris and I visit what is probably deservedly the most popular excursion near San Pedro : Valle de la Luna, a valley or series of valleys tucked into a small chain of salty hills. Here floodwaters have come streaming down from the high mountains surrounding the Atacama. The water evaporates in the dry heat and leaves behind mineral deposits that over the millennia have grown into a chain of small hills, carved into unearthly shapes by wind and erosion.
Our guide takes us into a narrow canyon carved out by rain water. She shows us a few different crystal formations, some that look a little like broccoli, some that are more like quartz. Apparently it’s all salt (I lick a rock as we squeeze past. Sure enough, it’s salt). We enter a small cave and stoop as we follow the sleek watercourse through a sort of tunnel in the rock, then scramble up a steep hill. From the top, we can see the chain of salt hills spreading out around us. I enjoy imagining how many heart attacks American lawyers would have if you attempted to take a tour group somewhere like this in the US – there are no guard rails, no warning signs, no security guards. It’s not dangerous if you use common sense, just less idiot-proof than your typical American outdoor tourist destination. I notice that a lot in South America: in general people are far less litigative in response to accidents, and as a result there’s far less of a culture of hand-holding and idiot-proofing in otherwise slightly dangerous places.
It’s already hot and dry and as much as I feel weird taking a guided tour after so much time spent traveling independently, I’m kind of glad to be in a bus with air conditioning. We head into the valley proper. Our guide points out interesting rock/salt formations as we pass. I can see that other roads lead off to the left and right, away to other parts of the valley, and I wish for a car to be able to explore this place on my own.
We reach a famous salt formation called the Three Marias, which I think is mainly notable because someone decided it looks like a group of human figures. This is fine although I think it takes a little bit of the fun out of imagination if someone else tells you what you’re supposed to be seeing. A little later we take a short walk along the road leading out of the valley, past an enormous sand dune up which someone has apparently ridden a dirt bike, to judge by the trails in the salt.
As the bus heads to another valley, we stop for a bathroom break and see a group of men and women in a carnaval procession, faces powdery white, processing behind a drum and a few trumpet players, decked in ribbons and fake flowers. A few of them wear elaborate devil masks. A few tourists get on the bus with faces covered in flour. Carnaval is beginning today, and one of the traditions is to cover your face with flour for the parade and then smear flour on the face of anyone else who may have forgotten to do so as you pass. There’s some kind of rationale or tradition behind this custom, but no one I’ve talked to seems to know what it is and even Wikipedia seems pretty vague on the history. In any case, I’m fascinated by the carnaval parade and glad to have seen it, though as someone with gluten problems I’m just as happy to have avoided the flour bomb.
The next stop on our tour is the Valley of Death. It’s pretty dry and desolate, and they tell us the name may have come from a confusion between the name Mars and the word Muerte (death). We take a short walk here. Our guide has us sit in a small alcove at the base of a cliff, close our eyes, and sit without moving for a minute or two. There – very faintly, we hear it – a crack here, a creaking, stretching sound. It’s the sound of the salt drying and crystallizing as the water evaporates.
The last stop on our guided tour is at the top of a hill looking down into Valle de la Luna. It’s near sunset now and there are huge crowds gathered to watch the light change over the rocks. Strangely, most people are watching the actual setting of the sun, which generally isn’t very interesting unless you have some kind of spectacular cloudscape in front of it. Instead, I look east at the colors changing on the clouds there above the mountains, and watch the purple line of the horizon advance up the side of the volcano Licanacatur as the sun drops.
Licanacatur dominates views of San Pedro. You can see it from the main street in town, looming over the landscape, huge and high and unnaturally symmetrical. Somehow your brain knows mountains aren’t really supposed to look like that and it unsettles you. It’s large over the landscape the way the moon is large – you know it’s big but when you try to take a picture, it comes out looking much smaller in the camera.
Though it hasn’t erupted recently, Licanacatur is an active volcano, and I think you can feel the power and the wildness in its presence over the landscape. It’s like being in a room with a wild animal. I think it’s this quality of rawness, a bit of danger, that makes the touristic atmosphere of San Pedro feel more acutely fake by comparison. Making this landscape into something that can be commodified, packaged for consumption…. tamed and made to perform at the command of a tour guide for clueless rich tourists – this is what it feels like, sometimes, and at its worst it feels like a violation of the wildness of the natural landscape. In Nevada when I began to know the desert and the mountains, I started to understand the violence of nature, its lack of sympathy or sentimentality. Having learned to respect the wilderness in this way, it makes it hard for me to see raw nature made into a tourist attraction.
My consolation is the bike ride I take on Sunday morning. By 9:30 I’m out the door, down the street, and heading out of town along the river course. I follow the dirt and gravel road around a few curves and through the river a couple of times (once a man in a pickup helps me across) and into a little green valley bounded by dry hills. There’s almost no one on the road or in the little kiosk that guards the entrance to what seems to be a park. Where the valley flattens out I see a little canyon I want to explore, and, not seeing anyone around, discreetly stash my bike in some tall reeds and thread my way through the tall grasses to the mouth of the canyon. I step firmly but carefully. This isn’t a trail in a national park. There are no footprints or other signs that anyone else has come exploring this way. I watch very carefully for snakes and signs of snakes and whistle to avoid startling any other dangerous wildlife (I can never think of good walking tunes so I usually default to Beatles songs – the long and winding road, in this case, seems appropriate). I’m a little wary – exploring a random desert canyon on your own in a foreign country isn’t the safest way to spend a quiet Sunday morning – but I’m also delighted to be out in the desert on my own. When you travel in hostels and on buses, solitude and privacy become precious commodities, and I feel refreshed by being alone.
Eventually the canyon becomes impassible and I return to my bike. A little further down the gravel road and over the river again and then I start up a very steep hill. The altitude flattens me in a matter of moments and I spend more time walking my bike than riding it. I don’t mind – I’ve still got the road to myself and the views of the valleys and mountains become prettier and prettier as I climb.
It takes me around 25 minutes to reach a tunnel through the hill I’ve been climbing. “1930” it reads above the black entrance. I wonder how sturdy the architecture is. As I enter the mouth of the tunnel I can see that a rock about the size of a car has fallen and partially blocked the tunnel. I expect it’s happened recently since there are no signs up directing cars to an alternate route. This makes me extremely nervous – how sturdy is this tunnel? What if there’s an earthquake while I’m inside? It’s probably 40 meters long – at least two minutes of walking with the bike from one side to the other. I walk quickly and don’t turn around.
On the other side, a barren valley opens up before me. Up and to my left there’s a steep trail where I saw a group of horseback riders disappear earlier. I leave my bike again and go exploring, climbing and leaving myself little stone cairns to mark my way back since there are no trails. At the crest of a hill I look out across the desert: rows and rows of dry ridges standing out sharply in the clear, bright air, marching toward distant mountains. I revel in the utter silence and solitude.
Later I decide to explore the horse trail. A steep climb that’s hard on my lungs takes me to the top of a long high plateau with steep drops on both sides (no guard rails, fences, or warning signs here either). I walk for an hour along the plateau, further and further south as the slow rises of the table tempt me with promises of better views. I come to a small sand dune, and, still seeing that I have the desert to myself, roll down it, shrieking with laughter and grinning as I dust myself off at the bottom. I haven’t rolled down a hill in ages.
Finally it’s time to turn around. I see three mountains hikers away in the distance who must have much sturdier legs and lungs than I do. It’s a fun but bumpy ride down the steep embankment and an easy, flat road back to San Pedro.
A couple of days before we plan to leave on a long tour to the salt flats in Bolivia, Boris and I stay up late drinking with friends from the hostel. Around 1 am we all decide to walk through town to the “playita” (little beach) – a little sandy river bank at the end of principal street that’s an informal gathering spot at night. There’s no one there but we hear faint drums and music faint and far away. The river is dry, so we cross the bank and follow a rough road in the direction of the music. Eventually we crest a hill and find a little group of people drinking, talking, playing drums, and singing by starlight. There are no candles, no cell phones, no flashlights – just the stars. The Atacama desert is supposed to be the best place in the world to stargaze – indeed, there are several major and important scientific observatories here. The stars are bright enough out in the desert that we can just barely make out each other’s faces as we talk and laugh and introduce ourselves to the group. I watch the constellations wheel overhead as the hours pass. Around 4:00 the party dissolves mysteriously and we’re left to walk back to San Pedro in the faint starlight and bare hint of sunrise.
The next day is for resting and the night for sleeping and preparing for our next major tour, through the desert and the high plains in southern Bolivia, up to a high salt flat near Uyuni. This is my last full day in Chile.