San Pedro De Atacama - A Desert Oasis
CHILE has two main tourist destinations - the glaciers and stark mountains of the south and the dusty desert of the north.
San Pedro de Atacama is the northern mecca, a small one-horse oasis village in the heart of the Atacama desert which is one of the driest places on earth. It rains so little here that a footprint made in the rain will likely survive hundreds of years.
The village is a haven for backpackers, mainly European, who use it as a base to explore some of the most beautiful desert sights imaginable (that is until you cross over into neighbouring Bolivia).
The village's main road, Caracoles, is lined with plenty of tour agencies and restaurants offering the gambit of mostly half-day and one-day trips, although multi-day trips are on offer too.
This time around, I mainly lounged around the village, because having been here twice before I had done most of the popular tours and wanted to save my money for neighbouring Bolivia where prices drop by half.
The mainstream tours include a trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) to see the sunset on what is the closest terrain to the moon here on earth and where NASA in the past tested their equipment before the real thing.
Another is Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) so named because nothing grows there and not as I overheard an English girl tell her mother in an internet cafe, "because someone died there or somethng". Great spot to sandboard if you're up to it.
The other attractions are the Salar or salt flats and the Geysers del Tatio, dozens of small geysers best seen in the freezing morning (you leave the village at 4am) due to better condensation of the water vapor.
Other trips include visits to lagoons at high altitude, where new shades of blue can be discovered.
On the cultural side, the local museum is a good start as well as tours to various Inca settlements and pre-Inca forts called pucaras.
In these you can still find fragments of Inca pottery and even stone arrow tips if you keep your eyes open, although be discreet in pocketing them as it is considered theft.
Trips around the pueblos or villages, dotted around the desert, are invariably dissapointing, as you do not get the opportunity to meet locals. Generally the alloted ten minutes means a few pictures of the local church and a trip to the toilet.
However, on a previous visit here I got to spend a couple of hours in one of these villages as our bus suffered a double puncture.
Being the hot dry day it is every day, a beer was in order.
To my horror the local restaurant/shop didn't sell beer but a group of friendly locals sent me up the hill, around the corner to the third house of the right. Great! I didn't need to knock as the door was open and on entering I sensed something was not quite right. The dark corridor and musty smell of neglect with rags lying on the floor gave that one away.
The silence at my "holas" was suddenly interupted by a screeming woman of undecernible age coming out of the dark in a fight not flight mode.
So the locals sent me to the local nutter's house. Redfaced, not including the sunburn, I returned to the plaza empty-handed.
Next our guide Pablo, a decent chap from Santiago, explained it really wasn't my fault, it was that the locals hate the tourists and strongly dislike people from the capital, but if anyone could get a beer it was him.
He returned, canless, explaining that there was no beer - the closest pace was 15km away in the next village.
Resigned, we sat in the shade waiting for the replaciment bus, when the group of locals who misdirected me appearted and called me over.
With Pablo looking nervously on I approached them. It was all in good jest, they explained, producing a six pack for me. In the meantime they had driven to the nearest village and bought beer for me. And they wouldn't take money for them. Hats off to the Irish that day!
Going to the desert can be expensive, everthing costs more but don't bring the tent, it was cheaper to hostel it.
Off season look for deals and avoid going around the Chilean national festival (September 18). For the cheapest and best eats in town go to the kiosks near the bus station close to the main plaza.