We knew the Atacama Desert offered more than enough to entertain us for the five days we were to be in the region. We just didn’t expect to fall so hard for San Pedro.
As I sat down to write this post, I struggled, as I did while we were there, to describe why I was so drawn to this dusty little village. Dirt roads, countless stray dogs, more tour companies than we could count, and streets lined with endless shops wouldn’t normally be our ideal place to wander, but it was obvious we were smitten. Behind the doors of these adobe-caked façades lie upscale boutique shops, amazing cafes, great artisanal ice cream, and pisco sours infused with local desert herbs.
San Pedro is an oasis sitting at roughly 8,000 feet, a swath of fertile desert surrounded by a strikingly conflicted landscape. Sprawling, barren desert of salt flats, hot springs, and contorted rock formations swiftly ascend to the Altiplano, butting up against the soaring Andes and a dozen volcanos. San Pedro is at the center of immeasurable interest for scientists across several branches.
The uniqueness of this village is not lost on Volcan Licancábur, who, at 5,916 meters (19,410 feet), looms over San Pedro like a protector. This volcano is sacred to the Inca Empire, and given its perfect conical shape, it seems to be the model volcano for all others.
There are 360-degree awe-inspiring views here but if you never looked up at night you would be missing a spectacular light show. Given its lack of light pollution, aridity, and altitude, the Atacama has drawn its fair share of astronomers and is known as the place to be if you are an astronomy geek. I wouldn’t call us geeks but we were drawn to the idea of looking at the night sky through powerful telescopes so chose this as our last venture into the Atacama.
With an astronomer as our guide, we soon were educated on terminology, got an impressive laser light show of planets, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and zodiac sign constellations, and did some telescope viewing, along with iPhone shots of the moon. It was another great tour experience.
Another adventure that we had read was a must-do is the El Tatio Geyser Tour. Since we had lived in Yellowstone National Park for a couple of years and visited several times since, we didn’t feel the need to drag ourselves out of a warm bed at 4:00 am and climb to over 14,00 feet to witness sunrise over the steaming geyser basins. Had we had the time, the 4-day trek to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia would have been on our agenda.
Beyond the myriad of tours available to hold your interest, just walking the streets of San Pedro is a source of entertainment all its own. This is a people-watching village, as characters from across the globe gather here. And for a town of little more than 2,500 (although it is growing), the number of highly recommended restaurants is impressive. The one we will forever remember is Roots, the place we went for breakfast, every single day. The coffee prepared by a real barista, every menu item we tried, the waitstaff, and the music (watched the cook singing and dancing to Adele vocals) were all wonderful. It was like saying goodbye to family when we departed from San Pedro.
The Atacama Desert and San Pedro seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship of sorts, both needing one another for their vitality. The remoteness of the Atacama draws the curious and San Pedro holds their interest, booking tours into the desert.
Until recently, discoveries made in the Atacama could be seen in the Gustavo Le Paige Museum in San Pedro, which is no longer open to the public. The world’s oldest mummies, the Chinchorro, a culture found in the Atacama from 7,000 to 1,500 BC, are buried in this unforgiving environment. They, along with other artifacts, are well-preserved, due to the arid climate, and are found to predate even Egypt’s oldest mummies. The indigenous community here finally won the right to have their ancestors removed from the Le Paige Museum, which seems the proper decision.
As we packed to leave this magical place, we agreed that with all the breathtaking scenery surrounding us throughout our time in Patagonia – soaring mountains, jagged, crevasse-filled blue glaciers, grassy steppe, misty forests, the barren Atacama desert, remote, stripped naked of virtually all moisture, may be Chile at her best.
What we initially saw as a passable event on our trip planning calendar was one of the great joys of our South American adventure. This land of such breathtaking natural beauty, born from the basic elements of gravel, clay, salt, and minerals, provided us some of our richest experiences and heightened all our emotions. Even the “animas” we saw on our drive to the airport, those little houses built along the side of the highway to memorialize those who had died on the roads, seemed to flow with the drama and mystique of the Atacama.
Upon our arrival back to Santiago, Chile, where we started this journey, we drank our final pisco sour in honor of our time in the Atacama Desert.
If you want to read more about our time in the Atacama, here are links to my earlier posts:
We are now home in southern California, back a bit earlier than we had planned, due to the wild Patagonia weather and a dislocated finger that has plagued me since early March. More on that later, as I wade through the U.S. healthcare system, which is always a joy.