Sunday, May 04, 2008

San Pedro de Atacama, a magical place, or: pictures and a super long post

In the rest of the world, May 1 is not May Day, but rather Worker's Day, which equated to a 5 day weekend for me. I took advantage of this time by buying very last-minute airfare to Antofagasta, Chile, which is the northernmost port in the country and the biggest in South America (on the Pacific coast). The purchase was arbitrary and based on price, plus the fact that it's still warm in northern Chile. I arrived late at night on Wednesday and was dropped off in front of a budget hotel by a shuttle driver with a death wish. Unfortunately it was full (despite my alleged reservations) but a few blocks away I found an even budgetier hotel. I paid approximately $25 to lay awake in possibly the skeeziest place I've ever stayed, including the semi-condemned hostel in Amsterdam. It was in the middle of the city on a night of celebration and faced an open-air courtyard where people continued to party long after the bars had closed. Luckily the sheets were clean, but the bed slanted so I spent about 7 hours at an angle. Here is the main plaza of Antofagasta, with "Little Ben" in the middle, apparently the only replica of Big Ben in the world (I have my doubts).

Since there's very little to do in Antofagasta, I bought a bus ticket to San Pedro de Atacama for that afternoon. In the meantime I wandered the streets and wound up at the central market where I ate two fried eggs for breakfast, which they mix with bread and eat with a spoon. When I asked for a fork the woman rolled her eyes... oops. I then walked to the beach and crawled around on some rocks, checking out the sea life. They have these crazy creatures called sea squirts that are mixed among the mussels, clinging to rocks, squirting water. I was chastised by a crazy fisherman who was shucking and eating raw mussels for wearing chacos, possibly the best shoes for crawling around on rocks, and I told him, "Dude, I've spent my life on rocks like these. Chill." (Is anyone impressed that I could say this in Spanish?)

The bus to San Pedro took about 5 hours and was quite lovely, crossing the Andes and then the desert with some random ruins and colorful housing developments thrown in for good measure. (I could have flown into Calama, one hour from San Pedro, but it was pricey.) We arrived in the tiny oasis town just after sunset. While during the day the town isn't much to look at, at night it was quite magical and I'm glad my first impressions were after dark. Everyone is out and about trying to plan their stay, and for every one local there are about five tourists, many South Americans but also plenty of gringos from all over the world. Every other establishment is either a tour company or a restaurant situated around an open-air fire. There were also plenty of kitschy shops and minimarkets selling the essentials, while on the 'outskirts' (aka one block away) there was an abundance of places to stay. I wound up at a great hostel called Rayco, where we had an asado (barbecue) on Friday night and I met an awesome girl from Holland who is coming to stay with me in a week. My friend Amber Casali may also be here at the same time (ironically coming from San Pedro), so it'll be a party in my apartment. This is the desert at sunset, taken from the bus:


I had travelled quite a ways for only one day, and I wanted to make the most of it. Unfortunately no one offers a 'full day package' which I thought was odd, but I could have hired a private guide for the bargain price of $150,00 pesos, about $375 (!!). Instead I opted for a three-hour horseback tour in the morning and a salt flat/lakes tour in the afternoon. I've had a strong desire to go horseback riding for as long as I can remember and yet for some reason never had before Friday. I have no idea how I ended up on a private tour but it didn't cost any extra. My guide was extremely nice and helpful, but I should have told him I was married because he asked me out for that night. (He gave me his card. I forgot to call.) I wasn't nervous or scared, really, and I even managed to gallop a bit. We went to this incredible place called, alternately, Valle de Marte (its real name) and Valle de la Muerte (its more common name). The horses sweated it up the hill while I was still comfortable in my fleece - nice to let them do the work - and at the top was a view I've never imagined and couldn't capture with a camera. We sat in silence - pure, amazing silence - for about 20 minutes before heading back. There was no one else there, although we passed some sandboarders on the way back (think snowboarding on sand. Dirty but fun). Here is the Valle de Marte:


On the return trip his horse got impatient, which made my horse nervous. It was annoying having to hand over the reigns to Bernardo to lead both horses at the same time, since my leg was the unfortunate intermediary and is now covered in bruises from being jammed against ropes, saddles, and the other horse. I don't think they liked it either. It took some convincing that I could do it myself, but he finally let me go, I think realizing that his horse was making it worse. Apparently he'd been on vacation for a month so the horses were kind of miffed to be working again.

I walked funny for an hour or so but I was surprisingly not sore afterward. Good thing, because the next tour took off just two hours later - leaving enough time for me to eat llama! I saw it on the specials menu of one restaurant and couldn't resist. It wasn't great, sort of beefy with an odd taste of liver, but I ate it all and even scraped the marrow out of the bone (mmmmm).

After accidentally getting on the wrong tour van (they aren't super organized and all the tours leave at the same time, but I luckily had the foresight to confirm with another passenger where we were going, who confirmed otherwise), I was connected with my right group and we took off on a bumpy cross-desert trek to the first of three destinations: floating lakes. I've heard of floating on the dead sea but never gave it much thought. Once there, however, I was so glad to have chosen this from among many different options. I will never forget the sensation of floating - it's like being weightless. I was doing yoga moves, was able to stand stock still, and spent a good bit of time just relaxing on my back. It took the Venezuelans a long time to get in since by their standards it was cold, but eventually the whole group was floating. Once out, the salt stayed behind as the water evaporated, and we were all white messes by the time we got back into the van. (I've never enjoyed a shower so much, and my skin has never been so smooth.) Don't I look happy?

The next spot wasn't that amazing, two small lakes - not as salty - in the middle of the desert called Ojos del Salar (eyes of the salt flat). Had we gotten there earlier I would have swam but the sun was already low in the sky, so we took off for the next spot, a small salt flat where we watched the sunset. I really, really wanted to see flamingoes - the salty waters support three species of them, as they enjoy the tiny organisms that live there - and I was thrilled to see some in the distance. Unfortunately I could only get close enough to discern that they were, in fact, pink. Otherwise the salt flat was extraordinary and the sunset was gorgeous, another unique experience to add to the day. Here is the salt flat and the surrounding mountains, some of which are active volcanoes, at sunset:


There was so much else to do that I'd consider going back: thermal baths, the highest geyser field in the world, high-altitude lakes where the flamingoes live, star gazing in the clearest skies in the world (literally- there is a multinational project to build the world's biggest radio to listen to what's going on in the universe just a few kilometers from San Pedro since it was deemed the clearest sky anywhere), and more. I wish I had more than a day but I'm glad to have gone at all. It's one of my favorite places I've ever been.

Unfortunately I had take a bus back to Antofagasta on Saturday morning to make a 7 pm flight to Santiago (where I then took another bus home, arriving at about midnight). It was way cheaper to fly on Saturday and it's always nice to have a day between vacation and work (right now I'm still in my pajamas and it's after 7:00). The ride was uneventful, and I had a few hours to kill between bus and flight, so I went to se La Portada, an ocean-created arch a few kilometers north of Antofagasta. It's the most famous image of north Chile and is constantly appearing on the covers of tourism-related books and brochures. I can't understand why with all the amazing natural wonders in the Atacama desert, because after seeing it - a 40 minute bus ride and a 25 minute walk later - I was vaguely disappointed. It didn't help that beach acccess is closed due to renovations to the path destroyed by a 2003 landslide (things move slowly here). Nevertheless, I took the obligatory pictures and had a delicious meal at the adjacent restaurant. I then started the walk back to the highway to flag down a bus, but I was picked up by a group of miners headed home for the day who dropped me off closer to town, where I then took a colectivo (a taxi with a specific route) back to where I had stashed my bag at the skeezy hotel, which I have to say at least had nice people working there and was conveniently next to the bus station. La Portada and its crazy cool cliffs:


I then tried to take a colectivo to the airport, but there was a misunderstanding and as the meter started to run I asked how much it would cost: 12 mil ($30)! I said, no, let me out, and searched for other options. Finally, after about 20 minutes of back-and-forth, a bus company agreed to let me ride on a bus that was passing the airport. It was sweet, since it was free AND I got to ride in the seat next to the bus driver. I was dropped off, as is so common in Chile, on the side of the highway just before sunset. It would have been about a 10 minute walk down an isolated road, the only one that goes to the airport. Of course, after two minutes the first car that passed picked me up and dropped me in front of 'departures' at the tiny airport before pulling up 50 feet for 'arrivals'.

I arrived in Santiago at 9:30 and caught a shuttle to the bus station, where I luckily made it onto the last bus to Valparaíso at 10:20. I got home at five minutes to midnight. What a weekend! I slept for 12 hours last night and haven't left my apartment all day, except to do laundry in the basement (all my clothes smelled of salt and campfire).

It makes my head swim thinking about all the transportation I utilized in four short days, which doesn't help my carbon-footprint conscience, but I figure that I didn't use any mode of transport that wouldn't have occurred without me aboard, which makes me feel a little better.

This is possibly the longest post so far, but it's nice to write it down and I hope you enjoyed reading it (if you made it this far). Maybe the pictures helped? (There are more on Flickr too!) The main point is, if you ever find yourself in a position to visit San Pedro, do it, by try to budget more than one day and two nights if you do.

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