Sleeping on the semi-sleeper first seat in front of the wide glass window on the second floor of the bus, which was driving from Santiago to Calama, I woke up to find ourselves driving next to the Pacific under a star-studded, deep-blue sky which was complimented by a shimmering rotund moon. Even the contour of the immortal rabbit that Ruskin Bond says was dropped on the moon was difficult to trace on the bright moon. It was like a painting.
Having admired the scenery, I dozed off again and kept waking up intermittently until we arrived in Calama. That was when I pulled myself out of hibernation and, an hour later, I was riding on another bus to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. At the end of this blended twenty-five-hour journey, I stumbled out of the bus like a zombie and the glowering February sun focused all its anger on the first-time visitor. Luckily, my hostel was a five-minute walk from the bus terminal. I strapped on my blue backpack and strode as I had loaded the directions to the hostel in Google maps.
I had chosen San Pedro to visit the Atacama desert as this little border town is situated right in the middle of the fathomless Atacama that thousands of tourists flock to every year. You can take abode in this village and wander in the arid desert during the day and return at night, if you like.
Wikipedia calls San Pedro a town though its rusticity reminded me of old Indian villages.
Houses and churches were made of adobe, a material made with mud and other organic material. At the Plaza de Armas or the main square, stood the historical adobe church which was constructed by the conquistadors in the 17th century. The plaza itself was canopied by tall trees which swung with the warm breeze that wafted through the village. The light of the full moon and of many street lights peeked from the gaps between the dancing branches and the rustling leaves.
That light along with the candle lights beaming out of the restaurants at the plaza was sufficient to watch the Latin-American neophyte artists who juggled bamboo sticks or circles lit with fire. They collected some coins from the intrigued tourists who watched them from the restaurants while sipping the rich Chilean vino tinto or red wine and the rest from the plaza while browsing through their Facebook and Instagram as the plaza provided free wifi. Though reading a book, I could not help but notice a young boy who poured kerosene over some sticks and then moved around the fiery-sticks in sinuous patterns. The boy radiated an innocence that made me want to believe in the world. I gave him a couple of coins.
Irrespective of the connectivity, I felt historical and peaceful.
From the plaza, I made my way to the main street that ran parallel to the plaza and was stuffed with restaurants, bars, kiosks, travel agencies, artesian products, jewelry shops, and people, locals and tourists.
While I gorged on an empanada and a gulped down a peach juice at a small corner restaurant, two gigantic dogs watched me with hopeful glossy eyes. Instead of sharing the empanada with them, I saved half of it for the next day. A traveler can only afford so much. And the empanada wouldn’t have been sufficient guessing their appetite from their size.
Then I practiced my Spanish and satisfied my prattling nature by talking to the shop owners on the main street. We indulged in the Chilean history evolving from the Mapuches, talked about the antique photos of Chile that hung in the shop of the copper jewelry maker and made the shop more conspicuous, about the current issues of Chile, about the private water and electricity, and about the hatred of Chileans towards the government. By the time I wrapped up these conversations, the clock had struck 11. I was hungry again. I searched the streets for something to eat and ended up having a double-flavored ice cream, one was quinoa with leche and canella (a South American grain with milk and cinnamon) and the other one was a nut which I can’t recall. I am not an ice-cream person, but that was one of the best ice creams I have ever had. I walked back to the hostel like a happy five-year-old girl, gleaming with ice cream in her hand while looking up to the starry sky.
I spent the next few days wandering in the desert.
I strolled next to emerald-green lagoons and deep-blue lakes, tried talking with the salmon-pink flamingos that crowded these lagoons, looked upon and rambled through the cavernous moon valley that glittered with salt, gazed upon vast enthralling red rocks, called out to the vicunas and the llamas that gazed in the open pastures, watched the theatrical sunsets at the natural mirror in the desert, sat in the middle of the fumes rising from the heart of the earth as if it was angry with me while I rubbed my sleepy eyes trying to take it all in, and floated in natural hot pools and in a natural salt lake.
Surreal? I know.
Below are the places I visited.
Piedra Rojas — Red Rocks
These humongous red rocks were formed by hot lava and ash that had escaped the volcanoes in the vicinity decades ago. The neighbor of the red rocks was an emerald-green lagoon called the Chaxa lake which was crammed by the insatiable but precious and serene pink flamingos. We also saw the blue lagoons or the lagunas altiplanicas of Miscanti y Minique on the way to the red rocks.
Geysers del Tatio — The Hot Geysers of Tatio
For the tour of Geysers del Tatio, I was standing outside the hostel at 4:30 am in freezing cold (deserts get really cold at night and in early mornings). So only the brave-hearted can go for this tour.
The hot natural thermal geysers were formed due to an under-earth collision between hot rocks and cold water. At six in the morning, while our teeth crackled with the cold, the earth fumed out. You can dip in a warm thermal pool next to the geysers. But you can only dip for so long else when you come out you would fall sick due to the sudden temperature change.
On our way back, the tour stopped at a small village Machuca, which had been historically inhabited by the Argentinians and now looked desolate. Rejecting the llama anticuchos( grilled llama :(), I bought a goat-cheese empanada which turned out to be delicious.
Due to some listing confusion on the geysers tour, I had to exchange my van to go with some other tour company, so that a couple could go together. The company gifted me a free hot pool tour.
These natural hot piscinas or pools were like hidden gems of the driest desert. I floated and chilled with three Chilean girls for almost three hours.
Valle de la Luna — The moon valley
The cavernous valley was encrusted with salt as it was under sea once. The surface resembled the surface of the crater of the moon. Not that I have seen the crater of the moon. But that’s what they say.
I and a sweet Swiss girl who I had met on the tour gaped as the golden light of the setting sun performed the most beautiful light show on the sprawling mountains and on the imposing volcanoes that seemed to fringe the moon valley.
To gulp down the mysteries of the landscapes we had witnessed during the day, we shared dinner and drinks at a restaurant at the plaza. While I gulped down half a liter of Kunstman, a delicious local Chilean beer, she sipped through a cup of red wine while worrying about her burnt skin. The sweet-smiled young boy was doing a show at the plaza, and I gave him some coins, again.
As we called off the night, I walked back to the hostel, content, and ready for a long slumber.
This natural lake has so much salt that it can supply the Indian salt demand for a year. But the lake’s distinguishing feature is that you can float in it naturally.
Having floated in the lake for a while and having spent half-an-hour scrubbing off the salt from our bodies, we went to a few other azure lakes. By that time these blue beauties seemed like a normal part of life.
But as I meandered alongside these lakes, I saw that the desert was white. For a few moments, I wasn’t sure if I was walking through snow or through dry wilderness.
At the end of this tour, we were served pisco sour , a popular Chilean drink, along with some snacks. After having two cups of the pisco, I and a German girl mutually discovered that we were not alone in being guilt-tripped for traveling by our families.
A pleasurable end to a long day.
That was my last tour and my last day in San Pedro. Oh, but it hadn’t ended just yet.
As the van dropped us at the plaza at 9 PM, I facepalmed myself as I should have asked the driver to drop me at the hostel so that I didn’t have to run around like a maniac to catch my 9:30 bus to Arica. Let’s say that I wasn’t drunk with two piscos but I took the wrong way to the hostel, twice. As I reached the hostel, I grabbed my backpack and sprinted towards the bus terminal. I plonked in my seat and ate an antique sweet that I discovered in my bag. That was the only food that I had to survive on until morning. I dozed off while watching a movie on the bus TV.
San Pedro de Atacama is expensive. I realized that when a lady at a supermarket asked for eight thousand Chilean pesos($13) for some bread, cheese, two tomatoes, one big onion, water, pasta, five eggs, and peanuts. A bed in a mixed dorm in a good hostel was $20 each night.
Multiple agencies offer pre-designed tours to the archaeological sites, and usually, all hostels and hotels collaborate with these agencies. So, you can book with your hostel or go to the main street, enquire through the agencies, and book the tours that suit you the best. I liked Vive Atacama. I was alone and new to traveling. So I traveled with tours. But if I go now, I would maybe hire a car to drive around with a friend and then buy tickets at the entrance of those exotic places.
Please carry some food on the tours as you don’t get breakfast early enough. I had bought chocolates and they made me go through the hunger struck one-hour or two-hour morning drives to the historical site. If I don’t eat, my stomach growls and brain goes dead.
Though San Pedro is at a height of 2100 meter or 7000 feet, I didn’t feel dizzy or nauseated. But when we went to higher altitudes such as 4,300 meters, we were quickly tired and breathed heavy. To deal with the altitude, Latin Americans drink herbs such as Coca; this herb is made from the same leaf from which cocaine is made. You can drink Coca tea or just chew the leaves and it would help you with the dizziness. Get it from your hostel or ask someone on the tour or buy from the market.
Make sure you don’t go in snow else you wouldn’t be able to see much.
Sometimes, I still dream about the moonlit plaza, the young boy, and a flock of flamingos flying above their reflections while the volcanos watch in the background.
Would you like to go to San Pedro, the surrealistic wonder of the world? Let me know if you have any further questions.
Watch out for a photo essay of the majestic Atacama desert that I would post tomorrow.