THE ATACAMA AND ALTIPLANO, NORTHERN CHILE
In late May 1999, my then-partner Roberto and I took another of our incredible, albeit brief, trips.
We flew to Calama in the north of Chile, hired a car and drove to San Pedro de Atacama, an ancient town in the Atacama Desert (the driest desert in the world). The town is enchanting, with ancient adobe buildings alongside newer buildings which have been constructed to fit in with the general atmosphere. The town thrives on tourism, and I have never seen so many gringos in one place in Chile - but somehow it manages to retain a very special character.
We spent three nights in a really charming hotel, La Casa de Don Tomas , which I can recommend to anyone who travels to San Pedro, but there is plenty of accommodation available in all price ranges. The town is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, especially on the main street, Caracoles. It also has a narrow covered marketplace, and a highlight is the museum on the Plaza de Armas, which holds an impressive collection including the (I have been told) oldest known mummies in the world. (See my page on the ethics of displaying human remains if you have an opinion on this.) The town even has an internet cafe and second hand book shop, housed in an old adobe building, with the fastest connection rate I have ever seen!
The church, also on the plaza, is many hundreds of years old, and still has its original cactus ceiling - although the characteristic bell tower has had to be rebuilt after earthquake damage.
A great place to eat is Cafe Adobe - you can eat inside the building, but far more popular is the inner courtyard with open fire and performers. On the night we ate there, an excellent juggling duo took the 'stage' - and I was co-opted into the juggling act! As Roberto watched me standing, visibly trembling, with juggling pins (is that what they are called?) flashing before my eyes, waiting for the pin which would knock the unfamiliar cigarette out of my very dry mouth, he cursed the fact that we had left the camera at the hotel.
But the town was only a 'home base' - the starting point for incredible drives to the Salar de Atacama, the Altiplano, tiny villages (the smallest we visited had 23 and 40 inhabitants, respectively), Valle de la Luna, archaeological sites, through the mountains, and, especially, the El Tatio geysers.
We had our own rented car, which was great in that it allowed us a lot of freedom in where to go. But it also had its disadvantages, including getting very seriously stuck in the sand - luckily near enough the town of Toconao that we were able to walk to get help. But many people go without a car, and there are a number of tour agencies which will take you to just about anywhere you want to go. In fact, for some trips you really need to go with an agency. An example is the visit to El Tatio which requires night driving on a poorly defined road - a track at times - high into the mountains. Be sure to check with your hotel or hosts before you go driving off into the middle of nowhere. A tour agency that I would highly recommend is Desert Adventure which you can e-mail in Santiago or Iquique. Or simply call in once you get to San Pedro - you will find them in Caracoles street.
A tip - you may be going to the desert, and temperatures can be high, but REMEMBER TO TAKE WARM CLOTHES! You will travel to some pretty high altitudes, and the trip to El Tatio takes place very early in the morning - it can be VERY cold.
Some things to do outside town (as you can guess, we did them all :) ) :
Buying the scarf from a woman in Toconoa - and meeting the baby llama in her backyard.
Being a part of a juggling act for the first time in my life - once I got over the initial self-consciousness.
Visiting the museum, and seeing the oldest mummies in the world - despite being concerned, and somewhat confused, about the ethics of displaying human remains in museums, I found them fascinating. It was especially interesting to see how the process of mummification continued after contact with Christianity, with the concession that those that had adopted the Christian faith were buried lying down, instead of in the foetal position.
Seeing steam and smoke billowing from volcanoes in the not-so-distant distance.
Seeing the terraces, for agriculture, both old and new, at high altitudes in the Andes.
The trip to the geysers of El Tatio - despite the FREEZING cold. Especial high points were bathing in thermal waters at....um, I don't really know....about 4 300 metres above sea level, and the surprise breakfast laid on by the tour agency - a cheese sandwich, an egg, boiled in the geysers, and tea, made with water from a flask which had been heated in the geysers!
Not being able to visit the second nearby archaeological site because our vehicle wasn't suited to driving through the intervening streams.
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