africamuse's travels

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.

The church in San Pedro de Atacama

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.

The Carabineros (Chilean police) spent quite a few hours with us trying to pull our vehicle out of the sand.

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 :) ) :

  • Take a drive through incredible countryside right into the mountains, to the borders with Bolivia (yes, I have set my feet in Bolivia, but only just) and Argentina.
  • Visit the Salar de Atacama - an impressive, though eventually monotonous, saltpan which is 800 metres at its deepest point. The crystallised salt is strange to look at - and even stranger to touch - it is painfully sharp, like tortured, twisted shards of glass.

    Hovering, very gingerly, over the sharp cyrstallised salt in the Salar.

  • While in the Salar, stop at Laguna Chaxa to see the protected flamingos.
  • Visit the small home industries in the towns - I bought a good alpaca scarf in Toconao for a third of the price of a lesser-quality one in San Pedro - and a sixth of the price in one of the elite shops in Santiago.
  • Talk to the people in the towns - we had a very interesting conversation with the schoolteacher in a town of 40 people. Imagine teaching a school with only six pupils, all of different ages, all in the same classroom. He left us very impressed with his drive, enthusiasm and perseverance.
  • Visit the geysers of El Tatio - this requires leaving San Pedro in a tour vehicle at about 4 a.m. and travelling in the dark on quite rough terrain, 4 600 metres above sea level at its highest point, to see the sun rise above the amazing geysers.
    The El Tatio geysers
  • Visit Valle de la Luna, so named because of its resemblance to a moonscape.
  • Visit the blue, blue lakes on the Altiplano.
  • Visit the impressive, but sadly under-investigated, under-protected and under-publicised, archaeological site of Tulor, just outside San Pedro. This large settlement was constructed approximately 2 800 years ago, and was inhabited for about 1 500 years. The site is protected and taken care of largely by the residents of the nearby village (with 23 inhabitants), and I was astonished to find that our excellent, informed and committed guide was not an archaeology student, but a resident with an immense pride in his heritage.
We had only three days to explore the area - there is a great deal more to do and see!


HIGH POINTS:

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.

Agricultural terraces on the altiplano

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!

Roberto and I, freezing, at the geysers


LOW POINTS:

Not being able to visit the second nearby archaeological site because our vehicle wasn't suited to driving through the intervening streams.





An index to my Chilean pages




Useful Books from Amazon.com

Chile and Easter Island
Lonely Planet
Guide to Chile and Easter Island

Latin American Spanish Phrasebook
Lonely Planet
Latin American Spanish Phrasebook

Lonely Planet: Santiago de Chile
Lonely Planet:
Santiago de Chile

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile
Travels in a Thin Country:
A Journey Through Chile

Chile in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture
Chile in Focus:
A Guide to the People,
Politics and Culture

The Chilean Kitchen: Authentic, Homestyle Foods, Regional Wines and Culinary Traditions of Chile
The Chilean Kitchen:
Authentic, Homestyle Foods,
Regional Wines and Culinary
Traditions of Chile

Pablo Neruda's Veinte Poemas de Amor Y Una Cancion Desesperada
Pablo Neruda's
Veinte Poemas de Amor Y Una Cancion Desesperada,
with the English translations
(Twenty Poems of Love and a Desperate Song)

Pablo Neruda's Separate Rose
Pablo Neruda's Separate Rose,
with English translations

Why Women Protest: Women's Movements in Chile
Why Women Protest:
Women's Movements in Chile




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Sally Smith
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