Thursday, May 3, 2007

Northern Chile

On Sunday I gathered my wits and headed out of Valparaiso to the Northern Chilean desert, the driest in the world. Since there is no direct bus from Valpo to my destination, I spent one night in a random town called Calama, which is apparently notable for its mall and ¨hooker bars,¨as a local told me. The latter I cannot confirm, although the bus dropped me off at the mall and it is nice. In fact, it was torture because I needed a bunch of stuff and could have used an hour or two to shop, but I got there with just enough time to grab some food after a 20+ hour bus ride.

San Pedro de Atacama

The next morning I took a 1.5 hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama which is a small (pop. 5000) dusty village that has become a tourist hotspot due to its proximity to several natural wonders.

My Hostel

The Belgian woman who sat next to me on the bus, Mariepierre, lives here now and was full of helpful advice (remember this later). She took me to a rustic and cheap hostel/camping ground called Camping del Sol Naciente. There, I immediately met a great French guy named Bertrand who is camping here and working as a guide. He kindly served as my free guide, telling me all about what I should do and which places to book with.

Here are some pics of the hostel/campsite. It is a cool, laid back place with lost of people hangin' around the fire playing music at night:

And, here´s Bertrand, my trusty guide (he even lent me his alarm clock so I could wake up super-early to see the geysers):

La Valle de la Luna

My first day, I rented a bike and headed about 30km out to La Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon), which features some minor attractions and the opportunity to watch the sun set over a set of sanddunes. Here are the some sunset pics:

Hangin´With Chileans

I wanted to go visit the Tatio Geysers the next day (Wed), but all of the trips were full. So I ended up spending a very relaxing day in town. At around 2pm, I wondered into a restaurant that Mariepierre had recommended and she was there eating with her husband and some friends.

They invited me to join them and I ate lunch with them (sampling some traditional cuisine) and ended up hanging out with a couple of her friends for the rest of the day. One of the guys I met at lunch even hooked me up with about 250 Chilean songs for my new MP3 player. I finished off my night watching the Chilean national team play (and lose to) Mexico in the Copa de Liberdores at a pub. I turned in early because I had to head out to the geysers at 4am the next morning.

This is the afternoon crowd: Mirtha (from Santiago), Christian (from Arica), Nathieu (from France), and me. Below, I'm drinking mate con huesillos, a traditional juice drink.

Tatio Geysers

One of the coolest sites surrounding San Pedro is the Tatio Geysers. Tatio means "tears of grandfather," and in Atacama culture, mountains are grandfathers. The mountain/volcano behind these geysers forms a "face" in profile, and when the snow melts it descends from the "eyes." Here's a lousy picture of the mountain:

The geysers are formed when the lava from the volcano mixes with and boils underground water. The pressure from the resulting steam bursts through the ground, with water following. The geysers spout highest at sunrise when the difference between the air temperature high up and at ground level is greatest. Hence we were out there very early in the morning when it was freezing cold. Here are some geyser pics:

And here's a video of the geysers bubbling:


While signing up for a 4x4 trip to Bolivia, I met a Bolivian guy named Ronald who had just moved here to work for his uncle as a guide. This is Ronald:

We met up at a bar called Adobe later on. It was a bit pricey--Chile is the most expensive country in Latin America and San Pedro is a particularly ¨caro¨tourist spot--but great. As you can see from the pics below, there was a fire in the middle of the uncovered main room of the bar--a perfect touch in the desert where it gets quite cold at night but never rains.

Plus, there's this local driver who shows up at the bars every night in costume and gets everyone dancing:

The bar scene in San Pedro is relatively tame because by law the bars close at 1am., but can still be fun. Here's a pic with the Chileans I hung out with on my last night in town at a bar called Grado Seis:

The City

Overall, I found San Pedro to be a charming little town. It felt like most of the folks that work at the bars and restaurants know each other and that if you stayed for a few months you could know almost everyone as well. If the food and drinks were half the price I would recommend staying for a month. As it is, it´s definitely worth a 4 day visit both to take advantage of the surrounding natural attractions and to hang out in town. Here are some pics of the town:

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