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San Pedro de Atacama

Breathing in fresh, sharp air and gazing at the voluptuous red rock formations set against a crisp blue sky, one has to wonder why many guide books say to skip the northern Chilean desert.  

 

The notion is that northern Chile is just a desert without any great, unusual attraction. Yet this red sandstone desert is home to pools of natural hot springs, islands of towering curvaceous rocks—that look as if they were made for climbing—and the 10,000 year-old tiny but funky village of San Pedro de Atacama, which might as well have birthed the concept of relaxation.  

 

Tucked in the northeast corner of the Antofagasta region of the Chilean Altiplano, San Pedro de Atacama is home to just over 2,500 people. Just miles from the Bolivian border, and a 10-hour drive west of Salta, Argentina, San Pedro doubles as an indigenous village and modern hippie town. This meshing of cultures guarantees that any experience in San Pedro is authentic, adventurous, cultural and relaxing.  

 

Once a farmer’s town, the village is now a refuge for backpackers either departing for or arriving from the southern Bolivian salt flats. Of the many travelers who end a salt flat tour in San Pedro, most try to hitch the next bus out of town. But those continuing on to Argentina usually find themselves stuck a couple of days since the only bus to Argentina departs just two to three times a week. What starts as an inconvenience soon becomes a gift, as the stranded travelers lounge around in the town square or go hiking in the nearby Altiplano.

 

Enough to soothe any outdoor junkie, the 4,000 meter-high altiplano, which is composed mostly of ash from the collapse of a volcano nearly a million years ago, is a great place to venture into. Rent a bicycle and set out for the stark,  moon-like scenery of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), climb several exquisite rock formations, horseback ride to the sandy Valle de la Muerte, also known as Mars Valley, and of course indulge in the warm waters (60 C°) of the desert’s natural hot springs and geysers.

 

Spectacular turquoise blue high-altitude lakes and massive salt flats sit along the border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. The region is also home to Aymara llamas and alpaca herders. This unique ecological zone of extreme climates, gusting winds, hot sun and low temperatures creates the unique colors and formation of the desert and also separates the Atacama Desert from the Amazon Basin.

 

Back in town, you can stroll through the Plaza de Armas where a few silver artisan vendors set up shop daily. Local civil offices such as the post and tourism offices are found here as well, along with a few shops and restaurants. Iglesia San Pedro faces the edge of the square, while Chile’s premier archaeological museum, Museo ArqueolĂłgico Padre Gustavo Le Paige—which houses over 400,000 items collected by Gustavo Le Paige, a Belgian priest and archaeologist who made this his collection zone—skirts the other side.  

 

Small orange and pink adobe houses line the streets and there is also a wealth of restaurants-cum-bars in the late night. Also found here are a number of tour agencies who will create a tour just for you, or if you want them to simply be your driver, pitch a price and you’ll likely get what you wish.

 

While camping has become more popular, (it’s cheap, and guaranteed to be dry) in recent years beautifully structured adobe hotels and spas have sprung up, catering to Chileans and international travelers who seek pampering and relaxation. While they are on the pricier side, these upscale hotels have all managed to maintain consistency with the original laid-back and raw style of San Pedro, the reason so many have come to love the town.  

 

With all that San Pedro has to offer, it might be easy to mistake it for a tourist town, but the term “tourist town” should be clearly identified here—dial-up internet connection is still considered a new concept, there are no medical facilities within a two-hour radius and it wasn’t until late 2005 that one ATM was finally installed, which only on occasion operates properly. San Pedro is an oasis in the desert.



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